Any rush to help Libya should be balanced by realism and common sense
Libya is finally free of Muammar Gaddafi’s governance and I am very pleased. He was not the cruellest leader in history, but even during his “better” recent years he was foolish, dictatorial, narcissistic and – worst of all in a country with such widespread social problems and pockets of poverty – unusually selfish. He cared for himself and his family more than he cared for his six million citizens. He sought to forge a princely-style dynasty whereas he should have, as he vowed to when he seized power forty-two year ago as an idealistic army officer, tried to create a prosperous egalitarian nation based on human rights, fairness and the rule of law.
It would be too optimistic to believe that the National Transitional Council (NTC) will quickly be able to transform this violently torn country into some type of stable and functional political entity capable of satisfying all its people’s needs. Merely relocating from Benghazi to Tripoli won’t convince most Libyans that the NTC – a body dominated by eastern tribal representatives – is a legitimate lasting government, or even a temporary nationally representative government, which will oversee some type of fair and transparent election in the near future. Yet if the NTC proves magnanimous in victory and manages to prevent retributive violence, most Libyans will be highly relieved and probably trust and empower it for the meanwhile. Let us be optimistic.
The key will be to prevent total economic meltdown. That would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and the renewal of inter-tribal conflict, likely necessitating the type of “boots on the ground” intervention that NATO has always promised (and so far honoured), not to undertake. Foreign troops and reconstruction agencies could, tragically, find themselves resented and even blamed for the mess.
Keeping Libya viable will involve the immediate unfreezing of its assets, a process already underway, and the quickest possible restoration of its arrested oil sector. Libya once produced two per cent of the world’s oil; that commodity was, and will again be the nation’s primary source of revenue. Pumping, refining and exporting oil will not only begin to generate income for whatever type of government soon emerges, but it will also, on a local level, solve the six-month spike in unemployment which has crippled local communities, causing both tremendous hardship and public health concerns.
It may take months, but thankfully it will probably not take years, for the oil industry to regenerate. NATO deliberately never struck oilfields and refineries during its air campaign and the rebels, perhaps aware of the importance of those installations to their post-Gaddafi future, did relatively little damage to them as they sought to win freedom from tyranny. Significantly, and to me surprisingly, Gaddafi never ordered a scorched-earth policy of widespread infrastructural damage as his enemies closed in. Even in bitterly contested battlefields in major oil centres like Ras Lanuf and Brega, the loyalist forces did no real damage to infrastructure.
Perhaps Gaddafi never seriously thought of destroying his assets because he naively believed that he would ultimately prevail, or if he did consider it, he never had the means to create a policy of asset destruction. For the last few months loyalist fighters have been widely scattered, stuck in the confines of the urban areas that allowed them to stay relatively safe from NATO air attack, and not “commanded” (in a regular military sense) by any centralised hierarchy with a leader who could coordinate any such campaign.
In any event, buoyed by the prospect of relatively easy restoration, many foreign nations are already excitedly talking about contributing to “reconstruction” and “nation-building”. They are apparently motivated not only by a humanitarian desire to see Libyan suffering end as quickly as possible, but also by their desire for Libyan oil. Several European states, most notably Italy, received substantial supplies of Libyan oil before the civil war commenced in February. For their own domestic reasons, these nations want to see Libyan oil flowing again soon. China and other states have also invested heavily in Libya and will be similarly anxious about delays in the restoration of its economy.
It would be unfair to criticise any nation that genuinely wants to help Libya return to its feet. It would also be unreasonable to attribute ulterior motives to those nations with substantial trade deals with Libya, who might want to safeguard their agreements or investments by assisting reconstruction of the shattered country.
Yet there are reasons to exercise prudence and good judgement. Libya may experience internal disputes and divisions for quite some time, and these could occasionally become violent, particularly if exacerbated by outside actors. Although we must hope that this does not occur, it should be recognised that Libya has never been a homogenous nation; it has always had internal tensions, often with outright divisions in its tribal make-up. While we all want to see a peaceful transition to whatever stable, peaceful, inclusive and representative form of governance that the Libyans may choose, we need to be realistic and appreciate that the road may be rocky for some time, as the good people of Libya decide for themselves what type of country they want.
Foreign nations should in the meantime resist a natural desire to act as agents of security and stability in a country awash with weapons. They should carefully reflect before responding to any appeals to help create a new Libyan army. If any such appeals are made, which in itself is not a negative thing, it seems that Arab or Muslim military trainers from across the region would be deemed less visible and invasive to the Libyan people, than Western military support personnel. Indeed, a situation involving Muslim security support and military training might be a highly positive way of building bonds of trust across North Africa and the Middle East.
Other foreign nations should be mindful that, stepping into that situation either prematurely or substantially, even under the banners of assistance, reconstruction or military training, might leave them open to charges of opportunism. Many are grateful to NATO for providing most of the military power that has facilitated the overthrow of Gaddafi, but they now want to forge their own future without external interference. All nations – whether Western, Eastern, Arab or sub-Saharan African – should be very careful not to let their motives appear misconstrued. The potential for grievances surfacing if a foreign “presence” becomes visible in Libya in the coming months and years, is substantial. Thankfully, the world learned that lesson in recent wars in other Muslim lands. It now has the opportunity to help a war-torn Muslim country return to peace and normality without repeating past mistakes. Insha’Allah, let’s remain optimistic.
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