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Libya's Moment of Perilous Change

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
August 22, 2011


After six months of fighting, Libyan rebels have gained control of much of Tripoli (al-Jazeera) and celebrated what they hope is the end of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's forty-two-year rule. Two of Qaddafi's sons are reportedly under arrest (NYT), and the rebel leadership said Qaddafi's presidential guard had surrendered. Opposition forces claim to control many parts of the city, though not Qaddafi's leadership compound, where loyalists used tanks (Guardian) to combat the rebels. The National Transitional Council (NTC), the rebel governing body, issued a mass text message: "We congratulate the Libyan people for the fall of Muammar Qaddafi and call on the Libyan people to go into the street to protect the public property."

Still, while the mood in Tripoli was jubilant, Qaddafi's whereabouts remain unknown, and in a brief statement August 21 (WashPost) on state television he remained defiant. U.S. President Barack Obama urged Qaddafi step down, offered support to the NTC, and said, "The future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people." A NATO statement struck a similar note.

But as experts recognize from the trajectory of "Arab Spring" developments in Tunisia and Egypt, the defeat of a longstanding autocratic regime is not necessarily the beginning of a democracy. It is also unclear how much longer the United States and NATO will remain in Libya to help the NTC shape a transition following a military intervention that has stirred discontent in the UN Security Council and among Western allies.

Instability and faulty rebuilding efforts pose problems for post-Qaddafi Libya, many experts believe. Upheaval in Libya could lead to a humanitarian disaster, the emergence of a new authoritarian ruler, or even the country's dissolution, writes expert Daniel Serwer in a Contingency Planning Memo for CFR. He recommends that the EU lead a stabilization force in Libya under a UN umbrella, with some Arab League and African Union participation and support from the United States. Washington might have to offer more than support, writes CFR President Richard N. Haass in the Financial Times. "Barack Obama may need to reconsider his assertion that there would not be any American boots on the ground; leadership is hard to assert absent participation. But whatever the international response, speed is essential," Haass writes.

There is a danger that rival tribal factions will contend for power. The priority, writes Telegraph columnist Con Coughlin "is to prevent the country descending into a tribal bloodbath, with rival factions settling decades-old scores." And the Qaddafi regime leaves behind an infrastructure crippled by NATO airstrikes as well as "a rickety economy" and "vastly unequal distribution of the country's oil wealth," write Tom Vanden Brook and Oren Dorell in USA Today.

A different kind of caution is sounded by George Friedman of Stratfor, who says the upheaval in the Arab world has not resulted in any true regime change. Though Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak have been replaced, "the regimes themselves, which represent the manner of governing, have not changed," Friedman writes.

Others warn about the lessons of Iraq, which was riven with sectarian and tribal splits after the fall of Saddam Hussein. "The parallels between the fall of Saddam Hussein and the impending downing of Qaddafi are numerous and predominantly serve as advice in how not to manage a country once the dictator is ousted," says an editorial in Lebanon's Daily Star. "Plans made by coalition leaders did not stretch too specifically far past toppling the leader. Libya needs to learn from the mistakes of Iraq if it is to become the country most Libyans and most of the world hopes it can be." But Libya is unlikely to turn into another Iraq, much less another Afghanistan, writes Brian Whitaker in the Guardian.

Selected Analysis

The climate of lawlessness and lack of control in eastern Libya threatens to upend whatever gains the rebels may make on the battlefield or in diplomatic circles, writes Dirk Vandewalle in Foreign Affairs.

The NTC has limited legitimacy beyond the eastern region of the country and will be hard-pressed to maintain unity as Libya confronts numerous transitional challenges, says the Economist.

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