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Libya's 'Precarious' Transition Ahead

Interviewee: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 25, 2011

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The end of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime could lead to a "huge power vacuum," says CFR expert Robert Danin, adding that the "challenges facing Libya in the transition are enormous." Though international intervention seems to have helped with Qaddafi's fall, Danin argues that since NATO and its allies used a Security Council resolution based on humanitarian assistance to justify the military effort, it will be difficult to get similar backing for an intervention in Syria, given Russian and Chinese opposition.

If Qaddafi is replaced by a more democratic government, what would that mean to the Middle East, and what does it say about the Arab transformation that began in January in Tunisia?

This is an uprising that has lasted some nine months. We're at a critical moment in the Arab uprisings, and Libya is a significant development. In Tunisia and in Egypt, we had regimes or governments toppled by popular protests. Now, we have a third government that is in the process of being toppled, but this is an entire regime that is being removed through civil war, with outside military and political support.

In Egypt and Tunisia, many of the people at the top changed, but some of the key institutions remained. In Egypt, for example, the military has been the key pillar of continuity. In Libya, what we're about to witness is a wholesale transition from one order--which was centered around one man, Muammar Qaddafi, and his tribe and the people around him--to an entirely new order based around a coalition government that established a foothold in another part of the country[Benghazi] and is now about to take over. That is going to be a dramatic, unprecedented development. Frankly, it's going to be very precarious. No one is going to be sad Qaddafi is leaving, but at the same time, the challenges facing Libya in the transition are enormous. Just to talk about a peaceful transition, let alone a democratic one, is quite ambitious.

The Libya intervention started in March when the Arab league called for a no-fly zone over Libya, which then led to Security Council Resolution 1973. That led to NATO's military intervention against the Qaddafi regime. Would Qaddafi's overthrow have been possible without that intervention?

What precipitated the intervention was the fact that when Qaddafi's forces were on the outskirts of Benghazi, the argument was made that there would be a humanitarian massacre and disaster in Benghazi should those forces take over that city. But what started under the pretext of a humanitarian intervention clearly became a "regime change" operation. That will make it much more difficult in the future to get the kind of Security Council backing that you had with Resolution 1973, because the argument will be that the United States and its allies basically gained UN support for humanitarian intervention but immediately used it to legitimize a regime change operation.

Would the Russians and Chinese have vetoed the resolution if they knew it would lead to a "regime change" operation?

The Russian and Chinese governments were very reluctant to support it. In the end, they abstained. But what you're seeing now is a great deal of Russian and Chinese opposition to UN moves when it comes to Syria. Russia and China were opposed to the Human Rights Commission call for an investigation into abuses in Syria. This was largely driven by domestic concerns [that] a precedent would be created. They don't like it when the international community starts to poke into how they run their own affairs, because they fear that this will be used against them at some point. The Russians and Chinese are traditional practitioners of realpolitik, who believe international relations should not include intervening in the domestic affairs of other countries.

In Libya, what we're about to witness is a wholesale transition from one order--which was centered around one man, and his tribe and the people around him--to an entirely new order based around a coalition government that established a foothold in another part of the country[Benghazi] and is now about to take over.

You said the situation in Libya is precarious. Is that because it's not really clear what's going to happen?

It's precarious because we're about to witness a huge power vacuum. The government and the army that has kept control of this country for over forty years are crumbling rapidly. Now the challenge will be for this National Transitional Council (NTC) to come together rather rapidly and in a very ad hoc fashion to take over a large geographic expanse of territory, to instill security, and then turn Libya into a functioning country again.

Expand on that thought.

There are a number of worrisome scenarios one can easily envisage. Under the best-case scenario, the NTC will establish control as they move toward a democratic process under a provisional constitution that will lead toward elections and democratic institutions. That would be wonderful. But, if it fails to secure territory, if we continue to see violence and unrest, if there are humanitarian crises, there's going to be great pressures on NATO and the international coalition that had been supporting this intervention to continue to support, and indeed perhaps intervene, itself. We're moving to a new chapter in Libya, but this is not the end of the story and this is not going to be the end of the story for the international community's involvement in Libya. That has profound implications for the rest of the region.

You mean in Syria?

What we've seen in Syria has been some important sanctions levied by the United States and by Europeans. But these are not going to bring about a dramatic change on the ground or a dramatic challenge to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

There are some similarities between Libya and Syria. You have a strong man who is bolstered by an army and who has used divide-and-rule tactics to ensure his longevity. At the same time, there are a lot of differences. Syria is very diffused. The protests have been taking place throughout the country. This isn't a civil war, which is what you have had in Libya. It could turn into a civil war, but so far the demonstrations have been peaceful and the Syrians have been cracking down on peaceful demonstrators. But there are reports that there are arms flowing into Syria to those who would become rebels. If indeed they decide to take up arms against the Assad regime, this could become significantly more violent and bloody.

What started under the pretext of a humanitarian intervention clearly became a "regime change" operation. That is going to have implications for further humanitarian interventions.

There are reports that Iran is helping out the Assad regime. Libya really had no significant Arab world support at all.

Libya was unique in that Qaddafi was reviled throughout the Arab world [and] by other Arab leaders, so much so that they were willing to take that unprecedented step of calling for international intervention to oust him. No tears will be shed for his departure in the Arab world.

When it comes to Syria, there's a great deal of apprehension in the Arab world, not necessarily out of love for Assad, but out of great concern about what instability in Syria will mean for the region. Syria borders Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel. Instability there could have great ramifications elsewhere in the region, and the Arab leaders are very fearful of that. So there's been a strange confluence of interest between a number of countries in the region. The Sunni regimes, the Iranians, and even the Israelis would all like to see a stable Syria. What has become apparent is that Assad is not able to establish a stable Syria. We're starting to see that traditional view of Syria break down, where people are starting to realize that Assad staying may actually not be the best-case outcome any longer.

Were you surprised by Saudi Arabia's public break (BBC) with Syria, when King Abdullah coined Syria a "killing machine" and withdrew his ambassador?

I'm only surprised at how bold and open the Saudis have been about it. Over the last decade, there's been a great deal of disappointment with Assad throughout the Arab world. They see Assad as someone who is reckless, who is not very deft in handling tough situations, who has handled Lebanon quite brutally, who just doesn't have his father's [Hafaz al-Assad] acumen. Syria is now an isolated state that with the Iranians, and there's a sense that [Assad] has allowed the Iranians too much latitude. The Arab leaders believe Hafez made an alliance with Iran [and] ensured that Syria would protect itself from being dominated by the Iranians. There's a sense among the other Arabs that Bashar lost control of that and that he has become the junior partner to the Iranians. They don't like that at all.

Are you worried about Egypt's future?

Everyone is concerned about how the Egyptian revolution is going to play out. There are a lot of competing forces in Egypt. Many of those who led the revolution and had articulated the pro-Western, pro-Democratic aspirations have become frustrated and disillusioned. Political parties are going to play an important role in Egypt, although they are undergoing infighting.

Egypt is a bustling country of some seventy million people that's undergoing a dramatic experiment. Change has to be done in a way that's effective. Here, the military is an important institution, and it has to be very careful. If it intervenes too much, it's accused of being a junta. But if it takes too hands-off an approach, it risks allowing the various forces to exploit weaknesses and vacuums that exist in Egypt until the proper democratic institutions can take hold.

[Another] key element is going to be Egypt's economic future. Ultimately, what took people to the streets, in addition to their political aspirations, was worsening economic conditions. Without a better economic environment, nothing is going to succeed. That's why it will be so important for the West [and] for international economic institutions to continue to support investment in Egypt, to try to stabilize the situation so the tourism industry can be revived. We have to help it succeed because how Egypt plays out will have a profound effect for the rest of the Arab world. It's home to one-quarter of the Arab population, and given its central role as the intellectual hub of the Arab world, all eyes are focused on Egypt and on how that experiment goes. It's in all of our interests for that experiment to come out as smoothly, as peacefully, and as democratically and liberally as possible.

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