Libya: Ensuring a Smooth and Peaceful Transition into the Post-Qaddafi Era
23 Aug 2011
As Libyans prepare for the Qaddafi regime’s imminent demise, the country faces a pivotal moment of historic proportions. Steps taken in the next few days and weeks will decisively shape the post-Qaddafi order. The new, still nascent, Libyan leadership, faces a dual, difficult legacy which it will need to overcome: four decades of an autocratic regime that failed to build genuine state institutions and six months of a civil war that, together with inevitable human and material losses, exposed old divisions and fissures while prompting new ones. The challenge for that leadership, as well as for international actors who enabled its drive into Tripoli, is threefold: to establish a broadly inclusive and representative transitional governing body; address immediate security risks; and find an appropriate balance between, on the one hand, the search for accountability and justice and, on the other, the imperative of avoiding arbitrary score-settling and revenge.
As rebel fighters stream into Tripoli, they will come upon the collapse of a quasi-state, the Jamahiriya, or so-called “state of the masses” – a somewhat jerry-built contraption created by Muammar Qaddafi that, however sincere it might have been at its revolutionary inception, became a vehicle to advance his personal and political ambitions. It is this twin challenge – replacing an autocratic regime and rebuilding a new state from the ground up – that will be so daunting for the new leadership.
Further complicating this task are the inevitable difficulties in establishing the national legitimacy of Libya’s new leaders. The Transitional National Council (TNC), created in rebel-held Benghazi in March 2011, could stake a clear claim to representing Libyans in areas free of regime control, and it has done a remarkable job in constituting basic institutions to manage civic life in those areas and attract international support. Yet the TNC never could claim to represent all Libyans, even if it broadly reflected their aspirations, for the simple reason that most Libyans, especially in the capital Tripoli, were not in a position to freely voice their opinions or participate openly in the TNC, whose membership was therefore weighted, by default, toward those in liberated zones. The TNC will now have to reflect in its membership all of Libya in its full diversity, and merge its administrative operations with those of the remaining, functioning public sector institutions.
Six months of insurgency, while ultimately successful, created, laid bare or exacerbated divisions – both within the country at large, along regional, ethnic or tribal lines and within the rebel leadership, as evidenced in the 28 July assassination, apparently at rebel hands, of rebel commander Abdel Fattah Younes. A clash of competing legitimacies – between forces based in the east and those based in the west, those who fired the first shots, those who first entered Tripoli, those who remained in Libya throughout the Qaddafi era (and, in some cases, worked for the former regime) and those who return from the diaspora – is virtually inevitable. There will be, too, tensions between secular and Islamist forces. None of this suggests that it will be impossible to create a unified government, or a single military force under civilian control, merely that much hard work will need to be done very quickly to reduce the real risk of the country slipping into chaos.
In this context, Libya’s rulers will need to urgently turn their attention to the following areas:
Political legitimacy: Libya’s new leaders, led by the TNC, should convene, at the earliest opportunity, an inaugural council meeting in Tripoli, inviting representatives from all parts of the country and all strands of society and the opposition – various rebel groups, as well as local underground resistance groups in Tripoli and elsewhere – to participate. Indeed, the TNC should strive to be fully inclusive, embracing qualified former-regime elements who were not direct perpetrators of human rights abuses, lest their exclusion create the conditions for a future insurgency of the kind that blighted post-2003 Iraq. The TNC should strive to be transparent in its actions and, along with local leaders and rebel groups, should communicate its decisions clearly, explaining its motivation for each step in a situation where people can be expected to harbour an innate distrust of authority. Particularly important to Libyans is transparency in contracts and provision of services. The expanded council should continue to make clear it is a strictly provisional body charged with managing day-to-day affairs. Its focus should be on providing law and order and ensuring proper delivery and functioning of essential services until elections can be held.
Security, law and order: How the new leaders deal with law and order will be essential in determining popular perceptions of their qualifications to run the country in the interim period. In the critical first days, the erstwhile rebel groups should fill the security vacuum left by the surrender or disappearance of the former regime’s security forces. They should stop distributing arms to the population and instead begin collecting and securing them. They should integrate whatever viable elements of the former regime’s security forces can be retained into a new structure led by commanders appointed and supervised by the interim ruling council. The disparate, mostly community-based rebel movements and their various leaders and commanders should take steps to protect and ensure the well-being of all Libyans, with special care for internally displaced people, Libyans and non-Libyans. Particular attention should be paid to protecting citizens of sub-Saharan nations who were swept up in the conflict, whether as hapless victims, paid mercenaries or misplaced migrants. There is also a risk that Libyans of Saharan or sub-Saharan African origin could be victimised by retributive or retaliatory actions. In this respect, every effort should be made to protect groups such as the Mashashia, the Twergha and other native Libyans from the country’s centre and south.
Transitional justice and reconciliation: One of the most glaring omissions of Iraq’s transition from tyranny was the new rulers’ failure to establish a mechanism to hold to account those who committed major crimes, while allowing others to clear their record or obtain pardon on condition they provided full disclosure of their participation in the regime. Instead, de-Baathification became a political instrument of disenfranchisement and retribution. This explains Iraqis’ enduring inability to reach a degree of closure about the past and accounts for the continuing impetus toward insurgency.
Libyans should not be led down this destructive track of politicised score-settling and witch-hunts. One of the interim ruling council’s immediate tasks should be to urge fighters under its command and the population at large to foreswear any reprisal against former-regime elements, including members of the Qadhafi family, who should be treated in accordance with principles of international law. Those suspected of crimes should be detained and brought to justice before proper judicial institutions. The council also should establish a special commission, comprising independent Libyan figures of impeccable qualifications and reputation, charged with processing persons accused of crimes with a view to integrating most back into society while handing the worst offenders, including Qadhafi’s inner circle, over to the courts (and those indicted by the International Criminal Court to the ICC in The Hague).
All of these priorities – whether calling together a truly representative interim council; ensuring law and order along with efficient weapons collection; or putting in train transparent justice mechanisms – will require clear, consistent messaging on the part of the emerging leadership. In fluid situations such as prevail now in Libya, the risk of misinformation – and consequent panic – is acute. Emphasis must be placed, from the start, on effective communication. In this respect, initial statements emanating from the TNC leadership to the effect that all Libyans should show self-restraint, respect the rule of law, avoid street justice and accord due process to figures from the Qaddafi regime are to be welcomed – and put into effect.
Members of the international community should match their military campaign with a new and commensurate political, diplomatic and reconstruction/development-focused effort. In this context, the UN should be given a central role in the transition process. In providing assistance to Libya, however, international actors they should steer clear of any overbearing tendency to dictate terms for international aid, instead working jointly through the UN to deliver assistance requested by the interim ruling council and eventually its elected successors. In the short term, there is the risk of a humanitarian crisis, and – in addition to the lifting of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council -- significant international work should go into helping provide sustenance and shelter to those in need.
As the struggle to bring an end to the Qadhafi regime comes to a close, the effort to build a new Libya whose government is representative, which meets the basic aspirations of its people and avoids the settling of past scores begins. Amid today’s understandable euphoria, the magnitude of tomorrow’s challenge ought not be underestimated.