Posts Tagged ‘National Transitional Council’

On the Ground in Libya

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Here’s Nicolas Pelham in the New York Review of Books with the best report I have read so far on the political situation in Libya.

Pelham explains the tactical situation on the battlefield better than most, but the real insight from the article is the sense of the political institutions in Libya, the different factions that makeup the nascent Libyan rebel movement and the window it can provide into what the situation on the ground might look like if the rebels were to prevail.

As Pelham notes, Qaddafi has been particularly adept at neutralizing any other potential  centers of power. In contrast to Egypt, where the military has been a source of stability in national politics, Qaddafi has insured that the Libyan military remains weak.   After a number of unsuccessful military coups in the 1970′s, the Libyan military suffered a humiliating defeat when Qaddafi invaded Chad in the early 80′s and was decisively defeated by the Chadian military with the assistance of French troops.  In 1993, Following another coup attempt by the military with the backing of a Libyan tribe, Qaddafi “pretty much ditched his army,” relying on paramilitary forces to police the country.

The other dominant resistance to Qaddafi has come from Islamist groups. Pelham details how, in the mid-1990′s, a fighting force made up mostly of Libyan jihadists returning from Afghanistan took up camp in the Eastern areas around Beida with the stated intent to overthrow Qaddafi. What followed was a wide ranging purge of Islamists by Qaddafi, many of whom were not tied to the armed rebels. This purge culminated with the slaughter of 1,270 mostly Islamist prisoners in the Tripoli prison of Busalim in 1996.

In fact, the initial uprising in the city of Benghazi was spearheaded by a group of lawyers protesting the detention of fellow lawyer, Fathi Tubril, who represented families of the Busalim massacre victims seeking the return of their bodies. In the wake of the collapse of Egyptian and Tunisian dictatorships, the protest was quickly supported by local imams, tribal sheiks and key defectors in the military.

The public face of the rebels has been former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, but the governing group consists of a number of local councils  beholden to a National Council whose members remain mostly unknown. Despite the disparate factions in the newly declared government, Pelman notes that


to date, inclusiveness has been its hallmark. For such a violent revolutionary regime, revenge killings have been remarkably infrequent—at least for now. Young urban lawyers sit side-by-side with tribal elders and Islamists on the council. A non-Islamist lawyer serves as the National Council spokesman, and a staunch secularist is charged with running Benghazi’s education. And the politicians have consciously wooed the armed forces. Unlike in Iraq, where Paul Bremer, America’s administrator, abolished the security apparatus down to the last immigration officer, youth protesters and the old border guards man their side of the border with Egypt together.

Still, if the rebels were able to prevail, the potential for continued unrest is significant and it is easy to imagine a scenario in which the country descends into a continuing civil war as tribes, Islamists, religious moderates and the military jockey for power in an increasingly militarized (and weaponized) society. Unlike Egypt, where the military has historically held the balance of power, there is no obvious institution that could fill the power vacuum left by a defeat of Qadaffi’s regime.

While this is not an argument for or against a U.S. led no-fly zone or additional military assistance for the rebels, it is a caution that, despite all the talking heads’ bravado and admonishments of Obama for not being forceful enough, the Obama Administration’s caution might be well placed. While most Americans have a natural sympathy for the brave Libyans rebelling against a better armed historic enemy of our country,  Obama’s team needs to look many moves ahead, focusing not only on whether we want Qaddafi out, but on the government that would replace him. Perhaps the only worse outcome than a certifiable kleptocrat running Libya would be a prolonged civil war ending in a failed state.