In Benghazi a few weeks ago, I talked to a friend who has lived her entire life in Libya and whose father had, until the uprising began, been very closely linked to Muammar Gaddafi. What had struck her as the finest development since the uprising started? I expected her to talk about newfound freedoms, about the ability to truly speak her mind for the first time. Instead she replied: “Not having to hear Gaddafi’s speeches every day.”
It was a telling detail. While the rebellion swirled around her, she focused on a seemingly minor aspect of life under Gaddafi that she had come to find intolerable: the fact that the Leader—also known as the Guide, and the King of Kings—was someone whose mere voice was asphyxiating.
In the end, in ways we do not yet completely understand, the final days of Gaddafi’s regime came swiftly and somewhat unexpectedly at the hands of rebels in western Libya. Undoubtedly, the steady degrading of the regime’s resources since the NATO-led campaign began in March contributed to the denouement. So did the fact that the western rebels—as opposed to their eastern counterparts—had become better organized and had closed ranks in the weeks before the assault on Tripoli. Added to that was the fact that they enjoyed ample military supplies, contributed by France and Qatar, and that NATO intelligence had been at their disposal.
Tripoli was now in the hands of the rebellion. It was the kind of sudden regime collapse many observers had feared. For while there was great relief that the civil war was ending, there was also an understanding that for the National Transitional Council (NTC)—the rebel government in Benghazi that spearheaded the revolt—the real test was about to start. Can Libya’s new leaders translate their military victory into winning the larger battle ahead—that of building a country whose political, social, and economic principles will be completely antithetical to those that have guided Libya for 42 years? In answering that question, we can allow ourselves some cautious optimism.
There are two daunting challenges. The first is state building: the creation and maintenance of the most basic civic institutions. In Libya, state building was aborted by Gaddafi in the quixotic pursuit of statelessness (jamahiriya)—the notion that political communities can rule themselves without the intervention of state institutions. Libya under Gaddafi was a lopsided system where the state specialized in doling out oil revenue to the population, but had virtually no functions beyond this distributive task (other than oppression). In the aftermath of the civil war, state building will begin from scratch.
The second challenge will be to turn Libya into a unified nation for the first time in its history. Beyond constructing new institutions of state, Libya’s leaders must ensure that this state attracts the allegiance of all Libyans while providing incentives to prevent groups from defecting. This requires the creation of a unified civic identity. It’s worth remembering that since its independence in 1951, shared citizenship has been a slender reed: both Gaddafi and his predecessor, King Idris, advocated an identity that was either above the state (pan-Arabism/Islamism) or below it (tribalism).
To its immense credit, the NTC took firm steps toward state building, planning in earnest for a post-Gaddafi Libya that would rely on transparent institutions. It did so in the midst of a civil war and with scant resources at its disposal. With teams in place in cities around the world, the NTC drew up a stabilization plan with the help of its 70-person delegation in Dubai. The council also outlined versions of a constitution that were discussed in detail during its meetings, and in consultation with outside partners. They planned as well for the immediate and long-term stabilization of Libya, and for public order—a daunting challenge, given that thousands of weapons, including SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles, have been looted from the arsenals. The council also drew up plans for elections, and for dealing with the incendiary issues of retribution and justice.
All of this is encouraging. The NTC’s plans go far beyond the hackneyed slogans that informed whatever planning efforts were ever undertaken by Gaddafi. There is a clear-eyed quality to the NTC’s aspirations that merits our admiration: the recognition of the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people at the Libya Contact Group meeting in Istanbul in July came as an appropriate gesture by the two dozen countries within the group that have supported the rebel cause.
But while the council must be applauded for its organizational and diplomatic prowess, there is much to worry about. Last month, in the aftermath of the killing of Abdel Fattah Younes, the rebels’ military commander, fault lines emerged that show how fragile the consensus is within the NTC. At a press conference, the NTC’s Mustafa Abdel Jalil initially claimed that the killing had been the work of Gaddafi loyalists. It turned out that it had been at the hands of one of the 40 rebel militias that exist in Benghazi alone (there are another 120 in Misrata). Strikingly, Jalil was surrounded at the conference by members of the Obeidy tribe to which Younes belonged—no NTC members were present for fear of retaliation.
Even though tribes—an enduring feature of Libyan society—had little political standing under Gaddafi, Younes’s death brought the tribal dimension back to the fore. There were other clefts as well: the young men who have fought battles and feel entitled to some reward versus those who stayed behind in Benghazi; those inside Libya who have taken part in the uprising versus those outside; Islamists who are increasingly organized versus those with a more secular vision. These divisions were overshadowed by the final drive into Tripoli and the jubilation that followed, but they show how difficult nation building will be, even if the NTC’s efforts find traction.
The greatest post-Gaddafi problem may be an embarrassment of riches as a “gold rush” of aid, unfrozen assets, and investors descends upon a country whose regulatory capabilities are weak and whose leadership will be challenged once euphoria ebbs. The groundwork the NTC laid during the civil war will prove helpful, but it may not be enough. And as always in Libya’s modern history, oil will be key. Under Gaddafi, oil was the big spoiler, spawning a patronage system that perpetuated his dictatorship for 42 years. Turning oil into a positive force will require an extraordinary effort from those in power to eschew the easy option of just spending revenues to achieve political outcomes. These are difficult qualities to expect from the NTC. In part because of the collegial-style management the NTC pursued during the war, Libya lacks a charismatic leader who can rise above the fray. The danger is that the new government will succeed in creating aspects of a new state, but will have trouble convincing Libyans that this state represents a national consensus. The West should be cautious about what to expect. But it should provide all the help Libya needs.