By Rajeev Sharma
With the fall of Libyan capital Tripoli to rebel forces on August 22, the 42-year-old dictatorial regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is facing its zero hour. His son Seif al-Islam is in rebels’ custody, though Gaddafi’s whereabouts are unknown. First, let us recapitulate the events that have put Libya in the snake pit it is currently in.
The trigger came in February 2011 with the arrest of a human rights campaigner that sparked violent protests in eastern city of Benghazi that quickly snowballed and spread to other cities. The people’s passions were inflamed as the Gaddafi regime used aircraft to attack protestors, triggering resignations from many Libyan diplomats worldwide, including the Libyan ambassador in India. In March, even as Gaddafi kept himself firmly entrenched in Tripoli, the UN Security Council authorised a no-fly zone over Libya and air strikes to protect civilians.
The end-game began in Libya with the international coalition’s air strikes, led by France. The strikes began shortly after the UN Security Council passed a resolution on March 17 setting up a no-fly zone in the airspace of Libya. India was five of the fifteen Security Council members that abstained from voting. The other four abstainers were Russia, China (the P5 countries with full veto power), Germany and Brazil (non-permanent members, like India). India abstained as it was not sure how the UNSC resolution will impact the ongoing civil war in Libya, whether it will mitigate or exacerbate the difficulties for the people of Libya. India’s Deputy Permanent Representative Manjeev Singh Puri underlined the Indian concerns in his brief speech before the UNSC and cited three reasons. One, neither the Special Envoy appointed by the UN Secretary General on the Libyan crisis, who just returned from Libya, nor the UNSG’s Secretariat had shared the envoy’s report or his assessment on the ground situation in the north African country. Two, the resolution adopted by the UNSC authorized far reaching measures with relatively little credible information on the situation on the ground in Libya. Three, the resolution lacked clarity about details of enforcement measures, including who and with what assets will participate and how these measures will be exactly carried out.
Enforcing the no-fly zone was the most ticklish and difficult part. France and the UK had been vociferously calling for such a move from the very beginning, considering their stakes in Libya, while the US fell in line later. This was not an easy task as Gaddafi threatened to do a Saddam Hussein and warned that he will turn the Mediterranean into a zone of instability for the Western military and civil assets if he were attacked by foreign forces. With Iraq still on the boil years after Saddam Hussein’s fall, the US can ill afford another festering wound in the Islamic world. From this perspective the participation of some Arab League states was important from the West’s point of view (which they eventually got) as it gave the UN mission legitimacy even from Muslim states.
Initially the NATO air raids seemed to be having a deadly impact and the rebels captured some territory but the rebels were overwhelmed within weeks by the better-armed Libyan armed forces that backed Gaddafi to the hilt. In May, the International Criminal Court sought arrest of Gaddafi for crimes against humanity. But in past few days the tables turned once again as the rebels, armed by the West, made forays into government defences and are entrenched in large parts of Tripoli.
The hour of reckoning for Gaddafi has come already. Now there is a talk of a post-Gaddafi era in Libya under a National Transition Council. The NTC has put on record its specific plans of running the country after the exit of Gaddafi. These plans include the establishment of a constitutional authority and internationally overseen elections. The talk of a so-called Libyan Stabilization Team is also in the air. Since February, the NTC has been based in Benghazi, which is 12-hour-drive from Tripoli. This east Libyan city has traditionally wielded less political clout than Tripoli. This may trigger off a Benghazi versus Tripoli rivalry, or to put it in different words, an intra-regional conflict between eastern Libya and western Libya.
Another red line for the post-Gaddafi Libya is that so many diverse political and ethnic groups from different parts of the country contributed to the armed struggle against Gaddafi and each one would be eyeing the lion’s share of the political gains. This will be a great juggling act that would have to be performed with maximum of tolerance and maturity and minimum of parochial interests. The fault lines in the rebels’ camp are too prominent to be brushed under the carpet. A major problem is the unity factor as the rebels are not a homogenous group and comprise of various political hues and ideologies.
The new administrative arrangement in Libya will have to turn a laser beam focus on a host of grave issues confronting the nation today. A wobbling economy, a deeply fractured society plagued by sectarianism, fundamentalism and deep-seated political intolerance of other ideologies are some of these problems. Not to be undermined are the problems like damaged public services and reconstruction of several cities that have been gutted in the ongoing civil war. The confusing scenario is further compounded by the fact that some Islamist militias contributed in a big way to fighting government forces in the east and secured Benghazi for the rebel forces. These militias are potential unguided missiles as they may get an idea of usurping the political power in Libya in entirety, not leaving even crumbs of power to their fellow rebel groups.
Though the Libyan war may seem to be nearing an end, it is far from over. Gaddafi may be down as of now, but he is definitely not out. The fact that Gaddafi’s whereabouts still remain unknown, though several of hiss sons have been arrested, must be giving the rebel forces jitters. That is because forces loyal to Gaddafi are still controlling important cities like Sirte and Sabha. Nobody can say with certainty whether it is curtains for Gaddafi or whether it is only the start of a new battle, the real battle.