Steps Toward “Real” Freedom for Libya

If Libya’s transitional council wants to build on its successes, here are some immediate steps that it can to take.

Take a quick glance at Tripoli from the TV, and you will see scenes of celebration and jubilation that the Libyan people haven’t been able to enjoy for 42 years. Columns of armed rebels have streamed into the center of the Libyan capital to the sound of cheering civilians kissing the ground and large billboards of Muammar al-Gaddafi being torn down. The trademark green flag of the colonel’s Libyan Revolution — a symbol of the regime’s oppression for decades — are ripped and replaced with the pre-Gaddafi red, black and green banner. The last-ditch effort by Gaddafi soldiers to stall the rebel offensive, with the exception of a few pockets of resistance near Gaddafi’s fortress like compound, proved to be a misnomer, with hundreds laying down their arms and blending into the general population. Even if no one knows where he is, Gaddafi is a beaten man, holding on to the delusion that Libyan tribes will come to his rescue and millions of supporters will desert their families to beat back the rebels in the streets of Tripoli.

The international reaction to Gaddafi’s imminent downfall was optimistic and predictable. President Barack Obama issued a statement reiterating his call that the Libyan leader should recognize that his people have no love for him and should stop resisting immediately. NATO, which has paved the way for the rebel advance, has pledged to continue its airstrikes until Gaddafi no longer poses a threat to civilians.

After six months of civil war, France, Great Britain and the United States are finally patting themselves on the back and congratulating one another on a job well done. Indeed, if it weren’t for NATO, there was a very high probability that Gaddafi would have survived the armed revolt against his opponents. Only six months ago, the rebels were days away from being squashed by Libyan security forces in the city of Benghazi.

Sensing that a massacre was imminent, NATO decided to intervene with airpower, helping push Libyan forces to the periphery. Close to 8,000 strike sorties later — and with the rebel’s determination on the ground complementing NATO’s efforts — Gaddafi’s military infrastructure is nonexistent.

Yet at the same time Libyans are dancing in the streets and shooting celebratory gunfire into the air, the work of rebuilding the country and its institutions is only just beginning. As history has demonstrated countless times over the past four decades (from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Mobutu Sese Seko’s Congo), driving a dictator into hiding is a whole lot easier than ensuring that peace and inclusiveness will define the transition process. The United States found out the long way how difficult establishing a postwar order was both Iraq and Afghanistan, where the new governments have failed to be impartial and fair to all sectors of society.

Libya, with its tribal, regional and ethnic dimensions, is no different. The North African country may have its own political history but the comparisons to post-Saddam Iraq could be a self-fulfilling prophecy if certain steps are not taken immediately to edge the country in the right direction.

Gaddafi was a lot of things but he was certainly not a developer. He leaves in his wake a debilitating set of national institutions that were designed specifically to promote his bazaar brand of Arab socialism.

With rebels streaming into the capital, the official Libyan army and police force has essentially disbanded themselves, leaving open a security vacuum that rebel militias have tried to fill. Oil production, which has long been Libya’s main industry, is pumping and selling oil at a trickle of what it once was before the civil war began. The postwar period in Libya, therefore, will be an especially combustible period — but one that Libyans and the world must turn into a success.

Courtesy of foreign journalists on the ground, Libya watchers in the private sector, academics specializing in postwar reconstruction and my own ideas, here are a few steps (some small, others large) that could be taken in the first few months to smooth the process toward a fair and representative interim authority.

Keep Gaddafi technocrats in their positions

The last thing the Libyan rebels and the National Transitional Council in Benghazi need are ministries that are run by incompetent people with ulterior motives. Not all of the men and women who worked for the Libyan dictator were supportive of his ideology. Like those who worked under Saddam Hussein, many of the middle managers and midlevel technocrats joined Gaddafi’s administration for a steady paycheck, benefits and a sense of security for their families. Most of them also possess an acute knowledge of the social fissures in their own society.

Rather than shutting these public servants out and wasting their experience, the NTC must work with them to begin the reconstruction.

Secure ammo dumps and provide basic law and order

Libya is a huge country, with the entire territory larger than the state of Texas. Libyans are also armed to the teeth and with rebels now in the capital, the desire to raid government ammunition dumps (either to sell or to maintain the battlefield advantage) borders on the certainty.

If the NTC were smart, it would issue an executive order demanding that all rebel factions under its control resort to guarding the dumps rather than stealing what is inside.

Unfortunately, some of the rebels may not listen. The looting of Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound is a case in point. But better to issue an order and attempt to deal with the problem now than face a situation in the future where thousands of untrained men are strapped with AK-47s and ground to air missiles.

Unfreeze Gaddafi’s assets

The United States and the United Nations hold approximately $32 billion in frozen Libyan government assets. That money can go a long way to jump starting a number of projects in areas that were destroyed by the fighting. 

The NTC is the legitimate government in Libya today and with Gaddafi loyalists melting away, their authority will only increase as the days go by. Releasing the frozen funds, which after all belong to the Libyan people, is a great first step that the world can take toward building confidence in the new Libya and promoting a deep relationship with Libya’s new rulers. 

The news coming out of the United Nations Security Council, which authorized the release of $1.5 billion on Thursday for humanitarian and reconstruction needs, is a positive example that should be used as a precedent. The funds, however, should not be released all at once, as postwar reconstruction expoert Daniel Serwer has suggested. Iraq and Afghanistan have both taught us that billions in the open market are more likely to fuel corruption than fund local, regional or national growth.

Promote reconciliation

While eastern and western Libyans both participated in ousting Gaddafi from power, the two areas of the country hold specific grievances and remain suspicious of one another. A large part of this animosity is due to Gaddafi’s abandonment of eastern Libya, which is precisely why Benghazi was the first major city to push for an alternative form of government. 

Easterners view western Libyans as the main beneficiaries of Gaddafi’s oil-producing economy. The colonel’s hometown of Sirte has seen development, while Libya’s eastern frontier is wracked with leaking sewage systems and blackouts.

For their part, western rebels paint a poor picture of a Benghazi based leadership that is laissez-faire on too many issues, the most important being the NTC’s cumbersome support for western rebels during the Nafusa Mountain offensive.

Giving all of Libya’s regions and tribes an equal say in the transition process is a necessity if the NTC wishes to hold on to power before elections are scheduled. Fortunately, NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil has called for a conference emphasizing just that.

Bring the NTC to Tripoli

Once Gaddafi and his men are gone for good — and the neighborhoods of the capital city are relatively secure — the NTC leadership should move their permanent headquarters from Benghazi to Tripoli. The move would be a symbolic gesture to western Libyans and Gaddafi loyalists who might otherwise fear that Libya’s interim government plans on marginalizing them.

Get Libyan oil up and running

Libya’s oil industry is the primary income generator for the government. Civil servants, policemen, militiamen, schoolteachers, diplomats and construction workers all need to get paid — and paid consistently. Opening up Libya’s oil to outside markets and using profits from those contracts and sales for salaries could be the fastest way to make everyone happy in the short term.

Prepare for elections and draft a constitution

For the past 42 years, a functioning constitution never came into play. The entire government structure was predicated on Gaddafi’s personal beliefs, down to the local level. With the man now gone, Libyans have an opportunity to draft a national constitution of their own liking.

Libyans above all should be the sole drafters of the Constitution after reasonably free and fair elections have taken place. Western nations should keep their involvement in the Constitution drafting process to a minimum, eliminating the concern that is prevalent in Libya over a possible return to colonialism.

Don’t get ahead of yourself

Tripoli may be in rebel hands but Gaddafi loyalists will continue to stage fierce resistance elsewhere in the country. Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and villages in the southern desert are still held by loyalist forces and may be held for many more months. Declaring victory, even as Gaddafi remains at large and towns in the Sahel are still contested, could very well hurt the NTC’s credibility with its supporters if the security situation deteriorates. Avoiding a “Mission Accomplished” moment while recognizing that Libyan territory is still not entirely free from Gaddafi’s influence would be a demonstration of realism in an otherwise hyped atmosphere.

Everything in this list is pivotal to lifting Libya off the ground after six months of armed conflict. More work will need to be done as the NTC meets its initial deadlines, particularly on the important task of drafting a constitution that every tribe, region and ethnicity can live with. But with a post-Gaddafi Libya now progressing, preventing political disintegration, lawlessness, looting, factional infighting, retribution against former Gaddafi supporters, economic distress and regional rivalry must be on the top of any “to do” list.

None of this will be quick or easy but it is essential if Libya is to divert from the path of other postwar countries.