Libya at crossroads: A model for the Middle East or a revolution that goes away?

With NATO-backed rebels cap­tur­ing Tripoli and mem­bers of Colonel Moam­mar Qaddafi’s fam­i­ly, Libya could emerge as the Mid­dle East and North Africa’s first rev­o­lu­tion rather than its third suc­cess­ful revolt fol­low­ing the top­pling ear­li­er this year of auto­crat­ic lead­ers in Tunisia and Egypt.

In many ways that could mean that change in Libya could move faster and deep­er but also prove to be far messier than the tran­si­tions in Tunisia and Egypt. 

A first lit­mus test is like­ly to be the fate of cap­tured mem­bers of Mr. Qaddafi’s fam­i­ly as well as of senior offi­cials of the Qaddafi regime. Rebel forces advanc­ing into Tripoli cap­tured ear­ly Mon­day Mr. Qaddafi’s most promi­nent son and one-time heir appar­ent, Saif al Islam al Qaddafi, while anoth­er son, Mohammed al Qaddafi, turned him­self in.

The rebel’s response to the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court’s demand that Saif al Islam be hand­ed over to it will serve as an ear­ly indi­ca­tion of what tran­si­tion in Libya will look like. The court has issued an inter­na­tion­al arrest war­rant for Saif al Islam as well as for his father and Abdul­lah al Senous­si, the head of Mr. Qaddafi’s intel­li­gence ser­vice, on charges of war crimes

The court argues that the rebel Tran­si­tion Nation­al Coun­cil (TNC) that has been wide­ly rec­og­nized by the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty as the legit­i­mate author­i­ty in Libya is legal­ly oblig­ed to hand over Saif al Islam. Many rebel lead­ers feel that this would deprive Libyans of their right to mete out jus­tice, rais­ing the spec­tre of an orgy of revenge in the wake of the final col­lapse of the Qaddafi regime. The court’s demand was met in the streets of Beng­hazi with chants of “Martyr’s Blood Should Be Spent in Vain.”

How­ev­er messy and per­haps vio­lent tran­si­tion in Libya proves to be, Libyans unlike Egyp­tians and Tunisians will be in a posi­tion to dis­man­tle the for­mer regime’s appa­ra­tus. Hard fought in six months of bit­ter fight­ing, the rebels are gain­ing con­trol of all of Libya after hav­ing defeat­ed Mr. Qaddafi’s secu­ri­ty and mil­i­tary forces. The build­ing blocks and assets of the ancient regime, includ­ing the intel­li­gence ser­vice are being destroyed and weapon­ry and mil­i­tary equip­ment is falling into rebel hands.

The destruc­tion of the regime and the takeover of con­trol of the coun­try rather than the top­pling of its head is what mark the Libyan upris­ing as a rev­o­lu­tion as opposed to the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. The top­pling of Messrs. Zine El Abe­dine Ben Ali and Hos­ni Mubarak was rel­a­tive­ly quick and peace­ful com­pared to the drawn out and bloody bat­tle that this week­end brought the rebels to Tripoli’s sym­bol­ic Green Square.

Those revolts how­ev­er left the infra­struc­ture of the ancien regime in place and in the case of Egypt put the mil­i­tary which has been part of the country’s polit­i­cal pow­er struc­ture for the past 60 years in charge of its tran­si­tion to democ­ra­cy. As a result, both Egypt and Tunisia are still strug­gling with lim­it­ed suc­cess to lim­it, if not block, ele­ments of the ancien regime and polit­i­cal forces that oper­at­ed under it from play­ing dom­i­nant roles in their country’s future.

Libya dis­tin­guish­es itself as a rev­o­lu­tion rather than a revolt also by the fact that the country’s new lead­er­ship will con­trol the nation’s eco­nom­ic assets and be able to shape eco­nom­ic poli­cies unlike Egypt and Tunisia where the for­mer eco­nom­ic play­ers remain in place and retain their oper­a­tions while pro­test­ers strug­gle to ensure that their dream of polit­i­cal free­dom and enhanced eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty becomes reality. 

For the Libyan rebels, this means on the one hand con­trol of the country’s oil instal­la­tions but also the imme­di­ate task of hav­ing to secure basic ser­vices such as food, water and ener­gy; resume oil exports to ensure fund­ing for the new gov­ern­ment; and kick start Libya’s stag­nat­ing economy.

The jury is out on whether Libya, with destruc­tion of the ancien regime rather than just the removal of its head, will prove to be a mod­el for what lib­er­at­ed Mid­dle East­ern and North African states will look like or an exam­ple of a rev­o­lu­tion gone awful­ly wrong. 

The TNC, in a first hope­ful sign, last week issued its con­sti­tu­tion that lays out in detail its plans to man­age the tran­si­tion to democ­ra­cy stress­ing prin­ci­ples such as a mul­ti-par­ty sys­tem, equal rights, includ­ing for women, free­dom of expres­sion, inde­pen­dence of the judi­cia­ry and gov­er­nance. The doc­u­ment, in recog­ni­tion of the country’s diver­si­ty, would make Libya the first coun­try to describe itself sim­ply as a demo­c­ra­t­ic rather than an Arab state. It defines Islam as the prin­ci­ple source of leg­is­la­tion but guar­an­tees the rights of reli­gious minorities.

The chal­lenges fac­ing the rebels are nonethe­less daunt­ing. The han­dling of the inter­na­tion­al court’s demands cou­pled with the need to ensure law and order, pre­vent trib­al rival­ries from esca­lat­ing into open con­flict and ensur­ing that Libya does not descend into lynch jus­tice, chaos and anar­chy will be ini­tial indi­ca­tors of what kind of bea­con for the Mid­dle East and North Africa Libya will be. 

The rebels shoul­der a spe­cial respon­si­bil­i­ty giv­en that they are in charge of man­ag­ing the tran­si­tion, includ­ing for exam­ple the inte­gra­tion of ele­ments of Mr. Qaddafi’s secu­ri­ty forces with their rag-tag army into the country’s new force that will have to ensure secu­ri­ty and law and order. That is like­ly to prove to be a painful and dif­fi­cult process, but one that will deter­mine Libya’s future.

With Islamists con­sti­tut­ing an impor­tant seg­ment of the rebel forces tak­ing con­trol of the coun­try, Libya will also be close­ly watched as an exam­ple of the role of Islamists in coun­tries in the region embark­ing on tran­si­tion. Both Egypt and Libya are strug­gling with the role of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and An-Nah­da in the soci­eties they are seek­ing to build. In the final analy­sis, the rebels have a mod­el of how not to do it: Iraq in the wake of the US over­throw of Sad­dam Hus­sein. Iraq was nei­ther a revolt nor a rev­o­lu­tion but the US dis­band­ing of Mr. Hussein’s secu­ri­ty forces and mil­i­tary and its process of de-Baathi­fi­ca­tion, the elim­i­na­tion of the rem­nants of the Iraqi dictator’s Baath Par­ty, con­tributed to the sec­tar­i­an and ter­ror­ist vio­lence that racked Iraq for years. That is one mis­take the rebels are deter­mined not to make. That could prove eas­i­er said than done. 

About the Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal University’s S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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