Middle East

Libya: Achieving a ceasefire toward legitimate government

BRUSSELS: The longer Libya’s military conflict persists, the more it risks jeopardizing or undermining the anti-Gadhafi camp’s avowed objectives, according to a media release Friday by the International Crisis Group.

Civilians are figuring in large numbers as victims, both as casualties and refugees. The country is de facto being partitioned, as divisions between the predominantly opposition-held east and the predominantly regime-controlled west harden into distinct political, social and economic worlds.

As a result, it is virtually impossible for the pro-democracy current of urban public opinion in most of western Libya [and Tripoli in particular] to express itself and weigh in the political balance.

The prolonged military campaign and attendant instability likewise present strategic threats to Libya’s neighbors. Besides fuelling a large-scale refugee crisis, they are raising the risk of infiltration by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Unlike events in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, the confrontation that began in mid-February between the popular protest movement and Gadhafi’s regime morphed into a civil war from a very early stage. This owes a great deal to the country’s history and chiefly to the peculiar character of the political order Colonel Gadhafi and his associates set up in the 1970s.

Whereas Egypt and Tunisia had been well-established states before Presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali came to power in 1981 and 1987 respectively, such that in both cases the state had an existence independent of their personal rule and could survive their departure, the opposite has been true of Libya. As a result, the conflict has taken on the character of a life-or-death struggle.

Eight years after overthrowing the monarchy in 1969, Gadhafi instituted the Jamahiriya, or “state of the masses” – a jerry-built state that is very much a personal creation largely dependent on his role. A constitutive principle of the Jamahiriya is the axiom, proclaimed in Gadhafi’s Green Book (1975), that “representation is fraud” and that no formal political representation is to be allowed.

The consequence of this radical refusal of the principle of representation has been to stunt the development of anything approaching effective, formal institutions or civil society.

A corollary of this low level of institutionalization has been the regime’s reliance on tribal solidarities to secure its power base.

At the same time, and especially as of the late 1980s, the regular armed forces have been kept weak, undermanned and under-equipped, the object of Gadhafi’s mistrust.

These various features of Gadhafi’s political order help explain why the logic of civil war set in so quickly after the first demonstrations.

There can be no doubt that the Jamahiriya is moribund and that only a very different form of state – one that allows political and civic freedoms – will begin to satisfy the widespread desire of Libyans for representative and law-bound government.

The character of the Libyan crisis today arises from the complex but so far evidently indecisive impact of the U.N.-authorized military intervention, now formally led by NATO, in what had already become a civil war. NATO’s intervention has saved the anti-Gadhafi side from immediate defeat but has not yet resolved the conflict in its favor.

Given its mounting political and human costs, complacent assessments that simply sustaining the present military campaign or increasing pressure will force Gadhafi out soon enough reflect a refusal to reconsider current strategy and envisage alternatives.

If some way cannot be found to induce the two sides in the armed conflict to negotiate a compromise allowing for an orderly transition to a post-Gadhafi, post-Jamahiriya state, the prospect for Libya but also North Africa as a whole and the Sahel countries will be ominous.

A political breakthrough is by far the best way out of the costly situation created by the military stalemate. This will require a ceasefire and unfettered humanitarian access to all areas within the country, implementation of which should be monitored by a U.N.-mandated international peacekeeping force.

It must be accompanied by immediate negotiations between regime and opposition representatives to secure agreement on a peaceful transition toward a more legitimate political order.

Such an outcome requires involvement by a third party trusted by both sides – actors currently in short supply. A joint political proposal by the Arab League and the African Union – the former viewed more favorably by the opposition, the latter preferred by the regime – is one possibility toward such an agreement. But this cannot happen without the leadership of the revolt and NATO rethinking their current stance.

Their repeatedly proclaimed demand that “Gadhafi must go” confuses two quite different objectives. To insist that he can have no role in the post-Jamahiriya political order is one thing, and almost certainly reflects the opinion of a majority of Libyans as well as of the outside world. But to insist that he must go as the precondition for any negotiation, including that of a ceasefire, is to render a ceasefire all but impossible and maximize the prospect of continued armed conflict.

To insist that he both leave the country and face trial in the International Criminal Court is virtually to ensure that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting. Ultimately, only an immediate ceasefire is consistent with the purpose originally claimed for NATO’s intervention, that of protecting civilians.

The present conflict clearly represents the death agony of Gadhafi’s Jamahiriya. Whether what comes after it fulfils Libyans’ hopes for freedom and legitimate government depends on how and when Gadhafi goes.

This in turn depends on when and how the armed conflict gives way to political negotiation allowing Libya’s political actors – including Libyan public opinion as a whole – to address the crucial questions involved in defining the constitutive principles of a post-Jamahiriya state and agreeing on the modalities and interim institutions of the transition phase.

The international community’s responsibility for the course events will take is very great. Instead of stubbornly maintaining the present policy and running the risk that the aftermath will be one of dangerous chaos, it should act now to secure a negotiated end to the civil war and facilitate a new beginning for Libya’s political life.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 17, 2011, on page 9.

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