Unmoved by the international community’s efforts to seek a peaceful resolution to the Libyan crisis, NATO has launched its heaviest ever bombardment against government installations in Tripoli. Despite this, Libya’s political future is as uncertain as the day NATO began military intervention three months ago.
The stalemate is as much the result of Libya’s domestic turmoil as it is NATO’s political goals, particularly the goals of the US, France and the UK.
Although the UN Security Council resolution mandated protecting civilians not regime change, these Western countries seek to oust Gaddafi and install a democratic system of their own devising. They have apparently been encouraged by the recent power changes in Tunisia and Egypt. But before we can have a clear idea of Libya’s future there are a number of issues obscuring the outlook.
Rumors have been rife about Muammar Gaddafi. He has been wounded. He is in hiding. He has lost control of his forces. Yet, again and again, a defiant Gaddafi has surfaced, vowing to fight to the bitter end. His forces may have turned from the offensive to the defensive, but they have so far managed to hold on to Tripoli. Even as NATO extends its bombing for another three months, it is still anyone’s guess if and when Gaddafi will leave.
Gaddafi’s days may be numbered, but his supporters will still be around. It is dangerously naive to imagine that the opposition based in Benghazi will simply take over the country on their own terms once Gaddafi is gone. If forces fighting for Gaddafi are not accepted into the post-Gaddafi political order, basic security and stability in Libya will still be threatened. To date, there have been no signs of a compromise.
Tribes and clans
What makes Libya distinct from Egypt and Tunisia is its demographic structure. Its social fabric has not changed much for hundreds of years. The latest television images showing Gaddafi meeting with tribal leaders are clear indications that his power base for the last four decades has been very much built upon political support from tribes and clans. There are reports that tribes in the countryside are trying to arm themselves with smuggled weapons. If the tribal forces cannot be incorporated in the future political framework, the country is likely to remain unstable or even plunge into civil war.
Extremists and terrorists
According to reports, Islamic terrorists from outside Libya are already infiltrating the country to seize weapons and military equipment. They may take advantage of the political instability to fan anti-Western hatred among Libyans and join forces with local extremists. That is the last thing the NATO wants to see.
Counting the costs
Last but not least, NATO may not be able to simply walk away given the weakness of the Libyan opposition in both military and political terms. If NATO ground troops have to be deployed to keep order, it will have to deal with the timing, duration, cost and casualties, as well as political pressure from both within their own countries and from international scrutiny.
Political analysts pondering the post-Gaddafi era have argued that the problem Libya faces is not democratization but state formation.
Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, said recently: “I don’t believe it is necessarily or as yet a democratic revolution. The challenge we have now is to see how we can contribute to a democratic evolution that is in the first scene of the first act of a five-act play.” He is obviously not optimistic about what has happened in some of the Arab countries in North Africa and Middle East.
As NATO missiles continue to create huge craters on the ground, the major Western players in the Libyan political game need to reflect seriously on who or what will fill the vacuum left after Gaddafi leaves, and shoulder the responsibility for the grave consequences that may arise.
The author is a writer with China Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.