The Libyans are united, or are they?

Tom Whelan explores the future prospects of a post-Gaddafi Libya


Gaddafi’s 42 year reign has ended, and whilst there are celebrations in the streets of Tripoli there is one large question which casts a slight shadow over the occasion: what will now happen in Libya? There is great cause for celebration: Gaddafi, a dictator responsible for numerous crimes against humanity against his own people, has gone. Not only this but the fact that the last six months have seen a great example of the will of the Libyan people overcoming their oppressor- an example which many in states such as Syria will look on with hope. NATO was necessary, vital even, which may prove important for the new government’s future diplomatic ties and, considering the oil reserves and lack of strong Western allies in the Arab world, this would appear a reasonable cause for optimism. Western powers will look on the victory, one fought in the name of democracy, with the hope of seeing a democratic Middle Eastern state emerge with close ties to the West and one which could set a shining example for other Arab states to follow.

Yet, the future may not be so rose-tinted. When looking at the basic facts, a different picture is drawn. The National Transitional Council (NTC) faces a daunting task ahead. It is trying to form a democratic system of government in a country which has no democratic institutions, requires complete reconstruction after fighting a civil war, and all this without a centralised military force and a crippled economy. On top of this the NTC will have to struggle with the extremely high expectations the word ‘democracy’ and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime will bring, and struggle through tribal differences across Libya’s 140 different tribes, and the presence of Islamic militarist groups.

I feel it’s not an overly pessimistic view to say that the NTC will struggle. In fact I fear it is probably the realistic approach.  We have already seen women queuing and protesting, desperate for food. Libya is not used to the harsh living conditions that are found in many other African states, indeed in the 1980s it’s GDP per capita was higher than that of Italy’s. The NTC therefore will have to deal firstly with the reconstruction of the country’s basic supplies and livelihoods before any mention of the word ‘democracy’ will be uttered. In practice though, who will be running the country? Those within the NTC have little practice of running a state; considering the NTC was formed and first led by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi’s former justice minister. Will this continuation of using those from the Gaddafi regime to run the country lead to a source of criticism of the NTC and disillusion of the people with their makeshift government? After all, Libya’s neighbour, Egypt has gone down this route and is hence facing a high degree of tension and disappointment as Mubarak’s colleagues are still seen to be running the country.

Failure to meet the high expectations both regarding development and democratic freedom would lead to a suffering population, one which was recently militarised and made huge sacrifices to achieve the overthrow of Gaddafi. Unrest would be expected, violence a probability. The blame would not fall solely on the NTC, but also the West too. The latter has the ability to provide the support needed but judging by its inability to reconstruct states effectively in the post-Cold War era, it is more likely that the average Libyan will see little of Western aid and see it prop up a government it increasingly dislikes. Should Libya face violent unrest, one might expect those with the greatest military power to end up at the head of the new Libyan state, and in Libya those groups are radical Islamic militarist groups which pose a great threat to the West and the general, moderate population of Libya. It might be important to consider that more insurgents in Iraq, fighting against Coalition forces, came from Libya than any other Middle Eastern country, and so if protests and power struggles in the forming of the new government did occur, then the West would have a large cause for concern.

Perhaps you may feel that I am too cynical and am trying to predict a very unpredictable future. You may have a point. I hope that by continuing the huge successes that the NTC and Libyan rebels have achieved, the people will be patient for improvements. I hope too that tribal, religious and power differences will not enter and disrupt the future political system so that the NTC will achieve the reconstruction of Libyan livelihoods, schools, hospitals and economy whilst transferring power to a new constitution and democratically elected government. Yet when all the facts are added up, this seems unlikely, and although it is a huge triumph that democracy will be given a chance to flourish in Libya, the road ahead will certainly not be a smooth one.


Tom Whelan


Image credit – Maher27777 on Wikimedia Commons