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Libya at the crossroads—the challenge of consolidating peace

The Libyan rebels have swept to almost certain victory over the regime of Muammar Gaddafi on a wave of international goodwill and support. By and large they have sounded the right notes both on foreign relations and on a fair, democratic, conciliatory and, above all, peaceful post-conflict settlement. But the ousting of a regime, even one as widely unpopular as Gaddafi’s, is no guarantee of lasting stability. For Libya, the important work of consolidating peace starts now.

Good governance in the oil sector

A common theme among the rebels’ grievances against Gaddafi was that his regime hoarded or squandered Libya’s oil wealth and failed to invest it in development. Expectations seem to be high that the post-Gaddafi era will deliver substantial economic benefits for the population at large. However realistic or unrealistic these expectations may be, any new Libyan government needs to introduce accountability and avoid charges that it is misappropriating oil income or channeling it to particular regions or tribal groups at the expense of others.

It will also be vital for the new Libyan authorities not be seen as beholden to Western energy interests. This points to the need to forge a new form of shared energy security based on the rule of law, accountability and transparency. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative offers a useful framework to begin addressing these issues.  Other necessary steps include instituting greater openness regarding bilateral energy relations between Libya and European countries and an enhanced role for multilateral energy governance frameworks such as the Energy Charter Treaty.

The question of legitimacy

The legitimacy of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) during the fighting does not automatically translate into legitimacy as a post-revolutionary government. Most regions are now represented in the NTC, but its composition still reflects the origins of the uprising in Benghazi. This creates a danger that other regions—along with other groups that feel they are not represented by the NTC—will see the make-up of the NTC as a reason to oppose the NTC’s policies.

International engagement requires a Libyan counterpart, and the NTC is the obvious candidate, because it presumably wields enough local power to implement reforms effectively. However, the international community should keep in mind the possible limits of the NTC’s domestic legitimacy and recognition.

Recognizing the importance of the legitimacy question, the NTC has laid out a timetable for a transition to elected government. The experience of democratic transitions elsewhere has highlighted the risks of seeing democratization as chiefly a matter of holding elections and ignoring the wider and deeper processes required. Elections should be situated within a broader set of policies addressing, among other things, social justice, equitable arrangements for the territorial distribution of power, protection of minorities and measures to strengthen the rule of law. Otherwise, tensions could arise among minorities or regions may feel they could be marginalized through the ballot box.

Balancing security and politics

Even if Gaddafi’s forces now seem to be all defeated, Libya’s security situation is still volatile. Encouraging local people to form their own revolutionary brigades helped to improve local ‘ownership’ of the revolution. However, it has also created numerous armed groups with strong geographic or tribal identities. Rebuilding Libya’s security forces will be a priority, both to demonstrate national independence from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to act against any internal armed groups that choose violence over a peaceful political process. On top of this, little is known about the fate of the many weapons looted from the former government’s arsenals; those arsenals that remain intact need securing. The international community can play a decisive role in safeguarding and disposal of weapons.

A comprehensive disarmament and demobilization process is an urgent priority in order both to ensure security inside—and, arguably, outside—Libya and to create space for the political process and institution building. However, some parts of the population may be reluctant to give up their guns if they do not feel that their interests—and their visions of the new Libya—are guaranteed in the political process. Political progress and disarmament will be mutually dependent and thus require careful sequencing. It may also be necessary to offer incentives—economic or otherwise—for disarmament and demobilization.

Finding the right path

Regime changes are rarely simple and, even when military defeat is decisive, are not automatically followed by peace and stability. The sooner a transparent, fair and inclusive political process is established in Libya—along with a functioning state capable of meeting the population’s basic needs—the less time there will be for resentment, distrust and the normalization of violence to take hold. Media reports suggest that most of Libya’s disparate groups are willing to back an NTC-led transition process for now, even if cracks are beginning to show.

The NTC, for its part, has made encouraging statements in favour of retaining all but the most senior figures in the current state organs and rejecting the idea of revenge attacks on Gaddafi supporters. It remains to be seen how effectively it can put these ideals into practice. Once the goal of ousting Gaddafi loses its unifying power, establishing security and political stability will only become more complicated.

UN Security Council Resolution 2009, adopted on 16 September, mandates a three-month UN mission to support the country’s new leaders to restore security, promote the rule of law, launch the constitution-making and electoral processes, strengthen state institutions and restore public services, and initiate economic recovery—among other urgent tasks. It is a tall order for such a short period. Previous UN missions have been given significantly more time to fulfill similar mandates, so the international community should already be giving serious thought to extending the current mandate.

Judicious assistance from the international community will be critical in the near term. Nevertheless, hopes for a more positive future in Libya will ultimately rest on the success of the country itself in establishing justice, inclusiveness and unity in the wake of the enormous upheaval that it has undergone.