Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Libya: Possibilities and Probabilities

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Tuesday, 04 October 2011 07:14

As the agenda in Libya now decisively shifts to thinking about, different scenarios paint variously optimistic and pessimistic pictures. Roland Paris on the website of the Canadian International Council finds Four Reasons for Optimism in Libya, while Diana West in The Washington Examiner cautions that What U.S. ignores about Libyan rebels could be lethal. While West paints a gloomy, but not entirely unrealistic picture of an anti-American/anti-Western regime emerging in Libya, Paris concedes a rocky road ahead for the Libyan transition, but one with important advantages compared with many similar situations.

Libya_MapIn my own view, there are many pitfalls ahead for Libya. The first of these challenges relates to establishing institutions that can enable an effective political process in Libya in which the National Transitional Council (NTC) can get the country functioning again. This requires the NTC to extend control across Libya and to defeat or at least contain the resistance. While this may take some more time, establishing security, law and order, especially in the crucial urban areas where the majority of the population is concentrated and which have seen the heaviest fighting is a task at which the NTC is already working, and with some success at that. The NTC needs to maintain as much political consensus among its different factions as possible and to retain broad regional and international support, particularly to get access to Libyan assets abroad and tap into the current international goodwill to address immediate humanitarian needs and the longer-term reconstruction task. In this short list of essential tasks, many uncertainties are hidden (and not so hidden).

Defeating remnants of the old regime seems likely, and with the continued assistance of NATO, will probably not leave much spirit or many resources at the hands of Gaddafi loyalists. Yet, unless the dictator and his inner circle are caught, unless financial and material supply routes are comprehensively cut off, there is a danger of at least a prolonged low-level insurgency. The Taliban recovered from their defeat in 2001 and the Sunni insurgency in Iraq gathered intensity long after the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein.

The reluctance of the African Union, especially South Africa, to recognise the NTC for as long as fighting continues indicates both reservations about the NATO-backed ouster of Gaddafi and that the dictator retains a network of contacts and supporters across the continent. AU recognition may only be a matter of time, but the delay reflects divided loyalties and bears the seeds of future uncertainty.

Restoring law and order in key population centres may also be more of a challenge. We have not seen so far the widespread looting and reprisals that often occurs in the course, and immediate aftermath, of violent regime transitions. But if the humanitarian situation deteriorates, if essential public services are not resumed quickly, the security situation may deteriorate, and looting and reprisals may escalate. Whether such a vicious circle will indeed follow, depends not only on how effectively the NTC can assert control as a government but also on how much the different factions can keep their own supporters in check.

Managing relations within the NTC and between the NTC and the Libyan population constitutes another challenge. Rival factions, and their leaders, will all claim their rewards and posts for supporting the revolution, and they will need to demonstrate to their followers that their sacrifices were worth it. At the same time reconciliation with former supporters of the regime is important, but is difficult as fighting continues, news of regime atrocities keep emerging, and peace dividends remain a promise only. Leaders and followers alike will need to sense that they are better off not only without Gaddafi but also by refraining from seeking to resolve disputes by violence rather than politics, even if that means uncomfortable concessions and compromises.

The Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage published by the NTC reflects the significant extent of planning for the post-Gaddafi era. It speaks of the efforts made to establish inclusive institutions and set a clear path to democratic elections, but leaves a level of discomfort when it determines Islam as state religion and Shari’a as the principal source of legislation. Elections and the process of drafting a permanent constitution will eventually give the Libyan people a clear say in what kind of new Libya they wish to live in, but it may yet be a far cry from what many Western supporters of the revolution and NATO’s involvement envisioned. The new Libya is more likely than not going to be a better place than Gaddafi’s regime, but so are Iraq compared to Saddam Hussein’s regime and Afghanistan compared to the rule of the Taliban. Yet neither is a model of stability or beacon of democracy.

When it comes to economic reconstruction, making this process sustainable is paramount so that Libya can avoid the long-term aid dependency that so many other post-conflict countries from the Balkans to West Africa and beyond experience. Considering Libya’s oil and gas wealth – the country holds the largest reserves on the African continent – this should be possible. Libya will eventually have the resources to finance much of the necessary rebuilding of the country itself, but such resource abundance can also be a double-edged sword, and in more ways than one. As in Iraq, the distribution of revenue from the country’s oil and gas assets is likely to be high on the political agenda, and could be deeply divisive if the haggling over Iraq’s hydrocarbons law is any indication.

This in turn would make Libya a difficult environment for foreign direct investment, regardless of the oil and gas multinationals, backed by their governments, which are already staking their claims for share in exploiting Libya’s natural resources. Economic reconstruction has to go hand-in-hand with creating a rules-based regulative environment and institutions that can effectively enforce the rule of law, thus giving foreign investors the confidence they need. Among such investors, European companies, especially French,Italian and British, along with Russia and China have significant interests in Libya’s natural resources. Until Libya’s oil and gas wealth can be unlocked, the country will depend on international aid, including theunfreezing of its assets abroad, a process so far fraught with difficulties and rivalry. Despite Libya’s national riches, foreign aid dependency may yet continue for some time.

International support for toppling Gaddafi grew significantly over the past seven months. The NTC is now recognised by almost 60 governments as the only legitimate authority in the country. Yet, in the same way as the real extent of political consensus within the NTC is unclear, the international agenda of post-conflict reconstruction remains equally unclear. Eventually, a regionally backed UN mission is likely, and Libya, given its oil and gas wealth will be less dependent on international hand-outs than many other post-conflict countries. But it is equally obvious that visions for a post-conflict Libya are likely to be rather different between the US, the EU, the AU, the Arab League, Russia and China—all of whom will shape the mandate of any UN mission in Libya. The fact that the EU was deeply divided over the military support NATO provided and that what was called a NATO mission was essentially the UK and France carrying more than the lion’s share of the military and political burden leaves major questions about the West’s strategic role in Libya’s reconstruction.

There are many reasons to be optimistic about the success of post-conflict reconstruction in Libya. What the eventual nature of the new Libyan state will be, however, remains to be seen.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham. He is a specialist in the management of contemporary security challenges and has extensively written on ethnic conflict, international conflict management and state-building. You can visit his website at

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