Liberat(ing)ed the Libyans(?)

Last week it seems the months of stalemate in Libya was finally broken as the rebels succeeded in sweeping into Tripoli. And then the unthinkable happened, the long drawn out show down in Tripoli did not occur as the resistance of the Gaddafi regime simply seemed to melt away.

Or was it that unbelievable that Tripoli could fall so easily? Like most dictatorships Gaddafi was kept in power by a small number of a few tens of thousands of loyal supporters, mostly his cronies or members of the secret police who basically threatened the rest into submission and kept the rank and file in the army in check. Once the rebels swept into Tripoli last week this fragile network collapsed and in then end the bulk of the city fell with minimal force. Within hours Green Square (sorry martyr’s sq) was taken and street sellers were already out selling “kiss me I’m revolting” or “I’m with Megrahi” (as opposed to I’m wt stupid) commemorative T-shirts.

While all the ground fighting was conducted by the rebels, clearly western air power played its role. Also, I noted a quite a few of the rebels wielding American made M-16 and AR-15 rifles. I am unaware of any situation where Libya purchased such weapons before the civil war, thus suggesting that they got them off the Americans. Also, the rebels have been using tanks. While most are creaky old T-55’s as I pointed out in a prior post, using tanks successfully in an urban area is not easy task, and it suggests that they’ve been getting some pointers from military instructors, possibly from NATO. And it is all but certain that NATO forward air controllers would be in on the ground co-ordinating strikes. So while the bulk of the heroics are clearly down to the rebels, the fingerprints of NATO is all over the place.

So its all over bar Gaddafi’s inevitable “Downfall moment”, right? Sadly no. There are still quite a few people in the country who support Gaddafi, notably those in his tribal heartland of Sirte, as well as quite a few pockets of Tripoli and various other desert settlements as well as some of his remaining mercenaries. These people are not going to go down without a fight and there is a risk of a blood bath if conflict continues. Alternatively there is no guarantee that the rebels will be able to take these strong points and NATO will be reluctant to supply air cover due to the presence of civilians.

Clearly some peaceful solution needs to be worked out. This could mean excusing certain people for their past involvement in the regime, in exchange for them supporting a peaceful transition of power. After all, the goal is to wind up with a democratic country and if, say, Sirte wants to elect some former Gaddafi loyalist as its mayor, well they’ll sort of have the right to do that. It’s clear from the pronouncements of the Transitional council in Benghazi that a peaceful resolution is they’re plan. However implementing it on the ground among the chaos of civil war will be no easy task. The worst case scenario is that some of these ex-Gaddafi loyalists going to ground, or being driven to it by a rebel massacre, and launching an insurgency that will drag on for years.

Another problem is the state of the Libyan economy. Many millions of people haven’t worked for 6 months and the effect of this on society is crippling. Libya has gone from one of the wealthiest states in Africa to something resembling Somalia. There is a need to get people back to the nine to five routine (although someone from Libya tells me its more of a 6am to 2pm due to the heat!), get the shops open and the wheels of industry moving. And yes that means getting the oil flowing again, more for Libya’s benefit than the rest of the world. Also, there is a need to get the police out on the street and the courts up and running and the hospitals dealing with “regular” stuff rather than war casualties. And ultimately elections will have to be held as soon as possible so that the people can have confidence that the sign is not been merely changed on the door.

It is of course for these very reasons that the temptation to punish the rank and file supporters of the previous regime must be resisted. The worst decision taken by the Bush Adm after invading Iraq (well aside from invading in the first place!) was to dissolve the Iraqi national army and fire the many millions of Iraqi’s who were members of the Baath party (many of whom were only members because they won’t have a civil service job if they hadn’t joined). The result was instant anarchy, the US lost what limited public support they had and just a few weeks later the first IED’s started going off. It is crucial that the Libyans avoid making this mistake.

Certainly, some comforting signals are coming out of the country. There are few stories of looting within Tripoli, aside from within property owned by Gaddafi’s cronies. The Transitional council is making the sort of noises that it should be making. They are anxious to move to Tripoli as soon as its secured. However, their ability to influence matters on the ground is still open to question. Unfortunately its a little too early for us to start writing Gaddafi’s obituary. Having won the war, which is still in the balance, can the rebels now win the peace, as that has usually been the stumbling block in many past revolutions.

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