Who is ready for political reform in Libya?

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Some international observers probably presumed that the Pan-Arab conflict which saw the swift overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak would have the same effect in neighbouring Libya. Democracy in, dictator out and the people’s will would be done. If only if it were that simple. Centuries of tribalism and regionalism will not make the transition from dictatorship to democracy a smooth and painless one. Instead, what we now have in Libya is a UN backed military intervention invoking the rather contentious ‘responsibility to protect’ mandate to protect civilians, disorganised ‘rebel’ fighters, an obstinate leader who will not budge and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

What can be agreed upon?

There is a consensus that political reform is needed whether that is through elections or referenda; the government seem willing to negotiate. The latest government mouthpiece/spokesman/family member Moussa Ibrahim claims that ‘[Libya] could have any political system, any changes: constitution, election, anything…don’t decide our future from abroad, give us a proposal for change from within’ [Telegraph April 5 2011]. They are open to the transition of democracy as long as it is on the terms of the Libyan people and not from foreign voices. That all seems fair enough; after all, foreign intervention (although some would be more inclined to say imperialist, military expansion) following the mantra of spreading Western style democracy and ridding the world of evil dictators has done anything but wonders for Iraq and Afghanistan. The government has talked the talk but whether it will walk the walk is another matter entirely. For that, only time will tell.

What cannot be agreed upon?

In a word: Gaddafi. How do you solve a problem like Gaddafi? The disagreement stems from Gaddafi’s role in the future of Libya. On the one hand, you have senior US, British and French politicians amongst other world leaders and statesmen calling on Gaddafi to step down. On the other hand, the same Moussa Ibrahim who discussed the possibility of political reform uttered within the same breath the condition that Colonel Gaddafi would remain as a leading figure. According to Ibrahim, Gaddafi is ‘a safety valve for the country to remain together and he (Gaddafi) has a symbolic significance for the Libyan people.  We think he is very important to lead any transition to a democratic and transparent model’ [April 5 2011]. Ah! Tripoli, we have a problem. One of the main aims of this uprising is to rid Libya of Gaddafi and his family… not keep them there.

So what are Gaddafi’s options?
Partition Libya? –It has been suggested that the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east should secede. In the West, including the capital Tripoli and his hometown of Sirte, he is more loved than hated and in the east… well it’s the complete opposite. They have already established the Libyan Interim National Council and the rebels have much of their support base there. How many countries would want to lose some of its territory? In reality it is very few. Imagine Scotland wanting to break away from the Union, do you think the government would allow that so easily. Not a chance. As far as the Libyan government is concerned, Libya is one country, one entity, one territory and it must remain united without any geopolitical squabbling.
Gaddafi remains whilst a new government is elected – for the sake of political expediency, the only option for the Gaddafi family would be to step down immediately according to many international leaders. There is no Plan B.
Trial- Face the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, although the likelihood of that happening anytime soon seems to be far removed.
Exile- Leave the country, find a safe haven somewhere like many disgraced leaders have done. Usually, they go to one of the Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, but I guess Saudi wouldn’t be a good idea. He has been accused of plotting to assassinate the Saudi Crown Prince once and I doubt it would be something you would forget in a hurry. Plus, the majority of the Arab League members wouldn’t mind to see Gaddafi fall so I’m guessing there isn’t a lot of love there.
Gaddafi stays put- It seems he would rather set himself up as a martyr than be removed from Libya as he has on the surface remained defiant refusing to surrender and claiming to fight to the death.

What of the rebels?

Who are the rebels? Who is leading them? Are they just different elites competing for power and favour from the ‘West’? What are their plans for Libya as a whole? So many questions, such complex answers.   One thing is for certain, many of them are leaders of powerful tribes who are situated in petroleum rich regions particularly in the east and along the coast. They claim to no longer support Gaddafi. Understandable as he has been rather adept at playing them against each other, either with government posts or some form of patronage to deflect attention from all the power he had been concentrating.

Their goal in ridding Libya of Colonel Gaddafi and his clan might be the same but the strategy and leadership of the mission is in much disrepute. It is unsurprising that that many commentators , though supporting their cause, have used words such as ‘disorganised’, ‘lack of unity’ and ‘political infighting’  to describe the rebel fighters . If they cannot organise, how are they expected to mobilise village and town support in the face of Gaddafi’s dedicated troops [Al Jazeera, March 3 2011]. Perhaps that will change with the recent news that UK and French administrations are prepared to send in political advisors but that is a wait and see game.

What about their democratic credentials? At this moment in time, it is difficult to see them as a strong and legitimate government in waiting, especially as they have not been elected and cannot claim a legitimate mandate for the Libyan people anymore than Gaddafi can.  Furthermore, the systematic abuse and persecution of immigrant workers, many of whom are Black Africans from Sub Saharan Africa whose labour the country is dependent on, has been has been well noted in the international media. They have often accused on little substantive evidence of being hired mercenaries for Gaddafi and thus subject to torture, mutilations and execution. One must also ask if the rebel leaders can unite a country which seems irrevocably split if they are playing tribal politics.   Can they create more jobs, manage the economy successfully and control inflation without crazy fluctuations of staple foods which has seen riots around the world. Democracy is all well and good and but it can mean diddly squat to the ordinary citizen if they cannot find a job, cannot get a house or cannot put food on the table.

Where to Now?

Gaddafi is a complex and pragmatic figure that should not be underestimated. You do not manage to stay in power for forty plus years without being assassinated (though I am sure there have been numerous attempts) without some political support. He has also established a regional support base amongst a sizeable number of the Libyan population who have benefitted in some form over the years from Libya’s oil financed welfare, social, housing and educational programmes [BBC, 11 March 2011]. Who or what system will take Gaddafi’s place is difficult and too early to tell.  One thing is certain; the political stalemate cannot draw out forever whilst innocent civilians are being caught in the crossfire from both sides. The world is changing and Libya needs to change too, whatever that may be.

Article by Mariam Boakye-Dankwa. Edited by Liz Saul.