Not much moral high-ground around
With Moammar Gaddafi murdered and out of the way the final factor that to some extent still united the rebel forces has disappeared and that country seems on the brink of a protracted period of chaos and tragedy of epic proportion that so often follow in the wake of Western intervention. The South African government and the African Union are probably amongst the few that can lay claim to some moral high ground in this whole sorry affair.
The way things are starting to shape up after the disappearance of the thoroughly discredited dictator; future developments are likely to prove that the African roadmap for Libya might have been the better option after all. The roadmap might at least have had a chance of bringing some unity of purpose in a country that has been deeply and destructively divided for many centuries.
The way the death of Gaddafi has been handled by the National Transitional Council (NTC) already gives an indication of the way it can be expected things will be dealt with in future.
All and sundry who were involved in the Nato-sponsored conflict of the last number of months now proclaim that national liberation has finally dawned for Libya and that a transition government can be formed to lead the country to an inclusive democratic government. But achieving regime change has been the easy part. The really difficult part now lies ahead.
The Libyan rebel forces never represented anything like a unified army. Berbers from the western mountains of the country control the capital Tripoli’s central square, the port is dominated by the Misratan rebels who were also responsible for Gaddafi’s final capture and execution and another rebel groups controls the airport.
All these militias, representing different regions and in some cases rival ideologies are unlikely to easily give up the new power they have acquired. Street fights have already broken out spontaneously in the capital and there is a real danger that it might escalate into full-scale battles.
This does not even take into account the essential requirement for peace of bringing the Gaddafi-forces into transitional arrangements – something the African roadmap makes provision for. If this weapons-rich faction is excluded and victimised an ongoing guerrilla war can be expected. And, some reports at ground level have it that there have already been reprisal killings during the past week.
All the elements seem to be in place for a repeat of what happened in other theatres of Western interventions. In the aftermath of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan developments fell tragically short of the good intentions with which they originally set off. Only after regime change was effected did the real trouble start and chaos and conflict become a way of life.
And, sadly it was also all seen in Africa.
It is just about 20 years since the Algerian Spring of 1991, when free elections seemed to bring an end to a long period of ugly dictatorship. Yet those elections did not lead to the liberal democratic dispensation that was also this time round foreseen by the Libyan-intervention.
In the case of Algeria, they were followed by a decade of hideously barbaric civil war, in which more than 160,000 died and the most unspeakable atrocities were perpetrated by all sides in the conflict.
Even today, Algeria has not recovered. The streets are empty at night – a legacy of the curfew imposed during the civil war years – the country is a police state and al-Qaeda has established its North African headquarters in the ungovernable south.
As the Arab Spring of North Africa now embarks on its next stage, it is essential to ask: what went wrong in Algeria? This question is all the more urgent because the similarities between what happened then and what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya today are alarmingly close.
Back in 1991, Algeria was suffering from mass unemployment, social discontent and riots in the streets. Eventually, the president, Chadli Bendjedid, felt obliged to call an election. What followed was a fantastically hopeful period for the country. Opposition parties mobilised and, after a lively and what is widely accepted to have been a free and fair election, the Islamic Salvation Front emerged victorious.
It was at this stage that the army intervened, strongly backed by France, the former colonial power, and the CIA. The generals declared a state of emergency, cancelled future elections, and curtailed free speech and the right to public assembly. The effects were utterly catastrophic.
In the case of Libya, in the words of a Western diplomat reported by the London Daily Telegraph: “The question now is; who owns the revolution?”
The NTC is supposed to take the country to elections in eight months‘ time. The intentions might be of the best, but things may yet turn out far more complex in practice:
- The country’s physical infrastructure for the delivery of the most basic of services like water and sanitation has been destroyed;
- The location and control over the financial assets is unsure and efforts to get control are likely to bring tensions of their own;
- The whereabouts of Gaddafi’s considerable weapons arsenal is unknown and establishing control over it is likely to prove difficult;
- The scramble for control over the country’s rich oil reserves has started and with international interest entering the fray the opportunities for corruption are set to escalate dramatically; and
- How will Islamic extremists, some with links to Qatar, who initially funded and supplied weapons to the rebels, impact on the situation?
As a recent report in Bloomberg Businessweek, more than a month before Gaddafi’s death pointed out, while the NTC says it intends to establish a democracy, the country “has neither a political party nor a constitution.” Competing military forces and regional factions represent the only social structures of note in the country.
Even in a then relatively peaceful South Africa with a very low intensity conflict the process leading up to democracy took some years. That Libya, given that country’s long and especially recent history, can achieve peaceful elections seems just too much to hope for.
Maybe the powers to be in the situation, should still take a leaf out of the book of the African roadmap.