Last week's attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli was the first significant terrorist attack against foreign interests in the Libyan capital since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. More crucially, it marks an escalation in the covert war being waged to determine the future orientation, institutions, constitution, and very soul of the new Libya. At the same time the conflict between the government and militias has escalated, with the latter besieging the ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, demanding the resignation of the ministers and the immediate application of the political isolation law, which is in the process of being debated and voted on. Collectively, these events show a decrease in the legitimate political institutions' capacity to guide the transition process successfully and an increase in the attempts of armed elements to alter the rules of the political game in their favor.
For the international community the attack against the French Embassy and the radicalization of the conflict between militias and government institutions must serve as a wake-up call, and remind them that the gains of the NATO-led intervention are at risk of being undone. The countries that helped overthrow Qaddafi should redouble their efforts to support the creation of professional armed forces and police, vocational training, and constitution writing. If greater support is withheld, the French Embassy attack may prove to be the start of a trend, in which case Libyan -- and by extension North African -- instability would become a permanent status quo. The crisis in Mali and the growing instability in Algeria -- and most recently Tunisia -- offer clear evidence in support of this conjecture.
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Arriving in the Libyan capital Tripoli, it is immediately (and dispiritingly) clear just how much needs to be done before the country can experience any sort of secure and just order. During my January research trip to Libya, the city seemed to have been overtaken by a paramilitary culture. The streets of Tripoli are thronged with Libyans in military uniform; not members of a national army, but rather of an expanding constellation of independent revolutionary and military councils. The city regularly rings out with automatic gunfire, particularly at night. Its walls, meanwhile, are papered with posters of the 2011 revolution's "martyrs," some of which couple a professional studio portrait with a later, amateur picture of the same man's corpse. Surrounded on all sides by headshots of the Libyan revolution's dead, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how Libya can achieve national reconciliation and become a stable, functioning country.
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As the United States and its allies continue to debate intervention in Syria, the example of NATO's air campaign in Libya is frequently marshaled -- often carelessly. Most arguments against drawing unwarranted analogies cite the size of the Syrian military, the robustness of its air defenses compared to Libya's, as well as obvious differences in the countries' sectarian makeup and topography. But no one has bothered to ask Libya's revolutionary fighters and their commanders what they thought of the NATO air campaign and how it affected their strategy, tactics, and morale on the battlefield.
In March and July of 2012, I traveled to Libya to conduct over two dozen interviews with anti-Qaddafi commanders who fought on the war's four main fronts: the Nafusa mountains, Tripoli, Misrata, and Benghazi. The results are surprising, with important implications for current deliberations on Syria. Nowhere is this more evident than in Misrata, the central coastal city that was the location of the Libyan war's most pivotal battle. Anti-Assad forces in Syria have long boasted of making Aleppo their Benghazi -- a haven from which to topple the regime in Damascus. But perhaps a closer analogy is Misrata where, after months of grinding, urban combat, Libyan revolutionaries pushed out Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops and paved the way for the liberation of Tripoli. Precision airpower, combined with the presence of foreign ground advisors working alongside the city's defenders, helped in this crucial battle, but in ways that were dependent on a number of other factors -- all with important implications for Syria.
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images; Misrata Military Council
The view that the civil war in Syria is entering into a new phase, perhaps its final one, is rapidly gaining ground. Having successfully resisting the Assad regime's onslaught, the rebels have improved their military efficacy. They have seized significant military targets, have made significant progress toward centralizing their command structure, and are consolidating their stronghold over substantial parts of the country. More and better weapons are coming their way, and the war appears poised to come to Damascus, for what could shape up into the conflict's most decisive battle. But are we really witnessing the beginning of the end? Or is this just another phase in what may prove to be an endless Afghan-style quagmire?
To answer this question, we should look to Libya rather than Afghanistan. NATO's intervention, following U.N. Resolution 1973, made all the difference in this conflict: by strengthening the rebels' hand and severely weakening Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, it turned military defeat into rapid victory, against all prognostications of protracted war. However, to understand how aerial bombing could make such a tremendous difference in Libya, especially when massive U.S. firepower has failed to turn the war in Afghanistan, we must probe deeper.
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Ever since the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and U.S. Embassy in Tunis in September, there has been a large spotlight on the Islamist groups viewed as the main culprits -- Katibat Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (ASB) and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). While much of the understandable focus has been on the violent actions of individuals in these organizations, much of the scope of their activities lies outside violence. A large-portion of the activities of these groups is local social service provision under their particular dawa (missionary) offices. This broader picture is crucial to better understanding emerging trends in societies transitioning from authoritarian to democratic rule.
ASB and AST can broadly be considered jihadi organizations based on their ideological outlook. However, these jihadis are different than past incarnations. Jihadis have a good track record in fighting and less so in governing or providing social services. The only example of jihadi governance has occurred when the Somali-based Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin and Yemeni-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) held actual territory. What sets ASB and AST apart is that they are providing aid to local communities in a non-state actor capacity, which has been unheard of previously.
Everything about the scene in the white marquee erected in Tripoli's Mina as-Shaab waterside quarter would have been unthinkable until last year. For a start, this was an open political gathering of some 500 Libyans in a country where, in the past, clandestine meetings of five people could land all concerned in jail. Not only that, those assembled under the billowing tent were members of one of Libya's most vilified opposition groups for most of Qaddafi's 42 years in power: the Muslim Brotherhood. All over the Libyan capital billboards emblazoned with the movement's green insignia featuring a Quran over crossed swords and the slogan "Make Ready" advertised the event.
The 10-day program of lectures, seminars, and cultural activities headlined "Arab Spring: Opportunities and Challenges" may have seemed innocuous but for the leadership of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, it was an important step in their efforts to win friends and influence people after decades of demonization under Qaddafi. Many admit to still feeling bruised by the poor performance of their affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) in elections for Libya's 200-strong national congress in July. The JCP, founded in March and led by Mohammed Sawan, a Muslim Brotherhood member who spent years in Qaddafi's jails, garnered just 17 out of the 80 seats allocated for parties. Its lackluster showing bucked the trend which had seen Islamist parties make sweeping electoral gains following the toppling of dictators in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
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For decades, "human rights in the Middle East" was a subject of scrutiny, debate, and mobilizations spearheaded from outside of the region. Western governments including successive U.S. administrations frequently took up the region's dire human rights conditions and funded a variety of human rights initiatives to remedy them, in many ways as a substitute for forgoing economic and military alliances with highly repressive regimes. These foreign governments' human rights talk was heavy in its emphasis on women's rights and other violations for which backward cultural and religious belief were designated as the key culprits and light on its emphasis on civil and political rights violations. During the post-9/11 era, as highlighting the Middle East's deplorable human rights conditions added a veneer of moral purpose to military interventions in the region, the "human rights in the Middle East" line of inquiry took on a life of its own and created a cottage industry of Western-driven human rights assessments and prescriptions. All the while, local voices promoting human rights were largely silenced by authoritarian rulers simultaneously paying lip service to human rights and undermining it by arguing that it served foreign, Western, imperialist agendas. Cumulatively, there dynamics resulted in minimal Middle Eastern agency in defining the nature and scope of its own predicament vis-à-vis the human rights paradigm.
Today, the region's myriad of human rights mobilizations and contests are increasingly being spurred from within the Middle East, not abroad.
Libya's embattled transitional government is not only struggling to appoint a cabinet, disarm its powerful militias, and deal with the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. It is also locked in a tense battle with the International Criminal Court (ICC) over where to try Muammar al-Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and the former regime's mysterious intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi. Since the fall of Qaddafi's regime and the assertion of a newly sovereign Libya, the ICC's intervention has degenerated into a controversial and, at times, acrimonious battle between Libya's new rulers and the Court over where the highly prized indictees should be tried. Over the past year, Libya's transitional government has sought to demonstrate its effective sovereignty to its citizens and the world by proving itself able and willing to prosecute senior members of the Qaddafi regime. At the same time, the ICC has striven to establish itself as an effective institution that can have positive effects on post-conflict accountability. However, the fight over where to try Saif and Senussi may ultimately serve to undermine the aims of both the ICC and Libya -- not to mention the pursuit of post-Qaddafi justice.
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In the pre-dawn blackness of September 12, I hurtled toward Tunis Carthage airport en route to Tripoli. I was looking forward to seeing my friend Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who had invited all nine members in our delegation representing the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Canadian government to his home for a Saturday night reception to talk about Libya's turbulent transition.
The high-speed Tunisian taxi driver, who doubles as a freelance currency trader, told me, "More Libyans are coming every day. I'm making lots of money. It's getting worse." I thought for a minute about his unscientific sample and wondered, "How bad is it?" At Tunisian customs, I was all alone. The immigration official spent too much time half-heartedly scrutinizing my passport, then looked up and said, "You came in yesterday?" "Yes," I replied. "It was not a good day for you."
The death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials in Libya last Wednesday should serve to draw much-needed attention to an increasingly untenable contradiction in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Even while it seeks to recover from this latest attack by Islamic radicals, the United States continues to support or tolerate the mobilization of adherents of that very same ideology elsewhere in the region, most clearly in Syria and in Bahrain. There, U.S. policymakers should expect equally frightening results.
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was carried out by suspected members of Ansar al-Sharia, or Partisans of Islamic Law, a group adhering to the same Salafi (or Wahhabi) religious interpretation more commonly associated with Saudi Arabia. And while the popular anti-American protests that have continued to spread across the region cannot be painted with a single brushstroke, and doubtless have roots in local political grievances, still one feature they share is the conspicuous presence -- and organizational power -- of Sunni Islamists.
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It was a YouTube movie trailer that no one knew about. That is, until radical Salafis decided to draw everyone's attention to it. Already, people have died who had nothing to do with the film -- and the repercussions of all of this will go on for years to come. It's a tragedy -- one that can either be harnessed for good, or can continue to wreak havoc.
From the outset, a few facts need to be clarified in order to place this into its correct context. An Israeli real-estate developer in California, Sam Bacile, produced the little-known film, for which a 14-minute trailer was posted on YouTube. In a telephone interview with the Associated Press, Bacile said, "Islam is a cancer" and claimed that the film was intended to be a "provocative political statement condemning the religion." These are the facts as we have them at present, although questions are being raised about precisely who this filmmaker is.
None of that is going to really matter today, however. What will matter is the reaction: in Benghazi on Tuesday, the U.S. consulate was attacked, reportedly led by the same radical Salafi elements that have been going on a rampage in the past few months (and longer) against the mausoleums of Muslim saints in Libya. The attack resulted in the deaths of three U.S. embassy staff members and the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. There is no confusion in that characterization -- these elements were armed.
After widely applauded elections, Libya is preparing to draft its first democratic constitution after more than 40 years of Muammar al-Qaddafi's dictatorship. A 60-person committee will draft the constitution and reckon with key social issues facing Free Libya, including national identity and human rights, state and religion, and the distribution of political and economic power. The committee must frame a state in a country once characterized by weak social or political organization.
The process by which the constitution will be written is unclear. The National Transitional Council (NTC) -- which served as Libya's interim parliament after the ouster of Qaddafi until the July 7 election of the General National Congress (GNC) -- had proliferated a constitutional declaration to govern the transitional phase. The declaration called for the congress to appoint 60 experts to a constitutional committee, 20 from each of Libya's three historical provinces in the west, east, and south. But the NTC amended the declaration the week prior to the election, stating that the members of the constitutional committee would be elected rather than appointed.
Libya's elections did not need to be perfect, but the country plainly needs a popularly elected government to tackle the difficult and unpopular decisions involved in building the new state. The polls thus could have been judged a success merely by taking place without major disruption, a test they aced with flying colors following reports of 65 percent turnout and over 98 percent of polling centers opening without incident. Around the country, the long-awaited vote was justifiably treated as cause for national celebration.
But the seeds for political contention at the next stage may have been sown in the run-up to the polls. Less than 48 hours prior to elections, the National Transitional Council (NTC) stripped the to be elected national congress of its core mandate: supervising the drafting of Libya's new constitution. Rather than being appointed by the new congress, the constitutional commission actually drafting the charter will theoretically now be directly elected in a second set of polls that give all parts of the country equal representation. This legal bombshell risks acrimony later this year between different parts of the country as well as rejection by the newly ascendant political parties, who on paper find themselves in charge of a congress suddenly relegated to bystander status on constitutional matters.
Shouts of "Allahu akbar" rang out Friday night in Benghazi, as Libya lost to Morocco on penalty kicks. Saturday brought a loud night of celebratory honking and gunfire as the polls for the first national election in 60 years closed.
I was in Benghazi observing the election for the Carter Center, which mounted a limited mission due to security concerns. It has issued its preliminary assessment. These are my own views, and not those of the Carter Center.
The Libyans are electing what they call a General National Congress (GNC), which will form the country's first elected government and -- according to a last-minute decision -- preside over regional elections for members of a constitution-drafting committee. Eighty seats in the GNC will be assigned proportionally from closed party lists, with men and women alternating on the ballot. One hundred twenty seats will go to individual candidates. This election will end Libya's self-appointed revolutionary regime, the National Transitional Council (NTC), which led the political side of the February 2011 revolt against Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Tripoli's visual landscape has transformed dramatically over the past two weeks. Candidate portraits, campaign billboards, party platforms, and voting instructions have been pasted, plastered, and positioned everywhere. Until recently, a different kind of sign had dominated Tripoli: the shahid (martyr) memorial. From billboards to handmade posters, these were erected by communities and families in remembrance of those killed by the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. There have also been countless have-you-seen-me? type posters for the thousands of Libyans still missing from the 2011 war. But, the graphic cacophony of election propaganda has since drowned out the missing and martyr posters. Though, this visual transformation is not indicative of a total transition from armed revolutionary politics to civil electoral politics.
Here's the good news from Libya on the eve of Saturday's elections: there is little motivation to steal them. The bad news is the reason why. Libya's next government will still be seen by many as just another, if more robust, interim government. Yes, the national assembly will appoint a new cabinet and, more importantly, a commission to draft Libya's post-Qaddafi constitution. These processes, however, will take place under duress. I recently asked an Amazigh (Berber) writer if he thought his mother tongue, Tamazight, would become an official national language in the new constitution. "Of course it will," he insisted. "Now that we have guns, they have to listen to us."
Using a bright blue pen, the young man behind the cash register in the kebab shop on the outskirts of Tripoli began to methodically scratch out the face of Muammar al-Qaddafi from his stack of one-dinar notes. About halfway through the pile, he greeted a bill that had already been defaced with a happy nod and smile of satisfaction. After exhausting the one-dinar notes he turned to the 20s, and began surgically excising a miniature Brother Leader from a summit group photo.
Prior to February 17, 2011 everything in Qaddafi's Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was physically painted a shade of light green to symbolize the political system of stateless government laid out in the Brother Leader's Green Book. (The term jamahiriya was coined by Qaddafi and is usually loosely translated as "state of the masses" or "peopledom.") Today, the country is awash in the red, green and black tricolor scheme of the pre-Qaddafi era Libyan flag, which has been adopted by the revolutionaries as their standard. In Tripoli, where several neighborhoods had loyalist rather than revolutionary reputations, these coats of fresh paint and the common practice of doctoring car license plates to cover the word jamahiriya might raise an eyebrow. But what of the kebab seller's currency handiwork, which appeared to be a private act of conviction?
From the outside, the picture in Libya looks unremittingly bleak. A near daily chronicle of rampaging militias, conflict and chaos headlines coverage by the wire services. But perhaps a casualty of the closure of foreign bureaus and the lesser interest that exists when no U.S. boots are on the ground, some perspective is lacking from the often barebones news reports.
Eight months after the brutal death of Qaddafi marked the end of the civil conflict that followed Libya's popular uprising, support for the regime change appears to have if anything grown. Even if some of this backing falls into the "everyone loves a winner" category, a full 97 percent of Libyans surveyed by Oxford Research International in January thought the revolution was absolutely or somewhat right.
But is the mere fact of the revolution being broadly popular enough to make it right? Is it a sufficient platform to produce a secure and brighter future for Libya?
In spite of this deep and abiding popularity of its popular uprising, Libya finds itself in the midst of a national quarrel over its revolutionary narrative and new founding myth.
Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) warmly accepted the international community's military and political support for dislodging the Qaddafi government, and vowed to build a new state that would respect human rights. But it seems to be veering off course. Not only is it rejecting international human rights monitoring and the ICC's jurisdiction, but more troubling still, it has passed some shockingly bad laws, mimicking Qaddafi laws criminalizing political dissent and granting blanket immunity to any crimes committed in "support" of the revolution.
The NTC has a lot on its hands, and building a new administration from the ground up is no small feat. Its biggest challenge has been asserting authority over the armed groups in most towns, villages and city neighborhoods who are responsible for most abuses in post-Qaddafi Libya. The militias hold about 5,000 of the country's roughly 8,000 detainees. Some have been held for up to a year, outside Libyan law, without any charge or judicial process. Numerous cases of torture and even deaths in custody have been documented.
On April 17, 2012, M. Cherif Bassiouni, international Arab legal expert and Chairman of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry joined Middle East Channel editor Marc Lynch for a short conversation at George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies. Among the topics covered: Bahrain's response to the BICI recommendations, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's immunity deal, a war crimes tribunal for Syria...and why Muammar al-Qaddafi's sex addiction will make it difficult to convict Saif al-Islam.
The United Nations should establish an investigation commission to collect evidence about war crimes in Syria to prepare the ground for any future investigation, leading Arab international law expert Cherif Bassiouni told Foreign Policy during a wide-ranging interview yesterday following his talk at George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies [videos of both the interview and the talk will be posted shortly]. He warned that Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh should not count on his immunity deal holding up, discounted the ability of Libya's courts to try Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and blasted Egypt's post-revolutionary trials as focusing on flimsy, marginal cases which avoided dealing with systemic, institutionalized corruption.
Also, he explained that Moammar Qaddafi was a sex addict whose heavy use of Viagra badly affected his decision-making -- which could complicate the ICC's efforts to convict Saif al-Islam (FP's web editors wanted that to be the lead, for some reason).
Benghazi is back in the headlines. On March 6, the capital of Libya's 2011 uprising hosted a reported 3,000 tribal figures and leaders from the eastern half of the country. Seeking to marry eastern Libya's status as the historical seat of the country's pre-Qaddafi federal monarchy with local post-revolutionary anxiety, the conference provocatively announced the creation of the federal region of Barqa.
The reaction both within and outside of Libya has been swift. The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) sharply criticized the declaration. Protests extolling national unity were held across the country and Libya's leading mufti issued a fatwa against federalism. Meanwhile, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference issued statements expressing support for a unified Libya and rejecting federalism. An editorial in the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi even opined that Qaddafi and his family must feel "vindicated" in their predictions that the country would fragment without them.
The reality is more nuanced than the excited commentary would suggest. The gulf between the "federalism" called for by some easterners and the administrative decentralization broadly favored across Libya is most likely relatively narrow. And even in eastern Libya, support for the federal model advocated for by the self-appointed Interim Council of Barqa appears mixed.
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"The Muslim Brothers established this party. We are a national civil party with an Islamic reference...we have Islamists and nationalists," said Al-Amin Belhajj, the head of the founding committee for the newly announced Justice and Construction Party. With the March 3 announcement, Libya seems set to follow the electoral path of Islamist success seen in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries. After decades of fierce repression of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the formation of a political party in Libya is a heady experience. What does it mean for Libya's future?
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After over 40 years of Muammar al-Qaddafi's Jamahiriya -- a by design stateless society of purported direct rule by the popular masses -- Libya's political transition was always going to be sui generis. Other Arab autocrats may have subverted elections and ignored their constitutions, but in most cases at least the motions of representative democracy existed. This was not the case in Libya, where the law organizing the country's first elections is scheduled for publication this weekend. As Othman El-Mugirhy, the chair of the committee that drafted the law eloquently put it, "Libya has no institutions, it is a state of ashes."
One legacy of the almost perpetual administrative flux that Qaddafi's unique governing model engendered is that individuals rather than political parties will likely contest Libya's forthcoming elections. This has all sorts of unusual consequences, not least of which is potentially turning on its head the widespread belief in the region that early elections favor the Muslim Brotherhood.
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Women are at a crossroads in the Middle East and North Africa. This is widely reflected in the current battles over the adoption of quotas aimed at improving women's chances of being elected into parliaments. Although women's quotas were introduced as early as 1979 in Egypt, there are new efforts underway in the Middle East to implement them. Last year, Tunisia adopted a law requiring that party lists alternate between men and women. In a more restrained manner, Libya recently drafted an election law that gives women only 10 percent of the seats. However, the struggle for quotas has also met with resistance as in Egypt, which abandoned a 2010 quota law altogether that would have ensured the presence of 64 women in the parliament.
Quotas are not only being adopted in the legislative arena in the Middle East, they are being entertained in government as well. Recently, the Iraqi cabinet approved a quota system that requires women to make up half of all hires in the ministries of health and education and to account for 30 percent of hires at all other ministries.
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The European Union's recent agreement in principle to gradually ban Iranian crude oil imports has brought to a head a long-running dispute between Europe's economic and foreign ministries. Economic ministries feared politicizing oil because any disruption could hurt fragile economies and send prices soaring. Foreign ministries, for their part, were eager to turn the screws on Tehran with an oil embargo that would raise the costs of the country's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. This gap is narrowing fast -- but not only because of the urgency of increased diplomatic pressure.
EU ministers will discuss the embargo on January 23 after two weeks of saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf. Iran's leaders have directly linked restrictions on crude exports to the regime's willingness to shut the Strait of Hormuz. Last month, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, Iran's first vice president, warned that "If they impose sanctions on Iran's oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz." His comments came days before President Barack Obama approved new U.S. sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, which manages the country's oil transactions.
The stakes are high for Tehran. The regime depends on oil revenue for 50 percent of its budget. Last year that sum amounted to $73 billion. Iran exports 450,000 barrels per day (b/d) to Europe, which amounts to 20 percent of the country's total crude exports. Some observers worry that an EU embargo could backfire and send oil prices sky-high. But these fears may be exaggerated.
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As we approach the one-year anniversary of the events that touched off the "Arab Spring," there is no lack of prudent handwringing. Writing in the Washington Post, my colleague Daniel Byman concludes that with the exception of Tunisia, where democratization is moving apace, "the Arab Spring may not bring freedom to much, or even most, of the Arab world. Even as the United States prepares to work with the region's new democracies, it also must prepare for the chaos, stagnation and misrule that will mark the Arab Winter."
There is ample justification for such pessimism. Egypt's transition has been marred by the military's repeated violent repression of popular protests, by its periodic efforts to limit the authority of the new parliament, and by the growing fears among Egyptian liberals sparked by the electoral victories of their Islamist rivals. Further afield, Bahrain's Sunni rulers have crushed a popular movement led mostly by Shiite leaders, Yemen might be plunging into tribal civil war, and Syria seems to be descending into sectarian conflict between a mostly Alawite regime and its mostly Sunni opponents. As for Libya, friction within the National Transitional Council might herald a much wider power struggle -- especially among the 100 or so independent and well-armed militias. Watching these developments, we might ask whether the death knell of authoritarianism in the Arab world was sounded too readily, or at least prematurely?
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The day-to-day priority in Libya has rightly been placed upon determining the future of the young, mostly civilian revolutionary fighters who rose up to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. But what is imperative in the long term is the political contest to define the structure and power relationships of the new state through the writing of Libya's permanent constitution that will take place next year. Last month the interim government established an electoral committee charged with setting the formula to elect the drafters of Libya's new national charter. It now bears the heavy responsibility of specifying how votes and participation in Libya's first genuine elections in over a half-century will be translated into seats and representation in its constitutional assembly.
This is a potentially pivotal question for Libya's political transition. Events in neighboring Egypt have already shown that a breakdown in the perceived legitimacy of the supervision over the transition to a new constitutional order can bring revolutionaries back out into the street en masse. Likewise, Libya's own historical experience suggests that the manner in which a constitutional assembly is chosen can sow the seeds for future contention if the process is seen to predetermine answers to some of the country's most sensitive debates.
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"Raise your head high, you are a free Libyan" chanted tens of thousands in Benghazi on October 23, 2011 as the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) announced the liberation of Libya. "The tyrant is dead and his rotten body is under the feet of the Libyan people," said the NTC's Minister of the Martyrs and the Injured to an ecstatic crowd in Benghazi. "He told us we were rats. But we caught him hiding in a sewage tunnel, exactly like a rat. Let the other tyrants remember," said Muhammad Abdullah, a fighter from Misrata.
The defeat of the dictator is not enough for successful democratic transition. Libya will now have to deal with the legacy of that tyrant: decades of underdevelopment, corruption, vendettas, repression, and a war that left tens of thousands of Libyans dead and billions of dollars worth of damage. But pessimists are wrong to assume that these challenges doom Libya to collapse into violent chaos.
"Libya will not be another Iraq. I can guarantee you that," said Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the former commander of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group and now the commander of the Military Council of Tripoli. Every Libyan politician, tribal leader, military, and paramilitary commander I have spoken with realizes the stakes of the coming transitional period. If Libya survives the volatile transitional phase, it has the chance to be a democratic Dubai. If not, it may look like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia. To get through this transition, Libya urgently needs a strategy of disarmament, reconciliation, and reintegration to avoid a clash between the many armed Libyan units.
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The swift collapse of the Libyan regime is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the Syrian conflict, but it provides a serious hint as to its ultimate outcome. Syrian protesters did not need to see the rebels overtake Tripoli to boost their confidence; for months they have shown extraordinary resolve in the face of escalating violence. They will not give up if only because they know that worse would be in store were the security services to reassert unchallenged control. Colonel Qaddafi's fall is relevant for a different reason: it provides evidence of the internal frailty of the patrimonial power structures that have plagued the region.
Such regimes ultimately rest on fear and opportunism far more than they do on institutions or a cause. They crumble the moment the army of zealots that form their ranks realize the battle is lost. One day, they appear strong. The next, they are gone. In 2003, when U.S. troops entered Baghdad, they revealed -- much to their own surprise -- that Sadddam's regime was hollow. Tunisian President Ben Ali's leviathan turned out to be a pygmy on rickety stilts. In Libya, loyalist forces had fought the rebels into a seemingly endless stalemate until they suddenly were swept away.
Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the commander of Tripoli's Military Council who spearheaded the attack on Muammar al-Qaddafi's compound at Bab al-Aziziya, is raising red flags in the West. Belhaj, whom I met and interviewed in March 2010 in Tripoli along with Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, is better known in the jihadi world as "Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq." He is the former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a jihad organization with historical links to al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Egyptian al-Jihad organization. Does his prominent role mean that jihadists are set to exploit the fall of Qaddafi's regime?
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The Libyan war has offered American commentators ample opportunities to mock Europe's militaries. Many NATO allies made token contributions to the campaign against Gaddafi or avoided getting involved at all. Even those that fully engaged frequently failed to offer hi-tech capabilities the U.S. treated as standard. But as Libya enters the post-Gaddafi era, many American defense analysts are suddenly Europhiles again. They believe that a peacekeeping operation may now be necessary and that it should primarily consist of European troops.
Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins made this case in these pages last week, arguing that the EU has "serious capabilities" to offer including "the ability to deploy hundreds of paramilitary police needed to stabilize a city like Tripoli." Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations has argued since early in the war for the dispatch of a largely European post-conflict force, apparently modeled on the one which was sent into Kosovo in 1999.
This may sound like common sense. Libya is on Europe's doorstep and both NATO and the EU have spent years developing rapid reaction capabilities to deploy in cases just like this. When peacekeepers were needed in Lebanon in 2006, EU members led by France, Italy, and Spain fell over each other to deploy. Even Hungary sent a cartographic unit.
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