Until Thursday last week, the situation in Libya was relatively good news compared with countries also complicated by the Arab Spring. After the NATO-led intervention in Libya to overthrow dictator Muammar el-Gaddafi, more than 30 countries including the United States have recognized the legitimacy of the Transitional National Council (TNC) based in the rebels’ de facto capital of Benghazi as the new governing body. The rebel side has been slowly gaining an edge over Gaddafi, who was isolated in Tripoli.
Compared with Syria at least, Libya seems to have an easier path toward democracy. In Libya, with a relatively small population of about 5 million people, sectarianism is not as strong as it is in Syria. Unlike Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Gaddafi now has little clout in Libya and is unlikely to regain control of the entire country. Robert Dreyfuss wrote on The Nation that “It’s clear that Qaddafi is hanging on not because he believes that he can survive as before, but because he’s trying to get the best deal he can for himself and his family.” Moreover, the rebel forces have pretty solid Western backing. Two senior members of the TNC who toured Washington last week even cheerfully expressed their vision for a stabilized country and a liberal democracy post-Gaddafi.
However, the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade’s killing of Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, a top Libyan rebel military commander, undermined this sanguine view and it is likely that another Libyan war will be initiated before the current one has ended. Younes, a former officer and interior minister in the Qaddafi administration who served Gaddafi since the 1969 coup that brought Gaddafi to power but defected to the rebel side soon after the uprising began in February, had been a contentious figure whose loyalty to the rebel side was frequently questioned. According to an interview with Qaddafi’s daughter in April, Younes still remained loyal to Qaddafi. TNC finance and oil minister Ali Tarhouni also indicated that the fighters strongly suspected Younes was secretly working for Gaddafi as a double agent.
A Wall Street Journal post calls the divisions within the TNC “inevitable” due to its diverse makeup. The TNC is composed of a medley of secularists, Islamic fundamentalists, technocrats, independents, and former regime figures. The center of public rivalry within the TNC is between Younes and Khalifa Hifter. Hifter was in exile in the United States after an unfortunate military adventure in Chad in the late 1980s, and returned to Libya in March. Soon after Hifter’s return, the TNC put Hifter in charge of his ground forces. Younes and Hifter worked in an uncoordinated manner from the very beginning, which hampered the rebels’ progress and their march toward Tripoli. At one point, the relationship between the two became so troublesome that the TNC had to appoint a watchdog to keep them at arm’s length.
Unfortunately, the rebel forces are not going to stop fighting among themselves despite Ramadan (August 1st – 29th this year), the annual Muslim fasting month. Impatience is palpable within Libya. “The important thing is we need to go. Time is running out. We have to liberate our country,” said Salah Matouk, a colonel who defected from Gaddafi’s army to fight in the western mountains. Col. Juma Brahim, head of the rebel fighters’ operational command in the Nafusa region, also said:
The Koran specifically says the sick, travelers, and combatants do not have to respect the fast if they are unable to. Our cause is also sacred — it’s a jihad. There is no question of us giving Gaddafi the advantage, especially since he’s in a poor position. This is not the moment to stop fighting … There’ll be time to fast next year, when we are free. The Prophet, peace be upon him, fought two battles during the holy month. In fact, it’s a good month to fight and maybe die. You are closer to God.
The tension between the yearning for modernism in the name of democracy and freedom and the persistent forces of tribalism and sectarianism keep jeopardizing pro-democracy efforts. Based on political scientist Ian Bremmer’s J-curve openness versus stability model that is detailed in his 2006 book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, for an undemocratic state to become a democracy, the stability of that state will decrease before it can become a more stable state.
The UN resolution authorizing the war in Libya expires in September. The TNC is not intended to remain in power but to organize a “completely transparent democratic transition.” But this transition is now under serious doubt in the wake of the killing of Younes. It is time that the NATO countries reach a deal to help Libya make its transition and prevent even more severe violence from happening.
Shiran Shen, a senior honors political science student at Swarthmore College, works as a research intern at the Foreign Policy In Focus program.