By: Dr. Aref Assaf
“I will reduce Libya to two million; that’s how many Libyans were living in Libya when I came into power in 1969.” Moammar Qaddafi, April 2011
He lived, ruled, and died by the sword. After 42 years of eccentric, tyrannical, and oppressive rule over Libya, Mohammad Gaddafi’s bloodied face was shown on television screens around the world. The demise of one man would not have mattered in a democratic society, but in Libya, where Gaddafi ruled with an iron fist and had zero tolerance for dissent, his much-celebrated death is truly a milestone for his country, for the Arab world, and indeed for the world at large.
The world will record Libyan Liberation Day, October 20, 2011, as the day fighters killed former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, outside the town of Sirte. Gaddafi’s refuge in Sirte emphasizes the tribal nature of Libyan politics and suggests the dynamics of new conflict in the future as anti-Gaddafi tribes seek a fundamental reordering that could mean a purge not only of Gaddafi loyalists but also of members of tribes who supported him.
Gaddafi’s ignominious death is symbolically important for the rebels, but the fall of Sirte is even more significant for the effect it will have on the future stability of Libya. With the final holdout of the pro-Gaddafi resistance overtaken, the NTC (National Transitional Council) can now move to form a transitional government. But multiple armed groups across the country will demand a significant stake in that government, which will have serious implications for the future unity of the people who heretofore were referred to as the Libyan opposition.
Though the world has widely recognized Benghazi-based NTC as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people, this has long since ceased to be the case in the eyes of many Libyans. The NTC is one of several political forces in the country. Since the rebel forces entered Tripoli on Aug. 21, there has been a steady increase of armed groups hailing from places such as Misurata, Zentan, Tripoli and even eastern Libya itself that have questioned the authority of leading NTC members.
These groups have been occupying different parts of the capital for two months now, despite calls by the NTC (and some of the groups themselves) to vacate. They also have been participating in the sieges of cities, in which pro-Gaddafi remnants continued to hold out after the fall of Tripoli. Throughout this period, the NTC has repeatedly delayed the formation of a transitional government, in recent weeks citing the ongoing fight against Gaddafi as the reason. NTC leaders said that once the war was finally over, the official “liberation” of Libya would be declared and a transitional government would be formed. The fall of Sirte means that this moment is at hand. The fear is that hating and killing Gaddafi, which has united all Libyans, may now disintegrate into an increasingly rowdy post-Gaddafi political environment. With its leadership increasingly challenged by many of the fighting forces — organized on the basis of regional, tribal or Islamist political affinities — who see the NTC as too dominated by former Gaddafi officials, and deriving its authority from its relations with the West rather than support among Libyans.
For his part, President Obama may take credit for the fall of Gaddafi. Uncertain at first, and not desiring a direct US military engagement, Obama has distinguished himself as a president who does not hesitate to make tough calls, no matter how delayed. Obama certainly gets credit for siding with the Libyan people and cutting Gaddafi loose, but the real victory is Libyan. Alas, the president diluted the benefit of his choice by his earlier decision literally to embrace Gaddafi, a picture which is burned in Libyan minds as much as Rumsfeld’s handshake with Saddam defined U.S.-Iraqi relations for more than a decade.
The United States must do more for Libya. It could start by dispatching a military medical ship from Germany to the shores of Libya to treat the over 30,000 injured. The US can offer logistical aid to the arduous task of rebuilding Libya, which has been devastated by NATO air strikes and the destruction brought by Qaddafi’s army and the militia. Libya is a lot more than a vast pool of the world’s sweetest oil: Libya is a nation of 6 million that has suffered four decades of oppression and deserves our real help. This time our relationship must be based on people-to-people rather than on aiding tyrants who serve our narrow and often immoral national interests.
\I think it is important to reflect even in passing on the plausibility of employing the NATO-Libyan experiment in other upheavals in the Arab region. Using air and sea strikes to attack specific targets belonging to the Qaddafi regime has proven detrimental in weakening the regime’s ability to wage any effective attacks on the rebels. As events in Syria and Yemen continue to fester with no peaceful end in sight, some pundits have been calling on the US or through NATO forces to help seal the fate of Syria’s Assad and Yemen’s Saleh by attacking governmental targets and military installations. My short answer is that such a decision will have to be carefully evaluated, as Libya is so unlike Syria and Yemen. Three factors have to converge for such military action to be plausible. First, the Arab League must pass a resolution calling for international military intervention. Second, the United Nations Security Council must pass a resolution ‘blessing’ the Arab League wishes; and finally, a humanitarian crisis has to materialize where the regime will be seen on verge of committing mass scale attack on civilians. Without these three imperative factors coming into play, I see no chance of a foreign intervention to aid the people of Syria or Yemen.
Gaddafi’s death ends a brutal regime that turned oil-rich Libya into an international pariah. The Libyans paid with precious blood to rid the world of Gaddafi. Gaddafi was seen as an international villain causing the death of so many people, including 36 from New Jersey. It is never simple or even acceptable to celebrate the death of anyone, even a tyrant, but for those who lost loved ones, a measure of justice has been achieved. The rebuilding of our lives and that of Libya must begin now. If forgiveness and prudence overrule vigilantism and tribalism, Libya will have a chance.
Dr. Aref Assaf is President of American Arab Forum, a think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.