Reframing the Libyan Narrative (ARI)

Reframing the Libyan Narrative (ARI)

Theme: The rebel movement in Libya is slowly building on its limited military capacity and experience and is making good progress in achieving domestic and international legitimacy, but much remains to be done before it is a functional state.

Summary: In recent weeks, the balance of power in Libya has shifted steadily in favor of the rebels. Although the Gaddafi family may not surrender anytime soon, it is only a matter of time before they are forced from power. Consequently, it is time to begin thinking long and hard about a post-Gaddafi Libya. Revolutionary change is often chaotic, unpredictable and violent, and in a Libya in which civil organisations and political institutions are absent, these dangers loom large.

Analysis: The Transitional National Council (TNC) derives its legitimacy from the various local councils established by the rebels in the course of the 17 February Revolution. As towns and cities like Al Baida and Benghazi have been liberated, they have formed committees to manage local government responsibilities, like traffic control, rubbish removal and the supply of electricity and water. Reminiscent of the country-wide system of congresses and committees organised by the Gaddafi regime, the important difference is that local people in rebel-controlled areas are organising and operating these committees themselves without the oppressive central government direction and control imposed by Gaddafi.

On 29 March 2011 the Transitional National Council issued its vision for a ‘modern, free, and united’ Libya, ‘espousing the principles of political democracy’. To replace the 1969 constitutional proclamation issued by the Gaddafi regime, it called for the drafting of a constitution which would balance executive, legislative and judicial powers. It also provided for the formation of political parties and other civil institutions and organisations. The monarchy outlawed political parties in 1952 and the Gaddafi regime continued the ban after 1969. Viewing civil organisations as potential centres of resistance to the regime, Gaddafi systematically destroyed civil society in Libya, allowing only organisations officially approved by his regime. The last one to be approved was the Gaddafi International Development and Charity Foundation, created years ago and headed by the Libyan leader’s second son, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi. The March TNC statement also called for free and fair elections and freedom of speech and assembly, all of which were also banned under Gaddafi. Finally, it called for the creation of a diversified economy supported by effective financial institutions. This last point addressed one of the most important lapses of the Gaddafi regime, its failure after four decades to diversify the Libyan economy.

Political Legitimacy
In mid-April, 61 tribal representatives met in Benghazi where they issued a call for a ‘free, democratic, and united’ Libya. Rejecting suggestions by Gaddafi that his regime was the only thing keeping the tribes from engaging in internecine violence, the tribal leaders in attendance called for him to end his attempts to divide Libya along tribal lines and to step down. In what amounted to tribal theatre, the Gaddafi regime later convened its own tribal gathering in Tripoli with regime spokesmen claiming that some 2,000 tribal chiefs representing 851 tribes and tribal factions were in attendance. Given there are only 140 tribes in Libya, the real size and actual composition of the Tripoli gathering remained in doubt.

Clearly, some tribes have joined the rebel movement while others have remained loyal to the regime; however, it would appear many, if not most tribes, have tried to remain neutral, waiting to see which side gains the upper hand. The Warfalla, the largest tribe in Libya and a long-time supporter of the regime, are a good example of how different factions within a tribe are taking different positions. After a senior member of the tribe had declared for the rebels in mid-February, the regime later claimed that it had the support of most of the Warfalla, and representatives of different Warfalla factions attended both the tribal gathering in Benghazi and the one in Tripoli. The Warfalla representative at the tribal meeting organised by Gaddafi in Tripoli expressed support for the regime; however, he also made clear that he would not send tribal members to fight the rebels.

The Transitional National Council describes itself as the only legitimate body representing the Libyan people and has called upon the nations of the world to recognise it and deal with it on this basis. In support of these objectives, the TNC in early May unveiled a detailed ‘road map’ to democracy at a meeting of the 22-nation International Contact Group on Libya. In an effort to be inclusive, an important step in ensuring the future stability of the country, the road map presented at the Rome meeting called for the start of the transition to begin with the installation of an interim government made up of TNC members, select technocrats from the Gaddafi regime, senior military and intelligence officers, and a Supreme Court judge. Some observers immediately questioned the inclusion of former regime officials; however, the involvement of technocrats –as distinguished from the ideological stalwarts of the dictatorship– would benefit the country. It would also send an important message of national unity and healing as opposed to factional interests and petty retribution.

Under the plan, the interim government will hold municipal elections in rebel-held areas under UN supervision. Once the Gaddafi regime is overturned, it will then organise a national council of municipal representatives to elect a committee to draft a new constitution which will be submitted to a referendum. Once the charter is approved, it will be followed by parliamentary elections in four months, followed two months later by presidential elections. While the immediate future may be uncertain, the democratic foundation underlying the proposed road map appears clear and has helped to bolster the legitimacy of the rebel movement both at home and on the international stage.

In the wake of the Rome meeting, local councils from 25 towns, including Tripoli, convened in Benghazi in an attempt to unify rebel ranks and to forge a common vision for the future of Libya. At the outset of the meeting, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Chairman of the Transitional National Council, told the participants that the membership of the 31-member council would be expanded to better represent all regions and interests in Libya. The meeting included an open exchange on the military and political situation throughout the country and concluded with the participants reiterating their support for the TNC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Billed as a ‘town hall’ meeting to discuss the uprising, the meeting was in reality part of a broader effort by the TNC to buttress its democratic credentials and to cultivate legitimacy by portraying itself as the functioning, legitimate, and transparent representative of the Libyan people.

To date, only a few countries –France, Gambia, Italy, Kuwait, Maldives and Qatar– have recognised the TNC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people although several other governments have extended some form of unofficial recognition. The reasons why other countries, notably the UK and the US, have not done so are not always clear but appear centred on related issues, notably questions about the ability of the rebel movement to govern Libya once the Gaddafi regime is overthrown and the presence of Islamists in the rebel’s ranks. The first concern has been addressed above, and as for the second, there is only a very limited prospect for significant Islamist or al-Qaeda involvement in a post-Gaddafi Libya. Overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, the Libyan people are conservative in outlook and practice and have never shown any appetite for the radical Islam advocated by al-Qaeda or its North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In the mid-1990s the Gaddafi regime defeated a determined challenge from Islamist forces like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, largely comprised of mujahideen who returned to Libya after the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan, but since then, there has been little evidence of organised Islamist activity in Libya. Granted, Libyan nationals made up the second-largest group of foreign fighters in Iraq after the Saudis; however, their opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq does not in itself foretell an Islamist threat in Libya, especially if the international coalition refrains from putting ‘boots on the ground’. Much has also been made of the presence of several former Guantánamo detainees in the rebel ranks, but they appear to be fighting as individual citizens and not as an organised group. In the end, the risk of al-Qaeda gaining a foothold in Libya stems more from a rebel defeat than a rebel victory.

Military Capability
After a disappointing start in which rebel forces retreated as often as they advanced, they have shown an increasing ability in recent days to hold their own against the better trained and better equipped forces of the Gaddafi regime, thanks, in large part, to NATO air support. Following weeks of moving back and forth between Ajdabiya and Brega, the rebels have consolidated their control of Ajdabiya and advanced on Brega. In central Libya, the rebels breached the government lines west of Misurata and pushed to Qaryat az Zurayan, 20 km towards Tripoli, strengthening the prospect of an eventual linkup with rebel forces in Zlitan. If the rebels can occupy Zlitan, they will be in a position to attack Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town. The rebels have also pushed regime forces out of the area around the Misurata airport, making it more difficult for the latter to shell the city centre and the neighbouring port area.

In the Nafusa Mountains south-west of Tripoli, rebel forces have learned from the early mistakes of their rebel brethren in eastern Libya. In an area pro-Gaddafi forces are desperate to control, both because of its impact on oil exports from the western oil fields and its access to Tunisia, rebel forces have succeeded from time to time in occupying the Dehiba-Wazzin border post on the Tunisian frontier. They have also held their own in often fierce fighting with government forces in towns like Nalut and Zintan. From the standpoint of the rebels, control of the Nafusa Mountains and the roads that run parallel to them puts rebel forces in a position to move on to the oil terminal and refinery at Zawiya and then on to Tripoli. With government troops increasingly on the defensive, Gaddafi’s forces have been unable to mount a sustained attack anywhere in Libya for some time and may no longer be capable of doing so.

This is not to suggest that the rebels will be capable of storming Tripoli on their own any time soon. The recent rebel success in many parts of the country is tied closely to NATO support, and rebel forces will likely remain dependent on that support for some time to come. Consequently, the optimum scenario for an end to the fighting would be for the Gaddafi regime to disintegrate from within with the Gaddafi family removed from the equation. Until this happens, it must be recognised and emphasised that the rebels throughout Libya have demonstrated that they are in this fight for the long haul, and the strength and effectiveness of their fighting forces appears to be growing on a weekly basis.

Economic Self-sufficiency
When Libya first achieved independence in 1951, it was widely considered to be the poorest state in the world. Following the discovery of oil in exportable quantities in 1957, Libya developed into a classic example of a rentier state, one in which income from a single resource, in this case hydrocarbons, enables the state to act as the distributor of this income in the form of education, housing and other social services. While the Gaddafi regime made token attempts to diversify the economy, after almost 42 years of revolutionary rule Libya remains a rentier state. One of the least diversified countries in North Africa, it also has the strongest demographic growth and the highest unemployment level in the region. Given the failure of the regime’s diversification policies, it is hardly surprising that the genesis for the current rebellion lay in public protests in mid-January which denounced corruption and incompetence, called for enhanced economic opportunities and more jobs, and demanded decent housing and a dignified life. It was only after the regime responded to those protests with deadly force that the protesters began to demand regime change.

Libya has around 46 billion barrels of known oil reserves, the largest in Africa, and close to 55 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Approximately 80% of its proved oil reserves are located in the Sirte basin which accounts for around two-thirds of the country’s oil production. Another 25% comes from the Murzuq basin with most of the remainder coming from offshore. Over the last decade, the mix of Libya’s energy consumption remained relatively constant, with approximately 72% of energy demand met by oil and 28% by natural gas. In 2010, the hydrocarbon industry accounted for 95% of export earnings and total oil production (crude plus liquids) approached 1.8 million barrels a day. Five months later, the rebel-controlled areas, which accounted for two-thirds of pre-rebellion production, are producing virtually no oil, and production in regime-controlled areas has been reduced to a trickle. The key to the long-term economic health of the rebel government is the resumption of oil and gas production throughout Libya.

In the interim, the rebels are almost totally dependent on grants or loans from the international community. In early May, the Transitional National Council asked international donors for up to US$3 billion in loans, warning that it would be unable to provide medicine and food to civilians and to pay public sector salaries if it failed to receive a cash infusion. At the early May meeting of the International Contact Group on Libya, the participants responded to the TNC request, creating a special fund managed by a five-member steering board to channel cash to the rebel government. The board consisted of three Libyans chosen by the TNC, a representative of Qatar and a representative from either France or Italy on a six-month rotating basis. Before the meeting ended, both Qatar and Kuwait pledged to donate several million dollars each to the fund. Most other participants agreed that their financial support would largely be in the form of loans, not grants, on the assumption that the rebels could repay the loans once they had ousted the Gaddafi regime and consolidated their control of the entire country. In addition, the US and other governments that have frozen Libyan assets agreed to look at freeing some of those funds for humanitarian aid. At the Rome meeting, Qatar also tabled for the first time the question of arming the rebels; however, no joint agreement was reached on this subject.

Longer term, the key to the financial solvency of the rebel government will be the resumption of oil and gas production. In addition to offshore deposits, Libya has five major oil and gas basins (Sirte, Ghadames, Murzuq, Cyrenaica-Batnan and Kufra). Of the five onshore basins, two are under the tenuous control of the rebel government and the other three contested or controlled by the Gaddafi regime. The various international oil companies operating in these basins have estimated it will take weeks to months to get their production facilities up and running once the rebel government can ensure the security of their operations and workers. As the rebels continue to make gains, a priority of the international community should be to facilitate the return of the international oil companies to their facilities so they can resume the production of the hydrocarbons necessary to fund the rebel government.

As for Libya’s oil terminals and refineries, the Tobruk oil terminal and refinery is controlled by the rebels, but the terminals at Es Sider, Marsa al-Brega and Ras Lanuf, and the refineries at Sarir, Marsa al-Brega and Ras Lanuf are located in contested areas and are not operating at the present time. The Az Zawiya refinery, located in regime-controlled territory west of Tripoli at the Zawiya terminal, is a relatively modest contributor at the best of times to Libya’s total capacity, and while it is operable, it is operating at 50% or less of capacity. As both sides grapple with drops in oil production, refinery capacity and crude oil imports, energy supplies are becoming an increasingly important factor in the conflict. The UN coalition is squeezing Gaddafi, preventing him from selling or importing oil while it has given the rebels permission to import oil from outside Libya. With the regime’s survival closely linked to fuel, this ‘perfect storm’ of petrol supply problems could become a decisive contributor to Gaddafi’s fall. The reported mid-May defection of Shokri Ghanem, head of the National Oil Corporation, a former Prime Minister (2003-06) and long-time supporter of Gaddafi, could be taken to suggest that the regime’s energy supplies are running out. Hoping to take advantage of the situation, the Transitional National Council is lobbying to represent Libya at the next OPEC meeting, scheduled for 8 June in Vienna. In the past, Ghanem has normally represented Libya at such meetings.

Conclusions: The month of May has marked considerable diplomatic, military, and political success for the rebels. Militarily, they have checkmated regime troops in most areas of the country and pushed them back in Ajdabiya-Brega and around Misurata. Politically, the Transitional National Council has proposed a road map for the country with its initial stages scheduled to commence before the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Diplomatically, TNC representatives have continued to meet with senior officials in France, the UK and the US in continuing efforts to attract financial, military and political support from the international community.

That said, it is not the war but the peace which will define how post-Gaddafi Libya is governed. When the fighting ends, the rebels will likely find that winning the war was the easy part. The harder part will be to construct a civil order with supporting political institutions that will encourage and sustain popular empowerment and participation in a free, open and democratic society. While this will not be easy, the early steps of the Transitional National Council, combined with the work of the popular committees which have sprung up in rebel-controlled areas, are positive developments which should be encouraged and supported.

Ronald Bruce St John
Former member of the international advisory board of The Journal of Libyan Studies and the Atlantic Council Working Group on Libya and author of five books on Libya, including Libya: Continuity and Change (2011)