What’s next in Libya?

Here are a couple of articles I recently wrote from Libya for the Economist and Foreign Policy, largely looking forward to the kinds of issues which the country might face after the rebel victory:

For the atmosphere in Tripoli, I also highly recommend this piece by my colleague Nick Pelham.

One qualifier — I wrote in the Foreign Policy piece that Libyan Islamist who wanted to whip up populist fervor would lack a really credible secular, heretical, corrupt or non-Muslim Other with which to contrast themselves. (I don’t think that all Islamists do this, by the way, but some do, and probably someone will try to fill that political niche at some point, if it’s a good way to get support).

However, this doesn’t mean that people won’t try. There have been a couple of interviews by Ali and Ismail Salabi, two brothers associated with the Islamist-influenced Martyrs of February 17 Brigade, in which the two take pot-shots at the NTC.

Ali, a preacher, is by far the less confrontational of the two, and it’s notable that he acknowledges that the NTC’s provisional constitution is the way forward. The constitution pays lip service to Islamic sharia as “the principle source of legislation”, but that’s a standard feature in Arab constitutions and it doesn’t go much further than that.

Ismail, a businessman-turned-militia leader, seems to be looking to pick a political fight — he calls on the NTC’s executive committee to step down, and implies that the whole NTC are a bunch of couch-sitting, secularizing cosmopolitan elites who are looking to cut deals with ex-Qaddafi officials while others do the hard fighting.

We’ll see how far he gets. My impression is that while the Brigade has a fairly committed constituency in Benghazi, there are also a lot of people who distrust them — and outside Benghazi they have little support at all. But that is a very sketchy impression.


I also enjoyed Thomas Ricks’ brief snoot-cock at those who blithely predicted a quagmire in Libya.

While it’s obviously useful to be aware of the dangers of interventions-gone-wrong, like Iraq, it’s a mistake to expect that future interventions will fit the exact cookie-cutter template of the past ones. Libya like Iraq was an oil-rich Arab country, it had a nasty dictator, and the intervention involved Americans. But beyond that, there wasn’t much similarity. The big difference is that, when Nato intervened, the Libyan rebels had already liberated half the country. They were having severe problems holding onto it in the face of Qaddafi’s armored assault, but they clearly had demonstrated some capacity to organize an uprising, to win support across the country, to keep order in cities, to resolve their differences, etc.

This contrasts strongly with the non-Kurdish Iraqi transitional institutions and politicians, many of whom seem to expect the Americans to solve our their problems and provide all their resources. This is the difference between providing nick-of-time support on a Libyan timetable, and fighting a war of choice on our own timetable.

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