The war may be over but foreign powers are still busy in Libya
Nov 12th 2011 | TRIPOLI | from the print edition
THE Libyan rebels who triumphed in their six-month uprising against Colonel
Muammar Qaddafi could not have prevailed without arms, air-cover, funding
and diplomatic support from NATO and Arab allies. Even so, victory belonged
to them. No foreign ground troops were deployed. Brave Libyans protected
Benghazi, defended Misrata and captured Tripoli. The country’s new rulers
emerged from the war with hard-earned legitimacy, giving them a decent
chance of setting up a unified national government.
Last month they thanked their foreign allies and bid them goodbye. Most
allies in turn stressed that the Libyans were in charge. Time to go home,
they said: this was not Iraq in 2003. However, since the fighting ceased
some allies have become more involved in Libyan affairs, not less, according
to Western diplomats.
Libya is a small, rich and homogenous country. None of its political
factions and fledgling parties are dominant. To gain influence (and wealth)
they know they must co-operate. A successful post-war political system will
be based on competition. But it can only work if no one group gains
dominance. Some could potentially make a bid for hegemony, but only if they
have access to outside resources. Parts of the new establishment are worried
when they see foreign powers giving selective backing to their
opponents—often those prepared to do their bidding. This not only undermines
the new republic’s aura of legitimacy, but risks igniting internecine
conflicts beyond the messy politics that is already playing out in Tripoli.
The worst offender is Qatar, according to several Tripoli-based diplomats.
The small Gulf state was instrumental in arming the rebels. Earlier this
year it sent hundreds of weapons shipments and military advisers to Libya
and lobbied hard for international intervention. Not surprisingly, the
Qataris are revered among Libyans. All over Tripoli, squares and districts
have been renamed in their honour. Yet the Qataris are now supporting the
political ambitions of hand-picked leaders and commanders, undermining
attempts to form a unified military command. Some members of the National
Transitional Council are seething. They say even during the war the Qataris
bypassed them, sending weapons directly to favoured units at the front. To a
lesser extent some Western powers are also pushing their own men or models.
This is not a new phenomenon in the Middle East. In Lebanon and Iraq, two
volatile Arab democracies, outside powers run democratic proxies and
interfere in national affairs at will—often out of self-interest. One
political group is in the pockets of the Saudis, another is paid by the
Iranians. If Libya wants to have a better future it must avoid going down
that road, wise heads in Tripoli warn. Neighbours like Egypt have so far
stayed out of Libya. But they will not want to be outflanked by Gulf states
on their own doorstep.
Thankfully, Libya is coping well with liberation. Shops and cafés are once
again open late, celebratory gunfire has died down, concerts are held in
Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square, known as Green Square under previous management.
Life has returned to normal. Admittedly, heavily armed groups from different
parts of the country still control overlapping turfs. One Tripoli militia
comprising about 50 gunmen is operating out of an appropriated
computer-showroom decked out with revolutionary tricoloured flags. The
militia was recently involved in a firefight with rivals. A squabble outside
the Central Hospital between fighters from Zintan and Misrata left one dead.
But such skirmishes will not undermine the new order, says Bashir al-Sweie,
a commander based in a government-owned arboretum, who would like to return
to business once the security forces are in place. Many young men, said
another commander, are frustrated that they risked their lives on the
battlefield but have yet to be rewarded. A plan to educate and rehabilitate
soldiers will probably take months. Outsiders who want to help could offer
to support that, instead.
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Received on Thu Nov 10 2011 - 17:46:45 EST