The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

5 questions few are asking about Libya

Not to rain on anyone's parade, but while I'm glad that the multinational intervention is giving cover to Libyan insurgents, I'm rather shocked at the desultory coverage of what might come out of the military intervention. A tragedy has been taking place in Libya, whose people deserve help, but that doesn't mean not thinking through consequences. Here's a shot at it:

1. UNSC Resolution 1973 isn't really about getting a ceasefire, is it?

Not really. Even if Qadhafi were to produce a real ceasefire, which is unlikely, the rebels would not observe it: they would keep trying to topple the regime. This resolution, under the guise of obtaining a ceasefire, seeks to carry out regime change. It would get even more complicated as the Libyan government headed by Qadhafi remains legitimate under international law, and thus can be argued to have law enforcement duties to implement against armed insurgents. This resolution is not just about preventing a massacre of civilians, it's about taking sides. The Qadhafi regime is over as far as the international community is concerned, and mission creep will ensure that things will swiftly move from imposing a no-fly zone to more direct efforts, including ground missions. This might be good for the insurgents, might split them, and might not be so good for the countries leading the intervention. Time will tell.

2. But what if Qadhafi hangs in there, and there's a stalemate?

Well, prolonged civil war happens. But it's not clear whether this is a likely outcome, particularly if there are such stringent sanctions and travel restrictions on regime officials. There could a "liberated zone" and a Qadhafi-controlled zone for a while, with ongoing skirmishes. Western and Arab supplies of weapons to the insurgents would likely increase (Egypt is already supplying them). Although the insurgents have insisted on a united Libya, the fact is that historically there is strong regionalism in the country. A split could perdure, backed by both the regime's control through force and genuine tribal support in its favor. The international community could be moved to escalate the mission to make it officially regime change, or push other actors (some would like that to be Egypt) to intervene directly. Some openly advocate for Egypt to invade Libya. I liked the idea of regional powers acting as regional policemen, but no one has asked Egypt whether it wants that role. It also has to think about thousands of Egyptians the regime might hold hostage there. 

3. What happens if Qadhafi is toppled but the remnants of the regime, perhaps backed by some measure of tribal or other popular support, remains in place? 

The best way to end the bloodshed would clearly be to decapitate the Qadhafi regime, something the insurgents are probably not able to do for now and the international community is likely to refrain from carrying out initially, although things are almost certain to head that way. If so, splits in the international community would resurface — this would be a major violation of the principle of sovereignty. But in a sense the West and the Arabs have already backed the rebels. It gets more complicated in the Qadhafis are gone, both Westerners and Arabs may be ready to deal with regime remnants (particularly if they play a role in getting rid of the Qadhafis) but the insurgents may not want anyone associated with the former regime in place. So prolonged civil war is one possible outcome, yet again. This is why some kind of recognized leadership for the insurgency that is able to negotiate with whoever comes after Qadhafi is necessary. 

4. What if the insurgents don't want to negotiate?

Once empowered, the insurgents will naturally want to go all the way and topple Qadhafi. I totally support them in that endeavor. But we don't know much about them, or how they might behave towards non-combatants that back the Qadhafi regime. I'm sure any violence against civilians by insurgents will be ignored by the intervention force in the fog of war, but this is possible only to a certain extent before it becomes embarrassing, particularly as UNSC Resolution 1973 gives a mandate to protect civilians from everybody, not just the Qadhafi regime. Sometimes the good guys can be bad guys, as we saw in Darfur (both in terms of the stalled peace process and in terms of the actions of certain Darfuri groups).

5. What is the most desirable outcome?

Obviously, to see Qadhafi toppled. But that's only step one. We don't know what the insurgents want aside from a Qadhafi-free Libya. We don't know what Western powers (if they are united on this) want to see. We don't know what the Arabs want to see. Libya will get increasingly porous and subject to external interference as well as possible splits on the inside. Ideally, a new government emerge that is generally seen as legitimate by Libyans and works to prevent further splits, paving the way for the creation of a new political system (a constitution, parliament, etc.) I really hope this happens, but we can't realistically expect it to be easy. We just don't know what the political forces are on the ground.