Libya's Future After the No-Fly Zone? It's Complicated.

For those Libyans who have risked their lives in the name of democracy, the fates have engineered a beneficent reversal as radical as any history has seen. The fates in question are not Greek gods, but Arab, French, British and American politicians. An uprising on the brink of extinction at the hands of superior firepower wielded by a brutal tyrant has been saved by the far greater firepower of these intervening deities, a.k.a., the allies. The dictator on the verge of triumph is now in retreat, if not yet vanquished.

Yet despite the welcome reversal of fortune, it is anything but clear what the ultimate outcome of the intervention will be for democracy. The Arab League, the United Nations, France, Britain and the United States would all seem to have somewhat differing rationales for intervention, while the Libyans they are assisting do not themselves comprise a coherent or clearly-led body. Both on the outside and the inside, there are already some voices complaining the allies have gone further than just securing the safety of civilians, gone too far, while others are insisting they have not gone far enough, are crying out for boots on the ground. Bottom line, it's complicated.

The ideal scenario is a united Libya, absent the Qadaffis, ready to establish a democratic government that favors neither Tripoli nor Benghazi, and a Libya that allows a free media, free political parties and a robust civil society to emerge in the setting of a market economy protected from too much outside exploitation. A Libya where citizens are more important than clans and law comes before religion.

Unhappily the ideal is not necessarily the only or even the likely scenario, and may not even be the aim of some of the parties involved in the strife. To make the ideal more likely, we need to appreciate what it is up against, and assess the forces that will be pushing in other, less democratic directions. Here are some alternative scenarios that the military intervention will not necessarily preempt, or could even precipitate, and that need to be addressed by those who care about liberty as well as oil:

  1. Qadaffi triumphs despite military intervention. This seems extremely improbable, since if a no-fly/no-drive strategy fails to stop Qadaffi from taking Benghazi, it seems nearly certain that additional military measures will be taken (black ops or non-uniformed forces on the ground, Arab troops entering from Egypt?). But a brutal and wily survivor of 42 years can't be altogether counted out, especially since he has sleeper cells and tribal allies in the East who could work from the inside against the uprising (there were firefights in Benghazi possibly instigated by Qadaffi loyalists over the weekend). What then would Presidents Sarkozy and Obama do? What's the back-up plan? It's complicated.
  2. Qadaffi can't take Benghazi but the rebels can't take Tripoli. This is a more likely scenario, since the allies have made clear they are not mandated to join the battle but are there to protect civilians, the rebels have to somehow take all of Libya on their own, and may themselves risk killing civilians on the way to trying to occupy Tripoli (do we then immobilize their armor?). Outcome: stalemate where the East -- the ancient province of Cyrenaica which has been a rival of Tripolitania for hundreds of years -- becomes home to a new government, but Qadaffi continues to hold and govern Tripoli and the West. Eventually, this could result in the fracturing of Libya, and a slow burn civil war -- bad for stability and democracy, and a total bust from the point of view of saving innocent civilians from further bloodshed. It's complicated.
  3. Qadaffi is deposed by the rebels who occupy Tripoli and declare a unified state -- but a state that is effectively run from and for Benghazi. The problem here is how to prevent a triumphalist uprising from morphing into a Libya ruled by the East in place of a Libya ruled by the West. This is, again, a tribal scenario, and can be avoided if there are enough spirited Libyan patriots who place democratic nationhood over tribal identity. But there are decades of grievance and bitterness against Qaddafi's despotic rule in which many other clans and individuals have been complicit, and it will be hard to overcome them and prevent a reign of vengeance and a skewing of power towards the rebels once the despot is gone (see Iraq). It's complicated.
  4. Qadaffi is routed but the rebels don't "take" Tripoli so that Tripolitania and Cyrenaica remain divided and at odds. Beyond Qadaffi, Libya remains tribal, and other regional Western tribes (the Warfalla?) will be vying for control even after he goes. If the most powerful clan, the Qadaffa, goes down, will that be an invitation to protracted tribal conflict? Without national unity, Libya could end up divided as in scenario two above, but without Qadaffi, which could precipitate sporadic tribal violence and angry and ongoing insurgency and counter-insurgency; not Somalia perhaps but not Egypt either. And maybe a little bit of Sudan, with black Libyans from the south being mistaken for mercenaries and also blamed for taking jobs from light-skinned Libyans in Benghazi and Al Bayda and Tobruk -- and subjected to robbery and sometimes murder by rebels fighting in the name of freedom. It's complicated.
  5. Qadaffi is routed but the Islamists turn out to be the only unifying force capable of bringing the country together. Not much talk about the Islamists in Libya, because Qadaffi has spent decades putting them down. They have not been in the forefront of the uprising, but their just grievances help fuel it, and they may be the only force capable of holding Libya together. Qadaffi Muslims, Wafalla Muslims, Senussi Muslims have in common that they are all Muslims. But in this scenario, unity might be won at the cost of secularism and a modern national state -- with al Qaeda lurking in the background. Qadaffi made successful war on al Qaeda in North Africa (one reason for the rapprochement with the U.S.) and while it has played no role in the uprising, many prisoners have been released or gone free, and it will have a chance to meddle again. (More Jihadist fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan came from the East of Libya than from any other region). One can imagine Jihadists once again citing infidels bombing a Muslim nation in order to incite the very people meant to benefit from the no fly zone. It's complicated.

None of these scenarios is pre-determined, but to avert them both Libyan democrats and their allies in the Arab world and the West need to take the full measure of Libyan tribalism, Islamism and historical conflict and try to figure out how these undemocratic currents can be opposed, undermined and overcome. East/West factionalism runs deep in Libya. The king who Qadaffi overthrew in 1969 came from the East, the 1200 prisoners Qadaffi killed in Busalim prison in 1996 were mostly religious Muslims from Benghazi, and the flags rebels are flying in that city today is the flag of the monarchy from the pre-Qadaffi years.

The victory of the Eastern tribes of Cyrenaica over Qadaffi and his clan allies in the West will not then by itself represent the victory of a free Libya, though it is a start. We must figure out how to help our Libyan friends, not just win the war but win a stable peace in a unified, democratic Libyan nation finally liberated from the twin scourges of despotism and tribalism. What comes after no-fly will be the acid test of whether our intervention was foolish or wise. We have a role to play in assuring not only that intervention works here better than it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that it does not turn out to be another exercise in foolishness and hubris.