Libya Should Include All Players: Potential Threats Posed by De-Gaddafication

Reuters recently reported that Libyans still loyal to Gaddafi have warned of “blood feuds” in response to their brutal treatment by revolutionaries. Indeed, when an unjust government that terrorized its own people falls and another emerges, it seems the only rational response is to rout the political forces that were tied to it. In the aftermath of the collapse of such governments, citizens long oppressed are overjoyed by the prospect of creating a new system free of the vestiges of the past. Experiences from the formation of interim governments in Iraq and Afghanistan provide examples. Certainly, the pre- and post-overthrow circumstances and environments of these countries were in numerous ways dissimilar to those in Libya. But the conspicuous absence of the recently deposed faction in the early stages of their transitions provides a telling lesson: Exclusion of the enemy hardly means it no longer exists.

Excluding former regime loyalists from representation in the creation of a new government can easily backfire. It is rare that loyalties to the existing leader or the ideas he or she espoused wither completely. And while most pro-Gaddafi Libyans have fled or met a macabre fate, it is highly unlikely that all sentiments tied to the former dictator have been removed.

Rapid de-Ba’athification of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq seemed reasonable if a new democratic government were to be formed. Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator Paul Bremer quickly ordered the party dismantled and its supporters completely removed from government due to ‘the threat posed by the continuation of Ba’athist networks’. The policy was quickly reversed in order to stem the insurgency of which Ba’athists were a major part. Former senior military officials of the party were courted and allowed to fill government positions. Bremer’s measure proved futile; by simply cutting unwanted players out of the political process, the very stability sought by the U.S.-led transitional government had been undermined.

Afghanistan may provide an even more relevant lesson for Libya given the total absence of existing state institutions. Immediately following the ousting of the Taliban, four delegations of “prominent” Afghanis convened in Bonn, Germany under UN-guidance to determine the direction and form of the transitional government. Not surprisingly, none represented a pro-Taliban force. While a range of factors have led to the Taliban’s resurgence, its elimination from participation obviously failed to make it disappear. As the Afghan government’s fragile stability faltered and the years of war wore on, it became apparent not only that loyalties and sentiments to the Taliban were impossible to erase, but that their roots were deeper than originally thought. The Bonn conference scheduled this coming December – 10 years later – put a Taliban delegation on the list of attendees.

The Gaddafi-loyal segment that remains is unlikely to rekindle power in a similar manner due to lack of clear ideology or purpose. Further, unlike the Iraqi Ba’athists, Gaddafi supporters have no friends in the Arab world to whom they can even remotely turn. But the attempt to physically eliminate their presence or exclude them from government is a mistake. The inclusion of former Gaddafi official Mohammed al-Alagi into the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) as Justice Minister is commendable. But al-Alagi was hardly a loyalist; he defected early and is known to have taken great risk to himself to expose humanitarian crimes before the revolution began. The true test for the NTC is to exert authority in order to create stability, safety, and fair representation for all Libyans: A complicated task for a government not yet legitimized by its deeply fractured public.

Libya remains a highly volatile place. The temporary unity needed to oust the dictator is now trumped by the loyal return to tribe. Local militias are refusing to lay down their arms, presenting a precarious situation that has led to three major clashes in the short time period since Gaddafi’s death. And the NTC, while led by highly capable people driven by a democratic vision, is a small coalition of elites – many of whom are exiles disconnected from local realities – that is naturally biased toward its base in Benghazi. Any perceived failure by the NTC to deliver to any one of Libya’s numerous factions could quickly shift alliances away from it. It is therefore critical that the transitional government make clear that the revolution has ended; violence must stop; and concentrate efforts toward establishing a new, democratic Libya inclusive of all players. 

This is not possible if forces once loyal to Gaddafi, such as those inLibyan towns Bani Walid and Sirte, remain sidelined from the process of establishing a transitional government. The experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan provide a key message for Libya’s transitional leaders: Once opposition forces topple an existing regime, the forces still loyal to it become the opposition. Beyond moral arguments for inclusion, it is strategically imperative if a potential backlash is to be prevented. As the NTC and its adherents have shown, drowning out enemy remnants is a short-term, fear-based response that never proves wise in the long run.

Photo Credit: B.R.Q