On October 31, 2011, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s intervention in Libya ended. This was less than two weeks after the capture and killing of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi by rebel forces. Two weeks ago, the final contingent of Canadian airmen involved in the war against the Qaddafi regime returned home to CFB Greenwood in southwestern Nova Scotia.
Though many are celebrating the apparent success of the right to protect in Libya, the victory is not conclusive and the task of reconstruction looms. Libya’s transitional government faces the challenge of rebuilding the country after eight months of civil war and more than 40 years of brutal dictatorship. It remains unclear what the lasting consequences of the NATO intervention will be and what role the international community, particularly Canada, will play in shaping the new Libya.
While the NATO intervention aided the rebel forces, it is uncertain whether it prevented large-scale civilian massacres. There are reports of significant killings at the hands of both Qaddafi loyalists and rebel forces. Also, it is possible that violence will break out in post-Qaddafi Libya if the coalition supporting the transitional government falls apart or splits along tribal lines.
Even if there is little or no outright fighting in the short term, the task facing Libya’s leadership is a difficult one. Unlike its neighbours Egypt and Tunisia, Libya has few formal institutions. The result is that it will be difficult for the transitional government to fulfill its promise of holding free elections within the year. And even if free and fair elections are held, there are still few guarantees that the new government can create meaningful changes in the lives of Libyans, at least in the future.
Instead, the new government needs to focus on building viable institutions. It must draft and enact a constitution. It also needs to set up a rudimentary bureaucracy to implement its policies. The new government will also have to tackle thorny issues, such as how to manage Libya’s significant oil wealth and reclaim the billions Qaddafi and his cronies stashed in bank accounts across the globe. They also face dealing with the remnants of Qaddafi’s military forces, as well as the various armed groups that participated in the revolution.
All in all, this is a tall order for a country that has no experience with democracy or even formal, modern governance. While it is unproductive to dismiss the transitional government’s plans outright, its fragility must be recognized. Due to the dispersed nature of military and political power in the new Libya, the failure of the government would likely result in a new civil war. In a worst case scenario, Libya could become embroiled in an intractable and prolonged conflict similar to the war that has ravaged Somalia since 1991.
Arguably, a new civil war in Libya would do more to jeopardize regional security than Qaddafi’s regime has in recent years. Moreover, such a conflict would undoubtedly result in more civilian killings, perhaps on a greater scale than during the fighting between Qaddafi loyalists and rebel forces. It would be difficult for NATO to intervene again because they would be forced to pick sides in a conflict without any clear criteria for doing so.
In order to avoid further conflict, it is crucial that those NATO member states that intervened against Qaddafi take immediate measures to ensure a stable transition to democracy in Libya. This means working with the transitional government to create an effective means for power-sharing among Libyan factions and dealing with urgent issues such as the future of the military and the use of oil wealth. Doing so will certainly be difficult, but it is also necessary to protect the viability of the new Libya.