August 23, 2011

Libya's uncertain future

As rebels continue to battle for full control of Libya's capital, some observers predict that installing a democracy could require a much longer struggle.

On Sunday night, armed rebel fighters associated with Libya’s loose pro-democracy coalition entered Tripoli, the Libyan capital formerly home to the Gaddafi government. Supporters reportedly welcomed the rebel fighters in the streets, and as the fighting continues, rebels reportedly hold the upper hand against regime loyalists in the city.

But a more difficult battle may lie ahead. A political path to a fully functioning democratic government remains unclear, and the interim leadership has been occupied with overthrowing Gaddafi more than with rebuilding infrastructure and civil society.

The basic framework for interim leadership lies with Libya’s National Transitional Council. However, while the NTC does represent a broad cross-section of Libyan society and are recognised by about 30 countries as Libya’s official government, they remain a steering body rather than an elected government.

Its widely representative nature may actually be a weakness for the 40-member NTC. The diversity of members found on the Council — businessmen, Islamists, secularists, socialists, nationalists and a number of other groups — results in a broad array of opinions on policy issues. In addition, a majority of Libyans claim some kind of tribal affiliation, and there may be as many as 140 unique tribal groups in the country. Only 15% of Libyans do not claim any tribal affiliation.

Tribal conflict was one of the main justifications that Gaddafi and regime supporters have given for keeping such tight controls on the country.

Additionally, while the NTC has flatly denied association with groups like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, some analysts contend that they maintain ties and advisers with these and other foreign political groups. The Libyan government under Gaddafi was persistent in its efforts to subdue Islamic political groups and Islamic-backed resistance to their regime. Those groups are now able to openly operate under the loose organisation of the NTC.

Because the Gaddafi regime was so effective at crushing resistance movements and civil organisations, Libyans may face difficulties in building a strong civil society. Only the Libyan diaspora has had any substantial political experience with resisting the Gaddafi government.

Recent attention has focused around Saif al-Islam, one of the former dictator’s sons whom rebel leaders claimed had been captured by pro-democracy fighters. He was later found surrounded by throngs of well-wishers and interviewed by the media in the streets of Tripoli. Saif al-Islam was thought to favour democracy and a moderate approach to foreign policy, but he has lately claimed to support an alliance with Islamist rebels that would pursue reforms under a stricter religious doctrine. “Libya will look like Saudi Arabia, like Iran. So what?” he said to the New York Times in early August.

As the regime falls further from power, reports have been surfacing that characterise the family and advisers closest to the regime as deeply paranoid and with very little understanding of their own country and people.

Libya still boasts impressive oil reserves, though a coalition of rebel supporters that includes the United States has worked to freeze many of Libya’s foreign assets. Additionally, restoring oil production in the OPEC member nation will require a stronger infrastructure than what currently exists.

Today on The Stream, Libyan author and activist Najla Abdurrahman discusses her country’s political future. Also joining the programme is Jason Pack, a Libya analyst and writer; and Taimur Aziz, a social media consultant for the NTC.

These are some of the social media elements featured in this episode of The Stream.