The origins of the Libyan transition emerged very much in the context of the Arab Spring – a popular uprising against a brutal dictatorship. But unlike others in the neighborhood – Egypt and Tunisia especially, but also Bahrain, and even Syria – Libyans quickly took up arms on a large scale to challenge the regime’s assault. That initial decision soon led to calls for a Western no-fly zone, and quickly to the welcoming of direct US/NATO/Qatari military intervention based on the UN resolution’s “all necessary measures” language.
Despite the resolution’s focus on protecting civilians, it was U.S., European, and NATO officials who made the actual decisions about the use of force – and quickly the NATO planes soon began what one Al Jazeera reporter described as “openly functioning as the air force of the opposition army.” Particularly in these last few days of fast-moving gains by the opposition, air power played a disproportionately important role. That means that the ability of opposition forces to move into Tripoli, take control of at least parts of the capital so quickly, and potentially accede to power, was dependent on NATO.
The circumstances are different from other recent overthrows of Arab tyrants. The people visible overnight, celebrating in Tripoli’s Green Square (renamed Martyrs Square by the opposition) were overwhelmingly armed rebels, largely coming into Tripoli from the mountains to the south. Unlike the celebrations in Tahrir Square in Egypt and other similar venues, there were virtually no women except for reporters. Many local residents had already fled the city, most others remained indoors, as violence continued to flare across Tripoli. Few were visible to greet the rebel forces as they entered the city. This may have been the continuing uncertainty of conditions in the city, but it also may reflect ambivalence or perhaps even stronger unease about the opposition forces among Tripoli’s population, which accounts for about a third of Libya’s people.
In Benghazi, the rebel capital in eastern Libya, Sunday’s celebrations went on all night. By mid-day Monday the head of Libya’s Transitional National Council, the rebel leadership already recognized by the United States and numerous other countries as the rightful government of Libya, spoke at a press conference, congratulating the people of Tripoli and in effect claiming the expanding control by anti-Qaddafi forces as the achievement of the TNC.
But the legitimacy of the TNC remains contested. It is a widely diverse, self-selected group already facing significant and sometimes lethal division within its ranks. It remains unclear how much popular support there was for the TNC’s decision to ask for foreign military intervention. Even now, as Patrick Cockburn wrote in The Independent, the “Transitional National Council (TNC) in Benghazi is now recognized by more than 30 foreign governments, including the U.S. and Britain, as the government of Libya. But it is by no means clear that it is recognized as such by the rebel militiamen who are in the process of seizing the capital. The rebel fighters in Misrata, who fought so long to defend their city, say privately that they have no intention of obeying orders from the TNC.” Certainly it is military and security exigencies that have resulted in Tripoli not being represented in the Council, but it also remains uncertain whether the TNC’s leadership is recognized in the capital or not. It remains too soon to say whether the TNC will show itself willing to broaden out to embrace Libyans so far excluded.
The success of Libya’s uprising will have a great deal to do with the willingness of its leadership to break its dependency on the United States and NATO. In what might or might not be a positive sign in that direction, TNC officials have said they intend to call for United Nations assistance in holding new elections within eight months of taking power. But more immediately, if the United States and European countries turn over the billions in frozen Libyan assets directly to the TNC, the question of the breadth of its representation and its legitimacy become even more crucial. Will the TNC, eager to claim the billions of oil money being held by European and U.S. banks, demand that NATO and the United States pull back and allow Libya to sort out its own problems and develop its own trajectory for an independent future? That may be difficult with President Obama announcing that the United States “will join with allies and partners to continue the work of safeguarding the people of Libya.” During a Monday press conference, the president of the TNC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, thanked the international community as a whole but singled out those countries that had been especially supportive of the TNC; the implication was unmistakable that those countries, presumably the United States, other NATO members, and Qatar (whose special forces had trained the TNC’s “Tripoli Brigade”) could expect closer ties and privileged access to Libyan resources in the future.
That, more than anything else, will determine whether a “new Libya” has a chance of becoming a truly new, unified and sovereign Libya, or whether it just moves from control by a small family-based autocracy to control by outside Western forces more interested in maintaining privileged access to Libya’s oil and strategic location than in the human and national rights of Libya’s people.
The Libyan uprising began as part of the Arab Spring, with an effort to depose one more Arab dictator. Current developments are moving towards that goal. But the complications of the Libyan Summer, and the consequences of the militarization of its struggle, leave unanswered the question of whether events so far are ultimately a victory for the Libyan people, or for NATO. Given recent models of U.S. and NATO involvement in overthrowing dictatorships, we don’t have a lot of examples of how it can be both.