The fall of Tripoli, which seems to have happened with astounding rapidity, must leave us wondering “what next?”
As we see Egypt lurch perilously close to a Muslim Brotherhood cliff, and allowing itself (probably intentionally) to be drawn closer to conflict with Israel, one would be forgiven or, or even expected to, be less than optimistic for Libya, a country more tribal than Egypt and perhaps therefore more difficult to unify other than by force of arms.
I’d be foolish to make any prediction about Libya, and I won’t make one.
Just a few things to point out, however, in terms of differences between Libya and Egypt or Iraq:
First, the man who is running Libya’s National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, appears initially to be as close to a real reformer as we’ve seen anywhere in the “Arab Spring” or in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Second, Libya’s population is only about 6.5 million, as compared to 31 million in Iraq and 83 million in Egypt. This could make a national consensus easier to achieve. That said, the tribal nature of Libya is more like Iraq than like Egypt. In the former, people often consider themselves Kurds or members of particular tribes or members of particular religious denominations before they consider themselves Iraqis. This is, of course, a huge problem in unifying a country. The Eastern tribes of Libya may not want to work closely with the Western tribes, at least not before trying to gain more influence in the overall governing structure, and that could lead to tension and perhaps violence. And, while perhaps not as prevalent as in Iraq, there are Islamist groups in Libya who will make efforts to fill any power vacuum.
Third, unlike Iraq, Libya is not bordered by nations likely to send their agents and other terrorists into the country to destabilize the situation. This bodes well for Libya’s chances at avoiding something like Iraq’s routine massacres and IED attacks.
Fourth, like both Egypt and Iraq, Libya has long been dominated by a strongman willing to do most anything to retain power, though clearly Saddam Hussein was more brutal to his own people than Hosni Mubarak was. It therefore gets a first-in-a-generation taste of liberty while having very few public institutions capable of enforcing, or perhaps even understanding, the rule of law required as a foundation for a sustainable democracy. It remains to be seen whether the tensions mentioned above overwhelm a move toward creating such national institutions. It will also be interesting to see if they ask for help from any western nations, and if so which one(s). Given the US role in liberating the nation from Colonel Gaddafi, my guess is that the Libyans might first reach out to France. After all, it was Nicolas Sarkozy who really pushed the western powers into the action that toppled the tyrant.
Fifth, Libyan oil: Italy has a long history with Libya, and it’s being reported that an Italian oil company, ENI, already has the best shot at leading the redevelopment of Libya’s oil industry. Perhaps the most interesting comment in the article linked in the prior sentence: “‘We don’t have a problem with western countries like Italians, French and UK companies. But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil,’ Abdeljalil Mayouf, information manager at Libyan rebel oil firm AGOCO, told Reuters.” This is a huge setback to Russia and China, both of who were involved or trying to be involved in Libya’s oil industry in recent years. It’s especially bad for China which has been making a concerted effort to get control of material resources across Africa by offering financial and technical aid across the continent. An article in the Economist says “Africans are asking whether China is making their lunch or eating it.” It’s also worth noting that the Libyan who made the comments did not include US companies in his “most favored nations,” though that could easily be because US companies have had so little involvement there so far.
Sixth, the U.S. can claim almost no credit for the events in Libya. In fact, because of Barack Obama’s incredible leading from behind, we will probably get even less credit than the small credit we are due. After all, Obama distanced himself from the operation as soon as possible, including emphasizing that the NATO operations, which would normally be considered as primarily American operations, would not be and were not led by an American. Although President Obama will probably try subtly to take some credit for Tripoli, trying to distract from his own unhappy citizenry, nobody will give him any credit for the outcome so far…and nobody should.