Will the owners of Libya's revolution please rise up?
Who owns the Libyan revolution? Today that seems a ludicrous question. Of course, it is the Libyan revolutionaries. Many sacrificed their lives and more displayed great courage. Defying their critics who called them a headless rabble they implemented a successful plan to attack Tripoli.
But after their initial success, now comes the time of greatest danger. The example of Iraq is on everybody's lips: the dictator has fled and his son is still at liberty to give heart to the die-hards. As Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the Transitional National Council, has said, these men will not lay down their arms until Col Muammar Qaddafi is arrested, exiled or killed.
The comparison with Iraq should not be taken too far. There is no foreign army of occupation in Tripoli. But the fact that Col Qaddafi is not in chains makes the TNC's already large task even harder. The rebels are deeply divided, have yet to form an interim government and must find a way to rule a country with no functioning institutions.
So far the TNC has not shown any haste to move from its base in Benghazi to the capital, 1,000 kilometres to the west, citing security problems. Until it is established in Tripoli there will always be doubt as to who is the legitimate authority and who has the right to spend Libya's frozen funds.
A UN Security Council resolution allowing those frozen funds to be transferred to the TNC is being held up by South Africa, which wants guidance from the African Union. This body, some of whose members received large amounts of money from Col Qaddafi, has not reached a decision on who rules Libya. All of this delays catharsis and increases doubts about the TNC's ability to rule.
In fact the issue could be easily solved. Abdul Ati Al Obeidi, the Libyan foreign minister who previously served as prime minister and head of state, has told Britain's Channel 4 news by telephone that the Qaddafi regime is finished and none of the ministers are talking to each other. He said he would advise loyalists to lay down their arms. As a Libyan elder statesman, he needs to make a formal statement to that effect.
It is clear that the question of who owns the revolution will not be decided now, but in the months to come. The history of the revolution is at a malleable stage, and there are four competing narratives taking shape.
One is that the Libyan rebels did it themselves, though without a charismatic leader this does not easily grab the popular imagination.
The second is that the former colonial powers, Britain and France, have grown more cunning in their old age and manipulated the Benghazi rebels so they can rape Libya's oil wealth. This view is already being expressed by leftist commentators and could gain traction as more details emerge of the extent of support provided by the Nato alliance.
Nato's help will not be offered for free, these commentators predict, so Libya is once again colonised.
Clearly Nato went far beyond its UN mandate of protecting civilians into a full-blown campaign of regime change. This included flying 7,587 strike sorties, supplying arms and communications equipment, providing training and strategic advice and even placing forward air controllers on the ground to direct the bombing campaign.
The French newspaper, Le Monde, noting that the French president has a personal grudge against Col Qaddafi, has declared the revolution to be "Nicolas Sarkozy's War" - a surprising headline to the thousands of Libyan families who have lost dead in the conflict.
The third narrative ignores the Nato involvement, and casts the fall of Tripoli as a victory of Islam over an infidel regime. It notes that the city was conquered in the last 10 days of Ramadan, the holiest part of the month, almost on the same day as the Prophet's triumphant return to Mecca 14 centuries before.
Finally, among diplomats, the view is growing that the Libya campaign was a perfect example of the doctrine of "responsibility to protect" whereby foreign forces are allowed to go to war where there is a legitimate humanitarian need. Libya thus joins the Nato interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
This doctrine could be most dangerous. If the Libyan rebels were deserving of western help, why not the Syrian protestors? The question is even more timely now that Washington has called for President Bashar Al Assad of Syria to step down.
In reality, Libya must be seen as a special case, with circumstances which are not repeated in Syria.
With Tripoli in chaos, the TNC is likely to need some kind of United Nations-mandated stabilisation force to help the new authorities settle in. The British foreign secretary, William Hague, raised concern by refusing to rule out British troops taking part in such a force. Given Britain and France's role in laying the groundwork for the problems of the Middle East over the past century, it would be a disaster for either of these countries to have boots on the ground. The narrative of the return of the colonial powers would be strengthened.
If troops are needed, they should come from Arab countries. After all, the whole process was set off by the Arab League in March when it called for a no-fly zone to protect the people of Benghazi. What the Arab League started, it should conclude.
Instead of boots on the ground, the buzzword is that there should be "shoes on the ground" - an army of foreign advisers to bring democracy to Libya. The task is huge, and will be the work of a generation or more. But if the Afghanistan experience is anything to go by, Libya would be better off without all the rooms in the Rixos Hotel being filled with foreign consultants on inflated day rates.
Afghanistan has been left with the worst sort of "victor's peace" combined with democratic overkill: the Taliban were frozen out of political life, and an unworkable constitution was forced on the country.
We must learn from that, and let the Libyans sort out their own system which recognises the political realities of the country.
Published: August 26, 2011 04:00 AM