Libya's future enters 'very dangerous phase'

Libya's new leaders will face serious challenges, ranging from tribal rivalries to rampant inflation, in their bid to steer the country back on track.

CAIRO // Less than a month ago, the leadership of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi looked like it might descend into intramural warfare. A prominent rebel general was assassinated under mysterious circumstances and Muammar Qaddafi's stay in power, though far from guaranteed, seemed assured for at least a few months.

Now, after a lightning campaign into Tripoli with the support of Nato air strikes, this ragtag group of former exiles, military officers, tribal leaders, human-rights lawyers, and ordinary Libyan citizens opposed to Col Qaddafi is poised to take control of the capital. Whether it can actually govern the country effectively after the Libyan leader's denouement is another question altogether.

Even neighbouring Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak ruled for 30 years before being ousted in February, entered its new political era on better footing, said Geoff Porter, the head of North Africa Risk Consulting in the US state of Connecticut.

"It's important to look at the differences between this situation and that of Egypt and Tunisia," said Dr Porter. "In Libya, there are no government institutions to speak of, no historical attempts at democracy. It will be a much bigger challenge to return to normalcy."

The NTC will have to contend with tribal rivalries, an armed population and rampant inflation that has made life for its citizens increasingly harrowing.

It will fall to Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the NTC, to get the country back on track. A former minister of justice under Col Qaddafi's government known for his championing of human rights, Mr Jalil has little experience in the kind of national politics that he and other senior members of the NTC will have to navigate if Libya is to successfully emerge from the uprising.

International powers have pledged their support for the NTC, but if the new government is to gain widespread legitimacy, it will have to put into place its own plan that reconciles the nation and swiftly begins reconstruction.

The immediate task at hand, following a successful toppling of the country's eccentric and brutal leader of 42 years, will be restoring security.

Tens of thousands of rebels and citizens have armed themselves with rifles, handguns, artillery and mechanised vehicles looted from arms depots. Borders are not properly monitored and there is a risk that some militant groups or tribal factions will try to wrest control during this unstable period.

"They need to get the weapons off the street as soon as possible," said Bassam Ghellal, a Libyan security consultant with the firm Whispering Bell. "They will need to incentivise people to give the guns back and convincing them that the NTC has control of the country. A lot of people are saying 'I don't know what's going to happen in the future'. They need to be given peace of mind."

Economic stability is an immediate concern, too, he said. The price of a bag of flour, which used to cost about 5 dinars (US$4.16), is selling for more than 70 dinars. A five-litre tank of gas, normally 4 dinars, is about 60 dinars. Looting has spread across the country.

"Inflation is out of control and many people haven't received wages in months," Mr Ghellal said. "The NTC needs to come in and make sure that all these government employees get paid and that they are going to get paid back wages."

Libya certainly possesses the means to prosper. Until the recent upheaval, it produced 2 per cent of the world's oil and had amassed billions of dollars that were invested in everything from a stake in the British publishing firm Pearson to property around Europe to complicated financial instruments related to mortgages in the US. With a population of just two million, Libya could be one of the richest countries in the world.

But the fighting has reduced exports to just a fraction and much of the country's savings abroad has been frozen by countries trying to put pressure on the Qaddafi regime. International oil companies have reportedly sent in technical teams to assess how quickly refineries can be restarted and how badly facilities have been damaged during the fighting.

In some ways, the country's oil fortune, savings and investments could hamper Libya's path to stability. Countries with immense resources have historically faced a "commodities curse", where economic growth is actually slower because of a combination of mismanagement, lower competitiveness of other economic sectors and fluctuating revenues. Even before the revolution, Libya faced a high unemployment rate and wealth was centralised in the hands of a few.

"There is a pretty high probability that money is going to be misappropriated or misspent, that there will be distribution of resources for political benefits of some people," Dr Porter said. "Even worse is that there aren't very strong mechanisms for monitoring the flow of money. There are billions of dollars of assets without the protection of auditing procedures."

Against these daunting challenges, the mood of celebration among many Libyans is likely to fade. In the coming days, Mr Jalil, the head of the NTC, will for the first time have to deal with a country that was largely unified against a dictator, but could become deeply divided over the future of Libya. The rift could begin in a dispute over who deserves credit for pushing Mr Qaddafi from his throne.

George Joffe, a North Africa expert at Cambridge University told Reuters yesterday, that the assault on Tripoli was led by rebels from western Libya - a relatively new group in the six-month uprising.

"There is no guarantee they will accept the leadership of Benghazi," he said. "So we are entering a very dangerous phase."

Published: August 23, 2011 04:00 AM


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