Until last Thursday, Libya was beginning to look like the relative good news in the troubled summer that has followed the Arab Spring. The United States and more than 30 other governments had recognized the Transitional National Council (TNC), based in the rebel capital of Benghazi, as Libya’s legitimate government. Its military forces appeared to be slowly gaining ground against those of Moammar Gaddafi, who was isolated in Tripoli.
Two senior members of the TNC touring Washington last week talked cheerily about their plans to stabilize the country after Gaddafi’s departure and quickly install a liberal democracy. “Libya is actually the easy case,” one veteran Washington democracy expert enthused to me after hearing them speak.
Then came the sudden killing on Thursday of Abdul Fatah Younis, the TNC’s senior military commander, under still-unexplained — and very troubling — circumstances. The murder plunged the new government and its capital into turmoil, and raised urgent questions in NATO capitals about whether the TNC or its ragtag army were in danger of crumbling.
It also illustrated one of the enduring themes of the uprisings across the Middle East: the constant tension between the yearning for modernism — for democracy and personal freedom — that is driving a huge rising generation into the streets, and the atavistic forces of tribalism, sectarianism, corruption and autocracy that keep threatening to drag the revolutions under.
Younis, the Libyan rebel commander, appears to be a victim of what might be called the Old Middle East undertow. It’s not yet known exactly who killed him or why, but we do know that he had been called to Benghazi by elements of the rebel leadership to answer unspecified questions about his behavior and was murdered by fighters escorting him. Angry demonstrations by members of Younis’s Obeidi tribe hinted at the internecine conflict that some experts believe may be the most serious threat to a post-Gaddafi Libya.
What’s striking about Libya — and about Syria and Egypt — is that there’s little sign of those dark forces in the leadership of the revolutions. Egyptians and Syrians on Facebook instead speak a common language of secular, liberal democracy and human rights. A generation raised on the Internet wants, above all, to join the rest of the 21st-century world.
Libya’s transitional council is no different. Its first leaders published an eight-point manifesto March 29 declaring that “there is no alternative to building a free and democratic society and ensuring the supremacy of international humanitarian law and human rights declarations. This can only be achieved through dialogue, tolerance, cooperation, national cohesiveness and the active participation of all citizens.”
In a presentation at the Atlantic Council in Washington on Thursday, TNC member Fathi Mohammed Baja, an author of the manifesto, and secretary general Ali Saeid Ali laid out a road map that started with the expansion of the TNC to include representatives from all parts of the country, the drafting of a new constitution and elections. Baja said the TNC’s ambition was not to remain in power after Gaddafi’s ouster but to organize “a completely transparent democratic transition.”
Libya does look easier than Syria or even Egypt. The population of 5 million is relatively small; though there is a significant Berber minority, sectarianism is not the force it is in Iraq or Syria. The country has plenty of oil wealth to distribute, including an estimated $168 billion in assets that have been frozen in foreign banks. Unlike Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Gaddafi has little public support and is unlikely to inspire an Iraq-style insurgency. And thanks to NATO’s intervention the rebels hold what should ultimately be a decisive military advantage — if Western governments remain stalwart.
Yet as Baja explained, Gaddafi’s four decades of dictatorship left the country utterly without institutions. “We are facing a political vacuum,” he said. “We have no political parties to lead the reform. We have no political platforms for the future of Libya. We have no president who can lead the transition to democracy. There is nothing at all.”
Four months of military stalemate since NATO’s air campaign began have given the rebels some time to build rudimentary structures. A new interior ministry and a police force were established in Benghazi. Baja says 300 civil society organizations have sprung up, including 150 or so newspapers, newsletters and blogs by “people who want to express themselves for the first time.”
Western governments, cautious at first, were impressed enough to grant the TNC recognition. The Libyan contact group at its last meeting, in Istanbul last month, endorsed the new government’s road map.
Now the Old Middle East has pulled its military commander under. In Libya, as in so much of the region this summer, it’s an open question whether a new Arab order can survive that undertow.