TRIPOLI, Libya – Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim says he will personally pick up his AK-47 if he has to.
“When it comes down to it, we will all take our guns and Kalashnikovs and fight,” he said at a news conference last week. Moammar “Gaddafi’s departure is the worst-case scenario for Libya. If Gaddafi disappears for any reason, then the safety valve has disappeared and you will have a civil war.”
Government scare-mongering perhaps — but rhetoric that worries some business leaders from Libya and the West, who fear for the future of this divided and volatile North African country if Gaddafi no longer is in power.
Gaddafi’s government says it has distributed weapons to a million loyalists and is playing on ancient tribal rivalries to stoke fears of a takeover by people from eastern Libya.
“Our biggest problem even if Gaddafi goes will be the tribal conflicts, which will continue the fighting,” said an American energy executive who declined to be named to protect his investments in Libya. “For all of the companies waiting to resume operations in Libya, it looks like it will be a long wait. Even if the Gaddafi regime falls, the civil war in Libya will continue.”
Foreign businesses sometimes value stability above human rights, and many ordinary Libyans say that anything short of Gaddafi’s departure would be a betrayal after 41 years of repression at his hands. But the foreigners’ fears are shared by some Libyan business leaders, who say the West needs to do more to promote peace and dialogue instead of simply war.
“If Gaddafi leaves tomorrow, it will be blood, up to here,” said Abdulatif Teer, general manager of Saba Consulting & Engineering Services in Tripoli, pointing to his knees. “The international community should help us solve our problems peacefully, through dialogue. . . . We need an arrangement between all the Libyan people, and a transition period.”
One concern in many people’s minds is that the West has left little or no room for a face-saving exit for Libya’s “Brother Leader,” making it very likely the colonel will fight to the last bullet.
Indeed, last week Gaddafi turned down an offer from South African President Jacob Zuma to find him a safe haven in Africa, insisting he was determined to stay with his own people, CBS reported, citing an unnamed South African official.
“He is not a quitter, and his pride is more important than anything else,” said Pierre Bonnard, a business consultant who has been visiting Libya since 2003 and is now trying to promote a peaceful solution to the crisis on behalf of two French oil companies. “If you are imposing something from outside, he will never accept that.”
The government’s propaganda machine has left many Gaddafi loyalists and western tribal leaders worried that a rebel victory would leave them at best sidelined and at worst dead.
So far, Western governments have done little to calm those fears.
“We need to talk a little bit more about peace and a little less about war,” said Noman Benotman, a former Libyan Islamist militant who renounced violence and is now an analyst with the Quillam Foundation, a London think-tank.
“We need to start talking about a state-building mission, including the east and west of the country. We need to be clear that in the Libya of the future, no one will be executed. That will help a lot of people relax.”
In a sign that the message is starting to sink in, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the rebels needed to spell out their plans this week for a post-Gaddafi transition. Shortly after meeting the rebels in their de facto capital Benghazi, he said they already planned to bring technocrats from Gaddafi’s ruling circle into the new leadership, learning a lesson from Iraq, where the decision to bar members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party from government posts fuelled instability.
“No de-Baathification, so certainly [the rebels are] learning from that,” Hague said. “They now need to publicize that more effectively, to be able to convince members of the current regime that that is something that would work.”
Yet at the same time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to visit Benghazi has given many Libyans the opposite impression — that the West has already taken sides.
“We need to put pressure on the rebels rather than romanticize them,” said Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London. “That sense of inclusiveness does need to be disseminated. We need to say that we will do our utmost to prevent a single portion of country from dominating the whole country.”
First, though, the West needs to find a path to the post-Gaddafi world it has demanded — and that path could be rocky.
NATO airstrikes have destroyed many military sites in Tripoli, but have done little to disrupt normal life — partly because the alliance has taken huge pains to limit civilian casualties.
“The pressure of bombing doesn’t affect the regime much,” said Bonnard, who spends much of his time talking to officials. “They don’t look harassed or threatened, and they seem to sleep quite well.”
Many Western observers acknowledge that a rebel military victory looks unlikely, and say sanctions in themselves are unlikely to topple Gaddafi in a country that lived through similar hardship in the 1990s.
Instead, many people pin their hopes on Gaddafi’s inner circle throwing in the towel, of which there has been little sign so far.
Bonnard says he is trying to encourage dialogue between all Libyans and the West, but worries that starting the conversation by demanding Gaddafi’s exit leaves little room for common ground.
“Why not sit down and see on what you agree on first?” he asked, citing elections as an obvious example. “It is very interesting to build it this way. But if you start with Gaddafi, you don’t agree and you don’t build anything.”
For now, dialogue is a hard sell, with Gaddafi and the rebels still gunning for an outright victory.
“Both sides have got their tails up, and neither side is convinced the time has come for compromise,” said Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya and current deputy chairman of the Libyan British Business Council (LBBC).
Nevertheless, some lines of communication could be opening up.
LBBC Chairman David Trefgarne met Libya’s Foreign Minister Abdulati al-Obeidi in late May, on what Miles said was a personal meeting between old friends.
“There are capable people on both sides,” Bonnard said. “There is a door to a serious discussion for a better Libya, and it would be too bad not to try.”