Four Reasons for Optimism in Libya

By: /
August 26, 2011

As Jennifer writes, “the work in Libya is not done. It is just beginning.” In addition to securing the capital and country, the National Transitional Council will quickly need to assume its responsibilities as Libya’s new government, paying salaries to public servants and ensuring the provision of basic services including water, healthcare and electricity. Very soon, it will also need to initiate the political process of fashioning a new national constitution and organizing the election of a government that Libya’s people broadly regard as representative and legitimate. These are complex tasks that would pose daunting challenges any government in any place – not least one that has little experience in power and few functioning public institutions to rely upon, and that may be simultaneously involved in fighting the remnants of the Qaddafi regime.

Modest expectations are therefore in order.  But there are also reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects of peacebuilding in Libya. Here are four:

1. The war seems to be heading towards a decisive rebel victory.

Studies have found that civil conflicts ending in decisive victory are considerably less likely to recur than conflicts ending in a negotiated settlement.  The logic behind this is straightforward: when a warring faction is destroyed or surrenders after defeat, it will generally have more difficulty reconstituting itself as an effective fighting force than if, instead, it had negotiated a peace agreement while it was still intact.

2. Libya’s rebel leadership has been saying and doing the right things.

One of the challenges facing the NTC (in addition to winning the war and keeping its own coalition intact) is to be magnanimous in victory.  Specifically, it should welcome all but the most senior Qaddafi loyalists back into Libya’s political life and give them a voice in the upcoming constitutional and electoral processes.  So far, the rebel leadership has signalled a distinctly conciliatory approach to regime supporters who lay down their arms.  In the days and weeks to come, the NTC needs to continue working to control retaliatory score-settling and focus on delivering services and initiating political reforms, as it has promised to do.

3. Planning for the post-conflict transition has been underway for months.

The NTC, along with its principal international backers and the United Nations, appears to have been involved in extensive planning for Libya’s post-conflict transition.  No peacebuilding plan survives contact with reality intact, but starting with a plan – better, one that’s well thought out – is preferable to improvisation.  At present, it is impossible to evaluate the content of these plans because they have not been made public, but early signs are encouraging.  For example, some rebel forces entering Tripoli were instructed to send text messages to city residents imploring them not to damage or loot public property.  Memories of chaos of post-invasion Baghdad seem to have loomed large in this planning.

4. Libya has oil.

There are many hypotheses about the relationship between natural resources and conflict, but one finding is quite clear:  countries with higher per capita income have better peacebuilding outcomes, all other things being equal.  Libya’s oil is responsible for its per capita income being roughly the same as Mexico’s (instead of, say, Chad's).  Oil gives Libya something that most other post-conflict countries, which tend to be impoverished, rarely have:  a steady source of revenue that is not dependent on external donors.  That, too, raises the odds of success.

None of these four conditions guarantees that Libya’s transition to a post-Qaddafi peace will be smooth.  On the contrary, it is almost certain to be rocky.  But compared to other countries emerging from civil wars, Libya has a few important things going for it.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.