Originally Published 2011-06-28 00:00:00 Published on Jun 28, 2011
If Eastern Libya goes out of Tripoli's control, the Western half of the country will be left with two-thirds of the country's population and without oil revenue. In such a predicament, any regime in Western Libya will become a failed state, l spawning disorder in the entire region.
Libya: Future scenarios
Months after the beginning of the conflict in Libya, a stalemate seems to have emerged between the Gaddafi regime operating from the West and Central regions on the one hand and the rebels backed by NATO in the East.

Behind the tug of war between the regime and the rebels, a handful of trends seem to have consolidated. The Gaddafi regime has, despite massive international condemnation and pressure, managed to retain the support of a large constituency in the Western region. In an audio message broadcast by Libyan state media, Gaddafi defiantly promised: "We will resist and the battle will continue to the beyond."

On the other hand, the rebels have a great deal of motivation but their capacities are limited by shortages of arms, ammunition and communication equipment. Most of all, they are constrained by the absence of a coherent organisation and leadership.

Moreover, cracks have begun to appear in the NATO coalition that has been supporting the rebel faction. Most recently, Italy has called for a cessation of the bombing raids by NATO. In Britain too, there have been reports that senior military commanders have cautioned the government of the possible ill-effects of a long drawn involvement in Libya.

The international community seems to be settling down to a mood of weariness with yet another conflict and, too all appearances, the stage seems set for the current stalemate to settle into a long drawn face-off followed by the consolidation of two rival governments - thus splitting the country into Eastern and Western parts.

This, however, would be the worst possible solution to the problem in Libya.

Historically, Libya was divided into three large provinces of Cyrenaica (almost the entire Eastern half of the country), Tripolitania (the upper portion of the Western half) and Fezzan (the lower portion of the Western half). In the early 20th century, Italy held large chunks of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania but, from 1943 to 1951, the British controlled these territories while the French controlled Fezzan. Today, the area corresponding to the old province of Cyrenaica hosts about a third of Libya's population but also contains the bulk of Libya's oil reserves. It is also this area that is the stronghold of the rebels.

So why would it be a problem if Eastern Libya were to emerge as a wealthy, stable and possibly democratic state? In itself, there is no problem - the problem would be what would happen to Western Libya?

One scenario can be seen in the history of this region itself. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, much of the North African region was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire but in actuality it comprised a handful of semi-independent political entities centred around Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Collectively, this area was known to Europeans as the Barbary Coast and the predominant activity of these states was slave-trading and piracy. In fact, the very first foreign military action undertaken by the United States was in Libya in 1805 against the Barbary pirates who had long been holding the Mediterranean hostage.

In the course of his long rule, Gaddafi himself seems to have learnt from this history and fine-tuned the art of asymmetric conflict. That the Libyan regime calibrated its actions for is self-interest is clear from Gaddafi's threat to open the floodgates of migration from sub-Saharan Africa into Europe if the latter continued to oppose it.

For many years, the Libyan regime in its effort to consolidate its position against the West is reported to have systematically supported and aided a number of African dictators from Idi Amin of Uganda to Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the 'Central African Empire', Mengistu of Ethiopia and Charles Taylor in Sierra Leone. The long catalogue of the Libyan regime's involvement in terror and disorder seems to have been motivated solely by self-interest with no trace of principles. At the present point in time, if Eastern Libya goes out of Tripoli's control, the Western half of the country will be left with two-thirds of the country's population and without oil revenue. In such a predicament, any regime in Western Libya will become a failed state and will spawn disorder in the entire region. The piracy we are seeing on the Somali coast today will pale into insignificance when compared to what 'Western' Libya might collapse into.International efforts, therefore, need to focus urgently upon maintaining Libya as a unified country under a responsible, representative government. This does not mean a compromise with Gaddafi or his regime. That an alternate paradigm is possible is proved by Libya's own 1951 constitution which proclaimed Islam as the State religion but, at the same time, it enshrined equality before law and other civil and political rights "without distinction of religion, belief, race, language, wealth, kinship or political or social opinions".

(Ashok K Singh is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Pioneer
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