BENGHAZI – The endgame in the Libyan conflict has at last arrived. Much of Libya’s capital is now in insurgent hands, with the rebel army itself entering from all directions.
The military impotence of forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi – visible for a week -- had been matched by the regime’s growing political disarray. Senior Qaddafi cronies were defecting – most recently Deputy Interior Minister Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdullah, who fled to Cairo with nine family members, followed a few days later by Libya’s oil chief, Omran Abukraa. Now a number of Qaddafi’s sons, including Seif al-Islam, his putative heir, have been taken by the rebels. Like Saddam Hussein in 2003, Qaddafi appears to have gone into hiding.
So what, now, will become of post-Qaddafi Libya? Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell famously admonished President George W. Bush before the Iraq War that, “if you break it, you own it.” Bush, however, shrugged off Powell’s warning, and it was not long before the world watched in horror as it became clear that there was no detailed plan to govern or rebuild post-Saddam Iraq. Instead, the country endured a hideous war of all against all that left uncounted thousands dead.
Are the NATO countries that undertook military intervention in Libya better prepared to restore a broken Libya? Fortunately, one building block that was not available to Bush – a legitimate government to assume authority – is available for Libya.
The National Transitional Council, established in February by a rebel coalition forged in Benghazi, is led by Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who resigned from his position as Qaddafi’s justice minister on February 26 in response to the regime’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests. Will it be able to exercise authority and ensure security for ordinary Libyans, thereby preventing a recurrence of the blood vendettas that shattered Iraq after Saddam’s fall?
As chair of the Japan-Libya Friendship Association, I decided to find out. On August 5, late at night, I visited Abdel-Jalil in Al Bayda, approximately 200 kilometers from Benghazi. I arrived at the diminutive NTC chairman’s home well after midnight, because it was Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day.
Wearing traditional Libyan garb, he offered me a red cushioned chair while he sat on a simple wooden stool. His modest demeanor stood in stark contrast to Qaddafi, who always sat on a luxurious throne-like sofa when greeting guests.
Born in 1952, Abdel-Jalil had taken some tentative steps to establish the rule of law even under Qaddafi, once famously declaring before the Colonel himself that “I make my decisions based on the law.” He had served as a judge for many years after studying Sharia and Civil Law at the University of Libya. After working as chief justice in Al Bayda, he was appointed Minister of Justice in 2007.
Some suggest that, given his Sharia studies, Abdel-Jalil might be an Islamic fundamentalist. If so, however, all judges in Islamic countries must be fundamentalists, because all of them are educated in both civil law and sharia. But how he deals with the Islamic Fundamentalists in Benghazi, Al-Bayda, Delna and other areas who claim that their contribution to the victory requires them to have a powerful say in the new order will go a long way toward determining Libya’s future.
Abdel-Jalil does not give the impression that he wants to become Libya’s first post-Qaddafi president. But if Abdel-Jalil is a man of ideals, Mahmoud Jibril, Chairman of the NTC’s Executive Board, is a man of action. Born in Benghazi in 1952, he obtained masters and doctoral degrees at the University of Pittsburgh, after graduating from Cairo University. He also has served as a management consultant in Arab countries, and for a time was involved in asset management for Sheikha Mozah, the politically active wife of the Emir of Qatar. In Qaddafi’s regime, he headed the National Council and the National Economic Development Board.
The biggest hit that the NTC’s provisional government has taken since its establishment was the assassination of the rebel military commander Major General Abdul Fatah Younis. The circumstances behind his killing remain unclear, but his death caused a government reshuffle, with finance and oil minister Ali Tarhouni and foreign minister Ali al-Issawi ousted.
Al-Issawi’s removal may have been tied to reports that he issued the instructions for the arrest of Younis shortly before the assassination. The killing had spurred fear that tribal warfare would break out, as Younis was part of the powerful Obaida tribe, which lives around Benghazi. The provisional government, by preventing a violent outbreak of internecine tribal violence, showed that it might be able to keep a lid on the types of animosity that savaged Iraq. Maintaining the cooperation of the dominant tribes in each region will be essential to building a stable post-Qaddafi Libya.
Although the NTC is not fully unified, Abdel-Jalil and Jibril are playing their respective roles in an effort to solidify domestic organization and secure international support. Other players include the son of King Idris and the son of Omar Mukhtar, the hero who led the resistance movement against Italy long ago. But none of these ancestral claims to power appear capable of sublimating the will of the people to elect their future leader democratically.
Qaddafi ousted King Idris 42 years ago without bloodshed. Until the stunning rebel advance into Tripoli it had seemed intent on enacting a kind of desert Götterdämmerung, with his regime going down in flames. That no longer seems likely, and the NTC will now need to begin actually governing the country. The trials that it has endured thus far have probably left it in a better position to lead a successful democratic transition than most observers realize.