Moral power, not firepower, is what will ultimately defeat Gaddafi

Jason Pack, a researcher on Libya at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, writes:

[I]t is nearly impossible to imagine that the revolutionaries can defeat Qaddafi by military force alone. Lacking an effective chain of command or training, they have not yet learned to employ guerrilla tactics, siege tactics, or any formal coordinated military maneuvers. Arming the rebels with more sophisticated munitions will not help them congeal into a coherent fighting force. Training them might help, but it would take too much time.

The best hope for the rebels is that the Qaddafi regime crumbles from within — a distinct possibility as key defections, daily hardships in Tripoli under international siege, and Qaddafi’s diplomatic blunders all progressively demoralize his supporters. So far, coalition air power has been crucial in keeping the rebels alive long enough that Qaddafi’s forces may self-destruct. But merely preventing slaughter and a rebel defeat is not enough. Now that the no-fly zone has fulfilled its key humanitarian and strategic mission, it is time for the coalition to shift gears. As Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya, puts it, “Precisely because it is unlikely that the rebels will be able to militarily defeat Qaddafi even with increased coalition air support or more arms, Western and Arab countries can best help the rebels through politics, diplomacy, and propaganda — all of which, if employed with savoir-faire, may tip the scales away from Qaddafi.”

Helping the rebel political leaders effectively requires understanding who they are and how the Libyan uprising began. On Feb. 15, Qaddafi’s men seized Fathi Terbil, a lawyer and activist, for trying to organize a “Day of Rage” on Feb. 17 to commemorate the five-year anniversary of protests in Benghazi against the Danish cartoons, in which Qaddafi’s security forces killed at least 11 people. His arrest sparked spontaneous, nonviolent demonstrations that were crushed by force. Youth activists were quickly joined by lawyers, judges, local administrators, and technocrats who opposed Qaddafi’s repressive response to the protests. Many of these individuals were previously government officials or consultants who had become increasingly disillusioned by the failure of Libyan détente with the West to produce genuine political reform at home. On Feb. 27, the most prominent among them banded together in Benghazi to form the Transitional National Council (TNC). The TNC has gained legitimacy as grassroots committees have sprung up across eastern Libya to select local town notables, who have in turn endorsed the TNC. (Ironically, this practice is akin to Qaddafi’s ideology of “direct democracy” with its imperative for the creation of local Basic People’s Congresses.)

Thus, what began as a youth revolt has been taken over by reformist regime technocrats and defected diplomats, who are the only groups capable of representing the rebels to the outside world. The TNC top leadership has extensive experience interfacing with Western governments and the international business community. The rest of its members were deliberately chosen to represent the various major factions of the opposition. It includes relatives of the former Libyan king, human rights lawyers, former Qaddafi intimates upset with the slow pace of reforms, conservative Muslims who are against al Qaeda, pro-Western businessmen, technocrats with American Ph.D.s, and representatives for women and youth.

One potential shortcoming of the rebels’ current political structure is its heavily Cyrenaican, Arab, and elite makeup. If the rebels succeed in overthrowing Qaddafi, they will face enormous pressure to rapidly incorporate new players from western Libya, the Libyan diaspora, and the Berber, Tuareg, and Tabu ethnic groups. Simultaneously, they would have to focus on the social and economic issues that concern the youth and the unemployed, not merely those of reformist technocrats. Most crucially, after a hypothetical rebel victory the predominantly Cyrenaican fighters will no doubt clamor for their place in the sun as the saviors of Libya. It would be highly inappropriate for outside powers to attempt to micromanage or pre-empt the delicate evolution of the representative structure for the new Libya.

Amid reports that personality clashes may be enveloping the top TNC leadership, I remain reasonably hopeful that the TNC will be able to successfully incorporate most elements of Libyan society and that political infighting and factionalism can be kept to normal levels. Libya is an artificial colonial creation. But unlike other colonial entities, it lacks the social fissures and historical grievances that have led to sectarian or ethnic violence in places like Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The idea that a civil war might ensue between east and west after Qaddafi’s departure is overly pessimistic. Paradoxically, as Qaddafi repressed so many of Libya’s social groups other than the Qadhadhfa and Magarha tribes, it is foreseeable that all the former out-groups will be able to strike a rough consensus about building a post-Qaddafi Libya.

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