The Qaddafi regime has fallen, but the fight for Libya is just heating up. In the aftermath of the Libyan rebellion the National Transitional Council is claiming tentative control however the struggle for power in Libya is far from over. European powers are also vying for influence in the post Qaddafi era, with oil assets and billions of dollars of frozen Libyan assets further complicating the mix. On a broader level, today’s resemblance to WWII Middle East politics is unmistakable, especially as we are moments away from seeing a Palestinian State made official at the United Nations.
It is worth watching the relations of former Mandate and colonial powers, such as those of Italy with Libya, Britain with Egypt or France with Tunisia and Syria. Additionally, the relations of the European powers with each other are once again going to play a critical role, as will the tussles of the emerging and established players.
The Colonial Experience
Libya, as with many of her fellow states in the Middle East has long been held sway by a patrimonial system of leadership that upheld a feeble state system, bolstered by a bloated coercive arm. In Libya, the coercive arm of the state has been overpowered by a popular uprising, leaving the weak state apparatus to crumble in its wake. In contrast, the Egyptian uprising only managed to topple a figurehead, with the coercive apparatus of the state now more powerful than ever.
This patrimonial system which has formed such an entrenched part of Middle Eastern statehood is what is now under fire across the Arab world, with the “Arab Spring” uprisings all aimed at breaking the strong-man system of rule. However, the history of state-making in the Middle East points at a more complex process than simply instituting democratic rule to replace an autocratic one. One major problems, is that the civilian population in much of the Middle East has been disenfranchised from informing and contributing to its own political infrastructure and thus lack the political culture and experience needed to support democracy.
The present day system stems specifically from the post-World-War-II system of states that was created to replace the European Mandates in Middle Eastern countries. Under the Ottoman Empire, local authorities were allowed to remain as regional leaders (beys) under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman laws and institutions were imposed in a top-down manner, and the network of elite families and notables that collected around the Ottoman beys, form the basis of the ruling class in the Arab world today. These networks survived and indeed flourished in the Mandate controlled Middle East, and after the Mandate system was replaced by sovereign states. The upshot of this history is that the population has not developed a sense of belonging to a state, because the state is an imposed structure that has no organic origins, unlike the many hundreds or years it took Europe to develop the nation-state system.
The Emerging Scenario
What we now see in Libya and in other countries affected by the Arab Spring is the population attempting to participate in the formation of a state to which there is some connection, where the state is no longer just a representative of a privileged elite, rather than the population as a whole.
This is a huge task, given that there are large divides and factions within the Libyan population, and there is also the problem of Libyan assets that are attracting outside attention now that the opportunity presents itself for interested parties to claim a piece of the post-Qaddafi pie.
Just like the discovery of oil in the Gulf changed the politics of the Middle East post World-War-II, so too do Libya’s oil assets set it apart from its neighbors in the Arab Spring. Many see that Libya’s oil and natural gas are the defining reasons why European forces entered the country under UN mandate to impose a no-fly zone. Russia has accused NATO a number of times to have gone beyond the mandate of UN resolution 1979.
With Italy one of Libya’s main energy export markets as well as being a former colonial power in Libya, it is likely we will start to see tussles between European powers vying for oil and gas contracts as well as political influence as the NTC tries to establish a representative government. While European and Arab countries have taken the lead in recognizing the NTC as the sole legitimate representative of Libya, Russia, China and African Union have been reluctant.
Speaking at a press conference in San Salvador on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that his country would not recognize the National Transitional Council (NTC) as the sole legitimate representative of Libya. However, Russia would recognize the NTC as one of the parties in the talks. Lavrov stressed Russia’s commitment to support the political process in Libya. He asserted that “The Russian and Libyan peoples have traditions of friendship, years-long interaction, and we shall continue to act in this vein in the future as well.”
Meanwhile, China has announced that it wishes to promote cooperation and trade relations with Libya following the downfall of the Kaddafi regime. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a phone call on Tuesday, that his country hoped to play an active role in rebuilding Libya. He also urged the United Nations to lead international efforts in the North African country to ensure a stable transition of power and to strengthen coordination and cooperation with the African Union and Arab League.
On the other hand, France has maintained diplomatic initiative with Libya following the imminent demise of the Qaddafi regime, with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé calling for an immediate ceasefire. France also committed itself to hosting an international meeting of the Libya contact group in Paris next week. The group includes the United States, Britain, Arab states such as Qatar as well as the United Nations and Arab League. Mahmoud Jibril, leader of Libya’s National Transitional Council was also invited to Paris by the French President to discuss Libya’s future. Sarkozy was one of the first world leaders to recognize the rebels and to call for Qaddafi to step down.
European powers may not have a carte-blanche to carve up the Middle East as they did under the Mandate system, however as the political landscape in the region deteriorates, it sets up a scenario where “special” relationships with former colonial powers may be renewed to sure-up positions of power by authorities in the Middle East, or to increase influence in times of flux by the Europeans. In any case, it is worth watching the relations of former Mandate and colonial powers, such as those of Italy with Libya, Britain with Egypt or France with Tunisia and Syria. Additionally, the relations of the European powers with each other are once again going to play a critical role, and so is the politics of the emerging and established players.
The task now for Libya is to try and defy historical trends by creating a sovereign state that the population actually relates to and feels ownership over. This is an extremely tall order, given that tribal allegiances are competing with political allegiances. This is further compounded by a sudden vacuum of coercive power and no overly strong personality coming to the fore able to rally the population into a semblance of unity. There is a very strong possibility that a protracted tribal civil war is on the horizon for Libya.
What Is Next?
Since Qaddafi’s was ousted, many are asking who will be next to fall in the Arab Spring? Syria’s Assad is a likely candidate, which could propel the region’s other simmering conflict, the Israel-Palestine situation, into more heated territory. The question of who will succeed the toppled leaders is a huge weight in Israeli politics, as the “devil you know” has served Israel well in relation to both Egypt and Syria. Already the situation on the Egyptian border with Israel is deteriorating and the removal of Assad is probably unacceptable to Iran.
These worries come on the back of the likely declaration of Palestinian statehood at the UN, which is due to go to vote in September. If the Arab-Israeli conflict heats up again, it is plausible that the US may be dragged into the conflict, especially if the resulting authorities in Israel’s neighboring countries are overwhelmingly anti-Israel.
The most interesting development in this regard came last week when China announced its support for Palestine’s United Nations Statehood bid in September. The declaration came on Thursday during a meeting between Chinese special envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike and Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Wu assured the Palestinian people of Beijing’s support for the Palestinian bid.
Clearly, Russia, China and US are not on the same wavelength when it comes to the future of Middle East and the Arab world. Each player is trying to shape the Arab and Muslim world in a fashion that best served their respective purposes and interests, and the struggle is far from over.