The security situation in Libya remains tenuous. In addition to the well publicized clashes between competing militias, there is continuous infiltration of armed elements from neighboring countries, especially Egypt, that range from mere criminal gangs to terrorist groups which cause tension and threats to the whole area.
One particular risk that has been underplayed but has potentially devastating effects Libya’s transition to democracy is posed by former Qaddafi loyalists trying to foster disorder and undermine the transitional government’s control over the country.
This situation may pose a difficult dilemma for NATO. The countries that played a vital role in overthrowing the Qaddafi regime may in fact have to get involved again in Libya if the security situation collapses. This possibility is, at the moment considered as very difficult by the NATO countries who would definitely prefer to see the Libyans themselves handling the situation and establishing security to their territory. To this effect, the Libyan leadership recently attempted to negotiate with the Qaddafi loyalists an agreement that would stop them from intervening in Libya, sparking widespread anger at home, further dividing the populace.
As reported by the main protagonist of the event, Ali Sallabi, the president of the NTC, Mustafa Abd el Jalil, was very worried by the reports of infiltration into Libya by well trained and armed supporters of Qaddafi, , seeking a return to power. Entire areas of the country are de facto in revolt or in a state of anarchy, especially in the south but also in some cities such as Sirt and Bani Ulid the supporters of Qaddafi are still numerous and active. Further, many key leaders of the former regime have found refuge in Cairo. To try to defuse the threat Jalil asked Sallabi to arrange a meeting in Cairo with the Qaddafists and try to convince them to give up their dangerous struggle and recognize the inevitability of their defeat.
We do not know officially what Sallabi was allowed to give in exchange for this renunciation but in the course of an interview in Tripoli the day after the meeting he said that the bargain consisted of allowing free and protected return to Libya to the families of all former members of the regime. The possibility of an amnesty was never mentioned, and on the contrary, Sallabi reiterated that the only way for the former members of the regime to return to Libya would be after their subjection to a trial. The proposal was received but no decision was taken and therefore Sallabi went back to Tripoli the following day.
Most have asked why Sallabi, an Islamist leader, was chosen. What is his legitimacy and interest? The reason is that Sallabi knows the counterpart better than most, having dealt with them at length when the regime, under the sponsorship of Saif al Islam Qaddafi, offered to the imprisoned Islamists freedom in exchange for their acquiescence toward the regime. Sallabi is a political figure in Libya and his interest is clearly in saving the nascent democracy (that would probably see a relevant Islamist component) and avoid the collapse of the country into anarchy and civil war. Other criticisms have focused/centered on the fact that by entertaining negotiations with the Qaddhafists, the State de facto legitimizes them and somehow condones their crimes. Even this objection can be contradicted not only by pointing out the superior necessity to defend the state from a threat and negotiations with the enemy are a frequently used tool (the successful transitions in Chile, Argentina and many other states were carried out this way by means of negotiated settlements). Moreover, the terms of the negotiation nowhere show the abdication of the state in exacting justice for the crimes of the regime since no amnesty or impunity was offered.
The real problem is not centered on Sallabi, the negotiations or justice, but on the leader of the NTC. The main problem is that such a delicate issue as that of national reconciliation was dealt with arbitrarily and in secret by the non-elected leader (Abd el Jalil) of a self-appointed institution (the NTC). The NTC continues to govern Libya with the same procedures, secretively and arbitrarily, as the previous regime, with the same mentality and attitudes.
This is obviously a problem for the Libyans and for the transition to democracy but one that will be most probably taken care by the upcoming elections.
On the other hand, the security problem is one that Libyans might have a harder time resolving by themselves. That is why we shouldn’t be too severe in judging the methods the Libyan leadership uses to reach this result. Among the many choices probably negotiating with the former Qaddafi notables is not the worst.
The interest of NATO lies in the success of the negotiations and in the realization of a program for national reconciliation. The latter would in fact allow most of those who worked in the previous regime to be reintegrated and their skills utilized by the new government. More importantly, the success of the negotiations would allow for an easier penetration of the government forces in those areas where supporters of the former regime are still strong. All of this would avoid chaos and the necessity for a new NATO intervention. Something that no Western country is willing to do, especially with a grave crisis such as the Syrian one looming on the horizon.
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.