The Middle East Channel

Controlling Libya's weapons

"Raise your head high, you are a free Libyan" chanted tens of thousands in Benghazi on October 23, 2011 as the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) announced the liberation of Libya. "The tyrant is dead and his rotten body is under the feet of the Libyan people," said the NTC's Minister of the Martyrs and the Injured to an ecstatic crowd in Benghazi. "He told us we were rats. But we caught him hiding in a sewage tunnel, exactly like a rat. Let the other tyrants remember," said Muhammad Abdullah, a fighter from Misrata.

The defeat of the dictator is not enough for successful democratic transition. Libya will now have to deal with the legacy of that tyrant: decades of underdevelopment, corruption, vendettas, repression, and a war that left tens of thousands of Libyans dead and billions of dollars worth of damage. But pessimists are wrong to assume that these challenges doom Libya to collapse into violent chaos.

"Libya will not be another Iraq. I can guarantee you that," said Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the former commander of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group and now the commander of the Military Council of Tripoli. Every Libyan politician, tribal leader, military, and paramilitary commander I have spoken with realizes the stakes of the coming transitional period. If Libya survives the volatile transitional phase, it has the chance to be a democratic Dubai. If not, it may look like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia. To get through this transition, Libya urgently needs a strategy of disarmament, reconciliation, and reintegration to avoid a clash between the many armed Libyan units.  

The de-centralized nature of Libya's "liberation army" resulted in several outcomes. On the positive side, it was a people's army in many ways -- popular, legitimate, and inclusive. It avoided many of the potential depredations which a single, hierarchical rebel army might have inflicted on local populations. On the negative side, the absence of a clear command-and-control structure means that the units "coordinated" but did not "obey." This led to a long list of rogue acts. The most shocking was the murder of General Abd al-Fatah Younis, the former chief of staff, by his own side in July. It is possible (though not yet known) that the killing of Muammar al Qaddafi and his son Mo'tassim were a result of this decentralization as well. Even if it is true that the NTC instructed their forces to capture rather than kill, those orders would not have been easy to enforce. This could also have been the case in the recently reported abuses and killing of Qaddafi loyalists, including the Human Rights Watch report revealing the discovery of 57 corpses in Qaddafi's hometown.

However, the worst fears about violent clashes between militias have not materialized. Rival provincial militias have so far shunned fighting. One reason for this is counter-intuitive: many of the fighters have experienced warlordism firsthand in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, and elsewhere, and found the experiences horrendous. "We saw Muslims fight before...Neither Afghanistan was liberated, nor the Islamic state was established...We had enough with this. We just want to raise our kids in a safe society" said a fighter from Derna who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan multiple times.

The NTC, under Musfata Abdul Jalil, was able to maneuver through a few potential disasters, such as the Younis assassination, and is actively seeking to prevent a collapse into violence. His controversial speech on the supremacy of sharia laws was in fact an attempt to avoid a potential clash with the multiple armed Islamist brigades. While Libya's liberals might not see it this way, it is telling that every part of his speech stressed both the role of Islam and the importance of disarmament. As Abdul Jalil put it, "thanking God should not be by firing weapons. It should be by putting them down and building Libya."

The disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of the multiple armed brigades in the military and security apparatuses and other state bureaucracies will be critical in the coming few months. The experience of South Africa and the reintegration of the African National Congress (ANC) fighters can provide some useful lessons. Among those is that the DDR process should go in parallel with political inclusion. Both Dr Ashour Shuways, the head of the Libyan National Security Apparatus, and Fawzi Boukitf, the representative of the Revolutionary Platoons, made that promise. They called on Libyans to hand over their arms and join the newly formed institutions. Given that the platoons are mainly composed of civilians, Boukitf specifically promised to deliver every armored vehicle and heavy machine-gun to the national army. The disarmament process should include a wide variety of benefits and selective inducements. In order for the process to gain legitimacy it will need the support of credible religious scholars and tribal sheiks across Libya and Arab World.

The timeline for Libya's constitutional crafting, electoral process, and transition to democracy is quite ambitious. It will depend critically on how the DDR process unfolds, on the NTC's success in containing the ideological polarization, within and without it, as well as on the level of external support to the democratization process form Western countries and Western and Arab civil society groups. If those factors are successful, Libya should be on the right track toward democracy.

Dr. Omar Ashour, a lecturer in Arab politics and Director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK), is a visiting fellow in Brookings Doha Center and the author of "The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements."


The Middle East Channel

Egypt and Israel after the Shalit Deal

"People underestimate the fact that this relationship [with Israel] is anchored in mutual interest,'' an Egyptian diplomat told me last week when I asked about the deal that finally released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity. "Nobody has an interest in seeing it break down."

Those mutual interests have not been in great evidence since the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. Months of crisis, from a cross-border Israeli raid which killed six Egyptian soldiers to the ransacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, have dominated the bilateral agenda. But Egypt's role in brokering the exchange of Shalit for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners demonstrated that fears of a major break between Egypt and Israel have been wildly overstated.

While the Israeli government, Hamas, and other regional actors did their part, there is no question that Egypt played the pivotal role in finally resolving the Shalit affair. Cairo mediated the deal, arranged for Shalit's safe return to Israel, and organized the flights for the 40 Palestinian prisoners who were sent into exile in Turkey, Qatar, and Syria. Egyptian diplomats are understandably proud of their accomplishment. Egypt, which considers itself the most important Arab state, demonstrated for the first time in many years that it could achieve a difficult diplomatic objective. Despite the anti-Israel rhetoric of Egyptian politicians playing to the Cairo crowds as they prepare for parliamentary elections slated to take place next month, Shalit's release showed that Israeli-Egyptian ties are surviving, even thriving, in the post-Mubarak era.

Cairo's role in Shalit's release came at a time of deep uncertainty and doubts about the future of Egypt's relationship with Israel. After Palestinians infiltrated from Egypt and killed eight Israelis this past August and Israeli forces killed six Egyptian border guards in a counter-raid, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship appeared to be in crisis. Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa threatened, "Israel should know that the era in which our sons are killed without a harsh response on our part is over for good." The looting of the Israeli embassy in Cairo a few weeks later only deepened Israel's concerns. Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the Egyptian Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby both said the Camp David peace treaty wasn't "sacred'' and may have to be altered. Many Israelis worry about the loss of long-time friends in Cairo, and fear that greater democracy in Egypt will empower hostile voices and potentially place the 32-year old peace accord in peril.

It wasn't out of love for Israel that Egypt mediated Shalit's release. Egypt's military sees a vital self interest in keeping the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty robust. Egypt has its own security interests. Its primary concerns are preserving stability in Gaza, with which it shares a border, and maintaining order in the Sinai, where it has sought to stop smuggling. Another objective of Egypt's interim military leadership is to ease pressure at home, where demonstrators have sharply criticized the current government for undercutting democracy. "The agreement and the deal are a medal on Egypt's chest to be added to the several medals that it deservedly earned for its ongoing defense and support of the Palestinian cause," one commentator wrote in Al-Akhbar, Egypt's mass-circulation, pro-government daily.

Even more important is Egypt's desire to reassure the United States that it remains a reliable regional partner. Just three weeks before Shalit's release, Egypt's foreign minister, Mohamed Amr, told the Associated Press, that Egypt was seeking ways to strengthen its "strategic relationship" with the United States, and pledged that Egypt remained committed to the peace treaty with Israel, despite the comments by the Prime Minister and the Arab League Secretary General to the contrary. The U.S. Congress has been making highly public noises about conditioning or reducing military aid to Egypt, a threat that the Egyptian military and its lobbyists take very seriously. President Barack Obama called Egypt's de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, on Monday to push the military to end emergency law and military trials, and to advance the date for presidential elections. The Egyptian military believes that demonstrating its solid ties with Israel is key to blunting such U.S. pressure.

In Israel, Egypt's positive role in bringing to close what was nothing short of a national trauma, was sadly marred by an opportunistic television interview with Shalit moments after his transfer from Hamas's hands to Egyptian custody. The interview by an overeager Egyptian broadcast journalist, which appeared to catch the frail, overwhelmed, Shalit, off-guard, prompted complaints from Israel's leadership. But Israelis should not let that incident detract from the more important lesson here -- their fears of a hostile new Egypt have not come to pass.

The Shalit deal demonstrates that a post-Mubarak Egypt can be more effective in dealing with issues that concern Israelis. On Shalit himself, dialogue with the new Egyptian leadership achieved what five years discussions with Mubarak and his former, long-time envoy on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Omar Suleiman, could not.

The stalemated reconciliation talks between the Palestinian factions of Hamas and its rival Fatah are Egypt's likely next target. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal was just in Cairo. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was there this past weekend. Previous talks between the two parties went nowhere under Mubarak, who Hamas perceived as siding too heavily with Fatah. But given Hamas's willingness to trust Egypt's mediation of the Shalit deal, it might also trust Egypt's new leaders to draft a fair power-sharing deal with Fatah. This might reunite the two factions, helping to bring stability to the Palestinian territories while also reestablishing Egypt's credentials as the main regional powerbroker on Palestinian and Israeli issues.

If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were to recognize the value of Cairo's new leverage, opportunities abound. One prospect is back-channel talks that could firm up any ceasefire with Hamas. Even more ambitious, would be looking to Egypt to mediate any new peace talks. Such dialogue with Egypt on issues of mutual interest would not only stabilize the Israel-Gaza front. It would help solidify Israel's relationship with its most important Arab ally.

Janine Zacharia is former Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post and currently the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford University.

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