Race for the spoils may stir Libya rifts

LONDON Sat Oct 22, 2011 12:58am IST

Anti-Gaddafi fighters celebrate at the drain where Muammar Gaddafi was hiding before he was captured in Sirte October 20, 2011. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Anti-Gaddafi fighters celebrate at the drain where Muammar Gaddafi was hiding before he was captured in Sirte October 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

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LONDON (Reuters) - The chaotic scenes surrounding the apparent summary execution of Muammar Gaddafi may suggest to many among Libya's Western allies that the country is headed towards a future of bloody score-settling rather than peace.

His death and that of his son Mo'tassim following the fall of the Gaddafi hometown of Sirte on Thursday will do nothing to calm fears voiced by human rights activists including Amnesty International that Libya's new rulers will repeat the abuses of the Gaddafi era.

But a more accurate foretaste of what lies ahead for the OPEC member country as it shakes off 42 years of despotism may be the period of fractious but mostly peaceful politicking that has unfolded in the capital Tripoli since it fell to rebel forces in September.

Some Libyans, alarmed by the refusal of heavily armed provincial militias to leave the city after its fall, predicted the groups would resort to violence in their attempts to stake a claim to state largesse in a post-Gaddafi partition of power.

In the event, the groups' alliance of convenience did fragment, and their insistence on patrolling the streets in effect sidelined the police, whose return to duty was awaited impatiently by many Tripolitanians.

But crucially the paramilitaries' thinly-veiled competition for the title of top force in Tripoli has been limited mainly to bad-tempered verbal sparring rather than armed violence.

That uneasy peace may continue, if only because Libya's new rulers know they would risk global ridicule and possibly renewed international isolation if they decided to fight for the oil-funded spoils of their eight-month-old uprising.

"Can an inclusive, effective national government be formed -- yes, if factions can avoid fighting," Jon Marks, chairman of Britain's Cross Border Information consultancy told Reuters.

"So it's all about the politics, and the $64,000 question is whether the new polity can retain the overall consensual feel you had during the revolution, or whether dangerous splits will occur."

FAIR OIL SHARE-OUT WILL HELP STABILITY

A critical moment will come when the interim unelected rulers, the National Transitional Council (NTC), declares the country fully liberated from Gaddafi's rule, a move that will trigger a countdown to elections for a constituent assembly.

The move, due imminently, is likely to prompt calls for the militias to disarm and help build national security forces. Whether they will comply swiftly is in doubt, in view of local rivalries long suppressed by Gaddafi's tough rule.

There is a longstanding competition between Libya's east and west -- Gaddafi mistrusted Benghazi, long an eastern opposition bastion, and starved it of funding. Then there are other, local rivalries between individual towns, now advancing rival claims for their fighters' role in bringing down Gaddafi.

But there is no communal divide such as that between Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites, and tribal identity in Libya is a social more than a political phenomenon.

"Those who expect Libya now to fragment, or to turn into a North African Baghdad, are likely to be disappointed," wrote Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan.

"It is improbable that Gaddafi's cult will long survive him, at least on any significant scale. Libya has no sectarian divides of the Sunni-Shi'ite sort. Almost everyone is a Sunni Muslim," he wrote.

"A more or less democratic government that spreads around the oil largesse more equitably could easily overcome this divide, which is contingent and not structural."

GUESTWORKERS POISED FOR RETURN

Some Libyans say that the fact that the rival provincial militias have thus far chosen not to fight each other suggests they have calculated that warlordism is not the way to advance their interests. A better method would be to preserve sufficient national stability to allow the oil to flow, and then argue their corner for a larger share of budget funding.

London-based consultancy Exclusive Analysis said that the NTC was likely to disagree on how to allocate oil and gas revenues, the power of the central and provincial government and the ability of the provinces to contract foreign firms for infrastructure and oil projects.

As a result, small-scale fighting was likely in the run-up to, and after, the drafting of the constitution, it said.

"A key indicator will be agreement over the authority of the National Oil Company over regional state-owned or partly state-owned firms, such as the Arabian Gulf Oil Company, Waha Oil Company and Sirte Oil Company.

Cole said factionalism was "a given" and the government had a small bureaucracy and few people with management skills.

But he noted that Gulf oil states facing similar problems in the 1960s and 1970s just imported Egyptian bureaucrats and managers. Egypt and Tunisia have a surplus of educated potential managers who face under-employment of their skills at home, he said, suggesting these would be of use to a postwar Libya.

Marks of Cross Border Information said a Tunisian official had told him Tunisia expected some 200,000-250,000 Tunisian workers to return to Libya - providing a big boost for Tunisia's own revolution, which urgently needs to create jobs.

A ROCKY ROAD TO DISARMAMENT?

Former British ambassador to Libya Richard Dalton said getting the militias under control would be a key task but "we just don't know just how rocky that road will be".

Marks said the critical question was how quickly the NTC could transform itself into an inclusive national government that can shape the political arena ahead of elections.

"The question of militias is important: this is a highly armed country, with a number of militias potentially contending for power -- a few benefiting from Qatari and other largesse from abroad)."

"Communities such as the Berbers are quite clear that, this time, they will not be fobbed off with third rate infrastructure and services and crumbs from the resources table."

(Reporting by William Maclean)

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