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For Libya’s New Leaders, a Test of Optimism

  • Al Pessin

Shortly after celebrating last month's ouster of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s interim leaders are faced with the reality of governing a nation torn by months of war and decades of one-man rule.

Still working to consolidate their hold on the country, National Transitional Council chiefs face some of the same obstacles that hampered post-autocratic efforts in other parts of the world.

Potential insurgency by lingering Ghadafi’s supporters, says Emile Hokayem, senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, is just one several immediate concerns.

"The NTC needs to be very careful about not going for retribution or reprisal," he said, "but actually drawing some figures of the previous regime into the new political configuration."

Failure to do so amounts to what some experts call an “Iraq scenario,” wherein former regime troops and political supporters join an insurgency that undermines stabilization efforts.

But Libyan businessman Salem El-Maiar describes the analogy as misleading.

"In Libya the comparison is viewed as irrelevant," El-Maiar said. "It’s completely a different scenario and [set of] characteristics than Iraq."

Libya’s interim leaders, El-Maiar says, are working to establish a new national identity to replace old political and tribal loyalties.

"The concept now is 'we are all under the umbrella of Libya,'" he said, explaining that only civility and working toward advancement can compensate for "42 years we had in misery.”

But Hokayem says that such ideas are much more easily discussed than instituted.

“I’m not worried about the competence of the bureaucrats," said Hokayem. "I worry more about the existence of politicians who actually can get it right in terms of the rhetoric, in terms of the symbolic first actions in the transition."

NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil tried to make that start on Monday. Speaking of the “dignity” and “honor” Libyans earned by overthrowing Gadhafi, he promised a government based on "moderate Islam."

Even before the speech, British Foreign Office Spokesman Barry Marston said there was reason to be hopeful.

"We’ve been very impressed by the amount of thought [TNC leadership] has been putting into planning a democratic future," he said. "So long as there is this wide participation, we have grounds for optimism."

As celebrations subside and the hard work of transition begins, the only certainty is that optimism will be tested.