Although revolutionary forces succeeded in capturing the main urban centers of Libya and killing Muammar Gaddafi, the ultimate outcome of the civil war is far from certain. Is conflict really at an end? Can the country reunify? Will the factions allied in the effort to oust the Gaddafi regime turn against each other? Can all areas of the country be controlled by a single government? Does the reported hostility of some rebels toward black loyalist soldiers and civilians reflect a deepening racial divide? Will Libya be truly democratic and sovereign?
One of the most crucial issues is whether there will be major repercussions from the decisive role NATO airpower played in the Libyan civil war. Questions have been raised about what NATO nations or their corporations may expect in return for making such a significant contribution to ousting the Gaddafi regime. Some observers have optimistically asserted that, unlike the Egyptian uprising where a dictator was removed but the old system remained, in Libya the old system perished with the downfall of Gaddafi leaving a relatively clean slate on which a new chapter of Libyan history can be written. But will the Libyan people alone determine what comes next? Or will other nations dominate the creation of the new Libya? The aid rebel forces received from outside powers raises the obvious question of whether and to what degree foreign interests will shape Libya's post Gaddafi political and economic systems. NATO countries participating in the Libyan civil war champion neo-liberal global economics. This suggests the possibility that Libya will be ensnared in this form of globalization and fall victim to trends experienced by other developing nations such as increased economic inequality and the privatization of essential services. Such an outcome of the Libyan conflict would certainly be disappointing and could indicate that whatever political system emerges, Libya's sovereignty had been significantly compromised.
Another fundamental question concerns the impact of NATO's participation in the Libyan civil war on future political stability. As Jungyun Gill and I noted in the May 2011 issue of the Montreal Review and as I discussed at some length in an August 26 interview on the 2011 Arab uprisings for NPR's "All Things Considered," one of the major requirements for a successful revolution is a unifying motivation that brings together members of different social groups and classes in a revolutionary alliance. In the Libyan revolution the dominant unifying element, hatred of the Gaddafi regime, brought both secular supporters of democracy and Islamists into the rebel effort. But in other civil wars where hatred of a dictatorial regime was the key factor in uniting otherwise disparate groups in a revolutionary alliance a complimentary unifying factor was anti-imperialism. This was the case, for example, in the Cuban Revolution against Fulgencio Batista, the Iranian Revolution against Shah Mohammad Pahlavi, and the Nicaraguan Revolution against Anastasio Somoza. In all of these revolutions, as well as many others, the dictatorships targeted for overthrow were widely viewed as tools of foreign imperialist powers. In fact, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had led a military revolt against a monarchy perceived to be an instrument of foreign imperialism in 1969 as had Colonel Gamal Nasser against the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and General Abdel Karim Qasim against the Iraqi monarchy in 1958. But in the current Libyan revolution in which the rebels received enormous assistance from nations previously viewed as imperialists in the Middle East and Africa, Britain and France, the anti-dictatorship and anti-imperialist themes appear not complimentary and reinforcing but instead opposed. To increase the likelihood of political stability and reconciliation in Libya, the country's new leaders must convincingly demonstrate that they are committed not only to inclusive democracy but also to a future Libya that is completely independent and free from foreign control.
Other issues may also interfere with stability. Supporters of the former regime may seek revenge for reported abuse or mass executions of pro-Gaddafi prisoners by rebel forces. African governments who believe that their citizens were mistreated or executed by Libyan rebels as "foreign mercenaries" may find such behavior unjustifiable, racist and hypocritical, especially in light of the fact that virtually the entire air force supporting the rebels was foreign. Will these nations act to destabilize Libya? Will they provide assistance to survivors of the old regime who might try to mount armed resistance to the new Libyan government?
Another element of the international scene is the potential reaction of nations who voted for the UN resolution to allow NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya or did not use their veto rights to prevent it. Leaders in some of these countries may believe they were deceived into supporting a measure to prevent Gaddafi's forces from using air power, tanks and other heavy weapons in the civil war when what also happened was that NATO air power was used to support the rebels and permit them to use tanks and heavy weapons denied to their opponents. Or, more troubling, did NATO air power whose involvement was justified in order to prevent atrocities by the pro-Gaddafi forces in fact provide the opportunity for atrocities to be carried out by the rebel side?
For Libya to achieve lasting peace, these issues must be effectively addressed. Major goals should include ensuring that all Libyans, regardless of prior political allegiance, be given an equal opportunity in the economy as well as the right to freely express themselves and participate in a democratic political system, that Libya operate in the international system as a sovereign nation and not be compelled to embrace neo-liberal economic policies, and that individual and social welfare be safeguarded through the unbiased and consistent application of a rule of law which makes basic human rights is unequivocal guiding principle.
As has often occurred in past political revolutions, the process of removing the previous Libyan regime and the ways in which this was accomplished will most likely lead to unintended consequences.