Webcast Recap

Karim Mezran, Director of the Center for American Studies in Rome, discussed the recent unrest in his native Libya, describing the state of the civil war and its various possible outcomes.

On July 12, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, “Libya: Death of an ‘Idea’?” with Mezran. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Mezran began his discussion by noting the situation in Libya before the beginning of this year’s unrest. Although the Arab Spring seemed to be spreading quickly to other countries, Mezran thought at first that it had no chance of significantly affecting Libyan society. He noted that although there were occasional riots, they never approached a national scale. Libyan leader Qaddafi appeared to hold the loyalties of the tribes and of many citizens reliant on the Libyan welfare state. The country seemed to be “booming” economically. In retrospect, Mezran theorized that the civil war spread out of the “dysfunctionality of the regime” and a growing trend of Islamism in the Eastern provinces. Mezran noted that although the “official narrative” of the war has been that riots led to repression and then organized conflict, in a recent report the International Crisis Group has found that there was armed insurgency right from the start. The National Transitional Council (NTC) fighting against Qaddafi is composed mainly of former members of Qaddafi’s government.

Regarding the role of international groups in the war, Mezran said that NATO intervention was necessary to keep the rebel movement alive. However, he also cautioned that branding Qaddafi as a war criminal has impeded peace efforts by discouraging diplomatic negotiations. Although Qaddafi is not a preferable leader, Mezran stated that he does hold some public support among Libyans of various tribes and classes and has shown to provide services and relative security to areas still under his control. If all foreign powers support the NTC, which is “highly divided internally,” they run the risk of giving power to a group that, at the moment, has no hierarchy, poor allocation of supplies, and a large Islamist constituency.

Mezran presented a range of hypothetical outcomes of the Libyan civil war. If Qaddafi dies, which Mezran considered unlikely, there might be “an implosion of the western area” due to anarchy and its supply of weapons. Alternatively, someone close to Qaddafi might take power, guaranteeing a modicum of public order while still opening the table for negotiations with the NTC. If Qaddafi stays, foreign powers disillusioned with the ongoing war might recognize the NTC as the official Libyan government and focus on bolstering rebel forces in the East but ignore developments in the West. This scenario would bring about a de facto division of Libya, likely to lead to violent disarray in areas not held by the internationally-backed NTC. A more positive possibility presented by Mezran is that foreign powers will conduct diplomatic discussions with Qaddafi, granting him and his family protected exile while working with a temporary government to merge the two regions of Libya currently engaged in civil war. Such an approach, already under consideration by some Western countries, would be “face-saving” for Qaddafi’s administration and still allow for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Of all these outcomes, Mezran considered a divided Libya with the West in disarray as the “worst possible scenario,” signaling the death of the idea of a unified Libya. He emphasized that coming out of the conflict with a positive outcome is vital to American credibility. Mezran felt that continued military action by American forces in Libya should only be a last resort in case Qaddafi’s government refuses to negotiate his abdication.

By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program


  • Karim Mezran

    Director of the Center for American Studies in Rome