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Libya after Gaddafi

After exercising a dictatorship over Libya for more than four decades, Muammer Gaddafi now seems to be effectively at the end of his rule. Following a bitterly-fought and surprisingly close run civil war that lasted for six months, the insurgents have reportedly almost completed the capture of Tripoli.

The development meets with approval across the spectrum, from rightwing ruling class politicians to the bulk of the far left, save for a handful of microsect oddballs who declared in favour of the Colonel at the start of hostilities.

In the popular consciousness of the Middle East, the fall of Gaddafi will mark a further step forward for the Arab Spring. But even so, there is an obvious major difference between the revolt in Libya and those on either side of it earlier this year.

While Tunisia and Egypt ousted their rulers through mass mobilisations from below, the Libyan insurgents would have been wiped out very early on without decisive intervention from NATO.

Even with the weight of a sophisticated war machine behind it, it still took the Transitional National Council (TNC) half a year to achieve its aims. That it should so much effort will no doubt come as an unpleasant surprise to Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama.

The question now is what price NATO will charge for services rendered. I have seen some leftist commentators argue that the whole adventure was designed primarily to secure a compliant government, but to my mind that misreads the situation.

Strip away the rhetoric and the hyperbole, and Gaddafi was malleable enough when it counted. If oil really were the sole determinant of foreign policy, non-intervention would have been a perfectly viable strategy for the West.

The hope in oil company boardrooms will now be that Libya rapidly reverts to fulfilling its allotted task in the global division of labour, which is essentially to supply southern Europe with crude.

This isn’t going to happen overnight. Goldman Sachs is predicting that the TNC will be able to produce something like 585,000 barrels a day once they are running the show. But that is only around one-third of the 1.6m bpd pumped prior to hostilities, and repairing damage to wells and export terminals will take time.

The International Energy Agency said in its annual Medium-Term Oil & Gas Markets report that it does not expect Libyan oil production to reach levels seen before the unrest broke out until 2014.

There is also real doubt as to the extent of backing the TNC really enjoys. It is one thing to make common cause in time of exigency, and another to accept a self-appointed leadership as a legitimate government.

It is horribly clear that the TNC is deeply divided internally, as the still-unexplained murder of Abdul Fattah Younes makes plain. Such fissures are exacerbated by tribal divisions.

I am happy to leave speculation about what will happen next to people with greater knowledge of Libya than I was able to develop in a single visit some time ago. Sadly, among the scenarios canvassed is a descent into violent, factionalised chaos along the lines of Iraq. For the sake of the Libyan people themselves, let us hope they can avoid that.

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