POLITICS

Libya: Rory Stewart MP, Just Back From Tripoli, Speaks To HuffPost UK

01/09/2011 14:10 | Updated 01 November 2011

World leaders are gathering in Paris in a joint show of support for the interim Libyan government. But how close is the country to stability, and will Western leaders heed the lessons of the past? Tory MP Rory Stewart, recently returned from the conflict-ravaged nation, explains the situation on the ground and answers whether this is all really about oil.

How long were you in Tripoli for and what were your impressions of the city?

I was just there for a few days and I've just got back this morning. I'm now in Paris. The main real impressions that I got were that things were much, much better than they could've been. I was very concerned there would be real anarchy and instablilty and that various powerholders would be jockeying for power almost immediately. That wasn't what I found. There was an extraordinary air of optimism, almost euphoria. It feels much more like the sort of celebration that you saw in Egypt and Tunisia than you saw in the aftermath of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. At this stage they feel that they own it, it's something they've done rather that this has been a foreign intervention. And I think that's very important for giving them confidence.

Were you able to move around Tripoli fairly easily?

Tripoli is relatively secure at the moment. It could change, but at the moment you can travel around the city quite freely.
As somebody who was in Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan I was very, very worried about what would happen and I'm surprised at how calm Tripoli is. The NTC seems to be given time to sort itself out, which is very rare. Usually in these situations there's a sense of hectic emergency which puts these governments under huge pressure. So far, touching wood, they aren't facing huge threats from gangsters or criminals.

What's your assessment of what the Libyans need most urgently at this stage?

I think the most important thing that they need is to be able to determine their own destiny. I think the biggest danger is that the international community will panic and over-react, and start forcing its support and its advisors, its money. The great narrative is that the Libyans feel that it's their own revolution. There are, of course, things that they need. They will need greater access to finance, they need the borders open, they need supplies, they need medical assistance. But the most important thing is for the international community to realise that in this kind of situation, less is more. One of the great strengths at the moment is that Libya is not - as Iraq and Afghanistan were at this stage - crawling with advisors.

Was that presence of those advisors in those situations in Iraq and Afghanistan a cause of resentment?

It was a real problem. One of the things that in the end led to the problems in Iraq was that the Iraqis didn't feel they were running their own destiny. And in Afghanistan the surge - which was intended to deal with the Taliban insurgency - ended up exacerbating it because it allowed the Taliban to say they were fighting for Afghanistan against a foreign military occupation. And just in a more a general sense, Afghan civil servants and ministers didn't take real responsibility because they didn't feel they were in charge. In Libya you get a sense from ministers that they feel that this is their thing. In terms of support they tend to talk about support from Qatar, Turkey and Tunisia, rather than from the West.

People have commented in Britain about the need for avoiding something similar to de-Baathification in Libya. Are there useful parallels between what happened in Iraq and what could happen in Libya?

I think there are useful parallels. When people were concentrated in Benghazi a few months ago there were a lot of calls from people to say, for example, that the director of the psychiatric hospital had been too close to the old regime and should be got rid off. People who had been too close to Gaddafi felt under threat. Nevertheless it does seem the Gaddafi regime was quite different to the Saddam regime. It doesn't seem to have engendered quite the degree of rage and terror and resentment that the Baath party engendered. So most of the NTC people that I was talking to seem to have quite a constructive moderate approach. But it's been in sort of in suspended animation for the last few days because it's been Ramadan, so a lot of the civil servants have not come to work. The real question is going to be in two days time, whether they turn up again.

Will the arrival of the 1.8 billion in dinars that arrived in cash from the UK on Wednesday night help in getting them back to work?

It will make a huge difference because the Libyan state spends an incredible amount of money - its salary bill alone is running at about 14 billion dinars a year. The revenue from the government is totally dependent on oil. There seems to be a real cash crunch but they do have these huge cash reserves around the world. They just need to be able to get access to those to do basic things like pay salaries.

Looking ahead at the conference in Paris, it's a fairly short meeting. Will anything meaningful come out of it?

It is a real opportunity for Libya to set the tone of the new relationships. It's very important at the beginning of these things to get a sense of expectation right. It's a good thing that the international community isn't going to take too much credit for this. They can feel quietly pleased about the Nato role and the no-fly zone, but I think it's very, very important that the tone of this conference emphasises Libyan centrality in this.

What's your sense of how the Libyan revolution has been viewed across the rest of the Arab world and the Middle East?

It's very striking how much people on the streets of Libya and Tunisia talk about other countries. How interested they are in what's going on there. It's clear that the events over the last few weeks in Tripoli were heavily influenced by what they saw going on in Damascus. I think it is creating a real sense of Arab sentiment and unity which is very rare and very welcome.

There might be a degree of scepticism from some quarters in the UK that oil companies are rushing to claim Libyan oil now - and that the Russians and the Chinese have changed their tune about the NTC quite rapidly. Would that be cynical?

I think Libya is a country which is sitting on a lot of oil and companies can make a lot of money in Libya. I think it's not surprising that everybody including the Chinese and the Russians would be keen to work with the new Libyan government because it's a huge market. I hope though, that we've learnt the lessons a little bit from what happened with Gaddafi, which are that we allowed Britain and France and the US and many other countries to be over-influenced by our commercial interests and get too close to the regime. I hope we can begin to get a more moderate, balanced approach were we support British companies and have a profitable, prosperous relationship with the Libyan government but also remember that this isn't everything. In the long run our relationships with other countries will rely on people trusting us, and for that to happen we have to make sure that we stay away from creating the kinds of relationships we created with Gaddafi. A relationship which, in the end, was a mistake.

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