Expert Steven Heydemann discusses how the current events in Libya could impact the region and the history of the U.S.'s relationship with Libya in the wake of recent violence and protests.

What do you make of the current situation in Libya? How do you think it might impact the region considering the events that took place in Egypt?

The current situation in Libya is deeply distressing. The violence being directed against the Libyan people by the regime of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi is an outrage that is appropriately being condemned around the world, including by the United States.

The rapid and largely peaceful collapse of authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia might have contributed to a sense among Libyan citizens that they too could push a long-serving authoritarian ruler out of power through peaceful protests. Qaddafi, however, seems to have drawn different conclusions from mass uprisings across the region. One lesson is that if the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes had used more force, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zein al-Abdin Bin Ali might still be in power. A second is that local armed forces are not to be trusted. Qaddafi has, instead, relied on armed units that were recruited on the basis of their political loyalty and, according to reliable reports in the media, mercenary forces recruited from sub-Saharan Africa. The result has been carnage and a deepening conflict in which unarmed citizens confront much better equipped forces loyal to the regime. The international community has responded through international institutions like the U.N. and the African Union by imposing sanctions against the Libyan government, and by mobilizing humanitarian assistance. Additional measures, such as imposing a no-fly zone over Libya to further isolate pro-Qaddafi forces, are under active consideration, and seem likely to have support from the U.S. government.

Despite having a military advantage, it seems likely that the Qaddafi regime will eventually fall, leaving terrible destruction in its wake. Both the intensity of the Libyan conflict, and the extent to which the Qaddafi regime had for decades weakened formal political institutions and undermined frameworks for social organization, mean that the struggle to construct a democratic political order in Libya will be enormously challenging, and could fail. Like the Albania of Enver Hoxa, the Libya of Muammar al-Qaddafi will require significant support to overcome the legacies of 42 years of misrule. The presence of large and easily available oil reserves creates opportunities to manage such a transition with less economic stress than in some other cases. Yet the governance of oil resources

What is the U.S.’s relationship with Libya? How might the current events change that relationship?

At present, the U.S.-Libyan relationship is not strong. The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Libya in 1981, prohibited imports of Libyan oil in 1982, and subsequently imposed a variety of economic sanctions on the Libyan government in response to Libya’s role as a sponsor and organizer of terrorism. In 1991, the U.S. indicted Libyan nationals for their role in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Clandestine Libyan efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability exacerbated tensions between Libya and the U.S. In 2003, Libya abandoned its nuclear weapons program and in exchange the U.S. reestablished diplomatic relations. Nonetheless, the relationship was not a warm one, and continued to be marked by significant tensions and disagreements. The U.S. government welcomes the possibility of a democratic transition in Libya, but acknowledges the difficulties that such a transition will need to overcome if it is to succeed. Immediate U.S. priorities for Libya include humanitarian assistance for Libyans affected by the current conflict, protection of U.S. citizens still trapped in Libya, and strong support for diplomatic efforts to bring about Qaddafi’s removal from power. Should these efforts succeed, it is likely that the U.S. would stand ready to assist in the establishment of a new, independent and democratic government in Libya, should Libyans themselves request such assistance.

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