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Why a rebel victory in Libya is better than a negotiated settlement

Civil war research shows that conflicts that end with a decisive rebel victory are more likely to result in lasting peace and stability than those wars ended by a negotiated settlement. That bodes well for Libya, if the rebels can show they can govern.

By Monica Duffy Toft / September 13, 2011

Cambridge, Mass.

Following months of fighting to defeat Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s rebels are steadily consolidating power following their victory. As a settlement to Libya’s civil war, this is potentially very good news. Research on civil war shows that conflicts that end in decisive rebel victory are four times more likely to result in lasting peace than those concluded by a negotiated settlement. However, because the rebel victory in Libya came about so quickly, and as a result of foreign intervention, long-term stability may be harder to achieve.

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Research over the past decade shows that 22 percent (5 of 23) of the civil wars ended by negotiated settlement between 1940 and 2000 have recurred (as in Sudan), but only 6 percent (2 of 33) of the civil wars ended with a rebel victory have resumed (as in Uganda).

Rebel victories are more stable than when the standing government wins or ends a conflict – in part because the rebels must typically gain significant support from fellow citizens in order to win. They are likely to benefit people in ways the incumbent government cannot (due to weakness), or will not (for fear of sparking another insurrection).

IN PICTURES: Rebels take Tripoli

Also, by winning, a rebel military organization has proven it can dominate the security sector. But as a rebel organization, it must appeal for legitimacy to its domestic audience, and to an international community generally predisposed to support incumbent governments. On both counts it is apt to be generous (thus taking away a public’s will to resist), and to ensure security (thus taking away a public’s capacity to resist).

A second important finding is that when rebels win they are more likely to allow those they govern to have a greater say in politics. Rebels need to buttress the legitimacy of their win: Insisting on greater liberalization of the political system is an effective way to do that. For example, when the current president of Uganda – and former rebel leader – Yoweri Museveni triumphed following that country’s civil war in 1986, he made great efforts to form an inclusive government. He invited not only fellow rebels but former government officials into the government as part of his liberalization scheme.

Encouragingly, in the Libyan conflict, the Qaddafi dictatorship was overturned by rebels who started out militarily incompetent, but who gained skill and lethality over time. Moreover, Libya’s rebels enjoyed a great deal of public and international support that gave them growing momentum.


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