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.

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.

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).

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.

But the key question remains: Can Libya’s new government translate rebel victory on the battlefield into a victory in governance?

This brings us to the challenge ahead. For one, security remains an issue. The rapid and effective international intervention paradoxically insulated the rebels from the painful but necessary process of independently learning to overcome the incumbent regime’s early advantages in firepower. The rebels did learn, but it is not clear that they learned enough to establish a robust security sector on their own. This makes stability a more open question than if foreign assistance had not been so rapid and lethal.

The outlook for public support is modestly better, since most Libyans seem to have grown to genuinely loathe Mr. Qaddafi and the thuggery and thievery that characterized his rule. But we do not yet know how much positive support Libyans are prepared to give the rebels now that they have taken on the responsibility of governing.

Time is the crucial element. It is what allows rebels to survive, develop, and ultimately hone their governing capacity. In Libya, the time to achieve victory was shortened by a competent foreign military intervention, but there are other ways rebels can be deprived of time to develop the resources and skills they need.

To achieve the conditions that promote political participation, security, and stability, Libyan rebels must now demonstrate that they can govern. A critical component of governance is a robust and just security sector.

Moreover, the rebels must also open up the political system, recognizing that a good number of former government officials were aligned with the Qaddafi government only to secure their livelihood and that many of them possess the needed expertise to ensure that Libya is governed effectively and efficiently.

Monica Duffy Toft is associate professor of Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of “Securing the Peace: The Durable Settlement of Civil Wars” and "God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics" (coauthored with Daniel Philpott and Timothy Shah).

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