Splitsville in Libya?

A military stalemate could result in de facto partition of Libya, with Muammar Qaddafi controlling the west and rebels the east. That wouldn't be good for Libya or regional stability.

If the military stalemate continues in Libya, the country appears headed for de facto partition. Or so it is argued. Libya would split along tribal lines, between supporters of Muammar Qaddafi in the west, and rebel supporters in the oil-rich east. A divided Libya, it is also argued, must be vigorously avoided.

But why? Didn’t the 20th century move toward geopolitical divorce? South Asia split up after the fall of the British Empire and the Soviet Union splintered after communism’s demise. Individual countries broke up, too, including Pakistan, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

A more recent example sits on Libya’s border. In a referendum in January, Southern Sudanese voted for independence from Sudan after decades of bloody civil war. Like its southern neighbor, isn’t Libya also an “artificial state” whose borders – like much of Africa and the Middle East – were drawn up without regard to tribe or religion by occupying powers, now gone?

And yet, Libya would be ill advised to divide in two.

For starters, Libyans don’t want it – neither the rebels (according to their leaders) nor Qaddafi (based on his military tactics).

Yes, tribal tensions are strong, exploited by the brutal Qaddafi to build loyal supporters during his four decades in power. But the much larger fight is democracy versus dictatorship.

Defections of top officials show cracks in Qaddafi’s support, as does his obvious propaganda machine of protesters whose same faces appear at events staged for foreign journalists. Beyond his inner circle and own tribe, loyalty to the colonel may by now reach no deeper than bribes, favors, and sadly, fierce intimidation.

One also has to question the “artificial state” assumption. It has to be pointed out that the Middle East and North Africa have existed within their present borders – albeit under firm fists – longer than many other geopolitical unions in the world. A certain nationalism has taken root.

Even in Iraq – where Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds clash – the preference is for reconciliation. Iraqis don’t want to return to sectarian conflict, though admittedly, they’re still sweeping under the carpet a needed conversation about differences and rights. It’s encouraging that in Libya, the rebel-led National Transitional Council is already talking about national reconciliation in a post-Qaddafi era.

From President Obama to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a divided Libya with Qaddafi holding on in Tripoli sends shudders down the spine. Entrenched civil war would likely only continue, opening the door to regional instability. The United States warns of another Somalia in the making, a failed state of lawlessness and chaos that serves as a launching pad for pirates and terrorists.

A longtime Libya split would very likely further upset the shaky union of countries that back the UN-mandate for a no-fly zone and other measures to protect civilians. Remember that five members of the UN Security Council abstained from authorizing such force. Not all members of NATO – which is leading the military mission – are taking part. Disagreements are building within NATO over who is doing what and how it’s being done.

Imagine the divisive questions that would arise from a long-term civil war and partition. Would the world recognize a rebel-held eastern Libya as a state? If so, what about the anti-Qaddafi people “stuck” in western Libya who suffer retribution? What about arming and training the rebels – a question already pertinent?

In the last century, geopolitical divorce may have been in vogue and, in many cases, quite justified as countries threw off foreign or despotic rule.

But the demand of this century, made more urgent by a globe that shrinks with each new communications tool, is for people to learn to live peacefully with their differences. More than that, to actually profit from them through trade, tourism, and intellectual and cultural pursuits.

Ultimately, the international community must work to oust Qaddafi, through military and political pressure. Only then can Libya begin a new era in which its citizens are free to shape their own destiny – individually and together.

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