At Libya summit in Paris, a bid for new relationship with North Africa

A Libya summit convening this evening will target the National Transitional Council's governing and financial needs. French and British hosts are keen to avoid any echoes of past European colonialism.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters
Crates of bank notes are guarded upon arrival at an airport in Benghazi August 31. Britain's Royal Air Force on Wednesday flew a special mission to Libya -- freshly printed bank notes, worth more than $1.5 billion, which will be used to help its new rulers pay public workers and banks to replenish cash machines.

Today’s conference on Libya, hosted in Paris by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, introduces Libyan rebel leaders to an international gathering in an effort to establish their legitimacy and to release frozen Libyan assets abroad.

It may more largely signal a “new relationship” between Europe and North Africa, with French diplomats stressing an emphasis on “listening” and trying to eclipse the post-colonial legacy of European states that long teamed up with Arab autocrats toppled during the Arab Spring.

In practical terms, the meeting in Paris this evening is all about “transition” – especially at a sensitive moment when the rebel effort could still go badly or fail, French diplomats say. The main issue: How can a country ruled for 42 years by an autocrat transform itself into a democracy in a stable fashion?

Yet after six months of what often seemed an inconclusive war, it is also a moment of quiet celebration in Paris and London after a European summer of debt crisis, riots, and uncertainty.

The gathering follows a March 19 Paris conference that agreed to launch airstrikes to save rebels in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, and it takes place with fighting still underway and Muammar Qaddafi still at large.

Paris hosts refashioned the event as “Friends of Libya” to include nations like Russia, China, and Germany that did not participate in the air campaign or were critical of it.

National Transitional Council (NTC) members Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril are expected to talk about a road map to democracy with 60 delegations, 13 heads of state, UN chief Ban Ki-moon, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Avoiding the chaos of postwar Iraq in 2004 is a strong undercurrent here. Indeed, the NATO-led Libya venture, unlike the Iraq war, is seen in Paris as a correct example of “humanitarian intervention” – sanctioned by the UN Security Council, backed by a genuine uprising, and launched to save lives.

A rich oil country

Not lost on anyone is that Libya is not impoverished, but a rich oil country with a small population. Libyan bank foreign reserves prior to the war are estimated at $107 billion; gold reserves now top $9 billion. Libyan sovereign wealth is $70 billion. Qaddafi family holdings range from at least $50 billion to possibly $180 billion. Libya’s population is 6.4 million.

“The NATO countries will get their money back, and much more. They know this,” says Paris-based Middle East expert Karim Emile Bitar. “The danger is an Iraq-style messy transition … massive corruption, mysterious deals, unaccountable contractors.”

The NTC has requested an immediate release of $5 billion in frozen assets to pay for needs ranging from payroll to food and humanitarian aid. The UN has given a green light for the release of some $1.6 billion in the UK and some $1.5 billion in the US. Canada announced it is readying a similar amount and France wants to unfreeze about $2 billion by the end of the week, according to Le Figaro. Germany is waiting on the UN sanctions committee for a release of $1.4 billion.

Reports today from Elysées Palace officials suggest that France desires to delay a new UN resolution canceling sanctions and allowing a complete unfreezing of assets, arguing that airstrikes conducted under previous Resolution 1973 are still under way.

Libya will be forming a new governing structure over the top of its old despotic structures, analysts say. The ideal balance for the international community is to assist with new civil structures, but without colonial-style meddling or salacious profiteering. UN agencies on the ground have started with aid. But prominent groups from the two Libyan poles of Tripoli and Benghazi (see map) will be urged to cooperate and work out modes of authority for the string of towns and tribes between western and eastern Libya, and in the south.

Working with the old regime

A key question not likely to be answered today: How far can the new NTC realistically go without needing or using elements of the old Qaddafi system?

Whether France and Europe more largely can develop a new relationship and new habits regarding Arab states is seen here as a promise. A fresh approach will require humility, an opening of markets, and a better attitude towards minorities, writes Vincent Giret, the editor of Libération on the eve of the meeting:

"After years of erring, and connivance with the most authoritarian regimes of the south Mediterranean, France is finally on the side of history…. France can lay the milestones of a great Arab policy it has always dreamed of, often with grandiloquence and too much hypocrisy.”

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