Can Gaddafi really stay in Libya and cede all power?

David Cameron was very clear, in statements in February and March, that Muammar Gaddafi must quit and go into exile. Hillary Clinton insisted in April that the Libyan leader must “step down and leave Libya”. But it gradually became evident no country wanted the responsibility or trouble of hosting him — even so-called “pariah” regimes in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Belarus. The International Criminal Court’s indictment of Gaddafi for alleged war crimes made exile an even less plausible option. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has reluctantly recognised this reality.

Britain changed its mind for other reasons, too. Public support for Nato’s open-ended military campaign in Libya, never strong to start with, is waning. Nato members such as Germany refused to get involved in the first place while others, such as Norway, have curtailed active involvement. Backing from Arab League countries, militarily at least, has been disappointing, and from African states nonexistent.

Pressure for a negotiated settlement is growing as a consequence. But despite the constant bombing — about 40 strikes a day — Gaddafi and his sons still wield power in Tripoli and beyond, his forces continue to oppose the rebels, and snail’s pace UN-led peacemaking is still at the stage of swapping ideas about how to proceed. In short, Gaddafi won’t budge, and the hoped for regime implosion has not happened.

Although some rebel spokespersons have expressed dismay at the perceived softening of Britain’s position, they do not speak with once voice on Gaddafi (or much else). Mustafa Abdel Jalil, leader of the Benghazi-based government-in-waiting, said recently that Gaddafi could remain if he accepted the rebels’ conditions, including the ceding of all military and political power. But others in the rebel camp strongly disagree, arguing that he will not do so and that his continued presence in Libya would be both disruptive and untenable.

Sham, or capitulation
This latter argument is wholly persuasive — for the bottom line, as Hague surely understands, is that if Gaddafi is to remain in Libya, he will never wholly surrender the military and other powers that protect him and his family from the retribution, judicial and extra-judicial, that Libyans would certainly pursue. To do so would be political if not actual suicide. Any deal allowing him to remain but supposedly stripping him of power will therefore lack credibility from the start. It will be either a sham or a capitulation.

Seen this way, Britain’s previous insistence that Gaddafi depart Libya appears both sensible and preferable, as Hague tacitly admitted even as he changed tack. “What is absolutely clear is that whatever happens, Gaddafi must leave power,” Hague said. “Obviously him leaving Libya would be the best way of showing the Libyan people that they no longer have to live in fear. But as I have said all along, this is ultimately a question for Libyans to determine.”

Informed sources say it would be wrong to despair of success in Libya, these myriad difficulties notwithstanding. It was expected all along that finishing the job would be “slightly messy”. It was possible Gaddafi could be persuaded to step down and remain in the country, although admittedly such a scenario was very difficult to envisage. It was also true that keeping the coalition together and singing the same tune was problematic.

Yet the fact remained, the sources said, that Nato had waged a “remarkable” campaign, largely avoiding civilian casualties or triggering humanitarian problems, Benghazi and large parts of eastern and southern Libya had been protected and were no longer under regime control, and political, economic and diplomatic pressure was slowly but surely squeezing Gaddafi and his dwindling cohorts. “The endgame was never going to be straightforward. But it is the endgame.” –


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