Gaddafi's fall no guarantee of security for minorities

Tripoli, Libya - The unexpectedly swift collapse on Tuesday of Colonel Gaddafi’s grip on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, has brought into focus, faster than had been predicted, the many challenges facing the country as the rebel leadership prepares to take control.

In the mean time, uncertainty surrounds the fate of much of the civilian population of Tripoli, in­clud­ing the tiny community of Christian clerics. As telephone lines have been cut by the fighting, it has not been possible to contact all those remaining in the city.

But news of a break-in at a Roman Catholic church there was contained in a message sent by the Revd Hamdy Sedky, of Christ the King Anglican Church, in Tripoli, to the President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, in Cairo, shortly before communications went down. He said that no one had been hurt during the break-in.

Mr Sedky spoke optimistically about the prospects for the country in the wake of the rebels’ success. He said: “Praise the Lord for our safety here in Tripoli in such difficult situa­tion [sic]. Now all people here are so glad of experiencing im­prove­ments and developments. But we still need to pray for the current transitional time to witness safe consequences of development. For the time being it is not safe to move around, and it will take us some time, but we are glad of having some relief.”

Late on Monday, three Franciscans were barricaded in their friary in Tripoli, surrounded by heavy fight­ing. “No one dares to walk in the street because people are shot on sight,” an anonymous church source told Fides, the news agency of the Vatican Congregation for the Evan­gelization of Peoples.

The Assistant Bishop in Egypt with North Africa & the Horn of Africa, the Rt Revd Bill Musk, based in Tunisia, told Ecumenical News International on Tuesday that Chris­tian clerics, including Mr Sedky, had never indicated a desire to leave Libya, despite the heavy fighting: “We asked our priest to do what he feels the Lord is telling him. Where violence has broken out, it is dangerous for everyone.”

Until Colonel Gaddafi and those still loyal to him are apprehended, Libya’s future will remain uncertain. The sudden collapse of most of the resistance in Tripoli was reminiscent of the disappearance of forces loyal to President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, in 2003, when the Allies entered the Iraqi capital.

The most positive prospect for post-Gaddafi Libya, however, lies in the way in which the country differs most from post-Saddam Iraq: there is no equivalent of the Baath Party, an institution that permeated all sections of society and cemented Iraq together. Colonel Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule left no room for institutions that would need to be disbanded before preparing for a new future: Libya’s “popular com­mit­tees” merely rubber-stamped his orders.

So there is a clean slate in Libya in a way there was not in Iraq. This will simplify the creation of a new political system — if sufficient consensus can be achieved. But serious challenges will have to be tackled if this is to happen.

For a start, regional and tribal allegiances have always been stronger than political ones, ever since the modern state was formed in the 1950s. In particular, Benghazi has always felt neglected by Tripoli. One must therefore expect Benghazi to demand a much larger slice of the political and economic cakes in post-revolution Libya, especially as Benghazi was the birthplace of the revolution.

The only form of serious opposi­tion that emerged from time to time during the Gaddafi era came from Islamist groups. These are fierce and ruthless, making no pretence at seek­ing to play a part in a future democratic Libya — the way the Muslim Brotherhood is in Egypt. The prospect in Libya of Islamists’ reaching accommodation with secular or liberal or pro-West politi­cal groups is remote. Any future regime must expect to face serious challenges from armed Islamists. Christians could become vulnerable, as has happened in Iraq.

While the euphoria of the over­throw of the Gaddafi regime lasts, most Libyans will be grateful for the West’s military help. In the eyes of many Arabs, however, any future government that appears to have come to power on the back of NATO will be discredited. So one must expect a period when the new government in Tripoli seeks to distance itself from the West.

Dealing with these issues presents a challenge to the Transitional National Council as it establishes itself in the capital. Its credibility has already been open to question — after the killing by Islamists of a key rebel officer and by its premature announcement of the capture of two of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons.

The coming weeks will be critical if the new Libyan leaders are to stop their country from following the path of Iraq into chaos.

Draft charter. A draft constitutional charter for Libya, including provi­sion for religious rights, has ap­peared online. It makes Islam the state religion, but includes a guar­antee for non-Muslims of “the free­dom of practising religious rights” and “respect for their systems of personal status”. It provides that, one month after liberation, a Con­stitu­tional Authority is to be ap­pointed to draft a final constitution to be presented for approval in a plebiscite.