On Wednesday 27 July Britain became the latest state to recognise the rebel National Transition Council (NTC) as the “sole [Libyan] governmental authority”.
30 countries, including the United States, have now recognized the NTC. UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague declared, “This decision reflects the National Transitional Council’s increasing legitimacy, competence and success in reaching out to Libyans across the country.”
In London a Libyan diplomat was summoned to the Foreign Office to be told all Qaddafi officials must pack their bags and leave.
The NTC had been complaining that many of the financial promises made to it by foreign governments at the start of the civil war had not been met. Recognition allows the British government to unfreeze £91m in assets from a Libyan oil company. Austria also plans to free $1.7bn.
Backed by airstrikes, the anti-Qaddafi fighters have been making military progress on three fronts – around Brega, west of Misrata, and south of Tripoli in the Western mountains. The military-diplomatic stranglehold on Qaddafi is producing shortages in Tripoli; for example, residents queuing for petrol need to wait a week to fill up.
Qaddafi’s regime was subjected to extensive sanctions in the 1990s, and it has now reactivated the old smuggling routes it used then. Much of Qaddafi’s petrol now comes through Algeria — although the rebels seem close to cutting the road routes being used.
The western powers had been concerned about the reliability of the NTC and the possible presence of Islamists among its fighters. They calculate the rebels will win, sooner or later, and are now manoeuvring to shape the settlement and Libya’s future.
This week William Hague suggested Qaddafi may not have to go into exile should he leave power — saying it was a “question for the Libyans”.
Since it is difficult to see how internal exile could work it seems that the British — and others in Western governments — are signalling to Qaddafi that the details of his departure are negotiable.
The West does not want to a rebel victory following fighting on the streets of Tripoli. The Western states want some sort of negotiated end – as one diplomat put it, candidly – not a black and white ending, but something “a little grubbier”.
The day after Hague recognised the NTC the top rebel military commander, Abdel Fattah Younes was murdered. NTC minister Ali Tarhouni claimed he was killed by members of the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade, an Islamist group.
No doubt the British government is both alarmed and embarrassed by the killing. Tory Defence Secretary Liam Fox declared that as Libyan democracy developed the militants would “have to be marginalised”. He spelt it out: “The key to the Libyan resolution will be whether or not the close circle around Colonel Qaddafi recognise that he will sooner or later have to leave power. When the penny drops that that is inevitable, then you’re likely to see the sort of change in the political momentum that we’ve been looking for.”
The struggle for democracy activists in Libya will be to ensure that it is the change they’re looking for — the complete overthrow and dismantlement of Qaddafi’s regime — that wins out, and not the negotiated escape-route their fairweather “allies” in the British government appear to want to offer the tyrant.