Leaders of the Libyan uprising that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi sit down with world powers today to map out the country’s rebuilding, 42 years to the day after the former strongman seized power in a coup.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose gamble to spearhead the West’s intervention in Libya paid off this week as Gaddafi was driven from power, are hosting delegations from 60 countries and world bodies.
The tight 3-hour agenda focuses on political and economic reconstruction, with Western powers anxious to avoid mistakes made in Iraq — but talks on the sidelines may expose early jostling for opportunities in oil and infrastructure.
Libya, which boasts large reserves of top-quality crude oil, has been left badly underdeveloped by Gaddafi, who as a young army captain ousted Libya’s King Idris on September 1 1969.
With Gaddafi driven from power this week in a popular revolt, the “Friends of Libya” conference will give the ruling interim council its first platform to address the world.
National Transition Council Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil will open the afternoon talks with an outline of the NTC’s roadmap, which targets a new constitution, elections within 18 months and ways to avoid bloody reprisals. He will later address an evening news conference along with Sarkozy and Cameron.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be at the talks along with European and African leaders and the heads of NATO, the United Nations and the European Union. Russia and China, which opposed the NATO intervention, will also be represented.
Eager to meet immediate civilian needs, the NTC is expected to push for rapid access to billions of dollars in foreign-held Libyan assets frozen under U.N. sanctions on Gaddafi.
The United States and Britain have won U.N. permission to unfreeze US$1.5 billion each of Libyan assets and France is trying to get a similar sum approved out of a total 7.6 billion euros of Libyan assets in France, according to a government source.
Other European countries may follow suit, and while Thursday’s talks are not supposed to be about funding pledges, some assistance or loans may be promised to aid the NTC, which is using money unfrozen earlier in France to buy wheat.
The European Union, which has already sent some 150 million euros in humanitarian aid to Libya, is preparing measures to help the NTC with justice, policing and security, education and financial management, EU sources say.
While officials are adamant Thursday is about securing political stability in Libya and doing things differently than in Iraq, French companies are planning a trade mission to get a head start on reconstruction contracts.
As well as big prospects for developing oil drilling, the end of the six-month conflict will open up big opportunities for infrastructure, construction, electric power, telecoms, water and tourism companies who are keen to challenge the privileged position enjoyed by Italian firms under Gaddafi’s long rule.
The NTC has said those who took a lead role in backing their revolt will be rewarded. While Paris has already sent company representatives to assess the situation on the ground Britain is not planning any missions until the conflict is completely over.
“It seems that Britain is always slow out of the traps, although we are good at the over-arching politics,” said John Hamilton, a director of research and publishing company Cross-border Information, who noted Libya’s banking sector will also be ripe for development.
“If someone can say Tripoli is safe, people will be out there as soon as possible,” he said.