For weeks, the African Union (AU) has quietly been working behind the scenes to bring a diplomatic end to the violence in Libya. Last Friday, the first glimmer of a potential political settlement appeared as Colonel Gaddafi's representatives met with African and international leaders for negotiations at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
This meeting is the start of what will almost certainly be a long process of talks to determine Libya's post-war political landscape. No matter which side emerges victorious on the battlefield, negotiations are inevitable. The real question is what a political settlement will look like.
Knowing that negotiations will be part of the political endgame, it seems surprising that rebel representatives did not show up for the first round of talks. Their pre-condition for attending was that Gaddafi relinquish power and leave the country. On the surface, such a threshold for attending might seem unreasonable. But on closer inspection, the rebels have little practical choice but to hold out for Gaddafi's exile.
Given the current military impasse, and the AU's past record of intervention, African leaders will likely try to broker a power-sharing deal between Gaddafi and rebel leaders. The problem is that even if the AU eventually succeeds in putting together a settlement, any power-sharing agreement that emerges will still be laden with considerable pitfalls.
In theory, power-sharing looks like a win-win-win solution to the current impasse: rebels receive cabinet positions and the promise of reforms to the political system; Gaddafi gets the chance to regroup his forces and lick his wounds, and the international community gets to claim credit for bringing an end to the killing of civilians.
Unfortunately, the reality of power-sharing is not so straightforward. The recent experience of Zimbabwe, where a deal was brokered by the African Union, illustrates why.
After the violent 2008 elections, Zimbabwe saw a power-sharing arrangement negotiated between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. In spite of the celebrations that followed, Mugabe resumed his campaign of intimidation against journalists and activists once international pressure had subsided. Even though the position of prime minister was expressly created for Tsvangirai, Mugabe still clung to control over the military and the police.
In Libya, any power-sharing deal will likely see Gaddafi's supporters retain de facto control over the military and the police, while rebel leaders will be given cabinet positions with little actual influence over how the country is governed.
Zimbabwe's experience suggests that if a leader is so desperate to cling to power that he is willing to use lethal force on opposition members, then power-sharing is unlikely to lead to true democratic reforms.
Indeed, the failure of power-sharing in Zimbabwe should not be surprising. Having led the country for 28 years, Mugabe clearly had the upper hand. Gaddafi, having ruled for nearly 42 years, wields just as much influence, if not more. Consequently, the rebels know that as soon as the international spotlight shifts away from Libya, Gaddafi will quietly re-cement control over security forces and gradually eliminate key political opponents.
In the end, even if the AU succeeds in having its demands met (a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, protection for civilians, political change) over the negotiating table, implementation will depend on the threat of force - if Gaddafi remains in the country. Further, any attempt by the international community to monitor power-sharing outcomes will run into substantial difficulty. Not only is there little political will on behalf of Western powers to become involved in Libya's domestic politics, but Western intervention will only reinforce Gaddafi's anti-imperialist rhetoric.
Finally, the wider consequences of having the African Union reward violence by awarding power-sharing deals should not be overlooked. In recent years, AU leaders have consistently advocated power-sharing when influential incumbent leaders refused to leave office. This has happened time and again wherever there has been political strife on the continent, not just in Zimbabwe, but also in Liberia, the Democratic of Congo, Kenya and most recently in the post-election standoff between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara in Côte d'Ivoire.
What was once an ad hoc approach to dealing with intransigent heads of state has now become a norm. One unfortunate consequence of this norm is that it has emboldened leaders with authoritarian tendencies to use violence against the opposition with the hope of achieving a power-sharing "compromise" - facilitated and legitimated by the AU.
In the end, the kind of power-sharing deal that the African Union will push for is unlikely to achieve the desired outcome: easing out a leader who is largely viewed as illegitimate by his own people and by the international community. Gaddafi knows that if he leaves office, his next stop is likely to be the International Criminal Court. As a result, he sees no alternative except to fight on.
For their part, the rebels know that if Gaddafi remains in Libya, they will eventually suffer the consequences of standing up to his regime. So they too feel that they have no choice but to fight on.
This leaves two possibilities for minimizing bloodshed. The first is to have a friendly third country like Angola or Mauritania make a credible offer of exile to Gaddafi that will include keeping him safe from the ICC. The problem with this option is that it has been discredited because Nigeria allowed Charles Taylor to be handed over to the ICC after promising him exile.
The remaining possibility is much more controversial: allow Gaddafi to stay in office through a power-sharing deal while sending in an AU or UN peacekeeping mission to robustly monitor the agreement and to ensure that violence does not escalate. Neither of these options is particularly attractive to the international community, but then again, neither is the alternative of a drawn-out civil war.