The complex military and political situation in Libya remains
unresolved three weeks after the first protests erupted in the eastern
city of Benghazi in mid-February 2011. The popular revolution continues
to defend the territory won, while resisting efforts by Colonel
Gaddafi’s forces to push it back. The regime’s efforts to regain control
of the cities of Misrata and Zawiya, east and west of the capital, are
ongoing; while Gaddafi loyalists are clinging to power in Tripoli
In this fluid situation, questions are inevitably
being asked about what comes next. The various scenarios being mooted
range from an army takeover to the establishment of an interim
government led by former regime figures who have defected during the
It is impossible to predict with any degree of
certainty exactly which side or faction will prevail. A degree of
consolidation of dissident rule has taken place in the eastern regions,
with the formation of an interim council comprising lawyers and other
professionals (including former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil)
whose members hope will go on to lead a transition process.
Gaddafi and his immediate circle are determined to retain power; the
hard core of the regime as well as several key tribes have remained
loyal (some major defections notwithstanding); and it is conceivable
that he will hang onto his Tripoli power-base. If Gaddafi were to hold
on in this way, a likely prospect would be a military and political
stalemate in Libya that could last for some considerable time to come.
Yet amidst this uncertainty, one thing is assured: once the
immediate difficulties of restoring security have been overcome, whoever
next exercises power in Libya will face major, longer-term challenges
that may prove almost insurmountable.
The test of transition
may currently be engaged in a prolonged and messy contest for power,
yet in principle the country might appear capable of managing a smoother
transition from authoritarianism to something more akin to a
constitutional democracy than (say) Egypt, or even Iraq.
is for the most part ethnically homogenous: there are small communities
of Tebu and Tuareg in the deserts of the south, as well as a small
Berber population, but these communities are limited and have never
displayed any real desire for autonomy. Libya is also homogenous in
religious terms, with the vast majority of inhabitants following the
Al-Maliki school of Sunni Islam.
Furthermore, Libya is a
country with a small population of just 6 million that has access to
vast wealth thanks to its energy reserves. Many Libyans used to complain
that their country should look like Dubai rather than the dysfunctional
and crumbling state that Libya under Gaddafi had come to resemble.
in other ways, Libya faces perhaps a greater uphill struggle than other
countries that are currently in the process of transition. The arguably
biggest obstacle is the nature of the Gaddafi regime, which has built
an entire nation around the leader’s idiosyncratic personality and
vision. Indeed, Libya has over the forty-two years of his rule a kind of
guinea-pig for Gaddafi’s ideological experiment, the Jamahiriyah (“state of the masses”), a concept he conceived in his early 20s and still remains committed to.
other difficulties are related to Libya’s topography and historical
experience. Libya is a vast land and its two main population centres –
Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east – are separated by a huge
expanse of desert. This geographical divide has resulted in the two
regions developing separate identities, which have served to perpetuate
the country’s tribal system. The combination of the Gaddafi legacy and
these physical and historical factors will make securing Libya’s future
even more of a test, in four ways.
The institutional vacuum
first is the almost complete absence of functioning institutions in
Libya. Muammar Gaddafi’s highly personalised rule has meant that, behind
the façade of formal government, all power has lain in the hands of the
leader and his immediate circle (consisting primarily of members of his
own family and tribe). Libya has not even had a ruling party akin to
Tunisia’s RCD or Egypt’s NDP.
The official governmental
institutions have had no real power, and operate as little more than
vehicles for corruption. In any case, these bodies – and the regime more
broadly – have relied on a very narrow set of individuals, who were
simply shuffled around the different positions every few years.
Personality and closeness to the leader was always far more important
than formal position.
Gaddafi has long maintained a
divide-and-rule policy to guarantee that no institution could ever
challenge his hegemony. The army was kept purposefully weak and divided,
as well as being riddled with corruption.The judiciary was little
better. Political parties, opposition movements, trades unions or any
genuinely independent civil-society organisations that could have served
as vehicles to assist in a transition were all banned. Even the
business community was closely tied to the regime to ensure that no
economic dynamism could flourish outside of the state.
the only truly functioning bodies in Libya have been the National Oil
Corporation (NOC) and the security services, particularly the infamous
Revolutionary Committees Movement which infiltrated every part of Libyan
life. The NOC will continue to be crucial to the country’s future,
given that oil makes up 95% of the country’s export earnings. The
security services are unlikely to play any role in a post-Gaddafi Libya,
but they will need to be dealt with and even accommodated in some way;
the devastating consequences of the enforced exclusion of former
Ba’athists from any role in Iraq after the fall of the Saddam Hussein
regime is in this respect a dire warning.
Thus, any new
government will have to start almost from scratch to create meaningful
functioning institutions. The dearth of qualified and experienced
personnel, and the weakness of the country’s education system, mean that
staffing these institutions and running them effectively will not prove
easy. Libya has already tended to rely overly on outside expertise, and
it is perhaps in this area that the international community may be best
placed to offer practical assistance in helping to construct a genuine
The corruption routine
second way in which a post-Gaddafi Libya will be tested is in its
ability to tackle the problem of corruption that has become endemic in
recent years. Another method used by Gaddafi to secure loyalty to his
rule was to build large patronage networks whose material benefits would
then give them a stake in his regime.
The price of this
approach has been to make corruption routine. Almost every transaction,
however small, is tainted. This has created a kind of stasis, with every
government scheme becoming mired in bribery and nepotism; the result is
a deep resentment among the populace. Overcoming such practices, and
more importantly changing the mentality that goes with them, will
require a major effort on the part of whoever comes next.
The tribal complex
third problem to prove challenging will be dealing with Libya’s complex
tribal system. Gaddafi made some efforts to rid the country of
tribalism after he came to power in 1969, but soon found he could not do
away with the country’s tribes. So he chose to manipulate these
traditional structures by playing tribes off against each other and
ensuring that none could acquire too much power. This became one of the
key tools he used to prop up the regime.
In the absence of
Gaddafi’s policy of keeping the tribes in check, it is probable that
tribal leaders will seize the opportunity to assert themselves and try
to gain greater control over their own territorial areas. This has
already begun to occur in the east, where certain tribes have raised the
threat of cutting off oil supplies unless Gaddafi leaves power. Any new
Libya-wide government will need to find a way to manage and accommodate
the country’s tribes without effectively being held hostage by them.
over-relying on the tribes is unlikely to foster unity. The former
justice minister may have declared that all tribes (including Gaddafi’s
own, the Gaddadhfa) will need to be included in any new interim
government or council; but the history of mutual antagonism between them
– which in some cases predates the Gaddafi period – is so great that
after the euphoria of toppling the regime (if and when that is
achieved), it may prove difficult even to reach a minimal consensus.
The large tribes that have so far stayed loyal to Gaddafi and are yet to defect en masse
are likely to fear marginalisation, and will fight hard not to be
stripped of their privileges. This, along with the fact that there are
so many arms already in circulation, does not bode well.
The regional issue
The fourth challenge for a future Libya is that it will inherit the problem of regional division.
has three main regions – Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the
east and Fezzan in the south – but the east/west divide has been the
most pronounced. It has also been a running sore for Gaddafi, both
because many of the key eastern tribes were antagonistic towards the
Gaddadhfa long before he came to power and because the east has remained
a centre of rebellion. The more introverted and conservative east
provided the bulk of recruits to the country’s Islamist opposition that
formed the core of a militant Islamist uprising in the mid-1990s.
regional division was accentuated by the regime’s response to such
rebellious behaviour. Gaddafi used the most brutal of methods to all but
eliminate the Islamist opposition by the late 1990s, and then kept the
east in check by maintaining extremely high levels of security (almost
every family in the east has been in some way touched by the regime’s
security apparatus) and preserving it in a state of underdevelopment.
regime had made some efforts in recent years to try to address this
glaring imbalance. Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam in particular had started
trying to court the east; and following the revolutions in Egypt and
Tunisia, another of the leader’s sons (Saadi) was sent to Benghazi to
promise development projects. The subsequent crisis proved, however,
that the levels of popular anger and resentment were so great that such
gestures were utterly meaningless.
At a deeper level, the
problem of east-west division is not just one of antagonism between the
regime and the east but to a degree between the regions per se. Indeed,
regional identity in Libya often overrides the sense of national
The fact that the inhabitants of Tripoli have not risen
up along with their eastern counterparts may both reflect and accentuate
this feeling. Some of the Tripolitanians’ reluctance could be owed to
the regime’s tight security, but it could also betray a lack of
appetite for change. Tripoli’s response may yet sow deeper discord
between east and west further down the line.
In any case, there
is a strong sense among the protesters in the east that this is their
revolution. As such they will be anxious to redress the balance of power
that has been established in Libya over the Gaddafi years, and create a
political solution that ends their marginalisation.
even if Tripolitanians may be content to see former members of the
Gaddafi regime included in a new government, many in the east will not
accept such figures, some of whom were involved in the most brutal of
campaigns against the eastern regions. Mustafa Jalil is somewhat of an
exception, on account both of his eastern origins and his distance from
the regime he served.
It remains unclear whether Libyans as a
whole will be able to overcome these historical-regional differences. In
fact it will be difficult enough for the east to reach an internal
consensus, for other players apart from the tribes are likely to demand
their share of power. They include Islamist forces such as the Muslim
Brotherhood, and elements of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
who were neutralised by the regime and then in recent months persuaded
to renounce violence in return for their release from prison.
elements cannot be dismissed: they have been part of the east’s
political scenery for several decades, and now that they have adopted a
peaceful approach are likely to draw some popular sympathy.
will be exceptionally difficult both to fuse these various interests
into a coherent whole in the east and to reconcile them with whatever
transpires in Tripoli. So much so that many Libyans are already
proposing some sort of federal solution, though this bring a whole set
of problems of its own.
Thus whoever comes to power next will
need to undertake major efforts to heal these divisions and to foster a
sense of unity and national identity, something that Gaddafi with all
his revolutionary anti-imperialist ideology singularly failed to
achieve. However Libya’s internal struggle for power is concluded, the
tasks the country faces when it is resolved will amount to the challenge
of its life.
Alison Pargeter is a political analyst of the middle east and north
Africa, specialising in political Islam and radicalisation. Her books include The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (Saqi, 2010) and The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). This article has been republished under a Creative Commons licence from openDemocracy.net