Libya: a hard road ahead

The military-political deadlock in Libya between supporters and opponents of the Gaddafi regime leaves a pervasive uncertainty over the country’s future. But even greater challenges will follow this conflict, says Alison Pargeter.
Alison Pargeter
8 March 2011

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 itself.  

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 crisis.   

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.

But 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   

Libya 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.  

Libya 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.

Yet 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. 

The 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 

The 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.  

Perhaps 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 public infrastructure.   

The corruption routine  

The 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   

The 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.   

Indeed 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.

Libya 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.   

This 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.   

The 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 identity.

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.

Furthermore, 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.

These 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.   

It 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. 

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