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Books on Libya

Update No: 087 - (26/02/11)

The Masses Tear the ‘Republic of the Masses’ Apart
One wonders where Qadhafi’s famed troupe of female bodyguards, his ‘amazons’, might be, as the regime the colonel has built over the past 42 years crumbles faster than anyone might have predicted. Succession in Libya was always going to be a conundrum, and if the shape of the post-Qadhafi future was vague before; the collapse of the regime has generated even more questions, one of which has to be whether or not Libya will survive as a single country or whether it will separate along the pre-1948 lines of semi-independent provinces (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan). During his 41 years in power, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi has built an idiosyncratic system of governance that is so unique that in the face of an unprecedented crisis, it could only collapse. There is no continuity built into the system. Qadhafi holds no official position or title; he has simply been the Brother Leader of the Revolution, or the Guide; he has never been the president, as some analysts have erroneously called him. However, while western governments (and surely many Libyans) are bewildered by the Libyan system in the same way one would be curious about a train wreck, Qadhafi has proven on several occasions that he is no ordinary fool.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the respective armies, their measured response and their position in favor of the State and the people rather than the individual presidents, ensured relatively peaceful transitions, which ostensibly aim to establish the building blocks of a more democratic future in these countries. However, Egypt and Tunisia had governments, which in spite of their dictatorial nature, had solid institutions upon which to build a transition; there was some continuity built into the system. Libya has no institutions; the only things that come close are the oil industry and the Revolutionary Committees (the security apparatus), respectively the carrot and stick upon which Libya has been ruled over the past four decades. Qadhafi designed his Jamahiriya almost as if on purpose to collapse with him - like the creation of some James Bond film villain. And the world is now witnessing this collapse, which has already reached an intensity of violence that make the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts look like walks in the park, despite the fact that Libya’s population is practically a quarter of the population of Cairo. Unlike the other revolts, moreover, the Libyan uprisings will have direct effects on the West and the rest of the world, since oil prices have already started to hit highs unseen since the wild speculation of the spring and summer of 2008.

The West will also be extremely concerned by the collapse of the security system paid for thanks to ‘bribes’ from the EU that attempted to control the flow of illegal migration of Sub-Saharan Africans to the northern shores of the Mediterranean. Overall, the Libyan collapse may resemble more that of Somalia after the fall of Siad Barre in 1991 than Egypt or Tunisia. This resemblance is all the more uncanny if one considers that, apart from leaving the state without institutions, Qadhafi deliberately fostered the role of the tribe in Libyan society, and there are no fewer than 140 tribes. The country could break up along multiple lines, which will necessarily require the tribes to rebuild it again – not exactly the most modern or progressive of prospects. There has already been direct evidence of opposition motivated by tribal interests and it partly explains the Libyan leadership's foot-dragging over the Lockerbie incident. Indeed, the Warfalla tribe, the largest tribe that is now said to have joined the anti-Qadhafi protesters, organized one of the most significant coup attempts of the past decade in October 1993. The tribe is well represented in the regime, as one of its members is Major Jalud, an original member of the Revolutionary command Council (RCC) that led 1 September 1969 coup, which brought Colonel Qadhafi to power.

The coup attempt was a response to the regime’s possible willingness to hand over the suspects implicated in the bombing of the Pan Am B-747 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 to normalize relations with the West. One of the suspects was a member of the Warfalla tribe and Jalud opposed any normalization plans on that basis.

The explosive combination of threats to oil supplies and a sharp rise of the illegal migration phenomenon may even warrant some form of military intervention by the EU or UN under the guise of ‘humanitarian’ mission. Libya is not Rwanda and it is not Somalia; Libya has things the West and the rest of the world need; it is crucial to re-establish stability and while the prospect of the collapse of the frankly repressive and ridiculous (and that may be the best that can be said for it) Qadhafi regime is universally appealing; the price of change for the better (one hopes) may be too high and not just for the West. Qadhafi used Libya’s oil wealth to fund many personal pet projects, including that of greasing African leaders south of the Sahara into humoring his vision of a united Africa. Qadhafi personally guaranteed loans at zero interest to such many poor African countries, which will now have to scramble to find alternative sources of aid.

As for the succession; it now appears that the Western favorite, Saif-ul-Islam al-Qadhafi, the man that many analysts – including myself – and governments around the world were hoping would take the reins of the ‘Jamahiriya’ and gradually transform it through a Constitution and actual institutions, may have been just a smokescreen, a ‘good cop – bad cop’ scenario to fool outsiders. While Qadhafi senior would ramble on about anti-imperialism, the West, the rights of the poor, Saif-ul-Islam Qadhafi, who played such an important role in Libya’s rehabilitation with the West, would play the role of the ‘logical voice’ of the regime. The son even criticized aspects of Libyan politics, even complaining that the debacle of the nurses held in a Libyan jail until just over three years ago, was actually a Libyan problem, in that the medics were innocent and that Libyan health care quality was to blame for the infection of 400 children with AIDS. The apparent family feuds fueled by the different sets of allegiances held by Qadhafi’s sons, suggested that the Libyan succession would be the product of infighting within the Qadhafi family.

Saif ul-Islam himself appeared to represent the aspirations of Libyans who long for the ‘Tunisian effect. Saif has used his media company, al-Ghad, to publish articles attacking senior military officers about corruption, urging the defense ministry to be handed over to civilian control. Saif also accused the army of being too large for Libya’s actual needs, questioning the quality of its training. In December, the al-Ghad group was forced to move out of Libya after a crackdown by security forces in the wake of the accusations against the armed forces. Over the course of 2010, Saif ul-Islam frequently clashed with the old guard, (including his brothers), surrounding his father. Saif’s political position, which not so long ago appeared bright, as the likeliest successor to his father, has become far less certain in the past year, and the speech he delivered on February 20, when the regime’s power was starting to crumble in Benghazi, erased any hope that Saif ul-Islam was indeed fundamentally different than the father. The Saif who cultivated a reputation for championing human rights, governance and political reform was threatening blood on the streets if the insurgents did not cease. Saif ul-Islam al-Qadhafi had been widely praised for his efforts to bring Libya back into the ‘international community’; he earned the support of technocrats such as the head of the National Oil Company, Shukry al-Ghanem, shaking the security apparatus with frank revelations of Libyan failures through newspapers under his control, and in public statements.

As the situation stands at the time of writing, with insurgents having taken Benghazi and starting to threaten the eastern side of the country, the best-case scenario may still involve Saif ul-Islam; “perhaps, he was under stress from the security apparatus”, might say some wishful voices. Perhaps he might succeed in persuading his father to ‘retire’ just as the military did to Mubarak. With the support of some sort of coalition, Saif would become the lead figure of a transitional government, paving the way for the kinds of reform the military in Egypt and the civilians in Tunisia have promised their respective people, and have yet to deliver. More likely, however, given the latest words of defiance from the regime, Libya could be headed toward a total collapse, its own ‘Somalia moment’. Ethnic and tribal grievances could turn that country upside down with unspeakable consequences, unless Saif shows that he has the leadership skills to prevent further bloodbath. Now, the question is not whether Qadhafi can recover, but whether he can last until March and in how many pieces Libya will be left after he’s gone. 

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