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What Qadhafi's death means

Commentary, 21 October 2011
Middle East and North Africa
The death of Colonel Qadhafi rids the world of a tyrant, but it is no milestone in the Arab Spring. To focus on the departed dictator is to miss the real story, and abstract notions of 'closure' won't magically translate into stable government.

The death of Colonel Qadhafi rids the world of a tyrant, but it is no milestone in the Arab Spring. To focus on the departed dictator is to miss the real story, and abstract notions of 'closure' won't magically translate into stable government.

By Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI

Qadhafi Portrait21 October 2011 - When Colonel Muammar Qadhafi seized power in Libya, it was the beginning of the Nixon administration in the United States. In Britain, Harold Wilson was prime minister. And the Middle East was only two years on from its greatest convulsion since decolonisation - the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Colonel Nasser still ruled in Egypt, and Hafez Assad was on the cusp of taking over Syria. Qadhafi outlasted those two leaders and more, becoming the longest-serving non-royal ruler in the world until his deposition just two months ago.

And yet, despite Qadhafi's longevity and outsized personality, we should be wary of inferring too much from his death. Even if he had remained at large, Libya was never likely to dissolve in protracted chaos. It has neither the terrain suited to guerrilla warfare, nor any ethnic or ideological basis for mobilising a national insurgency.

True, some loyalist resistance may have resulted from the faint hope of a Qadhafi-led counteroffensive. Qadhafi's defiant statements, and those of his increasingly delusional spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, had been filtering into Libya via a Syrian television station. Such hopes have been decisively shattered. The flood of footage and images allow for no conspiracy theories, as have flourished after Osama bin Laden's killing. So some fighters may well slink back to their homes. But loyalists have shown a remarkable ability to fight for a futile cause for months, and many will keep up resistance. Sporadic but isolated violence may well continue. 

In some ways, more important than Qadhafi's death is the fall of Sirte. It was Colonel Qadhafi's birthplace and a staging point for operations to the east. It was always going to be well defended and resilient. But the leader's presence inside the city perhaps explains why the struggle to capture it was quite so bitter.

Killed rather than captured

Early footage suggests Qadhafi may have been alive at the time of his capture. That would imply that he was executed by rebels. This will cause some consternation in Western capitals - but few will mourn, and it can hardly come as a surprise. The rebels who found Qadhafi may have been from Misurata, a city that suffered some of the worst excesses of the regime's forces during a ruthless siege. It should be remembered that any extrajudicial acts committed by the rebels pale into insignificance next to the atrocities committed by the regime before and during the uprising, and for which the International Criminal Court had indicted and issued arrest warrants for Qadhafi.

What does this mean for Libya's interim authorities? Qadhafi's trial would have been an important statement of justice and accountability. The image of an absolute ruler in the dock would have been on par with that of the ageing Mubarak lying behind bars in Cairo. But on the other hand, Qadhafi's death will preclude any grandstanding from the courtroom, and will bring firm closure to a forty-year tyranny.

Had Qadhafi remained at large, it would have cast a pall over the transition. This, however, should not be exaggerated. The main problem for the NTC is not now loyalist resistance, which remains geographically isolated and manageable. Rather, the task is disarming and integrating the various anti-Qadhafi militias into a transitional government, without provoking violence or legitimating the politics of the gun. Islamists like Abdel Hakim Belhaj feel sidelined, and some regional groups feel that the National Transitional Council (NTC) is not sharing the spoils of victory generously enough. Qadhafi's death does not change their calculus. To focus on Qadhafi is to miss the real story, and abstract notions of 'closure' won't magically translate into stable government.

The challenges ahead

Part of the reason that militias do not want to give up their weapons is that they do not trust the political process. Guns are their insurance policies. Only a legitimate, broad-based transition will persuade many to hand over weapons and disband. Over the past decade, postwar transitions have been troubled by loyalist resistance - think of the Taliban or the Iraqi insurgency. But transitions have also been hindered by governments themselves, often backed by outside powers. In Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki is increasingly subverting the fragile institutions of the Iraqi state and accumulating excessive power. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai is hated by much of the country and was implicated in massive electoral fraud.

There is no reason to condemn the NTC as inevitable oligarchs, but they should be held accountable and carefully scrutinised. The promised resignation of the interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, distrusted by many, would be a positive step. Any voluntary relinquishing of power by those in positions of authority is to be welcomed. The NTC has made some bold promises, but has sometimes delayed in following through.

Colonel Qadhafi's death rids the world of a tyrant responsible for many thousands of deaths and terrorism around the world. But it should not be seen a milestone in the Arab Spring. That would be to personalise an uprising that was about much more than one man. This campaign reached its climactic moment when rebel convoys rode into Tripoli months ago. Qadhafi himself was, and should have remained, an irrelevance. Revolutions should be less about shattering old structures and more about reconstituting political authority on more humane, rational and legitimate grounds. In that sense, the Libyan Revolution has far to go before its considerable promise is redeemed.


Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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