Reasons to be cautiously optimistic about post-Qadhafi Libya

Dire warnings of marauding rebels soaking Tripoli's streets with blood have simply not materialised, and are unlikely to do so. We should beware of unduly inflating the ghosts of Islamism, tribal factionalism and the chaos of Baghdad haunting the new Libya.

By Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI

24 August 2011 - When one young rebel emerged from the plundered rubble of Bab al-Azizya, Colonel Qadhafi's infamous Tripoli compound, he was decked out in an elaborate hat and heavy gold jewellery. The accessories belonged to the complex's last inhabitant, the Colonel himself, who had presumably fled in the previous days or weeks. Even with large parts of the city contested, the moment symbolised a transfer of power - the nerve centre of the regime had fallen.

Now, the new Libya is immediately haunted by several ghosts: those of the chaos of Baghdad 2003; the hints of tribal factionalism evident after the death of rebel commander Abdul Fattah Younes; and the 'flickers of Al Qa'ida' invoked by NATO's military chief back in March. Each of these represents a valid concern that has been unduly inflated.

Islamist Threat

Libyan Islamists are fighting alongside their secular counterparts, and many will have links to Al-Qa'ida, But they have emerged in a very different context to, say, the Afghan mujahideen. The latter enjoyed substantial state patronage (from the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), numerous safe havens, and spent decades honing their fighting skills. Libya's Islamists are likely a disparate group, but the term 'Islamist' is itself misleading as it can span non-violent groups and hardcore terrorists - and many towards the latter end of the spectrum were pushed there after decades of suppression by the state. The Transitional National Council is itself concerned about Islamist influence, and has every incentive to ensure that its promises of a liberal-democratic government are not undercut.

Nonetheless, Libya is a conservative country. The 'draft constitutional charter for the transitional stage' circulating on the internet, possibly a deliberate leak as a signal of intent towards a wary international community, promises that 'Islam is the Religion of the State and the principal source of legislation is Islamic jurisprudence (Sharia)'. For many, this will evoke Saudi justice, but it is compatible with a gamut of relatively liberal laws. The complementarity of an Islamic society and democratic polity is a question whose importance will rise over the coming years, as Turkey matures into a major regional power and Egypt and Tunisia feel their way through imperfect transitions. But a simplistic discourse on Islamism and terrorism will serve neither Western foreign policy nor the people of Libya. 

Tribal Factionalism

Second, consider the killing of Abdul Fattah Younes. Younes had made considerable enemies across the board, but a senior TNC official suggested that an autonomous Islamist group was responsible. This was unsurprising, given Younes' role in torture and repression of Islamist groups in eastern Libya in the 1990s during his time as interior minister. What was more interesting was the reaction from some members of his Obeidi tribe - a large and well-connected eastern tribe - towards the TNC. Armed members of the tribe showed their displeasure, suggesting that force rather than due process remains a viable and preferred option for some groups with respect to certain problems. If Younes' death had occurred now, without the unifying force of common opposition to Qadhafi, could the tribal reaction have been even more assertive?

One important distinction is that between tribal division and armed tribal conflict; the former is ineradicable in the short-term, but there is no reason why it will - as per the Qadhafi regime's repeated prediction and exhortation - give way to the latter. Libya has roughly 140 tribes and clans, and some traverse the country's borders with Egypt and Tunisia. But only a couple of dozen tribes are politically consequential. They are not monolithic, and their membership is not a rigid identity that trumps all feelings of nationalism, regionalism, or ideology.  Moreover, decades of urbanisation have seen a dilution in tribal identity, to the point where many in a large city like Tripoli would see little political significance in their membership.

Qadhafi's own tribe, the Qadadfa, is small - only 100,000 strong - and concentrated in Sirte, which might explain why the town appears to remain in government hands. But the regime was built on the co-optation of other groupings, including the Warfalla, Magarha, Warshafana and Tarhuna. Parts of these tribes have enjoyed longstanding government largesse, and are consequently resented by those with less access to patronage.

One of the TNC's greatest challenges is building institutions that can redistribute Libya's oil revenues in equitable fashion without giving the appearance of state-sponsored retribution. The example of Iraq is not encouraging, but oil resources in Libya are deeper in the hinterland rather than concentrated in either east or west. At the senior level, the TNC is not tribalised - many of its senior members belong to purportedly pro-Qadhafi tribes mentioned above. Things get murkier further down. But the pluralistic institutions currently advocated by the TNC , and the apparently level headed leadership of Mahmoud Jibril - a competent technocrat - should mitigate these tensions.

Of course, it is impossible to say with certainty that Libya will not collapse. At this moment, it is a fragile country with no government and many weapons. Armed militias will remain, since disarmament will prove impossible for a government with limited coercive capacity.  But lazy analogies to previous catastrophes, like Iraq after 2003, do a disservice to the preparation undertaken by the TNC in concert with British and French advisers.   

Grounds for caution?

In discussing the prospects for the peace, it is also worth reiterating that the game is not up. At the time of writing, an extremely dangerous situation is unfolding at the Rixos Hotel, still under the control of government-affiliated gunmen and the site of escalating violence. Several journalists are trapped, and the possibility that they will be taken hostage cannot be ruled out - that could require a messy raid by Western Special Forces into the heart of Tripoli. Swathes of the capital are contested territory, held by neither regime nor rebel, but subject to fierce fire-fights. A city of over one million, it will take days before Tripoli can be adequately secured and many weeks before the extent of loyalist influence can be understood.

Further afield, the Colonel's hometown of Sirte remains in government hands, as does the town of Sebha in the interior. The former has the largest concentration of Qadhafi's own tribe, and the latter has risen up against the government only in parts. Sirte, from where Scud missiles were fired, has been invoked as a potential base for an insurgency. Once a new seat of government is established and regime holdouts in Tripoli concede defeat, it should be easier for the new government of Libya to negotiate surrenders on reasonable terms. Nonetheless, acts of desperation - new Scud launches, sabotage of public infrastructure, or hostage-taking - cannot be ruled out.

This week, as a forty-year long regime crumbled, the veteran journalist Robert Fisk argued that 'Libya will be a Middle East superpower'. This represents the Panglossian counterpoint to those who see tribal chaos as inevitable and imminent.

Both extremes are mistaken. Libya will take years before it develops and habits and practices of a democracy, and the interim period will be replete with unsavoury compromises and sporadic setbacks. But dire warnings of marauding rebels soaking Tripoli's streets with blood have simply not materialised, and are unlikely to do so.

Limited military intervention, cheap by historical standards and short relative to the forced dedicated to it, has succeeded. Libya is not a difficult juncture, and the leadership of the TNC has critical decisions to make. Perhaps, in the longer-term, Libya will count itself lucky not to possess charismatic revolutionaries like the Hamid Karzai of 2001, and instead finds itself run by less glamorous, but hopefully more transient and farsighted technocrats.  


Shashank Joshi

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