Libya: No Easy Options Even after Muamar Ghaddafi is Gone
[The North Africa Journal | Alessandro Bruno and Arezki Daoud] 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.
Even his classic incoherent verbal marathons serve their purpose. For the past few years, Libya has spoken with two distinct voices depending on the target audience.
Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi has dwelled on the themes that he has promoted throughout his years in power, promoting causes, anti-imperialism and the rights of the poor. In contrast, Saif-ul-Islam Qadhafi, who played such an important role in Libya’s rehabilitation with the West, has been the more logical voice of the regime. He has addressed Libyan issues in a language that western countries understand; he has even criticized aspects of Libyan politics, going as far as suggesting that the nurses held in a Libyan jail until just over three years ago were innocent and that Libyan health care quality was to blame for the infection of 400 children with AIDS. In his PhD dissertation, “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratization of Global Governance Institutions: From Soft Power to Collective Decision Making?" Saif-ul-Islam expressed concern on the lack of democracy in international governance. The Times of London quoted excerpts of the thesis that Dr. Qadhafi presented at the London School of Economics. It seems that Qadhafi Jr., may now get his chance to put his dissertation in practice.
The regime change resulting from the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were successful in the sense that there was some continuity, facilitated by the existence of constitutions and institutions, even if they were substandard and part of the problem. Libya has neither one of these essential building blocks of modern governance and statehood. The situation in Libya is akin to an 18th century mining town in the Wild West, where the rule of law was the domain of the owner, who paid ruthless thugs to enforce his laws, and everyone else suffers until a revolt takes place. There are no viable ministries, no active civil society, and deeply corrupt enforcement systems with revolutionary this and committees that. As for the ruthless thugs, Qadhafi’s biggest mistake was to hire mercenaries to put down the revolts over the past few days; this single element, an unlikely miscalculation on the part of a true survivor, has truly infuriated the people and probably a few regime loyalists as well.
In this context, how can one figure out what the post-Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi Libya might look like? This is a tough exercise, but one that we will try anyway. We had maintained that the main effect of the Tunisian revolution in Libya would be to prompt a new wave 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. The Tunisian revolution has boosted his political value seeing as for many Libyans and outsiders, Saif has earned the reputation of being a champion of human rights and political reform. The Qadhafi family feud is on.
Succession in Libya was a difficult prospect to envisage, even before any protest was even on the horizon. Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, has been the longest ruling leader in Africa. Nevertheless, it was evident that because of the dubious Libyan decisions since 2008, which appeared to reverse the openness policy that emerged in 2004 with the famous renunciation of ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ have raised speculation over a family leadership feud. Saif ul-Islam al-Qadhafi has been widely praised for his efforts to bring Libya back into the ‘international community’; he has had some important supporters in government such as the head of the National Oil Company, Shukry al-Ghanem, and like-minded western educated technocrats. In the past two years, Saif has irritated the security apparatus with frank revelations of Libyan failures in newspapers under his control, and in public statements.
The security apparatus is now backing Saif ul-Islam’s brother, Motasem Bilah’, who is responsible for security issues, and is far less liberal than is his older brother. The Libya - Switzerland dispute, which recently prompted Col. Qadhafi to call a Jihad against the latter country, has highlighted the fact that the pragmatists have been silenced in Libya for the time being. The oil price is sufficiently high to enable him to maintain stability through subsidies (rather than through real economic reform), and through a very sophisticated repressive apparatus, which had so far managed to keep social tensions well below the surface. Libya’s tribal structure has always posed the main political risk, even more so than the price of oil or Islamism. More than ceding to an Islamist or secular opposition, in the event of collapse of the current leadership, the country would fracture along tribal lines. Qadhafi has never provided the opportunity for Islamists to carry out any measure of political discourse as its neighbors have by way of elections and official representation Islamist politics in Libya, contrary to Egypt or Tunisia, have not developed successfully.
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 which 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 the 1st September, 1969 coup, which brought Colonel Qadhafi to power. The coup was a response to the regime's considering handing 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. . As the crisis unfolds in Libya, what started in Benghazi and in the wider region of Cyrenaica, a region that has always resisted the reign of Qadhafi along tribal lines, seems to be spreading even in highly secured and protected Tripoli. The latest news from Libya suggests that the regime lost control of Cyrenaica in what turned out to be a full-blown rebellion and not just pro-democracy marches. The police and security forces crackdown was in pure Qadhafi style. As the body count grows, currently estimated to be close to 300, so is the likelihood of a regime change. Here too, the power of social networks and the likes of Al-Jazeera continue to play a critical role in insuring that information is made available from around the world.
But as the situation develops, there are rumors of the Libyan leader having fled the country to go to Venezuela circulating over the Internet. While these are only rumors, they force us to try to see what’s next, and needless to say, Libya is in a pretty bad shape. The only viable immediate solution is a family coup, a takeover (nice expression for coup d’état) of power, or the leadership (since there is no real position to take over) at the hand of Qadhafi’s son Saif ul-Islam, with some guidance or assistance by the current head of the National Oil Company (NOC) and former prime minister Shokry Ghanem – whose influence had waned considerably in the past three years. Discussions have already taken place between him and Western officials, including a call with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who urged Libya to begin dialogue with anti-government protesters and implement reforms.
In the best-case scenario, Seif Al Islam could succeed in persuading his father to ‘retire’ just like the military did to Mubarak. With the support of some sort of coalition, Seif would become the 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.
In the worst case scenario, the crisis would reach the Qadhafi family pitting the pro-Western Seif to his conservative brothers, security man Al-Mutasim and Khamis, who runs a special militia, the Khamis brigade, which was deployed in Benghazi over the past few violent days. The latest information we are getting from Libya, indicates that this latter scenario may already be happening. While the Libyans were promised a couple of hours ago a televised address from Seif Al Islam himself, the event was simply canceled without explanation before actually resuming. We interpret the initial cancelation as a sign of an ongoing power struggle in the Qadhafi system.
What is the likelihood for Seif to be at the top? Firstly, history has no shortage of sons overthrowing their ruthless fathers. Greek mythology tells the story of Kronos who overthrew his father to rule the Titans. The Greeks had plenty of mythological stories of this sort. Outside of mythology, the Arabs have perfected the art of siblings and children overthrowing rulers. One contemporary example of such political drama was the 1970 forceful removal of Oman’s Sultan Said by his son Qaboos bin Said. Then Saif is the only figure that could somewhat appease the Libyan population, though not enough given his last name and the hatred against the Qadhafis from the likes of Benghazi. Nevertheless, Saif has demonstrated some ability to reason and can gather support from outside as well. His affiliation to the oil minister means that he also would have the backing of the business community, including foreign investors. The West and other Maghreb nations would support him first. His political enemy, his brother Al-Mutasim, was essentially a protégé of the now irrelevant Hosni Mubarak. Without Mubarak, can Al-Mutasim represent an obstacle? Yes because he has support from the deeply entrenched and powerful security apparatus built and sponsored by his father who would want not want any obstacle to their tyrannical rule.
But to succeed, Saif has a tiny window of opportunity. If the population is not given a gift in form of a ‘Mu’ammar Qadhafi ousting’, a gift to be publically presented by Saif, than the Libyans would demand that all the Qadhafis be out. What’s left to save the day may be a political figure like Shoukri Ghanem who has somewhat stood against the corrupt revolutionaries, including the puppet Prime Minister. And yet if Ghanem takes over, he would have to follow the Tunisian model of Prime Minister Ghannouchi by pledging he leaves office when the interim phase is over.
Regardless, so as we see things moving, Libya could be headed toward its own collapse, its own Wild West moment. Without a constitution, any regime change would be tantamount to a coup d’état, and Libya will be back to square one, courtesy of Mr. Mu’ammar. In such a very possible scenario, Pandora’s infamous box may snap open. 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.