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Post-Gadhafi Libya Could Be Chaotic

  • Gary Thomas

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi talks during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the evacuation of the American military bases in the country, in Tripoli, June 12, 2010

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi talks during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the evacuation of the American military bases in the country, in Tripoli, June 12, 2010

Unrest continues to spread across the Middle East and North Africa, toppling governments in Egypt and Tunisia. Still, those countries have maintained stability and security after the fall of their respective leaders. But, Libya’s post-revolutionary landscape might be very different if Moammar Gadhafi follows the same forced exit of his counterparts in Tunis and Cairo.

Mr. Gadhafi has ruled Libya since 1969, which, by any standard, is pretty impressive staying power. But such longevity raises the inevitable question: what happens when such a ruler is toppled?

In countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where popular street power led to the ouster of rulers there, the military stepped in afterward to keep things stable and secure. However, Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East and South Asia for the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says Mr. Gadhafi kept the military weak out of fear that it might challenge him.

Bokhari says, "The regime never allowed for the development of, for lack of a better term, an autonomous military institution of any worth. Everything revolved around Gadhafi, family and friends - more so Gadhafi than family and friends. It wasn’t even a single-party state. It was a single figurehead state."

Author and Libya specialist Ronald Bruce St. John believes there will be some upheaval after Mr. Gadhafi’s departure but discounts the chances for a full-blown civil war.

St. Johns says, "I predict a period of uncertainty, hopefully not civil war. I don’t see any reason why there should be a civil war per se. I’m hopeful that the tribal leadership in Libya - Libya is a very tribal society - I’m hopeful that the tribal leadership in Libya will step forward and find a way to work together to develop a new and more effective governmental system for the country."

But tribal cohesion is an unanswered question. Analysts say Mr. Gadhafi tried to either co-opt or weaken Libya’s many tribes, subtribes and clans because of the potential threat they posed to his power. Charles Gurdon, managing director of the London-based political risk consultancy firm Menas, says Mr. Gadhafi also stirred up resentment in the eastern part of the country through his economic policies, which, he says, accounts for the current division.

Gurdon says, "There is resentment that the majority of the money for development went to the west and the center of the country and the east was largely left to rot. And so there’s been a lot of antagonism between the two areas for some time. However, I think the point now is, the vast majority of Libyans now want Gadhafi gone. Also, there is a Libyan identity that people have, and so, hopefully, that will be stronger than regionalism or tribalism."

One scenario, as Kamran Bokhari puts it, is that Libya simply disintegrates into a state of warlordism, where different strongmen fight for control along the Mediterranean coast, which is where the bulk of the population is. But another, more worrisome one, he says, is if the small jihadist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, tries to step into the vacuum.

Bokhari says, "That makes this a really scary scenario. Can LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) team up with al-Qaida next door in Algeria to make use of this anarchy in this country to create small pockets of jihadist enclaves - not states per se, but operating room, if you will, places where they can recuperate, base themselves."

Charles Gurdon, whose group Menas publishes highly detailed analyses for its customers, discounts the threat of the LIFG and Islamic extremism in post-Gadhafi Libya.

Gurdon says, "Libyan Islam is Sufi, is moderate, is socially conservative, it’s not militant Sunni Muslim, it’s not Shia Muslim, and therefore I don’t see (it) as a being a threat. And so the idea that you’ll end up with one or two Islamic caliphates or emirates is nonsense. It’s not going to happen. Libya is a conservative country, socially conservative, and Islam probably will play a greater role. But I don’t see it as becoming an Islamic state in the Mediterranean whatsoever."

In some of his rambling speeches, Mr Gadhafi has blamed a number of parties for the unrest in his country, including al-Qaida.