First thoughts on the fall of Qadhafi

Qadhafi has fallen. Some thoughts on the situation in Libya.

Tom Gara wrote in the Financial Times on 21 August:

The Libyan rebels may very well have set in motion the first revolution of the Arab spring.

Tunisians started the fire and Egyptians scaled it up to the Arab world’s biggest state, but in both cases, protesters stopped crucially short of breaking up entire regimes, settling instead for the downfall of the figurehead and a military-led transition to democracy. The people of both countries are now discovering the hard way that dismantling authoritarian systems is much harder when many of the authoritarian enforcers retain their power and weapons.

Protesters in Bahrain never really scratched the surface of the regime and have been crushed; in Yemen the system has proved elusive since its president retained his power but wields it from the sanctuary of neighboring Saudi Arabia.

But in Libya, the defeat of Gaddafi by the rebels will, by definition, mean a defeat of his security forces. The backing of NATO air strikes means the physical infrastructure of the regime, from intelligence offices to security headquarters and military equipment, has been severely downgraded to the point of collapse. The country will be the only in the Arab world where an opposition movement greets the new day with an old regime that is physically broken.

[. . .]

All of this means Libya has the potential to be the most exiting – or disastrous – Arab society to emerge from this year of uprising and revolt. Its new leaders face far fewer constraints in choosing the type of country Libya can become – unlike Egypt and Tunisia, there will be no military establishment to set limits on what is and isn’t up for discussion.

It seems reasonable to assume that the Libyans have the single greatest opportunity of all the Arabs who have risen up thus far to build a wholly new political order. Not only have the torn down an idiosyncratic and bizarre regime’s leadership, they have also broken the majority of its coercive institutions — its army, intelligence services, and so on — and gained the recognition of the most relevant international actors in the Arab countries and the west. The Libyans have plenty money and will have a reliable source of more money (from oil and gas sales) once they get on to setting up a unity government and re-establishing order. They are fortunate for having so small a population, too, which should be an economic and political advantage. Qadhafi built a personalized state with few durable institution and so Libya lacks Egypt’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and military infrastructure which have helped slow change; the Libyans will have the advantage and the obstacle of being able to fashion new state institutions with hindsight and perspective.

But things are not always simple. Earlier in the year, in conversations with other writers, this blogger fretted that Qadhafite loyalists might fall behind when the going got especially tough for them and adopt guerrilla tactics in hopes of disrupting any transitional process. Snipers, bombings and the like. Based on the rapidity with which the pro-Qadhafite military units dissolved there is a strong possibility that if the transition carries on in a non-inclusive or cavalier manner some of these men may take up arms again to avoid persecution (or justice). There will be significant risks all the way through the transition and after.

Building a new political order based on reconciliation will be a struggle; and satisfying regional and tribal demands on energy, justice and revenge, local government and the broad distribution of power may expose the transitional government to the possibility of dangerous infighting and conflict. The TNC includes many of the old regime’s elite and a variety of factions some of whom have reconciled their objectives and values with one another and some of whom have not. How will the various tribal and ideological (to include the religious) composition of the rebel alliance reconcile themselves and political order generally a way that includes the defeated have a satisfactory stake? How and will scores be settled between among the former rebels and defectors (to say nothing of those who held on with the Qadhafis till the end)? The TNC’s current head, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has said he is willing to stand trial for the four years he spent as justice minister under Qadhafi. If, as he claims, former officials (many of whom are now leaders or members of the TNC and the resistance) are to be held to account, how sincerely are these proceedings to be carried out and how credible will they be?

The demands of Berbers, brutally oppressed under the Qadhafi regime and eager to protect and flaunt their language culture freely, may stick up to central authorities if they feel their ethno-political interests are slighted during or after the transition. In Jebel Nafusa Berber strugglers embraced the uprising like all other Libyans but added and partly defined their participation by using their language and scribbling in Tifinagh. It is notable that in his last pronouncements when referring to the western mountains Qadhafi preferred to speak of the Jebal al-Arab, rather than the Jebel Nafusa. Whole discourse refused to recognize the Berbers and asserted control over them through verbal and physical violence. This will not easily be forgotten, especially since reclaiming their right to their own identity was so important for fighters on the western front.

The wide proliferation of arms is a destabilizing factor, especially in a country with so many young men and so many grievances and will need to be addressed appropriately (recall that criminal and egoist gun violence had become a problem among civilians in TNC-held eastern Libya as late as just two months ago). This is especially important given the TNC’s militias’ high level of autonomy and the proximity of tribes and families who took different sides in the conflict in western and central Libya, in particular.

Mu’amar al-Qadhafi is no longer the “Brother Leader” of any Libyan revolution; this much is clear. Beyond that there is much to be sorted out. Fighting has not ended in Tripoli, Sirte or Sebha. Core Qadhafite loyalists are likely to continue fighting till they are utterly defeated and the longer, and harder they do fight the more likely the fighters of the new order will be less and less forgiving of their foes, especially in the moment. The Qadhafite forces appear to have determined to dig into Sirte and Sebha, in hopes of regrouping and holding out. Given the momentum of the struggle this seems sure to lead to their eventual capture or death.

The battle for Tripoli is an enormous boost to the moral of other Arabs struggle to unseat or shake their own regimes. Several of the ongoing uprisings in the region have faced set backs and lacked the overt international support the Libyans enjoyed. In particular, one can tell that the Yemeni and Syrian oppositions paid particular attention to the events that took place in Tripoli this weekend. The Syrians, whose diaspora and internal opposition is perhaps more fractious and wide ranging than the Libyans’, have modeled their umbrella exile front on the TNC’s example. There are many lessons to be drawn from the Libyan case. Some are organizational others are strategic and tactical. The campions of peaceful resistance will have to answer to questions about the utility of armed force; and those considering taking up arms will have to deal with the problem of aerial war when they have only ground forces and no airborne forces of their own or from an outside backer. Libya’s idiosyncrasies — the lack of serious sectarian divisions, the near universal disdain for Qadhafi in Europe, America and the Arab world, the feebleness of the [former] government’s forces, the defections of important military leaders, the acquisition of NATO aerial support and so on — will not easily transfer to a country like Syria or Yemen. But they do share specific conditions in common with the Libyans; in the Syrian case regional frustration with the al-As’ad government and the target on its back for its alliance with Iran and hostility toward Israel make it somewhat similar to Libya. Its ability (or supposed ability) to set its general vicinity on fire in the case of outside aggression on behalf of the Syrian resistance — using clients in Lebanon, using chemical weapons or lashing out at Israel, for example — sets it somewhat apart from Libya’s comparative physical and political isolation. The tight cohesion of its armed forces and — so far — core economic and political elite — distinguish its situation from the frequent defections seen in Libya. This is overlaid with a strong sectarian element which has caused many Alawites, Christians and Druzes cluster with the regime in fear of violence or persecution from the Sunni majority. Of course, Syria’s elite is not exclusively from the minority communities; the country could not function without the active participation and collusion of the major Sunni notable and business families (intermarried as they are with the ruling family, witness Asma al-As’ad). The Syrians are unlike to crumble so easily as Qadhafi ultimately did especially because direct external intervention is less likely (though not impossible as far as Turkey, for example, is concerned); some negotiated settlement is more likely at the moment. Recent comments from Bashar al-As’ad do not point to a softening of intentions or tone, though. Indeed while Libya’s transition will embolden other Arab activists it will also raise the stakes for other Arab regimes facing popular pressure or paranoid over internal conspiracies.

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3 thoughts on “First thoughts on the fall of Qadhafi”

  1. The writer’s opening comments are especially important since the early steps of a nascent nation state are fundamental to the direction it will take.

    Once a course is decided upon, with or without consultation, it becomes very hard to reverse. Should little consultation take place, the danger of creating divisions is great and, once created, are even harder to mend. A egg broken cannot be put back together again.

    The writer of the article would greatly help the establishment of just and free societies in the Middle East and North Africa if he, or she, were to write further articles elaborating on the comment:

    “… if the transition carries on in a non-inclusive or cavalier manner … ”

    Now, I don’t know if the writer is suggesting that the TNC is already cavalier in its words and deeds. If that is the case, all of us will benefit from this being spelled out.

    The necessity of elaborating on TNC being cavalier, if that really is the case, lies in being able to more effectively counter such behaviour.

    TNC is almost by definition non-inclusive. Its members are essentially self-elected and have no more nor less legitimacy than any other Libyan, however defined.

    In addition, non-inclusivity certainly extends to a most sensitive issue for Libya, that of Berbers within Libya.

    Turkey, nominally a democratic nation, has failed, and continues to fail, its Kurdish population, and engages in suppression tactics of them similar to those employed by any dictator.

    Note that Berbers, like Kurds, are spread across several national boundaries.

    The nation state, such as Libya now aspires to be, is ill equipped to recognize and embrace differences. It takes unusual fortitude to build in mechanisms which allow for this. Perhaps South Africa offers a model in this regard.

    Wherever we look, those in power, elected or not, prove themselves to be singularly poor at responding to those on whose behalf they presume to speak and act. Perhaps the greatest difference between democracy and other forms of government lies with the fact that, every so often, the voter gets a chance to vote the devils out and allow a new set in.

    What the TNC does need is opposition. Civil opposition from within a civil state. Libya may well have the advantages mentioned above but Egypt and Tunisia do have the advantage of having opposition.

    The sooner a stable state is formed of Libya the better. The emergence of opposition cannot happen too soon after that.

    As a footnote, those of you who would wish to parse the word “cavalier”, Thesaurus.com gives “arrogant” as its definition.

    I don’t agree. You can make your own choice from among the following synonyms: condescending, curt, disdainful, haughty, high-and-mighty, insolent, lofty, lordly, offhand, overbearing, proud, scornful, snooty, snotty, supercilious, superior. There are others.

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