February 27, 2011
The Vacuum After Qaddafi
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
CAIRO — Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi sounded a resonant warning, exhorting his dwindling supporters toward civil war.
“At the appropriate time, we will open the arms depots so all Libyans and tribes will be armed,” he shouted into a handheld microphone at dusk Friday, “so that Libya turns red with fire!”
That is indeed the fear of those watching the carnage in Libya, not least because Colonel Qaddafi spent the last 40 years hollowing out every single institution that might challenge his authority. Unlike neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, Libya lacks the steadying hand of a military to buttress a collapsing government. It has no Parliament, no trade unions, no political parties, no civil society, no nongovernmental agencies. Its only strong ministry is the state oil company. The fact that some experts think the next government might be built atop the oil ministry underscores the paucity of options.
The worst-case scenario should the rebellion topple him, and one that concerns American counterterrorism officials, is that of Afghanistan or Somalia — a failed state where Al Qaeda or other radical groups could exploit the chaos and operate with impunity.
But there are others who could step into any vacuum, including Libya’s powerful tribes or a pluralist coalition of opposition forces that have secured the east of the country and are tightening their vise near the capital.
Optimists hope that the opposition’s resolve persists; pessimists worry that unity will last only until Colonel Qaddafi is gone, and that a bloody witch hunt will ensue afterward.
“It is going to be a political vacuum,” said Lisa Anderson, the president of the American University in Cairo and a Libya expert, suggesting that chances are high for a violent period of score-settling. “I don’t think it is likely that people will want to put down their weapons and go back to being bureaucrats.”
There is a short list of Libyan institutions, but each has limits. None of the tribes enjoy national reach, and Colonel Qaddafi deliberately set one against the other, dredging up century-old rivalries even in his latest speeches.
There are a few respected but elderly members of the original 12-member Revolutionary Command Council who joined Colonel Qaddafi in unseating the king in 1969. Some domestic and exiled intellectuals hope that Libya can resurrect the pluralistic society envisioned by the 1951 Constitution, though without a monarch.
And there is the wild card, such as Colonel Qaddafi’s feat at age 27 as a junior officer when he engineered a bloodless coup against a feeble monarchy.
The greatest fear — and one on which experts differ — is that Al Qaeda or Libya’s own Islamist groups, which withstood fierce repression and may have the best organizational skills among the opposition, could gain power.
“We’ve been concerned from the start of the unrest that A.Q. and its affiliates will look for opportunities to exploit any disarray,” said a United States counterterrorism official, referring to Al Qaeda.
Of these affiliates, he mentioned the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, formed by the veterans who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the network’s North African affiliate, which hastened to endorse the Libyan uprising last week.
Those groups “could be more successful” in Libya than militants have been so far in Egypt, the counterterrorism official said. “Our counterterrorism experts are watching for any signs that these groups might gain a new foothold there.”
Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation who just returned from a three-week trip to Libya, said Al Qaeda might try to exploit tribal unrest and seize footholds in the vast ungoverned spaces of southwestern Libya, near the Algerian border. But he added that Sufi Islam, a mystical form of the religion popular among Libyans, has been resistant to the most extreme forms of Salafism favored by Al Qaeda.
“Al Qaeda is very skillful at exploiting tribal grievances, so that’s a concern in the south,” Mr. Wehrey said. “But in terms of whether Libyans are primed for Al Qaeda’s narrative, I don’t think that’s as ominous as some might suspect.”
Colonel Qaddafi long saw Al Qaeda as a grave threat to his rule, and was the first to request an arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden through Interpol, said Bruce Hoffman, director of the center for peace and security studies at Georgetown University. But the reality is more nuanced.
To answer the threats that after the Qaddafis comes either an Islamic or tribal deluge, Mustafa Mohamed Abud al-Jeleil, the justice minister who defected to the east, held a forum this week in the eastern city of Baida. It brought together tribal leaders, former military commanders and others who pledged future cooperation.
“We want one country — there is no Islamic emirate or Al Qaeda anywhere,” Mr. Abud al-Jeleil told Al Jazeera. “Our only goal is to liberate Libya from this regime and to allow the people to choose the government that they want.”
It was right around Baida, a city northeast of Benghazi, however, that the Islamic insurgency reached its zenith in the 1990s. Colonel Qaddafi heavily bombed the city of Darnah, also in the northeast, in the 1990s to eliminate the insurgency, and jailed those members who were not killed. His son and heir apparent Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi led a well-publicized campaign to wean them from violence while they were in jail, but there is no assurance that the teachings will stick once they are freed. Among these groups is a Libyan Muslim Brotherhood with ties to similar organizations in Egypt and Algeria, which is mainly moderate with a few radical splinters.
Nonetheless, there are real doubts about how much appeal radical Islam holds among Libyans. In Benghazi, in the courthouse that serves as the nerve center for the opposition, Essam Gheriani, a psychologist turned merchant, said that because most Libyans are Sunni Muslims from the same sect, Islam in Libya would remain moderate. “The extremism we saw is the result of oppression,” said Mr. Gheriani, a graduate of Michigan State University who is married to a lawyer who helped organize the first protests. “As you move from that period the extremism will decline with democracy. It won’t have a chance.”
Experts also believe Colonel Qaddafi used the threat of a Muslim takeover the way many Arab leaders did — exaggerating the menace to win sympathy from a United States prone to seeing Islamic revolutions under every Koran.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who has participated in several White House meetings on the crisis, said Libya’s tribal nature and absence of civil society were worrisome. But he said the experience of eastern Libya, where ad-hoc committees have taken control of local affairs, is a strikingly positive sign.
“People seem to be adopting a new identity based on their common experience of standing up to a dictator,” Mr. Malinowski said. “That doesn’t mean peace and love and brotherhood forever. But it’s a reason to hope that our worst fears about a post-Qaddafi Libya may not be realized.”
For the most part, though, few experts believe that any group can dominate.
“The current opposition movement in Libya is diverse and includes secular, nationalists, monarchists and Islamist elements,” said Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “I don’t think that any movement is in the position, in terms of resources and ideological power, to monopolize the political process.”
But he said that some hybrid of Islamism and nationalism was likely to emerge. In Libya, the strong nationalism that has run through all the recent uprisings is more likely to take on a religious tinge, experts believe, because it is a conservative society whose royal family once drew its authority in part from its spiritual role.
Probably the greatest insurance that Libya will not descend into Somalia-like chaos is its oil. The oil — once production fully resumes — can buy social content during a rocky transition period and offers insurance that Western powers cannot afford to sit by and watch such an important oil exporter disintegrate. Last year Italy, Germany and France together bought a substantial proportion of Libya’s 1.55 million barrels of petroleum pumped daily, about 2 percent of world production.
Some experts wonder if Libya might become the first experiment in the use of the “responsibility to protect” — the idea that a United Nations force would be deployed to prevent civilian deaths in the event of widespread violence. Russian or Chinese opposition to intervening in domestic affairs might be overcome if enough Libyans accepted the idea, which is possible because the United Nations helped oversee the birth of their modern nation.
With the country now split badly between east and west, an outside protection force would lend time for Tripoli to reassert itself as the capital and establish control.
“Nobody has an interest in permanent anarchy,” said Ms. Anderson of American University in Cairo. “You have to have some kind of mechanism to ensure that people turn in their weapons,” she said. “I don’t see there is any group within the political constellation that could do it.”
Eric Schmitt and Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington, and Kareem Fahim from Benghazi, Libya.