Qaddafi and the future of Libya

File photo of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi behind bulletproof glass for a military parade in Green Square, Tripoli, Libya.
File,AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Following this weekend's widespread disturbances in Libya, Muammar Qaddafi could lose power within hours or days as his military units and security services crumble in the face of popular discontent. Alternatively, he could decide -- in the ominous words of his son Saif al-Islam -- to "fight to the last bullet," which suggests even more horrific levels of violence and anarchy. In a rambling television broadcast today, February 22, the colonel pledged to "die as a martyr."

Qaddafi's personal eccentricities, as well as his responsibility for the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, will make few sorry to see his departure. But the challenges of this turn of events for whoever forms the next government would be enormous. The consequences of missteps for the region -- and especially Europe, for which Libya is an important oil and gas supplier-- could be significant and rapid.

In the four decades since he overthrew King Idris with other young army officers in 1969, Qaddafi has ruled notionally unopposed. The current system of government, introduced as he consolidated power in the 1970s, consists of people's committees; Qaddafi himself has no formal role. In reality, however, Libya is a police state with Qaddafi as a dictator, marked by a frequently quixotic style. The only institution in the country has been Qaddafi himself.

Moreover, Qaddafi's divide-and-conquer strategy has accentuated the country's already serious societal and tribal cleavages. The most obvious of these splits emerged when he took power. Many residents of the eastern Cyrenaica province (home to some 30 percent of the population) traditionally supported the king -- who led the influential anticolonial, Islamist, Senussi movement -- and have never really accepted Qaddafi's rule.

At the same time, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where professional militaries served as arbiters during recent unrest, the Libyan army has never been particularly competent or coherent. During its last real test, a 1987 border war with Chad, Libyan military casualties were nearly 10 percent, an astonishingly high figure. It appears that Qaddafi has intentionally fragmented his armed forces over the years in order to insulate the regime against coup attempts, instead relying on several overlapping security organizations for protection.

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Given Cyrenaica's history, the potency of recent demonstrations in the east is perhaps not surprising. For years, the area has been regarded as a relative hotbed of antiregime sentiment, most prominently the cities of Benghazi and Darna. Reports of military defections -- including two Mirage F-1 fighter pilots who were purportedly ordered to attack civilians but landed in Malta instead -- also come as little surprise.

Many of the military's conscripts are from the tribes, which appear to be increasingly siding against Qaddafi as news of the atrocities spreads. Several key tribes have publicly declared opposition to his continued rule, most of them based in the east. For example, the Zawiya tribe near Benghazi threatened to cut off oil exports if the colonel remained in power. And on February 21, the Warfallah -- one of Libya's largest tribes, located south of Tripoli -- announced it was joining the movement to oust him.

Prospects for regime survival

From the outside, the array of forces lining up against the regime seems difficult to defeat. Yet Qaddafi still has a few cards to play. During a speech broadcast on Libyan television Sunday night, Saif said the regime would be prepared to make some "radical" but unspecified reforms. But if the demonstrators do not capitulate, he warned, Libya might slip toward a bloody civil war.

Although the latter threat was clearly self serving, Saif did have a valid point given the current trajectory of the struggle. The regime has already demonstrated just how ruthless it can be in its efforts to suppress the revolt, with the body count moving well into the hundreds and helicopter gunships deploying into Tripoli. Indeed, during its forty-two years in power, the regime has shown no compunction about murdering Libyan citizens or foreign nationals. And although the ferocity of Qaddafi's self-preservation efforts was expected -- one of his other sons, Khamis, commands the unit charged with regime protection -- every atrocity only ensures the loyalty of those units still linked to the dictator. After all, if the regime falls, those soldiers implicated in the violence could face the gallows.

Given the fast-moving pace of events, the regime could collapse at any moment. Should it persevere, though, what remains of the state could face infighting for some time to come.

If the crisis continues, the country's long-repressed Islamist movement could benefit. Led by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the movement has an impressive history of supporting jihadist causes, having worked with al-Qaeda for more than a decade. Since 2003, Libya has been the second-leading source (after Saudi Arabia) of insurgents entering Iraq via Syria. And not coincidentally, a plurality of these jihadists hailed from Darna, the epicenter of the rebellion. More recently, al-Bayda --a village not too far from Darna -- was declared an "Islamic Caliphate" by the locals following its liberation this week.