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Dr Musa A Keilani: Pitting one power centre against the other
March 19, 2011
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Libya could be headed for a several-way partition, unravelling the country that was a creation of the colonial powers beginning in the 1930s and given a clear shape after World War II. On the whole, we could not expect a transition of power in Libya along the lines that we saw and are continuing to witness in Tunisia and Egypt.

It is difficult to see any particular group emerging as the strongest and taking the reins of the country and leading it to democracy. The elements at play in Libya are too complex for a smooth transition of power; that is indeed assuming that Muammar Qadhafi would meet the inevitable outcome of rejection by a majority of his people.

Qadhafi is now leading the charge like the madman that he is, unleashing everything he has in terms of firepower against pro-democracy activists. In the absence of concerted external intervention backed by a no-fly zone, Qadhafi would seek to decimate the rebels who are seeking his ouster after 41 years in power. It is likely that Qadhafi’s forces could take back the major centres now controlled by the rebels, but they might not be able to hold on to them because the dissident fighters would regroup and mount serious challenges to the regime and a war of attrition could follow.

Qadhafi’s forces may not eventually have a choice but to withdraw, leaving the rebels in control of the areas. Effectively, that would leave the area around Benghazi in the hands of the rebel-led interim national council. What would follow is rival claims by the Qadhafi regime and the council as the legitimate representative and government of Libya. The two sides could indeed be engaged in a continued effort to consolidate their grip, but it is unlikely that either side would be a clear winner in the tug of war.

The picture need not be limited to that; there are other forces at play in Libya linked to the modern history of the country and to the monarchy that Qadhafi overthrew in 1969 to grab power.

There are indeed some who argue that Libya has ceased to exist the way it was before the anti-Qadhafi revolt began. They argue that resentment towards each other among the different segments that made up modern Libya has already ensured that anyone trying to put the country together in the post-Qadhafi era would find it very difficult to do so.

The country called Libya was created by the Italians who tied together the three “provinces”: Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south in the 1930s. After World War II, Britain took over the area and created a monarchy based in Cyrenaica.

Relations among the three provinces were never easy even under the reign of the monarchy that Qahdafi overthrew. But Qadhafi held them together along the lines that Saddam Hussein held Iraq’s different communities and areas together by sheer power and ruthlessness.

Like the residents of the Shiite areas of Iraq that were neglected by Saddam in his development priorities, those in eastern Libya often complained that they never enjoyed the real fruits of the country’s oil wealth.

And it is highly possible that the strain could emerge as a major factor that could determine the shape of a post-Qadhafi Libya. There are still many who would like to restore the monarchy to power and see the current crisis as an opportunity to try their hand at that. It is unlikely that they would succeed, but that would not stop them from waging an effort at it.

The pro-monarchists are part of the so-called Sanussi movement, a religious sect whose theology is linked to Wahabists and Sufis. The movement has a record of putting up stiff resistance to foreign invaders and it would be a force to be reckoned with in chaotic Libya.

Other factors at play in Libya would include the senior military officers who have defected and joined the ranks of the rebels. They have their own minds, and some of them could not but be aware that their erstwhile association with the regime would be held against them when the day of reckoning comes after the dust settles down. They would definitely want to have insurance for themselves in one form or another. And this would pit them directly against the interim council. Another factor that would come into play at some point is the tribal base of Libya.

Experts on Libya observe that Libya remains “the tribal society it was in 1951,’ when the country became independent.

“As a political concept, Libya for many of its citizens remains limited to tribe, family or province: The notion of a unified system of political checks and balances remains terra incognita,” according to Diedreick Vandewalle, a US-based professor of government.

Some of the tribes have disowned Qadhafi while other remain loyal to the longtime strongman. At this point, it is difficult to assess how badly they are split in terms of support for Qadhafi. But those who have left him would find it difficult to patch up with him.

Qadhafi is believed to have armed some of his tribal loyalists and they could turn out to be yet another power centre in the country. The European countries have a vested interest in Libya, given its oil and gas wealth, and Italy was among one of the best beneficiaries. Now that the Qadhafi regime is destined to come apart at the seams, some of the European governments could try to turn the course around in their favour. This could mean pitting one power centre against the other.

We cannot expect a quick subsiding of the anti-Qadhafi revolt even if the longtime strongman were to be ousted from power or opts for the fate of Hitler, as some of his former aides have said. Once the regime is gone, the region, and indeed the rest of the world, would find that it is only the beginning of more crises pitting Libyans against Libyans.

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