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Libya: A turbulent future?

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COMMENTS

2 March 2011 15:00

Christopher Herbert is based in New York and has worked in public relations and consulting for Middle East-related businesses. Chris' previous post, on his close brush with Qadhafi, is here.

Assuming that Qadhafi's end is near, what does it mean for Libya' What type of polity will emerge in this country of six million people with vast natural resources' I suggest four possibilities.

Strongman regime

Unlike its revolutionary neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, Libya lacks civil society and infrastructure. In lieu of state building, all Libya has known for the past two centuries is domination by strong regimes. Whether under Qadhafi for the past 42 years, or subject to the genocidal Italian colonisation, or as a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, Libya's society is accustomed to aligning itself to strongman leadership. An opposition leader will most likely gain power by taking advantage of tribal rivalries to consolidate a hold on as many oil and natural gas resources as possible.

The question is whether Libya's revolutionary spirit will allow for a strong leader to unite them. The establishment of rule-by-committee in Benghazi provides a potential and hopeful antidote to the strongman scenario. Nonetheless, there are many former Qadhafi cronies (like Nuri) waiting in the wings to take on a role in a post-Qadhafi Libya.

Islamist state

Yes, Qadhafi blamed the protests across his nation on al Qaeda (he also blamed them on hallucinogens, while comparing himself to Queen Elizabeth II). His claim is not accurate, but there is some credibility to his concern. For years, Libya has managed to subjugate Islamist elements (the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) within its borders, and al Qaeda has offered assistance to the various populist rebellious factions now fighting against Qadhafi's forces. 

While some could argue that Libyan society is primed for a revolution of religious fervour, I am hesitant to predict an Islamist victory. Libyans are wary of religious fundamentalists, and the current revolutionaries mirror the populist, and largely non-religious, groups that succeeded in overthrowing Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. Still, a targeted Islamist campaign to gain control of Libya's oil and gas reserves could give fundamentalists an upper hand.

Transitional state with international guidance

Although it is unlikely, a transitional state with international guidance could result, particularly if Qadhafi continues to fight. If the situation in Libya continues to deteriorate, a foreign power or alliance (such as NATO, the UN, or even the African Union) could send forces as a 'peacekeeping' mission. 

Depending on their mission, these peacekeepers could also be tasked with the job of state building. Libya experienced UN state building after World War II, following Italian colonisation and before the reign of King Idris. This is yet another example of Libya's spotty record of state building.

Tribal feuds and city-states

This possibility is the most likely in the short term. The idea of 'Libya' is a modern construct that does not quite apply to the deep geographical and tribal divisions in the country. Benghazi natives, for instance, speak a different variety of colloquial Arabic from those living in Tripoli. In addition, the tribes in Benghazi have for a long time resented the rule of Qadhafi and his cohorts.

If Benghazi can establish rule-by-committee and gain full control over the oil and gas reserves in the eastern part of Libya, it could assert its independence from western Libya. The entire country could easily devolve into a series of city-states with alliances determined by tribal allegiances. While the larger idea of 'Libya' will remain, it will take some time for the internal divisions between Libyans to sort themselves out.

 

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