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By Frederic Wehrey*

For decades, the outsized personality of Muammar al-Qaddafi has obscured the many rivalries among Libya’s domestic groups, from the tribes to the military. With the Qaddafi era coming to a likely end, how will these actors now vie for supremacy?

After Libyans, and much of the civilized world, rejoice in the seemingly inevitable fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country will face the difficult task of repairing a society long traumatized by the Middle East’s most Orwellian regime. Libya lacks both legitimate formal institutions and a functioning civil society. The new, post-Qaddafi era, therefore, is likely to be marked by the emergence of long-suppressed domestic groups jostling for supremacy in what is sure to be a chaotic political scene. 

For four decades, Libya has been largely terra incognita, a place where the outsized personality of its quixotic leader and a byzantine bureaucracy obscured an informal network of constantly shifting power brokers. Even before the current unrest, working with these figures was uncertain at best — “like throwing darts at balloons in a dark room,” as one senior Western diplomat put it to me in 2009.

In the near future, even with Qaddafi gone, the country may face a continued contest between the forces of a free Libya and the regime’s die-hard elements. In particular, Qaddafi’s sons — Saif al-Islam, Khamis, Al-Saadi, and Mutassim — and their affiliated militias may not go quietly into the night; the struggle to root them out may be violent and protracted (think, for example, of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay). Saif al-Islam, who was known for years in the West as Libya’s supposed champion of reform, revealed his true character as a reactionary much like his father by promising a “bloodbath” in a televised speech last week. On the ground, many of the attacks against demonstrators and their suspected sympathizers are being ordered by Captain Khamis al-Qaddafi, who heads the 32nd Brigade, the regime’s best-trained and best-equipped force. As the current unrest unfolded, Al-Saadi’s star was on the rise: as a brigadier in the special forces, he was dispatched to placate and then suppress the brewing revolt in Benghazi on February 16. Lastly, Mutassim, Libya’s National Security Council adviser, reportedly sought in 2008 to establish his own militia to keep up with his brothers and has strong ties to a number of hard-liners.

Lined up against these Qaddafi holdouts are the members of the Libyan military and officer corps who have joined the opposition. Beginning in the early 1990s, Qaddafi deliberately weakened the Libyan officer corps after a succession of coup attempts by lower-ranking officers from the al-Warfalla and al-Magariha tribes, which had grown increasingly marginalized by Qaddafi’s own tribe, al-Qaddadfa, and were angered by his disastrous war against Chad in the early 1980s. From this point onward, Qaddafi kept the general military underfunded while devoting resources and training to elite units that were comprised of tribal allies of the al-Qaddadfa. He would later entrust these units to his sons. 

Over the years, the regular military’s infrastructure has become dilapidated and its budget so meager that generals and colonels wear civilian attire to preserve their uniforms. Some of the most senior officers — among them even those who supported Qaddafi in the 1969 coup — were forced into early retirement after the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings to prevent them from leading any opposition. Nevertheless, the officer corps, weak as it is, may be the only formal body capable of representing an impartial Libyan national interest in a post-Qaddafi era and, importantly, preventing an outbreak of revenge violence. Read more…

*Frederic Wehrey is a Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation. He recently returned from Libya.

As published in www.foreignaffairs.com on February 28, 2011.

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