Libya protests - Reuters - Feb 26, 2011
Protesters against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi chant slogans during a demonstration in Benghazi February 26, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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Two months after the protests in Tunisia and a month after the start of the protests in Egypt that chased Hosni Mubarak out of office and all the way to his hideout in Sharm el-Sheikh, it seems the "protest culture" is taking the place of political change and the implementation of democracy. The latest example is Libya, which in recent days has become a battlefield with more than a thousand dead, amid fears of a much greater massacre and expectations of a full-fledged civil war.

Libya lacks Egypt's military infrastructure, not allowing for an organized transition. Power lies in the hands of 140 heads of tribes and clans, of which about 30 men are politically influential.

In his 42 years in power, Muammar Gadhafi built up a tribal support system through massive payoffs to these tribal leaders and by co-opting them in his regime. At the same time, he banned activity involving parties and NGOs, creating complete dependency on himself.

It turns out that the system is crumbling, so much so that the tribes that provided Gadhafi with most of his troops have abandoned him.

The colonel's fall might break the country into tribal principalities, or local tribal coalitions that would jointly manage shared areas at best, or fight over control of resources at worst.

The current unifying factor of opposition to Gadhafi and outrage over the massacre may be replaced by infighting, without it being clear how a tribal coalition can be created to run the country and prevent it from becoming a Maghreb version of Afghanistan.

Neither the West nor the Arab states can do anything to prevent this disintegration. They are now clamoring for urgent sanctions on Libya, and are likely to have their request ratified by the United Nations.

However, the sanctions' effect would be limited. Freezing Gadhafi's accounts, enforcing a weapons embargo and not granting visas to his officials will not deter him from continuing his war against his civilians.

If in countries like Iran and Sudan the sanctions were meant to encourage people to change their government or show the regimes they risked losing popular support, in Libya the popular revolt already happened, without the sanctions. And the leader couldn't care less about legitimacy in the eyes of the people. It seems the sanctions are used more to express solidarity with the Libyan people than to stop the war or penalize Gadhafi.

In other Arab states the celebrations and protests are winding down and discussions about the aftermath are begining. Frustration with the gap between the protests' success and actual achievements is growing, and renewed protests could become a way of life that does not allow for political and economic regeneration.

While Egyptians want vengeance against members of the old regime, Tunisians are protesting over food and Yemeni southerners are demanding equal rights with the northerners, the public may soon need to swap "the people want to bring down the regime" with "the people love to protest."