As Gadhafi Falls, Will Libya Follow?

Avoiding an ongoing civil war in Libya requires an authoritative, charismatic leader who will also have appropriate enforcement powers. No such leader has yet emerged from the popular revolution.

The poetic speech by Muammar Gadhafi in which he called on Libyan citizens to “cleanse the state of traitors, house by house, alleyway by alleyway [zenga zenga]” is perhaps the most popular rhetorical legacy he will leave behind. It made him a hit on Facebook and YouTube, restaurants and soft drink makers hastened to call their meals and products “Zenga Zenga,” and the Israeli remix by Noy Alooshe immortalized him.

But the same “alleyway by alleyway” is liable now to characterize the Libyan political and military reality after Gadhafi finally falls. Libya is a tribal, ethnic, cultural and political mosaic that even Gadhafi had to compromise with by bribing its leaders and sharing power, so that he could maintain his “jamahiriya” ‏(state of the masses‏), a political creation that was his own invention and which has no counterpart elsewhere.

libya - Reuters - August 22 2011

“The rebels” − a term used to describe Gadhafi’s opponents as if they are a homogenous bloc, and who succeeded, with the West’s help, in bringing down Gadhafi’s regime − have already exhibited their divisions this week.

There are harsh claims being made against the head of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, not least because of his role in harming citizens when he served as justice minister under Gadhafi. And the rebel forces that attacked Tripoli from the west, who were much more organized and disciplined than the others, have already started to demand a place in the new unformed regime, and are likely to resist the authority of the rebels from Benghazi.

The various rivals each have private armies, which united for the revolution but are likely to start confronting each other in the battle for control. These factions do not necessarily represent differing ideologies − although these exist − but comprise distinct population groups, each of which has its own accounts to settle, both with Gadhafi’s regime and with the rival factions.

It is estimated that 75 percent of Libya’s 6.5 million people are organized into 140 different tribes, of which 30 tribes have political power and influence.

But even these tribes are not monolithic. Some of their members have abandoned the traditional way of life and some still uphold it, which is fodder for ongoing skirmishes between these factions. And we still haven’t gotten to the quarrels between the Berbers and the Arabs.

Division of the political spoils will have to take into account the country’s demographic structure, to avoid an ongoing civil war like that taking place in Iraq. But this requires an authoritative, charismatic leader who will also have appropriate enforcement powers. No such leader has yet emerged from Libya’s popular revolution.

Moreover, “enforcement powers” are a theoretical term, since whatever political entity that manages Libya in the short term will have to take a stand regarding the country’s army and police. Both had been subordinate to Gadhafi, and will be held to account both for the 15,000-20,000 killed during the revolution, and for the 42 previous years.

What makes the transition in Libya especially important is that it will greatly influence the leaders of Syria and Yemen, and the decision by western countries regarding military intervention in Syria. If Libya crumbles into small pieces after the great victory over Gadhafi, Syrian President Bashar Assad will earn some “quality time” with his protesters, and will have no need to fear international intervention.