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27 August 2011

An uncertain future

Stop making lazy comparisons with Iraq - Libya will decide its own fate in its own time

By Shashank Joshi

“I just went inside his room, Gaddafi’s bedroom, and I was really, I was like Oh my God!” The young rebel had stolen Colonel Gaddafi’s hat and jewellery. It’s hard to imagine that a scriptwriter could have crafted a better ending to Libya’s civil war. Except, of course, that the new Libya is haunted by several ghosts: the chaos of Baghdad 2003; the hints of tribal factionalism evident after the death of rebel commander Abdul Fattah Younes; and the “flickers of al Qaeda” invoked by NATO’s military chief back in March.

Begin with the Islamists fighting on the rebel side. Many will have links to al Qaeda, but they have emerged in a very different context to, say, the Afghan mujahideen. The latter enjoyed substantial state patronage (from the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), cross-border safe havens, and spent decades honing their fighting skills. The term “Islamist” is itself misleading as it can span non-violent groups and hardcore terrorists – and many towards the latter end of the spectrum were pushed there after decades of suppression by the state.

Libya is, of course, a conservative country. The “draft constitutional charter for the transitional stage” circulating on the internet, possibly a deliberate leak as a signal of intent towards a wary international community, promises that “Islam is the Religion of the State and the principal source of legislation is Islamic jurisprudence (Sharia)'”. This is compatible with a gamut of relatively liberal laws, rather than Saudi puritanism. Assuming that an Islamist vanguard is about the hijack the revolution is simply absurd.

So what about tribes? Consider the killing of rebel military commander Abdul Fattah Younes. The TNC is an alliance of factions, and one of those – an Islamist group – likely murdered Younes. Members of his powerful eastern tribe, the Obeidi, reacted by establishing armed checkpoints (a common method of flexing muscles) and intimidating a rebel press conference. A month on, they are threatening to detain and try senior rebels who they deem culpable for his death.

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Even more serious than intra-rebel tribal divisions may be those that separate the opposition from loyalists. This should not be overstated – only a couple of dozen tribes are politically consequential. They are not monolithic, and their membership is not a rigid identity that trumps all feelings of nationalism or regionalism. Moreover, decades of urbanisation have seen a dilution in tribal identity, to the point where many in a large city like Tripoli would see little political significance in their membership.

But aside from Gaddafi’s own tribe, a number of others – Warfalla, Magarha, Warshafana and Tarhuna – have enjoyed longstanding government largesse. That will have to come to an end, but the new leadership has to be incredibly cautious in ensuring that rebalancing does not amount and is not perceived as, retribution. Nothing would be more conducive to the sort of perpetual civil strife seen in somewhere like Yemen.

It is impossible to say with certainty that Libya will not collapse. At this moment, it is a fragile country with no government and many weapons. Armed militias will remain, since disarmament will prove impossible for a government with limited coercive capacity. But lazy analogies to previous catastrophes, like Iraq after 2003, do a disservice to the preparation undertaken by the TNC in concert with British and French advisers.

In discussing the prospects for the peace, it is also worth reiterating that the game is not up. Swathes of the capital are subject to fierce fighting. A city of over one million, it will take days before Tripoli can be adequately secured and many weeks before the extent of loyalist influence can be understood. Further afield, the Colonel’s hometown of Sirte remains in government hands, as does the town of Sebha in the interior. The former has the largest concentration of Qadhafi’s own tribe, and the latter has risen up against the government only in parts.

So what now? In The Independent, veteran journalist Robert Fisk argued that “Libya will be a Middle East superpower”. Somewhat confusingly, he argued two days later that “a guerrilla war eroding the new powers is inevitable”. Those are the two poles – Panglossian on the one hand, unreasonably cynical on the other – on which the debate has been hung.

They’re both mistaken. Libya will take years before it develops the habits and practices of a democracy. The interim period will be replete with unsavoury compromises and sporadic setbacks. But dire warnings of marauding rebels soaking Tripoli’s streets with blood have simply not materialised, and are unlikely to do so. In the longer-term, Libya might count itself lucky not to possess charismatic statesmen like the Hamid Karzai of 2001, and instead finds itself run by less glamorous, but hopefully less venal technocrats.

Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student of international relations at Harvard University, and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

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