What's With Libya? Who Are the Gaddafis?

Despite Gaddafi's reputation as delusional, he still controls his own propaganda machine and media. An assassin's bullet could find its mark, things could disintegrate from within, but the Gaddafi clan is far from done.
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It is absurd to think that you can predict or even know anything in the middle of a revolution in a foreign country with desultory communications. But because so much turns on what happens next in Libya for the Libyans, as well as for Africa and the Middle East, and for the U.S., too -- just look at what has happened to oil prices even though Libya controls only 2 percent of the world output -- we must try to be prophets. Perhaps the only justification for doing so is that so many others are speaking nonsense based on ignorance, bias, and the whims of the blogosphere. Just a few days ago the British Foreign Secretary was telling us Colonel Gaddafi had fled to Caracas into the waiting arms of another nemesis of the West, President Chavez. How convenient that would have been for our preconceptions!

So let me again hazard a guess about where things are and might be heading. First some historical facts and context for the current Libyan situation:

  • Until 1931, Libya was not one, but three countries, Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica. North Africa, even more than the Middle East, has been a region dominated by clans and tribes. There are 160 tribes in the country today, and Gaddafi is not just another dictator like Ben Ali or Mubarak, but denotes a powerful clan which, with allied clans, has dominated Tripoli for a long time. Tripoli was Tripolitania's core. And Cyrenaica? Here is a list of its principal towns: Al Marj, Ajdabiya, Darnah, Tobruk, Al Bayda and Benghazi. Sound familiar from recent headlines? They are the cities where the uprising against Tripoli began last week... and 40 and 80 years ago too.
  • Colonel Gaddafi himself came to power in 1969 in the era of Nasser and Castro as a revolutionary founder of the modern Libyan state. Ironically, he defined his revolution in part as "nationalist," aimed at rescuing Libya not only from the weak monarchy and the vestigial oversight of Italian neocolonialism, but also from the rule of the clans and tribes that had run free under them.
  • The failure of Gaddafi's revolution is evident then not just in the failure to give any reality to his dreams of socialism and participatory democracy (see his Green Book of the 70s), but in his failure to establish a true national state. The tribes and clans still play a silent but powerful role, both in the effort to take him down and to prop him up.
  • Gaddafi's original revolution was also secular on the model of national liberation movements, and opposed Islamism from the start. Fundamentalism never made incursions in Libya, and under Gaddafi, though his was a rogue and terrorist state in the 80s and 90s, it was always an enemy of Saudi Wahhabism, of fundamentalism, and therefore of al Qaeda. Recently, there has been close intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Libya against al Qaeda, which has put Gaddafi on its hit list.

With this background in mind, we can hazard a few risky guesses about where Libya may be headed.

1. As a kind of metaphorical heir to Tripolitania's power, and the head of the Gaddafi clan and its allies in the region, Gaddafi may have more staying power than caricatures of him as a buffoon and lunatic would suggest. He controls considerable military power -- three battalions under the direct command of his sons Sa'ad, Moutassim, and Khemis; the air force; and his pan-African force (the "mercenaries") actually drawn from the Sahara region of Southern Libya and Northern Niger and Chad. He is still able to orchestrate demonstrations of thousands of followers (yesterday in Green Square). And there are many more associated with his regime who will have an interest in his survival. He cannot take out the insurgents, but they lack the military force to overthrow him. Stalemate?

2. Despite the Colonel's reputation as delusional and out of touch, he still controls his own propaganda machine and media, in part through his son Saif, the Western-educated, English-speaking Ph.D. whose remarkable interview in English yesterday on Turkish CNN is a must-see. Saif declared his fealty to family -- we will live and die in Libya! -- but also launched a potent propaganda campaign denying nearly every report coming out of Libya about repression and blaming rival clans for the violence. An assassin's bullet could find its mark, things could disintegrate from within, but the Gaddafi clan is far from done, and doubters might want to recall that other villainous clan documented in The Godfather, where another "good" and "civilian-minded" son unexpectedly embraces a beleaguered father under siege and saves the family from extinction. (Pacino got a lot more sympathy than Saif).

3. Even if the Gaddafis do fall over the next days or weeks or months, Libya's fate in the short term is likely to be turmoil, civic unrest and the possibility of an Iraqi- or Somalian-style civil war where the "losers" in "Tripolitania" continue to wage an insurgency against the "winners" in "Cyrenaica." This will make stability and progress towards reform difficult, and could even pave the way to some new autocracy in the name of "order" or to stave off fundamentalists or al Qaeda that might try to take advantage of the strife. Many will be glad to see Gaddafi go, but fewer will be content if his successor is the head of another tribe or clan trying to speak on behalf of "Libya."

4. The key to the future might be whether or not there is a sufficiently "modern" class of lawyers, engineers, businessmen, teachers and doctors who can constitute a new nation-wide "middle class" free from tribe who, on the model of Egypt, can begin to constitute a true Libyan nation, one that is also democratic. Not impossible but extremely difficult. For Saif Gaddafi has to some extent become the face of and gatekeeper to "modern free market" Libya, and some of the potential reformers worked closely with him on his human rights and e-democracy and economic reform projects associated with the Saif Gaddafi Foundation. Those genuine reformers could be tainted now by that association, and hence -- like Saif himself -- disqualified from further participation in post-Gaddafi change.

5. Outside intervention, as with U.S. or NATO warplanes enforcing a "no-fly zone" over Tripoli to disarm Gaddafi's air force, is out of the question. The one thing that could give new legitimacy to Gaddafi's delusional claim that Europe and America are conspiring to bring him down, would be the return of American war planes to Libyan air space! Forget about that.

None of this means the Gaddafi clan will survive the next days or weeks. But it means that it could, and that, even if it does not, there are complications and obstacles ahead for those who care about finding a road to Libyan democracy that must be anticipated and planned for.

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