Associate Research Fellow John G. Tower Center for Political Studies, SMU
Gadhafi’s death is undoubtedly good news to most Libyans and to the international community. Under his brutal 42-year dictatorship, Libya saw a complete collapse of governmental institutions. Gadhafi ruled with terrifying capriciousness, wreaked havoc in the daily lives of the people, and all but decimated the economy. Externally, Gadhafi pursued policies that added to instability in the Middle East and North Africa. He actively supported terrorist groups against the US and Israel, and aggressively exerted Libyan influence over Arab neighbors. Only prolonged international isolation and severe economic problems forced Gadhafi in the last decade to seek rehabilitation in the eyes of Western leaders.
The National Transitional Council has now inherited a failed state. In many ways, the challenges that come next will be much harder than the act of overthrowing Gadhafi’s regime. Gadhafi’s corrupt rule has hollowed out political institutions, leaving no functional framework of representation or governance upon which to build a new republic. Gadhafi built his power upon an edifice of patronage to the clans related to his tribe. In response, groups that opposed the regime now run along the fractured lines of tribal and regional loyalties. These are not civil society organizations that can easily draw together the diverse elements in Libya. The uprising that overthrew Gadhafi itself was less motivated by democratic ideals as such than by hatred of the dictator and his allies. Even the military in Libya is largely made up of one tribe. Unlike the protestors in Egypt or Tunisia, Gadhafi’s opponents quickly launched a civil war. This all-or-nothing attitude reveals the profound divisions in society and the weakness of the state.
The Transitional Council faces difficulties far beyond the one of instituting democracy, if that is its goal. The recent conflict exacerbated damage to an already buckling economy from the Gadhafi’s years. Libya’s dependence on oil for public revenue (oil contributes 75% to the public budget) makes it liable to the “resource curse.” (This is a common phenomenon where the government siphons off the natural wealth to bolster its grip on power and repress citizens, at the same time neglecting investment in other economic activities.) In addition, the Transitional Council has to construct a sense of national identity out of warring tribes with deep-seated animosity towards one another. It has to govern even while building a working state apparatus from the ground up, in a country where unemployment already stood at 30% before the recent war and poverty is prevalent. (As an indicator of the scale of this issue, 70% of the population is under the age of 20.)
Libya is at the crossroads. Gadhafi’s death will demoralize and weaken the pro-regime forces as they no longer have a charismatic figure around whom they could rally. But the capacity of the Transitional Council to meet the challenges outlined above remains highly in doubt. The collapse of the state presents a potential humanitarian disaster. The civil war inflicted enormous bloodshed and fostered new enmities. Such circumstances could lead to a complete dissolution of the republic. They could also give rise to another autocrat with a power base created on the back of a new configuration of tribal allegiances. The problems we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade are likely to unfold in Libya.
A question often asked in the American media is whether post-Gadhafi Libya will see the rise to power of Islamists. The rebel stronghold was in the east of the country, where Islamists and several jihadi groups were active. Rebels included members of such groups. The Libyan Islamic Movement in particular is a recognized terrorist group. It participated in the war to depose Gadhafi and has allied itself with the National Transitional Council. The movement has denied links to al-Qaeda and characterizes itself as a freedom organization against an anti-Muslim regime that attacked its own people with guns and bombs.
It is important to note that most Libyans are in fact moderate Muslims. Even Islamists who desire integration of religious principles into the state are not inherently violent. Gadhafi’s heavy-handed measures against Muslim groups played a key role in radicalizing some of them and turning them militant. The most effective way to marginalize the extremist organizations is to ensure openness and inclusiveness in the institution-building process.