The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Libya: Can the rebels rule?

There's been a lot written about the difficulty that the rebel National Transitional Council may have consolidating control over a post-Qaddafi Libya, and the likelihood of splits — possibly bloody ones — between the different factions of the rebel movement. I think that the fears are legitimate, but the situation is not quite as dangerous as some might believe. I'm currently in Benghazi, where the rebel government had a fairly easy time establishing its authority in February and March thanks largely to a region-wide sense of neglect and persecution by the Qaddafi regime, so maybe I'm underestimating some of the difficulties. But here are my thoughts.

First, some of the strikes against post-Qaddafi stability:


  • There are lots of privately-organized militias or "kitaeb", 40-plus at last count. They are mostly unpaid volunteers, usually from one particular town or region. The nucleus of one of the largest — Benghazi's 17 February Martyrs brigade, is a computer company. Several hours of tracer fire over Benghazi's skies last night bore witness to how many weapons are in private hands, and how much people like to fire them. They are bound together by group solidarity engendered by the fighting of some pretty hard battles, and while right now they say they just want to get rid of Qaddafi, rebel forces also frequently develop a strong sense of entitlement.
  • The 28 July assassination of rebel commander Abdel Fattah Younis, apparently by rogue militiamen, has caused something of a backlash against katiba autonomy, and most katiba members in the east at least insist that they will either return to their jobs or join a new Libyan army. In the west, however, there appears to be some resentment against the Benghazi-based NTC for failure to provide what the rebels with enough supplies.
  • Qaddafi still has a base of support, or — just as dangerously — groups that will be perceived by the victorious rebels as bases of support. The NTC have tried to bring in representation from as many different tribes as possible, and some of the larger groups allied to Qaddafi — like the Warfalla — are big enough that the perception of regime ties will simply be diluted by their numbers. However, it's going to be very difficult to make the colonel's own tribe, the Gadadfa, feel like they are full partners in the new Libya. The Gadadfa dominate the highly inconveniently located town of Sirte, which blocks the main east-west highway, and also share control over the oasis town of Sebha. Sebha in particular is a dangerous spot because there was an uprising in June by the Awlad Suleiman against the Gadadfa, and when two groups live in extremely close proximity and think each other a mutual threat, some very nasty violence can result.
  • Thanks to Qaddafi's obsession with a façade of Libya has no experience of party politics, and competing interests. NTC is a rather lawyerly bunch who often seems to lack political acumen. They engendered a lot of criticism last week for announcing an interim constitution, supposedly without proper consultation. Rebel officials said that they needed to get a document out to be fully recognized by the UN and to get ahold of Qaddafi's frozen funds, but the move seen as a power play by NTC deputy chairman Abdel Hafez Ghoja. 
  • One danger here is that as soon as the revolutionary euphoria wears off, inevitably people will start imagining that the remnants of the old regime have just gone underground and are plotting a comeback, cutting nefarious deals with the NTC to remain in power. One or two mysterious bombs or assassinations can easily spark a panic, and the next thing you know you'll have katibas demanding that they retain their arms to "safeguard the revolution." There's no way that the NTC can stop this, but they should be careful to be as inclusive and as transparent as possible.

Now a few points in Libya's favor:

  • The combination of foreign airstrikes — which rebels realize saved them, albeit without foreign ground forces which would inevitably antagonize people — gives the West leverage without creating a backlash. Foreign interference is not a dirty word here: one katiba member I met in Ajdabiya said that the first thing he wanted to do after victory was buy a sheep, and bring it to Sarkozy to slaughter in Sarkozy's honor. This means that proposals like bringing in the UN to help with the transitional process, as some Libyan politicians have proposed, is probably going to be broadly acceptable. Also, when NTC member Mahmoud Jibreel says that fighters should not loot or commit reprisals because the "eyes of the world are upon us", his logic is actually appreciated by fighters on the ground.
  • Libya has no ruling party like the Baath. In Iraq, you had to join the party to rise high in your career, and to some degree the entire middle class was tainted by association with the Baath. This meant that technocrats got turfed out of their jobs by religious Shia parties, and in some cases terrorized by radical Shia militias. In Libya, the NTC has been fairly successful in keeping professionals in their posts, and only a few fairly organizations -- ie, Qaddafi's "Revolutionary Committees" -- are really tainted by their relationship to the regime.
  • There seem to be few divisive differences over the identity of the country — Libya is tribally and ethnically diverse, but pretty homogenously Sunni and conservative. In order to whip up radical Islamist populism, it really helps to have some kind of Other — be they crony capitalists, nefarious secularists who want to sneakily impose atheism through supraconstitutional principles, Baathists, Shia or others who practice scandalous rituals, or other "heretics", Tartar military dictators, etc. There aren't any of these in Libya, yet. There also aren't any liquor stores to smash. Maybe this will change if a militant Berber movement emerges, or if luxury hotels start going up in which an ex-NTC member has a silent partner.