Scars show as Libya drowns in blood
By Victor Kotsev
TEL AVIV - Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt. This is the new mantra of the international media and the more prominent political analysts, after at least a week spent in - largely fruitless - attempts to apply a common denominator to all the revolutions in the (often perceived as uniform) "Arab world".
The sweeping generalizations are tempting. Indeed, the comparisons between Libya, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia, are unavoidable. If executed with caution and paired with contrasts, they are also essential to understanding the situation in North Africa. Egypt has long served as a model of emulation in the region - indeed, since pharaonic times. More recently, and
relevantly, much of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's rule, as well as the uprising against him, was modeled after events in Egypt.
The coup that brought Gaddafi to power in 1969 was largely fashioned after and inspired by the one Gamal Abdel Nasser and his associates executed in Egypt in 1952. Even the fact that Gaddafi had promoted himself to the rank of colonel (and never higher) was highly symbolic - he saw himself as an intellectual and political descendent of Nasser, who was himself a colonel. Initially, Gaddafi attempted to set up political structures in Libya after the Egyptian model. Even when that failed, and he was forced to improvise, he continued to insist that he was carrying on Nasser's struggle.
Ironically, the inspiration for the current popular uprising, which has presented the biggest challenge to his 41-year rule, also came from Egypt. So did a few of the tricks the Libyan dictator used to reassert control: according to some reports, when he realized he was losing, he withdrew his forces on purpose and intentionally created chaos, in hopes of rallying popular and international support with the threat of anarchy and instability. If confirmed, this would be straight out of the Egyptian regime's toolbox.
Whatever Gaddafi's fate, however, it will certainly be different from that of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. This is in part due to the conclusion the Libyan leader drew from the latter's downfall. Whereas Mubarak, even during his most defiant moments, refrained from ordering a full-scale massacre of his people, Gaddafi did not hesitate to push the proverbial red button. In response, his opponents are demanding his death.
Libya is drowning in blood. The confirmed death toll so far, cited by Human Rights Watch and world media, is around 300, but in reality it is certainly higher - according to estimates by the Italian foreign minister, possibly 1,000. Witnesses cited by The New York Times on Tuesday claimed that pro-government militias were carting away bodies of protesters; the capital Tripoli was described as a "war zone", "littered with dead bodies". Gaddafi allegedly used practically all means available - including snipers, imported militias roaming the streets and firing indiscriminately, warplanes, helicopters and even naval bombardment.
The violence may not save the Libyan leader. While, according to most reports, he is gradually consolidating his hold on the capital and the western part of the country, his overall situation is grave. He has lost control over practically the entire eastern half of Libya, where the greater part of the oil wealth is concentrated.
Scores of his international diplomats have denounced him - some accusing him of "genocide" against his own people - and the United Nations Security Council is discussing measures that could theoretically include shooting down of Libyan aircraft on missions against the protesters.
A number of tribes have turned on him, and parts of the military have defected. Even members of the air force - the most loyal branch of the military, recruited largely from Gaddafi's own small tribe - have abandoned him. According to a report by prestigious American think-tank Stratfor, a military coup is in the works - likely another emulation of the events in Egypt.
However, the similarities between Egypt and Libya are limited, and it is way too early to predict what will happen in the latter case.
Even if the Libyan military carries out a successful coup - which is uncertain, as a long string of unsuccessful coup attempts over the years indicates - it is hardly capable of stepping in to fill the power vacuum, as the Egyptian military did. Like Mubarak, Gaddafi sought to weaken his military for fear of a coup; unlike the Egyptian president, however, he was spectacularly successful, and as a result his armed forces lack unity, strength and popular support.
Moreover, there is another crucial difference between Egypt and Libya: the structure of the society and the state. Historians would argue that this is part of the millennia-old distinction between nomadic and agrarian societies. Egypt has a long tradition of state structure and agrarian urban classes, dating to the pharaohs, and largely preserved during the times of Roman, Arab and Ottoman domination.
The Libyan state, on the other hand, is a relatively recent invention. Its society is made up of traditionally nomadic Arab Bedouin and Berber tribes whose basic structures, though modified over the past century or so, have survived.
This explains in part why Gaddafi - himself a member of the fairly minor Gaddafa tribe - was unsuccessful in his initial attempts to tear down the tribal structures and to create a state in the image of Nasser's Egypt. He discovered that nomadic kinship structures and often fluid tribal alliances cannot easily be molded into a modern socialist state.
Thus, he incorporated them in his Jamahiriyya - a concept he invented, translated loosely as "state of the masses". Subsequently, he ruled without any political parties, relying on an imitation of traditional mechanisms of reaching consensus, which, although with time increasingly distorted and hypocritical, for a while served him well.
In his book Forgotten Voices, scholar Ali Abdullatif Ahmida calls for "a critical re-examination of both Western and nationalist African theories of the state" with respect to Libya, and also has some positive words to say about Gaddafi (whose name is alternatively spelled as Qadhdhafi):
The Jamahiriyya government received wide public support among the lower and middle classes, which allowed the government to engage in a major transformation of the economy as well as the social and political structure ... Qadhdhafi was able to articulate and transform anticolonial resistance and Libyan nationalism by translating these legacies into a revolutionary ideology using down-to-earth language understood by ordinary Libyans. Qadhdhafi used his charisma brilliantly to mobilize people and attack his opponents and rivals inside and outside Libya.
Such descriptions are almost completely absent from contemporary analyses, and this is in part due to the evolution of the regime, which, in the words of an observer, more recently turned into a cruel "cleptocracy". However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that an eccentric dim-witted tyrant, as many have described Gaddafi, could hardly keep in power for over four decades, starting at the age of 27. His fabled eccentricity, at the very least, was mindful to the traditional power structures in his country, and perhaps even reflected them to a certain extent.
All this creates a nightmare for most analysts and the international media, which for the most part thrive on simple models and straight-forward analogies. To give a small example, when we hear the news of Libyan border guards pulling back and being replaced by popular committees, it is easy to assume the same situation as in Egypt, where similar popular committees were the exact antithesis of the regime. In Libya, however, the prototype of the popular committees was created by Gaddafi himself, almost 40 years ago. It is unclear what their status is currently, and it is possibly different in different parts of the country.
Foreign observers are gradually tuning into this complex reality, yet more can be desired. "We should not be fooled by Libya's geographic proximity to Egypt and Tunisia," Professor Marc Lynch wrote on Monday in his Foreign Policy blog. "The appropriate comparison is Bosnia or Kosovo, or even Rwanda where a massacre is unfolding on live television and the world is challenged to act." On Tuesday, Reuters quoted a London-based North Africa scholar, according to whom "In Libya, it will be the tribal system that will hold the balance of power rather than the military".
What we are confronted with is a complex multi-layered conflict. There is popular discontent with Gaddafi, but there are also tensions between different population groups that have simmered under the surface for years. There are exiled opposition leaders, there are powerful economic interests, and there is international outrage. This is an extremely explosive mix, and it is very difficult to predict which allegiances will prevail and how the conflict will develop. If Gaddafi is ousted, there are no structures ready to fill in the vacuum, and a civil war is indeed likely.
As mentioned, much depends on the tribal balance. This balance is delicate and can change quickly. Tribal structures, although intact, have been weakened considerably over the past century or so, and there is no guarantee that all members of a tribe (especially the larger tribes, which tend to have numerous branches) will stick together.
Three main areas make up modern-day Libya, and they largely - though not precisely - correspond to tribal alliances. To the east is Cyrenaica, which has almost entirely fallen under rebel control. To the southwest is Fezzan, which has comparatively few inhabitants. To the northwest is Tripolitania, named after the capital city Tripoli and home to over half of the population. Though it has seen a lot of violence and protests, Tripolitania is the only power base Gaddafi could conceivably count on at the moment.
Thus, the main tribes of Tripolitania, specifically the Warfalla and Megariha, are crucial to observe. According to Stratfor, one of the main conspirators against Gaddafi, Abdulsalam Jalloud, is a member of the Warfalla tribe (adding to the confusion, other sources name him as a member of the Megariha). If the plot is confirmed, and if Jalloud has the backing of his tribe, this could spell the end of Gaddafi. However, for now this is far from certain.
The Libyan dictator still has a few tricks up his sleeve, and can be expected to fight until the end. In an interview on Tuesday, he promised to "die like a martyr".
One thing he can count on is the allegiance of tribal elders, some of whom have much invested (including personal wealth and power) in his regime. Indeed, over the past five years, Gaddafi has made extensive attempts to reach out to tribal leaders not only in Libya, but in the region at large. This could explain partly reports of large numbers of foreigners massing in Tripoli to defend him. In Libya, at least, there are also issues of honor - the Megariha, for example, are allegedly indebted to Gaddafi for the release of condemned Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi, a member of the tribe.
Another trump Gaddafi is apparently trying to play is the fear of instability. A civil war is hardly in the interest of anybody, and especially of those who profit from lucrative oil exports. The instability has already affected both Libya and world markets significantly. According to one report, as of Wednesday, supplies to Europe are cut, possibly at the orders of Gaddafi.
It is important to note that both Gaddafi and his opponents at different times have had an interest to portray the chaos as more extensive than it is, in order to level accusations at each other. It is telling that some foreigners are refusing to evacuate, even when offered a free airlift. An airplane sent to evacuate Bulgarian citizens on Wednesday, for example, returned with only one Bulgarian citizen on board (out of hundreds known to be in Tripoli).
Given all the uncertainty on the ground, we can only guess at this point how the relationships between Gaddafi and the tribes will develop. There is more information about the international repercussions of the crisis, although these are not entirely certain either.
Gaddafi has few friends internationally. His indiscriminate support for disparate terrorist and "revolutionary" groups over the years has earned him the hate of both the Arab world and most of the West. The excesses of the past few days added fuel to the fire. Thus, it is no surprise that the Arab League suspended Libya's membership on Tuesday in an effort to pressure the regime, while a number of United Nations Security Council members called for urgent action.
However, Gaddafi's scare tactics are at least partially successful. According to Stratfor, he has at least two major backers: Italy and the Egyptian military. The Italians are heavily invested in the Libyan oil infrastructure, and receive 24% of their oil supply from Libya.
The Egyptians, on the other hand, fear regional instability and an influx of refugees, and thus offer tacit support. The United States, although issuing strongly-worded statements, is also largely waiting on the sidelines, eyeing nervously the rapidly rising oil price in the wake of the crisis. According to a New York Times report, Saudi Arabia's attempts to compensate for the loss of Libya's 1.8 million barrels per day of oil have so far failed to calm the markets.
It is anybody's guess what will happen next. However, it is worth mentioning that although this is the most serious crisis Gaddafi has faced, it is not the only major one, and not even the bloodiest. The "mad dog of the Middle East", as former US president Ronald Reagan once called him, is used to soaking revolts in blood and being an international pariah. In the prison riots in 1996, for example, over 1,200 inmates were shot to death. This left deep scars in Libya's society (the international community quickly forgot, as it is wont to), but the regime survived.
Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.
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