Libya: the internal dynamics of collapse
Gadaffi – down, and almost out
The Qadhafi regime in Libya is tottering and is likely to collapse within days, despite its reputation for brutality and intolerance. Its disappearance is all-the-more surprising because, over the last forty-two years, it has systematically destroyed any pretence at dissidence and has atomised Libyan society to ensure that no organisation – formal or spontaneous – could ever consolidate sufficiently to oppose it.
Political Islam, whether radical or moderate, has been the principal victim, especially after an Islamist rebellion in Cyrenaica in the latter 1990s. Other political currents have been exiled ever since 1973, when the Jamahiriyah – Qadhafi’s idiosyncratic vision of direct popular democracy in which all Libyans were theoretically obliged to participate – came into existence. Even the Libyan army was treated with suspicion, with its officer corps controlled and monitored for potential disloyalty. No wonder that it now seems to have broken away and made the liberation of Eastern Libya possible.
The only structures that the regime tolerated, outside the formal structure of the Jamahiriya – the “state of the masses”,– came from Libya’s tribal base and the Revolutionary Committee Movement, tied to the regime by tribal affiliation and ideological commitment and used to discipline and terrify the population through “revolutionary justice”. Apart from that, there was only the colonel’s family and the rijal al-khima, the “men of the tent” – the colonel’s old revolutionary comrades from the Union of Free Officers which had organised the 1969 revolution against the Sanussi monarchy bringing the colonel to power. And even the tribes did not necessarily support the regime, although they were constrained through the “social popular leadership”, a committee bringing together thirty-two of the major tribal leaders under the watchful eye of the regime.
In reality, the Sa’adi tribes of Cyrenaica had little love for the regime. They had been the cradle of the Sanussi movement which had controlled much of modern Libya and Chad in the nineteen century, in partnership with the Ottoman Empire, and had led the resistance to Italian occupation between 1911 and 1927. They had been disadvantaged by the revolution, not least because the revolutionaries came from three tribes – the Qadhadhfa, the Maghraha and the Warfalla – which had originally been subservient to them. Indeed, the regime was consciously constructed on the back of these three tribes which populated the security services and the Revolutionary Committee Movement. Yet even they had their own grievances; the Warfalla had been implicated in the unsuccessful 1993 Bani Ulid coup and its leaders had refused to execute those guilty as a demonstration of their loyalty to the regime. Colonel Qadhafi’s henchmen organised the executions instead, earning tribal enmity and probably explaining why tribal leaders so quickly declared for the opposition when the regime began to collapse.
There is also a geographic imperative for the rapidity of the collapse of the regime. Libya is essentially a desert, with the only areas that can support intensive residence located in the Jefara Plain, around Tripoli in Tripolitania, and the Jabal al-Akhdar behind Benghazi in Cyrenaica. The result has been that Libya’s six million-strong population is largely concentrated in these two cities and the satellite towns around them. This means that any regime which loses control of them has lost control of the country, even if it controls all outlying areas, such as the oil fields in the Gulf of Sirt between them. This is also the home base of the Qadhadhfa, or the Fezzan that still seems to be loyal to the Qadhafi regime. It is this that explains how, once the army in Benghazi changed sides, the regime lost control of Eastern Libya and why its hold on Tripoli has been so rapidly contested.
The nature of the regime or the Qadhafi family should not be ignored as a factor for the collapse. The regime has, in recent years, benefited from the growing foreign investment in Libya after sanctions in connection with the Lockerbie affairs were removed in 1999. As foreign economic interest grew, so did corruption and, although Colonel Qadhafi himself may not have been corrupt, his seven sons and one daughter certainly were. Libyans themselves have been excluded from the benefits of oil wealth for decades, so the blatant corruption inflamed their resentment in recent years. In addition, the Libyan leader, who had no formal role inside the Jamahiriyah, but made sure that the Revolutionary Committee Movement answered only to him, has played on the aspirations of his sons to succeed him, pitting one against the other to ensure that none of them could amass sufficient power to threaten his position.
In such an atmosphere of eternal mistrust and suspicion, it is hardly surprising that the ultimate bastion of the regime has been the “foreign mercenaries” that have terrified Libyans with their indiscriminate violence during the country’s latest revolution. Yet, they too form part of the leader’s conception of the state. In the 1980s, Libya opened its borders to all who were Muslim, as part of its vision of Arab nationalism and Islamic radicalism. The regime also recruited an “Islamic Legion” to aid it in its foreign adventures, particularly in Africa, as Uganda and Tanzania were to discover. In 1997, Libya also renounced its self-image as an Arab state, prioritising its African destiny instead, opening its borders to sub-Saharan Africa, despite the intense domestic tensions that the inflow of migrants generated. Now, apart from using African migrants as a tool to coerce European states such as Italy with the threat of uncontrolled migration, it has also recruited them into its elite forces around the “Deterrent Battalion” (the 32nd Brigade) – used solely for internal repression. They have no loyalty to Libyans, (who hate them,) and they are the forces on which Colonel Qadhafi relies to ensure that his regime ends in a bloodbath to punish Libyans for their disloyalty to his political vision.
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