Arduous road ahead for Libya

Even though the downfall of Gaddafi was a drawn-out affair, the process of establishing a new Libya will surely prove to be even longer and more complicated.

Libyans celebrate death of Gaddafi 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Libyans celebrate death of Gaddafi 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Muammar Gaddafi’s ignominious death ended 42 years of dictatorial rule in Libya. Gaddafi seized power in a bloodless military coup in September 1969 that put an end to the monarchy under King Idris.
Upon the death of Egyptian president Abdul Nasser a year later, he attempted to assume the mantle of pan-Arabism. He even offered to transfer Nasser’s body and tomb to Tripoli – a step that was meant to symbolize his accession as heir to the legendary Arab leader.
During his long rule in Libya, Gaddafi proved to be a perfidious, eccentric, enigmatic, colorful, sometimes reckless leader, though in recent years he succeeded in somewhat improving his image in Western eyes. In his downfall, Gaddafi joined the list of infamous Arab despots, such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
It is likely that more names will be added to this list, such as Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and in the more distant future Syria’s Bashar Assad.
What are the implications of the killing of Gaddafi for Libya and the Arab world? Gaddafi’s death ends one chapter in Libya’s history and opens a new one, which has still to be written. The structure and composition of society – divided along tribal, religious and class affinities – suggests the possibility of a civil war between various opposition groups.
Under Gaddafi, kinship networks, in particular, had provided safety and security as well as access to goods and services. There is a distinct possibility that the civil war may further intensify due to the large amount of weapons finding their way into diverse civilian hands after rebels overran deserted military camps during the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime.
Moreover, it is difficult to ascertain to what extent Libyan identity has been established and maintained. Though the rebels have used the pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag as their unifying symbol, it is impossible to measure to what extent the national identity has supplanted tribal and Islamic identities. In addition, due to the absence of institution-building during the Gaddafi years, the establishment of a democracy under the new regime may prove a daunting and prolonged task.
The lack of social and governmental cohesion “will hamper any prospective transition to democracy,” political scientist and expert on Libya, Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo, wrote recently in the US journal, “Foreign Affairs.” Undoubtedly, the US and the European powers, who contributed to Gaddafi’s downfall with their military offensive, will be interested in ensuring the emergence of a stable regime in Libya, but this responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the Libyan people. The desire to keep the flow of oil – the main and only source for foreign income – may serve as an incentive for the various opposition elements to find common grounds and cooperate, at least in the near future.
Gaddafi’s killing is another indication that the Arab revolution is slowly moving forward. In fact, the elections in Tunisia, the forthcoming elections in Egypt and the continuing anti-government riots in Syria and Yemen indicate that the “Arab Spring” is going to be a long, arduous process, with delays, setbacks and successes.
The change of regime in Libya is part of the changes that are taking place in authoritarian republican regimes in the Arab world, including Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria.
Interestingly, the monarchies have, so far, withstood the wave of revolutions, although they, too, have had to cope with demonstrations and riots.
There are several reasons for this difference: First, some of the monarchies – in contrast to the authoritarian republic regimes – enjoy legitimacy. The Moroccan and Jordanian kings, for example, are held to be heirs of the Prophet Muhammad, which endows them with traditional religious legitimacy. Second, the monarchies have proved to be more flexible regimes, with the ability to use co-option and negotiating techniques in their dealings with the opposition. Both Jordan and Morocco have initiated a set of political and economic reforms that seemed to have satisfied the masses.
Finally, certain monarchies are rich enough to “buy” their citizens; Saudi Arabia, for example, has poured more than 100 billion dollars in various subsidies and incentives to the middle class. This does not mean that revolution would certainly halt on the doorstep of any monarchy, but that the chances for its occurrence there are more remote.
The fact that several Arab states, similar in their type of regime and orientation, are undergoing revolutionary upheaval should not obscure the fact that this is not a uniform phenomenon. Though the reasons for these revolutions are largely similar, stemming primarily from social and economic hardships, the revolutionary process that each country is experiencing is and will continue to be quite different as a result of the disparate historical, political, social and economic circumstances.
Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries bordering Libya, are completely different in terms of history, social cohesion, national identity and nation building. Yet, it is possible that the geographical proximity and the historical legacy of these relatively stable countries will also affect the future of Libya.
Even though the downfall of Gaddafi was a drawn-out affair, the process of establishing a new Libya will surely prove to be even longer and more complicated.
The writer teaches in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.