All eyes on Libya

Events in Libya foreshadow what’s in store for other post-revolutionary nations.

Girl waves a Libyan independence flag 390  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Girl waves a Libyan independence flag 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The people of Libya celebrated throughout February, marking the one year anniversary of the nation's uprising, leading to the downfall of their dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. While Gaddafi's ruin was no doubt a historic moment in the nation's history, the situation that now persists should have the populous cautiously optimistic. The National Transitional Council (NTC) continues its struggle to bridge the country's various tribal elements  in an effort to form a national government and military. For the same reason, the international community should have its attention affixed on the country as such an endeavor makes Libya the next test case for addressing the primary obstacle in self-made representative government in the greater Middle East and North Africa – tribal politics.
Differing from Tunisia and Egypt, Libya's revolution witnessed substantial violence against civilians, the likes of which would not have been overcome without considerable support from tribal elements. The persistent violence on part of Gaddafi loyalists activated such tribal elements by way of the NTC with NATO backing, leading to Gaddafi's ouster and eventual demise. Two of the more notable tribes, the Zintan and Misrata, occupy large swaths of territory in Libya's northwest and northeast, respectively, and were paramount in the aforementioned struggle. The NTC was, however, ill equipped to deal with the tribes, and such unpreparedness has thus far prevented Libya's dust from settling now one year on.
Like all nations of the Middle East and North Africa, Libya is made up of tribes – approximately 140 that inhabit the entire expanse of the country. Though not without trying, the NTC has made attempts to bring the tribes into the country's armed forces and governmental framework. Libyan Minister of Defense, Osama al-Juwaili, is from the Zintan tribe, and for this reason, coupled with the fact that the tribe's Zintan Brigade located and captured Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, that Juwaili was given such a post.
But the assignment of one prominent post is not enough to satisfy the thirst for power that Libya’s tribes have. In December, the NTC set a deadline for various militias to disarm and handover weaponry by the end of 2011. That deadline has come and gone, and tribal militias continue to roam the streets of Tripoli, brandishing their weapons, and partaking in sporadic gunfire that causes multitudes of injuries and death. As recently as February 1, Zintan and Misrata gunmen engaged in a gun-battle against one another in Tripoli’s Sowaihill district, in close vicinity to Australia and Canada’s diplomatic missions – one of the more secure areas of the capital. Even more troubling for the NTC, however, is the fact that Zintan militiamen continue to control Tripoli's international airport.
Persistent tribal feuding and the NTC’s inability to confront such groups are indicative of Libya’s continued tribal power struggle and the nascent government’s inability to combat it. The fact remains that those who inhabit Libya's armed security apparatus amount in the low tens of thousands, while armed tribal militiamen number into the hundreds of thousands. With such disparity, the NTC will have no choice but to continue with promises of power and title in offer to Libya's tribal leaders. Without the inclusion of the nation's tribes, Libya is doomed to resolve itself to a series of tribal city-states, in which respective militias will control land and resources within their individual territories – in essence, perpetuating the situation on the ground as it is today. The plain and simple truth is that without such proffers from the NTC, the tribes will not have the incentive nor desire to aid in constructing the new Libya.
That said, while Libya struggles to rebuild, other nations continue their own struggles toward representative rule. The question remains is that once the autocratic leaders are deposed, what will be left in their wake? As Syria's turmoil persists, the sectarian nature of the conflict is becoming ever more apparent, and there is great concern as to what will happen to the country's various minority sects and tribes once Bashar al-Assad's Alawites are out of power. Furthermore, should the majority Sunni population assume power in a post-Assad Syria; will they be strong enough to amalgamate the minority tribes into the national fabric? If the highly fractured Syrian opposition is any indicator, success for such unity in the future Syria is unlikely.
The first real test case for the region, Iraq, has all but failed in its endeavor as the nation has been politically gridlocked amidst deepening sectarian warfare.Such a situation in Iraq must beg the question as to why the international community insists that Arab nations continue to abide by the artificial borders that Western powers constructed for them about one century ago. It is for this reason that Libya is of paramount importance at this juncture. The world is likely looking at it to be the example for the Middle East and North Africa that tribal divisions can come together for the betterment of nation building. Without success in tribal cohesion, the future will see various countries in the Middle East and North Africa so fractured that their recently won progress will likely be lost.
The writer is an intelligence manager at Max Security Solutions, a geo-political risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.