Although most experts agreed on Tuesday that it’s too early to declare the battle of Tripoli over, most are already summing up Gadhafi’s 42-year rule and looking toward Libya’s future. The transition to another form of government for the oil-rich, tribal nation is fraught with many potential pitfalls, however.
Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a telephone interview that Gadhafi’s days of ruling Libya are over, even if he is not captured.
”He will go from being a dictator to a bandit,” he said, but added that some elements may well go on fighting, in the name of Gadhafi or one of his sons.
This view was echoed by rebel fighter Wisam Isa in an interview with Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. Isa’s own cousin in Tripoli still supported Gadhafi the last time they spoke, and called his cousin a ”rat” for joining the rebels.
A very serious concern in a post-Gadhafi Libya is the looming threat of tribal or regional war. Some commentators have already reported that tribal and regional conflicts led to largely unreported atrocities during the uprising.
Swedish scholar Björn Blomberg wrote in an article on Swedish debate site Newsmill that ”Salafist thugs” loyal to the rebellion and NATO decapitated 120 members of the Warfalla tribe in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on July 30. The massacre happened because the Warfalla tribe had refused to join the rebel council TNC, according to Blomberg.
Salafists are warriors following a Muslim ideology similar to Wahhabism. They fight for a new pan-Muslim emirate and do not recognize any of the governments in the region. Gadhafi, with his secular government, was one of the Salafist’s main targets, Blomberg writes. Its most radical elements are usually referred to as al-Qaeda.
This kind of development represents the worst possible scenario for Libya. Jeremi Suri agreed that the risk for a descent into tribalism should not be underestimated. A split between eastern and western Libya is also a very real risk, he said.
”Our best hope is that the rebels’ cooperation in fighting against Ghadafi has helped build some unity,” he said. He admitted that there might well be Salafist elements among the diverse and potentially fractious rebel alliance.
The Role of NATO
Libya’s oil riches are potentially both a blessing and a curse. Many commentators, among them Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), have argued that they might be the real incentive for NATO’s involvement.
If the proceeds from the oil are distributed fairly among the Libyans, it will help Libya build wealth and not end up like Afghanistan, Suri said. But an oil grab may of course also become the very thing that causes division among the tribes.
NATO, the United Nations, and the rest of the international community should now focus its efforts on helping Libya build a new government, including a body to ensure transparent wealth distribution, Suri said. He added that the Libyans must now decide for themselves what kind of government they want. The international community should only help build institutions, not try to tell the Libyans how to run their country.
Suri identified good cooperation between the military and the future civilian administration as a key element for positive development in this volatile transitional period for Libya. He also emphasized the need for the international community to observe and adapt to the changing situation.
”We should recognize that overthrowing a 40-year-old dictatorship comes with a lot of uncertainty,” he said.
The legitimacy of the NATO effort and the exact role of Western forces in the Libyan uprising will also be debated. Kucinich demanded in a statement on Tuesday that NATO be held accountable by the ICC for civilian deaths.
”NATO acted with impunity. The NATO command recklessly bombed civilians in the name of saving civilians,” Kucinich said. He then accused NATO of ”illegally pursuing regime change” in Libya and acting as the rebel’s de facto air force.Suri agreed that this was most likely the case, but that NATO had not overstepped its boundaries. Helping a popular uprising oust an unpredictable dictator is in NATO’s interest, since it is concerned with the security of the region.
”If NATO tries to rule Libya, that would be overstepping the boundaries,” he said.