After Libyans, and much of the civilized world, rejoice in the seemingly inevitable fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country will face the difficult task of repairing a society long traumatized by the Middle East's most Orwellian regime. Libya lacks both legitimate formal institutions and a functioning civil society. The new, post-Qaddafi era, therefore, is likely to be marked by the emergence of long-suppressed domestic groups jostling for supremacy in what is sure to be a chaotic political scene.
For four decades, Libya has been largely terra incognita, a place where the outsized personality of its quixotic leader and a byzantine bureaucracy obscured an informal network of constantly shifting power brokers. Even before the current unrest, working with these figures was uncertain at best -- "like throwing darts at balloons in a dark room," as one senior Western diplomat put it to me in 2009.
In the near future, even with Qaddafi gone, the country may face a continued contest between the forces of a free Libya and the regime's die-hard elements. In particular, Qaddafi's sons -- Saif al-Islam, Khamis, Al-Saadi, and Mutassim -- and their affiliated militias may not go quietly into the night; the struggle to root them out may be violent and protracted (think, for example, of Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay). Saif al-Islam, who was known for years in the West as Libya's supposed champion of reform, revealed his true character as a reactionary much like his father by promising a "bloodbath" in a televised speech last week. On the ground, many of the attacks against demonstrators and their suspected sympathizers are being ordered by Captain Khamis al-Qaddafi, who heads the 32nd Brigade, the regime's best-trained and best-equipped force. As the current unrest unfolded, Al-Saadi's star was on the rise: as a brigadier in the special forces, he was dispatched to placate and then suppress the brewing revolt in Benghazi on February 16. Lastly, Mutassim, Libya's National Security Council adviser, reportedly sought in 2008 to establish his own militia to keep up with his brothers and has strong ties to a number of hard-liners.
Lined up against these Qaddafi holdouts are the members of the Libyan military and officer corps who have joined the opposition. Beginning in the early 1990s, Qaddafi deliberately weakened the Libyan officer corps after a succession of coup attempts by lower-ranking officers from the al-Warfalla and al-Magariha tribes, which had grown increasingly marginalized by Qaddafi's own tribe, al-Qaddadfa, and were angered by his disastrous war against Chad in the early 1980s. From this point onward, Qaddafi kept the general military underfunded while devoting resources and training to elite units that were comprised of tribal allies of the al-Qaddadfa. He would later entrust these units to his sons.
Over the years, the regular military's infrastructure has become dilapidated and its budget so meager that generals and colonels wear civilian attire to preserve their uniforms. Some of the most senior officers -- among them even those who supported Qaddafi in the 1969 coup -- were forced into early retirement after the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings to prevent them from leading any opposition. Nevertheless, the officer corps, weak as it is, may be the only formal body capable of representing an impartial Libyan national interest in a post-Qaddafi era and, importantly, preventing an outbreak of revenge violence.
Libya's tribes will also be critical for governance and reconciliation. Qaddafi's 1969 coup overturned the traditional dominance of the eastern coastal tribes in Cyrenaica in favor of those drawn from the west and the country's interior. Although the Qaddafi regime was, at least in theory, opposed to tribal identity, its longevity depended in large measure on a shaky coalition among three principal tribes: the al-Qaddadfa, al-Magariha, and al-Warfalla.
In 1993, Qaddafi took steps to harness the power of the tribes for the revolutionary bureaucracy by creating "popular social leadership committees," which were responsible for maintaining local order. This move was a tacit admission not only of the importance of tribes and traditional elites in Libyan politics but also that the regime's longstanding instruments of state power -- the despised revolutionary committees -- had grown too corrupt and sclerotic to control the population.
In the post-Qaddafi era, the recently defected tribal bulwarks of the ancien régime -- the al-Magariha and the al-Warfalla -- will play a critical role in lending legitimacy and unity to a new government. That said, the weakness and fragmentation of the military and the tempting availability of oil resources highlight the very real threat of tribal warlordism.
Tribal clout, however, is tempered by other affiliations: a strong middle class and, increasingly, religion. Among Libya's Islamists, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, has long attracted the attention of the West because of its association with al Qaeda. But after Qaddafi, the less visible, non-Salafi networks will matter more -- namely, the Sufi orders and the Muslim Brotherhood. The revivalist Sanussiya Sufi order has featured prominently in the country's collective memory. It provided the organizational base for the Libyan resistance to the Italian occupation and was the pillar of support for the monarchy under King Idris, who held sovereign power from 1951 until 1969.
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