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.  

Although long hostile to Sufism as a potential threat to his authority, Qaddafi himself had begun a policy of bolstering Sufi charitable networks as a buffer against radical Salafism. The long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood may also reemerge as a potent force. It is perhaps significant that this organization was among the first Libyan groups to offer congratulations to the new regime in Egypt.

All these influences are underpinned by a historic split along the Mediterranean seaboard that runs between Tripoli and the eastern province of Cyrenaica, the historic base of the Sanussi monarchy. The two regions are divided by linguistic and cultural differences, as well as a vast stretch of desert. The east shares tribal ties with Egypt and even the Arabian Peninsula rather than with the Maghreb. After toppling the monarchy, Qaddafi shifted political power and economic resources to Tripoli, which further exacerbated the regional divide. 

In post-Qaddafi Libya, Cyrenaica will be tempted to reassert its historic primacy. For starters, the area produces the country's oil wealth. It also bears the proud legacy of having led not one but two resistance struggles: the anti-Italian guerrilla campaign under the direction of the Sufi leader Omar al-Mukhtar and now the February 17 "Day of Rage," which was christened by its organizers -- not accidentally -- as the Mukhtar Revolution.

The sparsely populated and ill-governed southern periphery will also contend for resources and influence in the new state. Non-Arab ethnic groups with transnational ties across the Sahel and Saharan belt -- the Amazigh (Berbers), Tuareg, and Toubou -- were marginalized under Qaddafi. They will undoubtedly now seek to redress this injustice, and they have the means to make their concerns felt. Immediately before the Benghazi unrest, activism among the Amazigh was Qaddafi's primary security concern. The Tuareg waged a long-running rebellion that stretched across Algeria, Niger, and Mali, and the disaffected Toubou have staged periodic riots in southern towns. Going forward, strong but equitable administration will be essential to incorporate these peripheral groups and also prevent al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from enjoying newfound maneuverability in the area by exploiting longstanding grievances.

The new Libya will need pluralistic institutions, a constitution, and resource-sharing mechanisms to ensure that a Tripolitan-Cyrenaican rivalry, excessive tribal power, and ethnic grievances do not unravel the gains of recent weeks. On this point, the constitution of 1951 is a useful starting point: it established a federal structure that provided a degree of provincial autonomy and a rotating capital between Benghazi and Tripoli (this was amended in 1963 in favor of a more centralized system), and a bicameral legislature.

The leaders of the new state will also need to adopt a magnanimous view toward the remnants of the old bureaucracy. The National Oil Corporation, the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company, and the various popular committees may be arms of the Qaddafi-run state, but they are also reservoirs of technocratic, administrative, and economic expertise. The Sanussi monarchy, which has been exiled from Libya since Qaddafi took power in 1969, should also be included -- but with the understanding that its legitimacy among many Libyans has been diminished by its long absence from the country.  

Most important, the Libyan army and security apparatus will have to develop their own identities that both respect and dilute the affiliations of tribe and geography. They will need to extend the writ of the post-Qaddafi government into the country's hinterlands and secure its borders. But above all, the country's security institutions have to rebuild themselves in a way that is unconditionally subordinate to civil authority. They must ensure that praetorianism and officer privilege, which spawned the nightmare of Qaddafi in the first place, are never allowed to emerge again.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • FREDERIC WEHREY is a Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation. He recently returned from Libya.
  • More By Frederic Wehrey