Given Libya’s tribal cleavages, the contours of conflict will deepen ethnic tensions and threaten the institutional integrity of the state.
Now, the complexity of the political problems of Libya is becoming apparent. There is a lot of back and forth shift in fortunes between rebels and forces loyal to Libya’s psychopathic tyrant, Muammar El Gaddafi; one day the rebels are advancing on some “strategic” town, on another they are in full retreat. The naive optimism of the early days of this insurgency is beginning to wane even among the ever-simplistic journalists as the real face of the rebels is becoming apparent.
What began as a peaceful demonstration has degenerated into an armed insurrection; and that is where the problem lies. Civil protests may seek to bring down a despot, but they do not seek to take over power themselves. Often, they seek to create a self-limiting authority; a government subject to popular control with checks and balances on how power is exercised. However, armed groups seek to take full control of government and enforce their will on the subject population.
This distinction is very important: everyone who holds power would not want to be controlled by popular pressure. Thus, when street protestors bring down a tyrant, the resultant government becomes aware that a state armed with tanks cannot defeat an enlightened population armed with tongues. Such a government will be responsive to popular demands well knowing the power of speech. However, when the winner secures victory through armed struggle, he can always use the state’s coercive apparatus to suppress popular demands on him.
Libya’s case is even worse. The rebels are an assortment of disparate groups of disorganised and undisciplined militias – some former soldiers, others ordinary civilians. They have no unifying political organisation held together by a shared ideology and political objectives except to remove Gaddafi. But if they remove him: so what? It seems rebel victory has the least potential to produce a stable political order, leave alone a democracy. The fact that rebels have been using the words; “freedom” and “democracy” in their battle cry does not mean much – all rebels do.
If the rebels succeed in removing Gaddafi, the most immediate result will be to bring to the fore the underlying structural tensions in their coalition. Because they do not belong to a common political organisation or share an ideology, and also because they have no shared economic and political objectives, the Libyan rebels (whom Western media and Al Jezeera naively or for propaganda reasons refer to as pro democracy fighters) will immediately begin to squabble. The most likely scenario will be the emergence of a bitter power struggle for control of the Libyan state.
Because of its vast oil wealth, the different rebel factions will find many willing patrons in the international oil industry seeking a share of the spoils. And since they are armed, the resultant power struggle will be violent and bloody. As the anti Gaddafi coalition fractures, it will confront and some of them even allay with pro Gaddafi (or merely former Gaddafi) militias seeking to regain political advantage. Given Libya’s tribal cleavages, the contours of division will deepen ethnic tensions and threaten the institutional integrity of the state and the unity of the country. It is very likely that in such ensuing chaos, even Iraq of 2005 will look like a haven for stability.
What will the international community do with its “allies” (the rebels) if they began to fight and target civilians in orgies of inter-tribal massacres? Well the “international community” largely (although not entirely) refers to the western powers led by the United States. As democracies subject to popular pressure, their response to humanitarian crises tends to be driven by emotions rather than sober deliberation. Thus, when images of barbaric massacres hit Western television screens, the knee jerk reaction of citizens is that their governments should intervene “to save lives”.
Although most Western intervention is often initiated by obvious (and overt) humanitarian considerations, the underlying driver is often geostrategic and economic. This is largely because a purely humanitarian intervention cannot be sustained through the rough waters of conflict especially when there is loss of precious Western blood. This explains the speed with which the US withdrew from Somalia after losing 18 soldiers in 1993 but could not retreat from Iraq even after losing 5,000. It also explains why NATO has intervened in Libya and not in Ivory Coast.
Assuming the rebels don’t defeat Gaddafi but stalemate him; what is likely to happen? True to form, the international community has one set of solutions to every conflict regardless of its context and dynamics: first, secure a cease fire between the fighting groups; second, cajole or coerce them to form an interim government of national unity; third, push them to hold multi party elections. The hope always is that elections are a magic bullet. In many cases, as in Ivory Coast since 2002, it is this naive faith in elections (which are often equated to democracy) as the solution to every political problem that has been the source of problems.
Thus, when elections are called, the different factions, already armed, will begin to scheme on how to win them – by hook or crook. In such a tense situation with every tribe owning its own militias, inter-ethnic violence will begin to border on genocide. International peace-keeping forces will be called in. But like in Ivory Coast, they will be postponing the inevitable. After years of low intensity conflict and skirmishes during which many will have been killed and displaced, the war will resume, UN peace keepers pull out and either Libya will turn into Somalia or Rwanda.
It is not the faith in democracy per se but rather its naive application to every problem in poor countries that should be questioned. In the case of a possible post Gaddafi Libya, the first objective should not be (because it cannot be) to build a democracy but rather to secure a stable political order. Democracy and its accompanying electoral competition does not end anarchy, it accentuates it. This is even worse when the society is militarised and factionalised along tribal and ethnic lines as Libya is. One hopes that those from outside trying to shape the destiny of Libya learn from history.