As most of the world breathes a sigh of relief that Muammar Gaddafi is now (nearly, but inevitably) history, the great question remains: Now what?
Libya, which has been repeatedly colonized for 2500 years, starting with the ancient Phoenicians, continued under Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Ottomans, Italians, Brits, and - in a final despotic synthesis – a drug-addled mad man, is about to embark on a voyage to some form of self-government. Or so the civilized world hopes.
But the business of building a nation from the ruins which Gaddafi leaves behind is not going to be a piece of cake by any means. There are two overriding realities facing this poor country which will be obstacles to a peaceful transition to enlightened self-government.
The first is structural. During his 40-year rule, Gaddafi destroyed any sort of bureaucratic infrastructure, the kind which does the grunt work of making a government work. "He aspired to create an ideal state," said North African analyst Saad Djebbar of Cambridge University. He ended up without any components of a normal state.” By the end, there was no form of speech or activity which was not directly governed by Gaddafi himself and a tiny cadre of trusted minions, including two of his sons. Indeed it is estimated that as much as 20% of the population was engaged in surveillance of the remaining 80% of the population. The slightest complaint could and did bring hundreds of people to suffer televised public executions and the lesson was not lost on the population, right up to the dawning of the “Arab Spring” early in 2011. By the end, the entire country was run by a series of “revolutionary committees” down to the local level which were overseen by Gaddafi. There were no trade unions, no businesses, no religious activity, no part of the economy which was not directly controlled by Muammar Gadaffi. The span of power was as narrow as any dictatorship cultivating a single personality as head of state. Above all, the “king of African kings” stood at the head of a military used to doing his personal bidding. After 40 years, there is no institutional memory of what it is to live in a functioning democracy. The same could be said of other Arab nations, like Iraq, which are trying to emerge from Saddam Hussein’s similar treatment of his own people. But the situation in Iraq differs from Libya considerably, which brings us to the 2nd reality.
Libya is comprised factions within factions – fractals, if you will. Not only are there differences between Sufi, Shia’a and Sunni Muslims (as in Iraq) but the Libyan society is highly compartmentalized into five geographic regions highly suspicious of each other’s motives. And still deeper run any number of Bedouin, Berber and Arabic tribal loyalties down to the level of individual families. Gaddafi made good use of playing one faction off against another as it suited his needs at any given time. He blessed the Tripolitanians with his largesse and withheld the benefits of his bottomless oil wealth from Benghazi, where the revolt against his rule began and where, in Tripoli, resistance continues.
The inevitability of continued violence?
With such a situation it is hard to think that peacefully transitioning to some better form of governance is going to be the rule rather than the exception. The post-Gaddafi National Transitional Council, headed by former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil, and now recognized by 48 nations as the de facto government of Libya will have a near impossible job of preventing the country from descending into outright civil war as it seeks to create a government of unity. The overriding question is whether or not all Libyans will accept the NTC. On one hand, history and culture will play an important role in what ultimately emerges, post-Gaddafi. On the other hand, the vast oil wealth of this country can mitigate the misery under which the people of Libya have lived for so many years. Moreover, the West is releasing frozen assets, which will aid in immediate relief for a long suffering people.
It may be that further bloodshed is a necessary prelude to a lasting, viable, and fair government; but it is also not an inevitable thing. Let us hope.