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Libya's Leadership Crossroads

Author: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
February 22, 2011

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If Egypt's uprising represents the best of the turmoil sweeping the Middle East, then Muammar al-Qaddafi's brutal effort to stay in power in Libya represents its worst. Nobody will mistake Libya's bloody handling of its uprising for the relatively peaceful overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak's regime in neighboring Egypt or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's in Tunisia. Absent from Libya are any of the restraining influences that convinced Mubarak and Ben Ali to step down from power: Libya has no institutions or political parties that stand to restrain its leader's whims. Whereas the military in Egypt retained its legitimacy by peacefully siding with the protestors and edging Mubarak out, in Libya fighter aircraft are strafing its citizens in the capital in an effort to suppress the popular uprising. With the regime having lost control in parts if not all of the east--particularly its volatile second largest city Benghazi--the country is living up to its name as the Libyan Arab Jumahiriya, a term coined by Qaddafi, meaning "state of the masses." The masses, however, no longer stand with the man who toppled the Libyan monarchy over forty years ago. With over two hundred civilians dead and a brutal crackdown being waged in its capital, absent from Libya today are the elements that would allow for a smooth and peaceful transition of power.

Should Qaddafi's regime survive--a questionable proposition given the violence and popular outrage expressed on its streets--Libya will return to the pariah status it knew after bombing an American civilian airliner and its 270 passengers nearly twenty-five years ago. The brutal killing of over two hundred demonstrators in Libya so far has brought about harsh condemnations from around the world, with even terrorist group Hezbollah, responsible for murdering American and French diplomats in Lebanon, condemned the "crimes committed by the Qaddafi regime."

Yet a return to Qaddafi's absolute rule does not appear imminent or likely. Some forty years of political suppression, economic privation, and societal sclerosis have finally caught up with the flamboyant author of the Green Book. Qaddafi has proven himself to be out of touch, with key tribes having broken with him in recent days. Libya's top diplomats in many parts of the world--Britain, the EU, the Arab League, China, the UN, to name just a few--have already resigned in protest against Qaddafi's repression. Several pilots have voted with their aircraft and defected to neighboring Malta.

Qaddafi's response has been brutality coupled with laughable offers of reform, including a changed flag and a new national anthem, not political rights and freedoms. Meanwhile, his son has vowed to fight "to the last bullet." Remarkably, even though Qaddafi has largely succeeded in cutting Libya off from international communications--foreign journalists are barred, Internet access has been severed, and al-Jazeera is off the air--this has not forestalled the regional contagion from sweeping through this country of six and a half million.

With over two hundred civilians dead and a brutal crackdown being waged in its capital, absent from Libya today are the elements that would allow for a smooth and peaceful transition of power.

Libya today faces a dark future in the short term. While Qaddafi's departure from the scene would be mourned by few, it would also create an enormous power vacuum. Entirely unclear is what glue will hold together this largely decentralized country, in which nationalist identification is low, and tribal and clan affinity paramount. Unlike in neighboring Egypt, the military lacks the cohesion or unity needed to hold together the country. How events unfold over the next few days in Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya may be key indicators of Libya's future.

Despite Qaddafi's heavy hand and relative success at keeping Libyans cut off from the rest of the world, the unrest ravaging his country shows that the forces unleashed in the Middle East are well beyond his control. No state, however powerful its security organs, should now consider themselves immune. Regional dictators who have brutally repressed their people to maintain control may also soon be at risk. Syria's Bashar al-Assad comes to mind.

Internationally, the ramifications of Libya's unrest are being felt. Libya is the world's twelfth largest oil exporter and parts of Europe are extremely vulnerable: Italy, Germany, and France imported over half of Libyan oil last year. While petroleum companies are continuing to operate in Libya, they have begun to evacuate their staff. With the world's first major oil producer now experiencing political unrest, prices shot to over $105 per barrel as traders braced for greater instability. It is no surprise then that the normally restrained EU harshly condemned Qaddafi Monday for his brutal handling of the situation. Should there be major disruptions in the flow of oil amid continued violence and brutality, key European countries may be forced to consider much stronger steps--including military intervention--to safeguard their own key vital interests.

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