Last week the leaders of Britain, France and the US jointly wrote an article calling for the removal of Libya's Muammer Gaddafi. At the same time a number of increasingly pessimistic voices are predicting the country's likely partition, with a series of failed states fractured along tribal lines – and even the threat of a new Islamist state rising in the eastern portion of Libya. But cleansed of Col Gaddafi's rule, Libya actually has a good chance of emerging as a moderate, unitary state.
Few narratives of this conflict have been more enduring than the notion that tribalism dominates Libya's politics. But such tribalism has been significantly eroded, both by Col Gaddafi's hostility and economic modernisation. Libya's regime has long stressed that the nation was its most important unit. So traditional forces had to be suppressed.
Here Col Gaddafi did not limit himself to rhetorical fulmination. Instead he adjusted provincial boundaries that conformed to tribal lines, amalgamating them into single districts to lessen the power of tribal leaders in larger areas. State monopolies on oil revenue also meant government, not tribe, was the source of material benefits.
Most Libyans also live in cities, so they became used to appealing to local bureaucracies for employment and essential services. Indeed, urban living almost inevitably means that traditional institutions become more a source of personal identity than a basis for political organisation. Libya today cannot therefore be considered a collection of fractious tribes and autonomous provinces. A sense of nationalism has evolved over the past four decades. As it has risen, all traditional institutions have suffered.
The threat to a future Libyan state from clerical and Islamist forces has also been overplayed. The colonel's manifesto, the Green Book, promised to redistribute economic wealth through the reallocation of private property, including religious landholdings. Perhaps more importantly, Col Gaddafi was enraged by clerical criticism of his nationalisation measures, and their denunciation of the Green Book itself for contradicting Islamic jurisprudence.
As early as 1973, therefore, he targeted the religious sphere, with public committees taking over mosques and expunging recalcitrant clerics. Through such efforts his campaign tempered the influence of Libya's religious establishment.
As a Muslim population, Libyans maintain their religious values. But Islamism in Libya, as in much of the Middle East, is an ideology that no longer tempts the majority of the believers. Col Gaddafi's national project confronted its Islamist opposition, and the result saw many small Jihadi groups decimated by state police.
Another reason for cautious optimism about Libya's future prospects comes from the small and beleaguered technocratic class that has been born over the last decade. For most of Col Gaddafi's rule economic planning was subordinated to ideology, creating disorder and confusion. This was further aggravated by international sanctions against the regime. But once Libya came back into the fold from 2003, the regime made moves to empower technocrats somewhat, as a means of relieving popular pressure for more accountable institutions.
This break with the past was neither decisive nor complete. Corruption continued, while revolutionary forces, along with Col Gaddafi's own eccentricities, obstructed structural reforms. Nonetheless any new Libyan government can still count on the presence of a small cadre of competent officials, who have long pressed for rational management of their country's resources.
All this is not to suggest that Libya's path to a stable government will be easy. The longer the military conflict persists, the more difficult it will be. The current chaos risks empowering militia leaders at the expense of technocrats, while waning central authority might yet revive tribalism as a source of patronage. But in the absence of Col Gaddafi's domineering presence, a unified state is not just possible, but probable.
In the end, Libya was always too small, and its population too passive, for Col Gaddafi's regime. At first they were indifferent to his rule. Later, as the costs of his adventurism mounted, they became hostile to their leader, and rejected his revolution. But once free of his burdensome shadow, Libyans have a chance to be at peace with each other, and at ease with their region.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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