from Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program and Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

After Qaddafi, Libya’s Daunting Path

Post-Qaddafi Libya will face difficulties with rebel infighting, the anger of Qaddafi loyalists, and more, but the long-time dictator’s death also creates an opening for a more peaceful country. CFR’s Richard Haass, Ed Husain, and Ray Takeyh weigh Libya’s prospects.

October 20, 2011 2:57 pm (EST)

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

The death of Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi (NYT) at the hands of rebel forces finally ended four decades of autocratic rule following an insurgency that toppled his regime two months ago. But the end of Qaddafi’s power creates new questions about the future of the country, say CFR experts.

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Council President Richard Haass notes that the struggle for Libya continues, and that ousting a regime still leaves the task of installing "a viable entity in its place." Ed Husain sees infighting among rebels, the rage of Qaddafi supporters, and the presence of massive weapons caches around the country as possibly contributing to a volatile transition. And Ray Takeyh writes that the demise of an "eccentric" and brutal despot creates an opening for Libyans to be at peace with each other and with their region.

Richard N. Haass, President

More than four decades after he seized power, and more than seven months after the civil war began that led to his ouster, Muammar al-Qaddafi is apparently dead, forever removed from Libya’s politics.

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Qaddafi’s death alters but does not transform the situation in Libya. Fighting could still continue for some time, as forces loyal to the former leader may well continue to resist soldiers of Libya’s transitional government.

More important, the struggle for Libya’s future continues. It is one thing to oust a regime; it is something fundamentally different to install a viable entity in its place. History suggests there is a fair likelihood that those who joined to oppose Qaddafi will soon find themselves at odds over how best to organize and rule the country they have now inherited.

For just this reason, outsiders, and in particular those in Europe and the United States who have done so much militarily to help bring about political change in Libya, should not delude themselves that their task is in any way complete. Much needs to be done to help the new Libyan authorities work together, be it to impose and maintain order or to stand up a functioning economy and government. On-the-ground training and advice may be the most important assistance the West can now offer this oil-rich but developmentally stunted country.

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Events in Libya will be viewed differently throughout the Middle East. Protesters will be encouraged by this latest demonstration of the potential for political change, although they are likely to underestimate how central a role was played by NATO airpower. For authoritarian leaders facing challenges from their streets, Libya will underscore the winner-take-all nature of Arab politics. This reality will lead regimes in Syria or Bahrain and possibly the transitional military-led council in Egypt as well--to continue to do all they can to remain in power and defeat those who pose a threat to their rule.

Ray Takeyh

The news of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s death will generate its own share of headlines and obituaries. However, the stark aspect of his four-decades of despotic rule is how little impact he will have on the future of Libya. Qaddafi was a product of post-colonial nationalism, and the Arab military class’ quest to reclaim the Middle East from complacent and corrupt monarchical order.

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He was a man of expansive ambition, seeing himself as the heir to Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser. Along these lines, he sought to articulate his own ideological vision, the Third Universal Theory, which was an incongruous amalgamation of Arab nationalism, Islamism and socialism. The ideology never took root, and Qaddafi never managed to replace the charismatic Nasser as the Arab world’s foremost ruler.

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Libya was too distant from the heart of Arab politics and Qaddafi too eccentric and volatile to be invested with a leadership role in a region that was looking to adjust itself in the global community, as opposed to rebel against its norms. With ample oil wealth at his disposal, Qaddafi began his assault on the international system, allying himself with opposition forces, secessionist movements and terrorist organizations without an obvious political agenda who shared his animus toward the West. And terrorism proved his undoing.

Qaddafi ushered in the twenty-first century by suing for peace. Decades of sanctions and ostracism had weakened his grip on power so much that he forswore terrorism as an instrument of his statecraft and cleansed himself of his weapons of mass destruction. In the past decade, he often retreated within himself, producing meandering philosophical tracts while his government sought to rationalize his irrational order.

Once the Arab Spring descended on his penal colony, the world took notice of his brutality and his preference for violence as chief arbiter of politics. The scope of Qaddafi’s isolation became obvious when the entire international community united behind his ouster.

In the end, Libya was always too small and its population too passive for Qaddafi. At first Libyans were indifferent to his rule. Later, as the costs of his adventurism mounted, they became hostile to their leader and rejected his revolution. Freed of his burdensome shadow, Libyans have a chance to be at peace with each other, and at ease with their region.

Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

The chaotic manner in which Muammar al-Qaddafi was allegedly captured, injured, and then killed is emblematic of the mismanagement and blunders of the Libyan National Transition Council. Worse, the barbaric manner in which--at least according to several photographs--the killers surrounded his blood-soaked corpse does not bode well for the emergence of a democratic culture inside Libya soon.

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Within an hour of reports of Qaddafi being captured or killed, NTC leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil was preparing to brief the world’s media while two of his colleagues, Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam and military commander Abdulhakim Belhadj, were already briefing the press in an attempt to undermine his moment in the limelight, despite close coordination by the NTC with NATO and Western publicity agencies. This sequence of events tells us about the infighting that dominates the rebels who are now Libya’s government. Underlying this is the complex network of tribes across the country that will now question the legitimacy and authority of the NTC.

Three other problems will beset Libya in coming months, making NATO’s presence in Libya lengthier than anticipated.

First, Qaddafi’s networks of loyalists still remain across the country. Their sense of deep humiliation at the way in which their leader was killed will most likely prompt revenge attacks. At their helm is the British-educated, defiant, and media-savvy Saif al-Qaddafi, Qaddafi’s son. Emotionally volatile, highly ambitious, and now an enemy of the West, he can become a rallying force for his late father’s loyalists unless he is captured and put on trial soon.

Second, the combination of extensive caches of weapons in Libya along with NATO-trained fighters who were united against Qaddafi but now have no unifying cause could result in disintegrationof the strength of purpose that led to NATO backing the NTC. Combined with the manifestations of the infighting we saw this morning, there is a real risk of conflict around the question of who governs Libya with legitimacy.

Third, and perhaps most problematic, is the emergence of Islamist extremist and Salafist hardliners from within the ranks of the Libyan rebels. It was instructive that Saif Qaddafi attempted to out-Islam the Islamists by adopting a beard, religious language, and Arab headscarves around his shoulder in an attempt to marshal support. The head of the military council in Tripoli, Belhadj, for example, is a prominent figure of that Islamist trend. How will they respond to a secular government in Libya? Across the Middle East, the greatest political benefactors thus far have been Islamist groups. Qaddafi’s killing will set in place a new beginning for Libya that will pose difficult policy challenges for Libyans and NATO.


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