By Scott Stewart
With the end of the Gadhafi regime seemingly in sight, it is an opportune time to step back and revisit one of the themes we discussed at the beginning of the crisis: What comes after the Gadhafi regime?
As the experiences of recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan have vividly illustrated, it is far easier to depose a regime than it is to govern a country. It has also proved to be very difficult to build a stable government from the remnants of a long-established dictatorial regime. History is replete with examples of coalition fronts that united to overthrow an oppressive regime but then splintered and fell into internal fighting once the regime they fought against was toppled. In some cases, the power struggle resulted in a civil war more brutal than the one that brought down the regime. In other cases, this factional strife resulted in anarchy that lasted for years as the iron fist that kept ethnic and sectarian tensions in check was suddenly removed, allowing those issues to re-emerge.
As Libya enters this critical juncture and the National Transitional Council (NTC) transitions from breaking things to building things and running a country, there will be important fault lines to watch in order to envision what Libya will become.
One of the biggest problems that will confront the Libyan rebels as they make the transition from rebels to rulers are the country’s historic ethnic, tribal and regional splits. While the Libyan people are almost entirely Muslim and predominately Arab, there are several divisions among them. These include ethnic differences in the form of Berbers in the Nafusa Mountains, Tuaregs in the southwestern desert region of Fezzan and Toubou in the Cyrenaican portion of the Sahara Desert. Among the Arabs who form the bulk of the Libyan population, there are also hundreds of different tribes and multiple dialects of spoken Arabic.
Perhaps most prominent of these fault lines is the one that exists between the ancient regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The Cyrenaica region has a long and rich history, dating back to the 7th century B.C. The region has seen many rulers, including Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, Italians and the British. Cyrenaica has long been at odds with the rival province of Tripolitania, which was founded by the Phoenicians but later conquered by Greeks from Cyrenaica. This duality was highlighted by the fact that from the time of Libya’s independence through the reign of King Idris I (1951-1969), Libya effectively had two capitals. While Tripoli was the official capital in the west, Benghazi, King Idris’ power base, was the de facto capital in the east. It was only after the 1969 military coup that brought Col. Moammar Gadhafi to power that Tripoli was firmly established as the seat of power over all of Libya. Interestingly, the fighting on the eastern front in the Libyan civil war had been stalled for several months in the approximate area of the divide between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.
After the 1969 coup, Gadhafi not only established Tripoli as the capital of Libya and subjugated Benghazi, he also used his authoritarian regime and the country’s oil revenues to control or co-opt Libya’s estimated 140 tribes, many members of which are also members of Libya’s minority Berber, Tuareg and Toubou ethnic groups.
It is no mistake that the Libyan revolution began in Cyrenaica, which has long bridled under Gadhafi’s control and has been the scene of several smaller and unsuccessful uprisings. The jihadist Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) has also traditionally been based in eastern Cyrenaican cities such as Darnah and Benghazi, where anti-Gadhafi sentiment and economic hardship marked by high levels of unemployment provided a fertile recruiting ground. Many of these jihadists have joined the anti-Gadhafi rebels fighting on the eastern front.
But the rebels were by no means confined to Cyrenaica. Anti-Gadhafi rebels in Misurata waged a long and bloody fight against government forces to gain control of the city, and while the Cyrenaican rebels were bogged down in the Ajdabiya/Marsa el Brega area, Berber guerrillas based in the Nafusa Mountains applied steady pressure to the Libyan forces in the west and eventually marched on Tripoli with Arab rebels from coastal towns such as Zawiya, where earlier uprisings in February were brutally defeated by the regime prior to the NATO intervention.
These groups of armed rebels have fought independently on different fronts during the civil war and have had varying degrees of success. The different roles these groups have played and, more important, their perceptions of those roles will likely create friction when it comes time to allocate the spoils of the Libyan war and delineate the power structure that will control Libya going forward.
While the NTC is an umbrella group comprising most of the groups that oppose Gadhafi, the bulk of the NTC leadership hails from Cyrenaica. In its present state, the NTC faces a difficult task in balancing all the demands and interests of the various factions that have combined their efforts to oust the Gadhafi regime. Many past revolutions have reached a precarious situation once the main unifying goal has been achieved: With the regime overthrown, the various factions involved in the revolution begin to pursue their own interests and objectives, which often run contrary to those of other factions.
A prime example of the fracturing of a rebel coalition occurred after the fall of the Najibullah regime in Afghanistan in 1992, when the various warlords involved in overthrowing the regime became locked in a struggle for power that plunged the country into a period of destructive anarchy. While much of Afghanistan was eventually conquered by the Taliban movement — seen by many terrorized civilians as the country’s salvation — the Taliban were still at war with the Northern Alliance when the United States invaded the country in October 2001.
A similar descent into anarchy followed the 1991 overthrow of Somali dictator Mohamed Said Barre. The fractious nature of Somali regional and clan interests combined with international meddling has made it impossible for any power to assert control over the country. Even the jihadist group al Shabaab has been wracked by Somali divisiveness.
But this dynamic does not happen only in countries with strong clan or tribal structures. It was also clearly demonstrated following the 1979 broad-based revolution in Nicaragua, when the Sandinista National Liberation Front turned on its former partners and seized power. Some of those former partners, such as revolutionary hero Eden Pastora, would go on to join the “contras” and fight a civil war against the Sandinistas that wracked Nicaragua until a 1988 cease-fire.
In most of these past cases, including Afghanistan, Somalia and Nicaragua, the internal fault lines were seized upon by outside powers, which then attempted to manipulate one of the factions in order to gain influence in the country. In Afghanistan, for example, warlords backed by Pakistan, Iran, Russia and India were all vying for control of the country. In Somalia, the Ethiopians, Eritreans and Kenyans have been heavily involved, and in Nicaragua, contra groups backed by the United States opposed the Cuban- and Soviet-backed Sandinistas.
Outside influence exploiting regional and tribal fault lines is also a potential danger in Libya. Egypt is a relatively powerful neighbor that has long tried to meddle in Libya and has long coveted its energy wealth. While Egypt is currently focused on its own internal issues as well as the Israel/Palestinian issue, its attention could very well return to Libya in the future. Italy, the United Kingdom and France also have a history of involvement in Libya. Its provinces were Italian colonies from 1911 until they were conquered by allied troops in the North African campaign in 1943. The British then controlled Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and the French controlled Fezzan province until Libyan independence in 1951. It is no accident that France and the United Kingdom led the calls for NATO intervention in Libya following the February uprising, and the Italians became very involved once they jumped on the bandwagon. It is believed that oil companies from these countries as well as the United States and Canada will be in a prime position to continue to work Libya’s oil fields. Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates also played important roles in supporting the rebels, and it is believed they will continue to have influence with the rebel leadership.
Following the discovery of oil in Libya in 1959, British, American and Italian oil companies were very involved in developing the Libyan oil industry. In response to this involvement, anti-Western sentiment emerged as a significant part of Gadhafi’s Nasserite ideology and rhetoric, and there has been near-constant friction between Gadhafi and the West. Due to this friction, Gadhafi has long enjoyed a close relationship with the Soviet Union and later Russia, which has supplied him with the bulk of his weaponry. It is believed that Russia, which seemed to place its bet on Gadhafi’s survival and has not recognized the NTC, will be among the big losers of influence in Libya once the rebels assume power. However, it must be remembered that the Russians are quite adept at human intelligence and they maintain varying degrees of contact with some of the former Gadhafi officials who have defected to the rebel side. Hence, the Russians cannot be completely dismissed.
China also has long been interested in the resources of Africa and North Africa, and Gadhafi has resisted what he considers Chinese economic imperialism in the region. That said, China has a lot of cash to throw around, and while it has no substantial stake in Libya’s oil fields, it reportedly has invested some $20 billion in Libya’s energy sector, and large Chinese engineering firms have been involved in construction and oil infrastructure projects in the country. China remains heavily dependent on foreign oil, most of which comes from the Middle East, so it has an interest in seeing the political stability in Libya that will allow the oil to flow. Chinese cash could also look very appealing to a rebel government seeking to rebuild — especially during a period of economic austerity in Europe and the United States, and the Chinese have already made inroads with the NTC by providing monetary aid to Benghazi.
The outside actors seeking to take advantage of Libya’s fault lines do not necessarily need to be nation-states. It is clear that jihadist groups such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb see the tumult in Libya as a huge opportunity. The iron fist that crushed Libyan jihadists for so long has been destroyed and the government that replaces the Gadhafi regime is likely to be weaker and less capable of stamping down the flames of jihadist ideology.
There are some who have posited that the Arab Spring has destroyed the ideology of jihadism, but that is far from the case. Even had the Arab Spring ushered in substantial change in the Arab World — and we believe it has resulted in far less change than many have ascribed to it — it is difficult to destroy an ideology overnight. Jihadism will continue to affect the world for years to come, even if it does begin to decline in popularity. Also, it is important to remember that the Arab Spring movement may limit the spread of jihadist ideology in situations where people believe they have more freedom and economic opportunity after the Arab Spring uprisings. But in places where people perceive their conditions have worsened, or where the Arab Spring brought little or no change to their conditions, their disillusionment could create a ripe recruitment opportunity for jihadists.
The jihadist ideology has indeed fallen on hard times in recent years, but there remain many hardcore, committed jihadists who will not easily abandon their beliefs. And it is interesting to note that a surprisingly large number of Libyans have long been in senior al Qaeda positions, and in places like Iraq, Libyans provided a disproportionate number of foreign fighters to jihadist groups.
It is unlikely that such individuals will abandon their beliefs, and these beliefs dictate that they will become disenchanted with the NTC leadership if it opts for anything short of a government based on a strict interpretation of Shariah. This jihadist element of the rebel coalition appears to have reared its head recently with the assassination of former NTC military head Abdel Fattah Younis in late July(though we have yet to see solid, confirmed reporting of the circumstances surrounding his death).
Between the seizure of former Gadhafi arms depots and the arms provided to the rebels by outside powers, Libya is awash with weapons. If the NTC fractures like past rebel coalitions, it could set the stage for a long and bloody civil war — and provide an excellent opportunity to jihadist elements. At present, however, it is too soon to forecast exactly what will happen once the rebels assume power. The key thing to watch for now is pressure along the fault lines where Libya’s future will likely be decided.