Libya at crossroads: A model for the Middle East or a revolution that goes awry?

Monday, August 22, 2011

By James M. Dorsey

With NATO-backed rebels capturing Tripoli and members of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi’s family, Libya could emerge as the Middle East and North Africa’s first revolution rather than its third successful revolt following the toppling earlier this year of autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.

In many ways that could mean that change in Libya could move faster and deeper but also prove to be far messier than the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt.

A first litmus test is likely to be the fate of captured members of Mr. Qaddafi’s family as well as of senior officials of the Qaddafi regime. Rebel forces advancing into Tripoli captured early Monday Mr. Qaddafi’s most prominent son and one-time heir apparent, Saif al Islam al Qaddafi, while another son, Mohammed al Qaddafi, turned himself in.

The rebel’s response to the International Criminal Court’s demand that Saif al Islam be handed over to it will serve as an early indication of what transition in Libya will look like. The court has issued an international arrest warrant for Saif al Islam as well as for his father and Abdullah al Senoussi, the head of Mr. Qaddafi’s intelligence service, on charges of war crimes

The court argues that the rebel Transition National Council (TNC) that has been widely recognized by the international community as the legitimate authority in Libya is legally obliged to hand over Saif al Islam. Many rebel leaders feel that this would deprive Libyans of their right to mete out justice, raising the spectre of an orgy of revenge in the wake of the final collapse of the Qaddafi regime. The court’s demand was met in the streets of Benghazi with chants of “Martyr’s Blood Should Be Spent in Vain.”

However messy and perhaps violent transition in Libya proves to be, Libyans unlike Egyptians and Tunisians will be in a position to dismantle the former regime’s apparatus. Hard fought in six months of bitter fighting, the rebels are gaining control of all of Libya after having defeated Mr. Qaddafi’s security and military forces. The building blocks and assets of the ancient regime, including the intelligence service are being destroyed and weaponry and military equipment is falling into rebel hands.

The destruction of the regime and the takeover of control of the country rather than the toppling of its head is what mark the Libyan uprising as a revolution as opposed to the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. The toppling of Messrs. Zine El Abedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak was relatively quick and peaceful compared to the drawn out and bloody battle that this weekend brought the rebels to Tripoli’s symbolic Green Square.

Those revolts however left the infrastructure of the ancien regime in place and in the case of Egypt put the military which has been part of the country’s political power structure for the past 60 years in charge of its transition to democracy. As a result, both Egypt and Tunisia are still struggling with limited success to limit, if not block, elements of the ancien regime and political forces that operated under it from playing dominant roles in their country’s future.

Libya distinguishes itself as a revolution rather than a revolt also by the fact that the country’s new leadership will control the nation’s economic assets and be able to shape economic policies unlike Egypt and Tunisia where the former economic players remain in place and retain their operations while protesters struggle to ensure that their dream of political freedom and enhanced economic opportunity becomes reality.

For the Libyan rebels, this means on the one hand control of the country’s oil installations but also the immediate task of having to secure basic services such as food, water and energy; resume oil exports to ensure funding for the new government; and kick start Libya’s stagnating economy.

The jury is out on whether Libya, with destruction of the ancien regime rather than just the removal of its head, will prove to be a model for what liberated Middle Eastern and North African states will look like or an example of a revolution gone awfully wrong.

The TNC, in a first hopeful sign, last week issued its constitution that lays out in detail its plans to manage the transition to democracy stressing principles such as a multi-party system, equal rights, including for women, freedom of expression, independence of the judiciary and governance. The document, in recognition of the country’s diversity, would make Libya the first country to describe itself simply as a democratic rather than an Arab state. It defines Islam as the principle source of legislation but guarantees the rights of religious minorities.

The challenges facing the rebels are nonetheless daunting. The handling of the international court’s demands coupled with the need to ensure law and order, prevent tribal rivalries from escalating into open conflict and ensuring that Libya does not descend into lynch justice, chaos and anarchy will be initial indicators of what kind of beacon for the Middle East and North Africa Libya will be.

The rebels shoulder a special responsibility given that they are in charge of managing the transition, including for example the integration of elements of Mr. Qaddafi’s security forces with their rag-tag army into the country’s new force that will have to ensure security and law and order. That is likely to prove to be a painful and difficult process, but one that will determine Libya’s future.

With Islamists constituting an important segment of the rebel forces taking control of the country, Libya will also be closely watched as an example of the role of Islamists in countries in the region embarking on transition. Both Egypt and Libya are struggling with the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and An-Nahda in the societies they are seeking to build.

In the final analysis, the rebels have a model of how not to do it: Iraq in the wake of the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Iraq was neither a revolt nor a revolution but the US disbanding of Mr. Hussein’s security forces and military and its process of de-Baathification, the elimination of the remnants of the Iraqi dictator’s Baath Party, contributed to the sectarian and terrorist violence that racked Iraq for years. That is one mistake the rebels are determined not to make. That could prove easier said than done.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.



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Comment by Varney A. Holmes on August 25, 2011 at 7:59am

Lets not be too pessimistic in the Libya case! Anywhere at anytime leaders die or go, but the state remains not for a heirgemony but for the people divided in classes. A leader is always needed and require. It sometimes unfortunately end up with a tyrant, but mostly in our times, a true patriotic leader. Liberia is a common example in Africa. Right after charles Taylor ditactorship regime emerged Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a true demoncrat. In Liberia now exist a freedom than any country in Africa if not Sub-Saharan Africa where the president is perceive by the citizens as an ordinary citizen serving their interest. The freedom of speech is open so much so that it is sometimes abuse. That's Liberia today! It could be Libya once the TNC leaders are determined and have inclined themselve with the motive of truely establishing demeocracy. So the factions in Libya, be it ethnic or sectorial can do the best for their survival, stability and development by accepting that they have nothing in common but Libya and that NATO and the wesr interest is to secure a free people in Libya where they can honestly monopolize the purcase of oil to keep their lives that is tie to industrialization.

Comment by Marianne Baziruwiha on August 23, 2011 at 4:35pm

Revolution or successful revolt, what is the difference? Whenever there is overpower, pressure, from inside then it is appropriate  to call the change anything but rebelion. This second stage of globalization is just a necessary stepping stone toward the coming of the messiah, the new heaven and the new earth. Wait until, Iran is out of way; and the royal red carpet is spread. The one world Police has alread proved the qualification, religious people await the messiah and the 144 000 civil servants, are getting their garments and lights ready for the long waited government of self appointed elects.

I am market already.



Comment by tahir wadood malik on August 22, 2011 at 3:09pm

i guess you did not use the word 'concern, but then this to me appears as close as can be:

quote "With Islamists constituting an important segment of the rebel forces taking control of the country, Libya will also be closely watched as an example of the role of Islamists in countries in the region embarking on transition. Both Egypt and Libya are struggling with the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and An-Nahda in the societies they are seeking to build." Unquote.

the issue for many people is not islamist or any other 'ist' but foreign prodding and intervention, the future course of which is not dependent on the outcome on the ground in libya or any other country, but in the lavish offices far away from the ground reality, sadly!

Comment by Jose Tenga on August 22, 2011 at 1:53pm

Expecting any miraculous transformation of Libya from the ‘rebel’ is like expecting the rat to come out alive from a palaver with the hungry cat. The main aim of this group is to get hold of power – total power, in Libya. Make no mistake, every one of those factions in the TNC have their agenda – separate from that of the totality. They expect tangible benefits for themselves and their ethnies. After all, Libya is still a very traditional and tribal society where the interest is first for the family, then the tribe and community and finally, the country. Expecting that to change in the foreseeable future is a mirage in the Libyan Desert.


Libya has been ruled by a strongman for most of its recent history. This is the norm in Arabia. Expecting that to change into a ‘western’ style ‘democracy’ is impossible. The people are just not ready for that, nor do they have the institutions – which have been whatever the strongman said they were. Preparing to replicate western-styled rule, in the absence of supporting structures and institutions of leadership, is like taking a dog to a horse race. It will take time – a long time for Libya to avoid falling into the sand trap of Iraq.  And then there are the loyal security forces – those who have benefited undeservedly from the state. Who is going to adopt who? Would the ‘rag-tag’ bunch of TNC fighters absorb the Revolutionary Guard and its related security agencies? That remains to be seen. So many loose ends and no end-game in sight. And how long will NATO continue to baby-sit the TNC since they are now in Tripoli? Because once they leave (if they ever will – considering the reconstruction contracts, etc), will Libya become another Iraq?

Comment by Varney A. Holmes on August 22, 2011 at 12:02pm

Thank God the world has a police government! With this, leaders of developing countries will take heed and manage their actions in power, account for their deeds and incline themselves with the best motive of assuming power. Otherwise they will surely become a culprit. I really like the happenings in Cote Voire, Libya and sooner Syria. Gbargboo would have save the lives of his knismen had he choose to go! But instead, knowing he would not, declared a war unneccessary that last for a very short period. Lets not encourage these tyrants because we are African, rather we should support the right cause to peace, humanity and stability on our continent. No one family has the right to better living than the other!

Comment by SEIDU IMORO on August 22, 2011 at 11:48am

Americans think they have the right to rule the whole world which is very wrong, see what they did to USSR, Irag, etc when they have an interest in your country they come to destroy it by using fault allegations to enter and they try to rope in other countries just to get the support of the western forces which if care is not taken, one day the marginalised countries will rise against them and they will get the support of all that will be the day of their disgrace.

Comment by GOPI KANTA GHOSH on August 22, 2011 at 11:28am
The planning is from outside the country so it has to go direction less...right direction emerges only when it comes from within...
Comment by James M Dorsey on August 22, 2011 at 11:23am

Thanks for the comments.

GOPI: I dont think Libya is directionless. On the contrary. The issue is ability to manage the challenges

TAHIR: To be clear, my article did not express concern about the Islamists. It noted as a matter of fact that the way they conduct themselves will be closely monitored.

MILLIMOUNO:There is no evidence of AQIM infiltrating the country, on the contrary. The CNT has a plan that is in writing and inclusive.

SEIDU: Negotiations failed

Comment by GOPI KANTA GHOSH on August 22, 2011 at 11:14am

It is a opinion is country has to is direction less...

Comment by tahir wadood malik on August 22, 2011 at 10:57am

in all in the scenarios cites so far, the role of a 'foreign hand' and outside agenda's have played a major role. what should interest scholars of history, anthropology, and even military history should be the question, what would have been the outcome if the 'then rebels, now heroes' did not have the support of NATO, USA, or other powers fostering their own agenda which may not necessarily coincide with the agenda of the 'rebel forces' in wanting a change of regime?

even this article ends doubting or questioning the outcome and future scenarios to be "closely watched," because islamists are in the fore of the movement.

there is a question in the streets in the majority of the countries in the wordld expecially those that are seen as helping the western forces against the islamic people, and that is, when we hear that Obama's or Cameron's rating has fallen to a dismal 56%, do we ask the american people, or Obama. or Cameron to take over, or resign? then what gives them the right to interfere like this in our lands?

this question, when it reaches a proportion that becomes unmanageable, will have deep and far reaching repercussions. Islamist or no, the world begs for peace un-interfered by anyone, and soon the next movement nay become a totally 'local' one, even at the cost of dismay to the today's powers that foster change by revolt.

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