Libya: The fall of Gaddafi is not the panacea we might think.

Deep rooted tribal differences threaten the hope of lasting stability in a country lacking any safety nets. The West must commit to creating one.

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Gadaffi is gone, but now what?
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Felix Danczak
On 24 August 2011 15:27

Colonel Gaddafi's tenure as the self-proclaimed 'Guide of the Libyan Revolution' is over.

Although a few loyalist troops remain in Tripoli, the vast majority of the country is now in revolutionary hands. Gaddafi himself has not been seen in public for three months, and rumours abound that he has fled Tripoli or the entire country after the discovery of a vast network of tunnels leading out to the Libyan desert.

But we must not celebrate yet. Libya lies on a knife edge, and the West must do all it can to help.

Western leaders have called for him to come forward and accept the inevitable – on Monday Prime Minister David Cameron told press that 'Gaddafi must stop fighting, without conditions', and President Obama expressed “hope” that he might take the opportunity 'to reduce further bloodshed by explicitly relinquishing power'.

Hope is the operative word: Gaddafi's departure, public or not, may have some ugly consequences for Libya unless it is handled correctly. Hence the 10 million dollar question, which is as obvious as it is crucial: what happens next?

The National Transitional Council of Libya (NTC) has been officially recognised as the Libyan government - but doubts remain as to whether it has the power to maintain order and rule effectively. Libya is threatened by the prospect of violent reprisals and drawn out guerrilla warfare, coupled with wider civil unrest if that order cannot be provided. Prime Minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil has publically acknowledged these concerns, calling on all Libyans 'to exercise self-restraint and to respect the property and lives of others'.

That Mr Jalil needs make such a statement is telling, for the reality that underpins it threatens the very existence of Libya as a nation-state. The distinctly tribal nature of Libyan society - there are over 140 separate factions - presents the NTC with a unique set of problems that are likely to prevent such a swift and relatively violence-free movement towards democracy that characterised the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

For in both these states, the Army played a crucial role in maintaining order. They provided (and indeed continue to provide) a backbone of stability against which the political turmoil can be played out peacefully, without it threatening to undermine revolutionary gains.

The Libyan Army is unlikely to play any such role. Gaddafi exploited tribal differences to maintain his power, and the army was a tool for this: making the air-force the preserve of his own tribe, and buying loyalty with army posts that split rival tribes' leaderships. Consequently, the Army will be unable to provide the stability of the Egyptian or Tunisian armed forces, leaving post-Gaddafi Libya vulnerable.

The fractious Army is microcosm of Libya itself. Gaddafi entrenched existing tribal rifts in order to shore up his regime: the al-Magarha tribes owes him a debt for his repatriation of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi , as well as for wider favours in economic terms over the last four decades. Simultaneously, larger tribes in the east of the country have been consistently discriminated against by the regime. This dimension adds to the revolution the capacity for tribal backlashes and revenge killings - the recent assassination of General Younis (a pro-Gaddafi General from the al-Misrata tribe who had defected), apparently by a rival rebel group, has been pointed to as evidence of this behaviour.

Tribal divisions have the power to threaten Libya's territorial unity. The NTC has insisted that there will be no territorial division, but strong tribal ties will jeopardize this commitment as communities realise the wealth that they now possess. Tribes cut out from the Gaddafi-era political process - particularly in the oil-rich east and south - now find themselves in control of resources that they may not be willing to give up to a reunited Libya. Revolution has provided these tribes with both weapons and freedom from authority: re-imposing any authority will be difficult without concrete assurances they will not be cut out again.

The next few weeks represent a crucial moment in Libya's turbulent history. The emerging 'free' Libya lacks law and order, and the divided society that Gaddafi's departure will uncover may be unwilling to enter into constructive dialogue with itself. Instead, more interested in settling old scores and enjoying the spoils of victory, rival tribes may lapse into civil war. If this is to be avoided, it is imperative that the West not underestimate the fractional nature of Libyan politics, and learn from mistakes in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans.

Order must be re-established, and if the NTC is unable to provide it, NATO must be willing to put peacekeepers on the ground quickly, and involve the African Union. This must be coupled with serious logistical and institutional support as Libya begins to govern itself for the first time in two generations, helping Libyans overcome tribal-based difficulties.

If the West fails to provide this support, it may find that the cost of removing Libya's own 'Dear Leader' was just too high. 

Felix Danczak is a Sociology and Politics student at Cambridge University and a research intern at the Legatum Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

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