Even a Weakened Libya Can Avoid Civil War

Ibrahim Fraihat
Ibrahim Fraihat Associate Professor of International Conflict Resolution - Doha Institute for Graduate Studies

March 2, 2011

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Serious concerns have been raised about internal disintegration and civil war were Muammar Qaddafi to fall. Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, has warned of coming chaos, suggesting Libya could become an “Afghanistan in north Africa”. But while these concerns are justifiable, there is little danger of a long-term civil war. The main forces of Libyan society – the tribes, Islamist groups and the army – lack the capacity for any sustained conflict. The west should therefore focus on persuading Mr. Qaddafi to leave, and not rush into unwise and counter-productive military action.

The threat of civil war has been understandably talked up by both Mr. Qaddafi, and his son Seif al-Islam. The latter’s threat to fight to the “last man and last woman”, and his father’s rallying of loyal tribes to attack the protesters, indicates how the regime intends to behave if forced into a corner. But Mr. Qaddafi’s intransigence, and willingness to inflict atrocities on his own people, should not surprise us. He has almost no international friends to host him, should he flee the country. His military background also gives a strong sense of the shame that comes from backing down on terms other than his own.

That said, were Mr. Qaddafi to flee from his power base in Tripoli, the chances of him sustaining a lengthy civil war in his name are slim. More importantly, after several decades of being undermined and marginalised by the regime, the trio of main social forces in his country lack the potential to conduct a lengthy conflict, were the to regime fall.

Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have led opposition to the regime in Libya for a number of decades. Yet they have suffered greatly under Mr. Qaddafi, most egregiously in the Abu Salim Prison massacre of 1996, in which 1,270 prisoners are believed to have been killed. While the Brotherhood itself remains part of the political fabric, the group has lost significant support of late, after allying itself with a youth initiative developed by Seif al-Islam Qaddafi three years ago – an alliance for which the Islamist movement is now likely to pay a price in terms of credibility.

Libya’s military is also weak. Having come to power in a coup, Mr. Qaddafi has long feared the army, and tried to marginalise its role. To protect his rule he instead formed a revolutionary committee, which dominated power in Libya. The result is a military that no longer resembles a coherent institution, and is certainly not comparable to that of Egypt, or even Tunisia. Its leadership is currently in disarray, with individuals and units seceding and joining the revolution.

Meanwhile, the potential impact of Libya’s much-discussed tribes as a disruptive force in post-Qaddafi Libya should not be exaggerated. Their role in conservative Libyan society has traditionally been limited to the social sphere. It is unlikely that this would change substantially to play a prominent role in politics in the future.

This is not to underplay the risks facing Libya in the coming weeks and months. Its wreaked army will not be in a position to provide stability, stem emigration or protect oil reserves. A spillover of the conflict in Libya to neighbouring countries remains a possibility, particularly until the regime falls. Equally there is no obvious single institution that can take over from Mr. Qaddafi. But those groups who some assume may want to fight over Libya’s future are unlikely to do so.

Even so, the international community must be careful how it moves forward. Military intervention, in particular, would be highly unwise, with a strong potential to backfire. Prominent Libyan figures, including the former justice minister Mustafa Abdil-Jalil, have already strongly rejected such a move. This uprising should be about freedom and justice for the Libyan people. That spirit risks being undermined by foreign troops, or even jets.

Instead the west should target the inner circle of Mr. Qaddafi’s regime. Forms of softer intervention, for instance, trying to reach those Mr. Qaddafi trusts, could be used to try and influence the Libyan dictator’s decisions. Offering asylum to him and his family would also help defuse the threat of a violent last stand. Such approaches are the best way to mitigate the threat of rapid escalation of conflict in Libya. If they are followed, there is hope that Mr. Qaddafi can be quickly removed. If so, we can have confidence that Libya’s exhausted society will turn its back on further conflict.