Things Could Get a Lot Worse in Libya

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

February 23, 2011

As the world watched Egyptians stand in Tahrir Square and chant that Mubarak must go, we could take comfort in the peaceful nature of the demonstrators and their moving appeals for liberty and justice—sentiments shared by viewers throughout the world. Finally, it seemed, democracy would come to one of the cradles of human civilization. Some Egyptian dissidents, such as Nobel laureate Mohammad ElBaradei, were known in Western capitals as men of principle. Even groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, that raise many alarms and some hackles at least mouthed the right words about democracy and peaceful change. Eventually, the Egyptian military, acting for its own interests, decided to side with the demonstrators. This stopped the violence from spinning out of control and, so far, has made the post-Mubarak era more orderly than many feared. While Egypt’s future has yet to be written, the situation so far augurs well for the country’s stability in the months and years to come.

The very factors that make Egypt look so promising make Libya look more frightening. Qaddafi, unfortunately, may still win, either by rallying his loyalists in the security forces and military or by importing enough mercenaries to overcome the disorganized opposition in a brutal city-by-city campaign of terror. Some reports put the death toll in Libya at more than 1,000—and, remember, Libya’s population is less than one-tenth the size of Egypt’s—and the violence shows no sign of subsiding.

But if Qaddafi loses, Libya’s future may still prove chaotic. It would be hard to have a worse ruler than Qaddafi, but that doesn’t mean Libya’s next leader will be just or that the country can avoid additional strife. Libyans, unlike Egypt’s citizens, do not have thousands of years of national identity to keep them together—tribal ties remain important and inhibit a strong national identity. Key cities like Benghazi and Tripoli are far apart with different historical experiences.

Nor is there any coherence to the opposition. Different tribes, military units, and former regime loyalists have all declared themselves “for the people,” but no one truly speaks for the ordinary Libyans who are risking their lives to end the tyranny they have known for more than 40 years. For now, they are unified in fighting Qaddafi, but whether they can coordinate their activities to prevail, and whether they can keep coordinating should he go, is an open question.

Unlike in Egypt, “the army” is not a coherent institution. Qaddafi took care to politicize the military and divide its commanders in order to prevent a coup or other challenges to his rule. Moreover, the army was involved in interventions, such as a disastrous war in Chad, that tarnished its credibility—its battlefield record is not a source of pride. So the military is less able to lead the country out of the mess.

Nor is there a bureaucratic structure that can simply resume basic government functions under new leaders. Qaddafi created one of the world’s most bizarre governments, with “people’s committees” playing important roles at the local level. Indeed, Qaddafi himself did not hold a government position in any formal sense, even though he was clearly recognized as “the leader.” This personalized and politicized system is part of what Libyans hate; it should not survive its creator. But removing Qaddafi’s regime demands more than just change at the top.

Civil wars also further radicalize all involved. When blood is shed, the rules change. The Libyan regime is already committing many atrocities, such as firing on crowds and sending its loyalists into hospitals to kill wounded demonstrators. The opposition, in turn, will not be gentle with captured security forces, mercenaries, or others deemed culpable in killing their comrades. Purges are likely no matter who wins.

The United States and the international community have little ability to influence events in Libya short of a massive on-the-ground military intervention. And that’s not going to happen. One of the best things they can do is to try to organize the opposition to Qaddafi, encouraging a broad political front and urging military leaders to declare their support for this. Should the opposition win, this front could take Libya’s helm and help avert the worst while establishing a new, and better, government.