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The next big challenge for Libya

Opponents of Colonel Gaddafi shout support for the uprising against him in Tripoli. AFP/Filippo Monteforte

The effort to overthrow Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi appears to be reaching its climax with key elements of his military forces surrendering to the rebels and senior members of his regime* in rebel hands.

While the rebels may not yet fully control Tripoli, Gaddafi’s hold on this crucial city seems to have largely evaporated.

The performance of the rebel forces has been impressive. The general view of them has been that they are largely disorganised and untrained enthusiasts for the departure of Gaddafi.

An organised revolt

Reports of rebel infiltration into Tripoli and the rebels’ apparent success in overcoming logistical problems, however, suggest a higher degree of military organisation than might have been expected.

The, perhaps unexpected, rebel victory resolves one problem, the removal of Gaddafi at Libyan hands. This was not a victory won by others for the Libyans. It raises, however, new problems, which have always been in the background but have been ignored by the West and the rebels themselves.

Where will Gadaffi go?

The first of these is what to do with senior members of the regime when they fall into rebel hands.

From one perspective, the answer to this is clear. UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 require all states to hand members of the regime who may have been implicated in human rights abuses, including Gaddafi and his sons, to the International Criminal Court. This obligation applies to all countries, including those that are not members of the Court.

The countries that included this provision in the Security Council resolutions may now be regretting their action as they confront the varying reactions to the possibility of Gaddafi’s capture.

Western allies might have liked to find an escape route for Gaddafi in the hope that his departure from the scene would end the violence and allow speedy reconciliation.

The citizens of Libya, however, have already shown that they might prefer to deal with Gaddafi themselves.

As we saw with the killing of Saddam Hussein, this might not necessarily accord with international legal standards.

Who is in charge?

Another problem relates to the question of what comes next. The interim national council is nominally in charge, but it is not clear how much power the council has.

The council chairman, Mustafa Abd Al-Jalil, does not cut a particularly impressive figure but he may be a man of hidden strengths as was Nuri Al Maliki in Iraq.

Many of the members of the council have ambiguous backgrounds. Jalil himself has been accused of involvement in human rights violations and there have been claims of summary executions of captured supporters of the regime committed by rebels.

A big question relates to the attitude of the people who command the rebels’ armed forces.

The killing of the former commander, Abd Al-Fatteh Younis some weeks ago suggests tensions within the military, which could bode ill for civilian control of the new political system.

It is difficult to evaluate the attitude of the military commanders but it is to be remembered that most revolutions in the Arab world since independence have been led by the military. The tradition dies hard.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the establishment of a functioning, open and law-based government post-Gaddafi is to be found in the tribal nature of Libyan society.

The importance of tribalism

Tribalism is an immensely complex element in the make-up of Libya. After trying to destroy the tribes’ power, Gaddafi was forced to fall back on his own tribe, the Qadadfa, and a number of other large groups to secure his regime. Members of the Qadadfa and these trusted tribes were placed in key positions, including the security services. It is probably the desertion of some of these larger tribal groups that has precipitated the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime.

While the new government will welcome the support of the various tribes, it will know that loyalty of tribal groups is a precarious thing. They will be expecting rewards for their support and it can be expected that there will be intense rivalry among the tribes for benefits from the government. It may not be possible for the government to satisfy all the tribes’ demands.

What next?

It is also not clear what the rebels’ objectives are besides the removal of Gaddafi. We will hear much about democracy in coming months but it is hard to imagine how a society that has had no experience of democracy and is riven by competing loyalties and enduring enmities can establish a workable democratic system in the short term.

The new government will be faced with immense challenges, which would be daunting for more experienced and better resourced people than those leading the Libyan rebels.

These challenges will be aggravated by the removal of the one unifying factor in the civil war – the desire to get rid of Gaddafi.

  • The original version of this article stated that Saif al-Islam, Colonel Gaddafi’s son, had been detained. This claim was widely reported, and confirmed by the ICC. But he has since appeared before journalists in Tripoli.

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