Special Commentary: Is Libya Headed Toward a Prolonged Civil War?

It did not take long for Libya to follow the path of its neighbors, with popular uprisings in Tunisia to the west and in Egypt to the east. The Libyan ‘uprising’ which started on February 17th, continues as of the writing of this piece. (Opposition groups originally called for an uprising on the 17th, but demonstrations started two days prior in the eastern city of Benghazi, after security forces arrested activists representing the families of the 1996 Abu Slim prison massacre). Whether Colonel Qaddafi’s regime survives or not will surely become clearer in the near future, although the country currently seems to be heading towards a bloody civil war, dividing the western part of the country held by Qaddafi supporters and the eastern part by his opponents. Given the situation in Libya, what would be the implications for the region, the West and the United States?

Colonel Qaddafi, who has been in power since he led a military coup against the monarchy in 1969, has brought security and stability to his country, at the expense of real democracy. Freedom of speech and legal opposition are virtually nonexistent. Libya, in fact, has been ruled by a form of absolute rule, or dictatorship, for the past 41 years. This political stagnation was also accompanied by a lack of any real attempts to build proper, accountable institutions to run the country in a modern way. The "state of the masses", or the Jamahiriya, a political system created by Qaddafi which was supposed to create a popular government with power directly vested in the hands of the people, has been characterized as being an utter sham. Qaddafi maintains control over all facets of the ruling regime. So, his fall, or a prolonged challenge to his rule, may result in a vacuum that will not only affect Libya domestically, but its international relations as well.

The following scenarios could take place in Libya, whether Qaddafi stays or goes:

The uprising now seems to be spreading outside of the eastern regions which have traditionally been the center of power for those challenging Qaddafi’s regime, especially the Islamists. In light of that, it was no surprise that most of the troubles have, since February 17, been concentrated in the east – Benghazi, al-Bayda, Ajdabiya , as well as Darnah. The latter is known as an Islamist hub which produced the most volunteers who left Libya to join the fight against American troops in Iraq (52 fighters out of a total of 112 Libyan foreign fighters). Darnah produced more Jihadi  fighters than Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, (52 to 51). However, Darnah has a population of only 80,000 compared to Riyadh’s 4.3 million, which makes it by far the biggest Arab city per capita to ‘export’ volunteer Jihadi fighters.

Seif al-Qaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader, was quick to jump on this issue in his televised speech on February 21. He accused the Islamists of controlling al-Byada and Darnah and creating Islamic ‘emirates’. This may or may not be true, but the aim of Seif’s words was clear: the vacuum left by the fall of his father’s regime will be filled by Islamic militants. However, the Islamists role in this current uprising is not clear yet, although it appears that there is a coalition of many opposition factions – national, secular and indeed Islamist – that is united in helping the ordinary citizens of Libya, especially the frustrated young generation, in its attempt to change the regime.

If the regime fails in its current bloody attempts to regain full control over the eastern cities, then Qaddafi will have been surely weakened, even if he were to survive this uprising. There have been some reports of protests taking place in western regions as well, especially in Misratah, east of Tripoli, but nothing compared to what has been happening in the east. If the uprising remains mainly confined to the east, an ever-increasing rift will reappear between those who believe that Qaddafi has allowed the western part to become more prosperous than the rebellious east, and those who support the regime. The al-Qaddadfa’s tribe, Qaddafi’s tribal base, is in Sirt, midway between the eastern and the western regions, although it is considered part of the west (Gaddafi’s wife is from al-Byada, 200 miles east of Benghazi). While many other tribes have recently defected from Qaddafi’s regime, this tribe has until now remained loyal to the Colonel. The powerful Warfalla tribe for example, to the south of Tripoli, has now sided with the opposition. This tribe had been linked to a number of army officers who tried to topple the regime in a failed coup in 1993. The officers were then arrested and members of their families were forced to execute them in public in 1997 to ‘cleanse’ the honor of the tribe. The tribe more than likely changed its allegiances as a form of retribution against the regime (https://www.libyanfsl.com).

In the chaos created by this uprising, the Islamists may try to rebuild their presence, after having been crushed by the regime in the 1990s. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) or at least some of its factions may find the situation tempting to re-launch its work in building cells. However this tactic may not translate into a return to the armed, violent Jihad which occurred in the 1990s and which later failed to uproot the regime. In the past two years, the leaders of the LIFG have been freed from prison, and have made promises to quit their violent ambitions. However, members of the LIFG may become tempted to join a more radical faction led by Abu Yihya al-Libi, a member of al-Qaeda (Abu Yihya al-Libi joined a faction of al-Qaeda in 2007; the LIFG at that time was led by the now deceased Abu Laith al-Libi). The ruthless suppression of this uprising could further increase al-Qaeda’s recruitment ability, or that of its North African branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, (two entities that promote armed struggle as the only means to topple Qaddafi’s ‘apostate’ regime). However, given the recent popular and peaceful protests in Tunisia and Egypt, and the lack of al-Qaeda’s influence during these respective uprisings, this scenario might seem unlikely.

In addition, the insecurity in Libya may lead to the suspension of oil and gas exports from Libyan fields, which would have serious consequences for European markets. One scenario could be the result of terrorist attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure. In Egypt, for example, gas pipelines in the Sinai linked to Jordan and Israel were attacked after the fall of President Mubarak’s regime this past month. However pipelines could also be shutdown under Colonel Qaddafi’s orders, to retaliate against US and Western interests who are pressuring the regime to allow peaceful protests. In Qaddafi’s eyes, these elements are seeking to undermine his government.

In the event that the revolution fails, Libya might once again revert back into a pariah state, sponsoring terrorist organizations. Colonel Qaddafi may be tempted to back a group aimed at attacking western targets. However, the Libyan leader must know that any attack implicating his regime will result in the downfall of his rule due to the onslaught of international pressure against him and international aid to his opponents.