Muammar Qadhafi no longer has influential friends within and outside the country who can bail him out. The question now is how will he go, and what will replace him?
The political survival of Muammar Qadhafi, Libya's strongman for 42 years, is under serious threat. Much of this has to do with the transformation of the opposition, now closing in on the capital Tripoli. It had started an unarmed campaign for change but, in the face of excessive State violence, has transformed itself dramatically into an armed revolutionary movement.
With the uprising raging, and eastern Libya already under opposition control, the regime's survival is now almost out of the equation. Mr. Qadhafi no longer has influential friends within and outside Libya who can bail him out. The question now is how will he go, and what will replace him? Will the regime collapse suddenly, the end brought about by a coup, or will it disappear after a brief civil war, when the debilitating ranks of Mr. Qadhafi's loyal forces, make their last stand to defend Tripoli? Alternatively, could there be an unlikely sting in the tail, which might reveal itself in a war of attrition, between Qadhafi-loyalists, whose numbers and commitment the world has underestimated, and the opposition forces, now rapidly advancing along Libya's eastern Mediterranean coastline towards Tripoli?
Mr. Qadhafi's problems have become insurmountable because he has a very thin support base left. For decades he has not been critically challenged because his regime has adopted a combination of selective tribal patronage and co-option, made possible on account of a windfall in oil revenues, and the fear that police states can instill in their citizens. In the initial years, after the 1969 coup that brought him to power, Mr. Qadhafi's firm commitment, in the footsteps of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, to revolutionary Arab nationalism, did earn him accolades at home. But when the cost of raising legions to enforce Arab unity from Sudan to Palestine became prohibitively high, and hefty oil revenues did not lead to more food on the table, Mr. Qadhafi's social contract with fellow-Libyans began to fray.
The slow accumulation of woes over the last four decades, finally appear to have exploded, leading to his undoing. Some of the resentment has come from the state of the economy. Despite Libya's status as a leading oil exporter, large sections of Libyans live on an income of less than two dollars a day.
Then, there are the forces of sub-nationalism, which refuse to go, partly because Mr. Qadhafi's personality cult, a lack of pluralistic institutions, and a denial of civil liberties that has disallowed Libyan nationalism to flower.
For long, Libya's east, which was a part of the traditional Cyrenaica, as well as the ruling power centre under the regime of King Idris, toppled by Mr. Qadhafi in the 1969 coup, has felt discriminated against. Under Mr. Qadhafi, Tripoli, a part of the old Tripolitania, became the new power centre, and members of the Qadhadfa tribe, to which the leader belongs, and who are dominant in this area, were among the chief beneficiaries of the new regime. It is therefore not surprising that the revolt, on February 15, and reflecting old animosities, began in Benghazi, Libya's capital, pre-1969.
There are also human rights issues and political demands as well, which have been brewing. The rebellion in Libya was sparked by the detention, on February 15, of Fathi Terbil, the 39-year-old human rights lawyer, based in Benghazi. Mr. Terbil represents the families of around 1,000 inmates, who were killed in 1996 by the regime in Tripoli's Abu Slim prison. His detention preceded a planned protest on February 17, in which the families of these inmates were to have participated. The revolt was also preceded by a peaceful two-year campaign for a new constitution, and demands for rule of law by a lawyers' syndicate, based in Benghazi.
Aspirations for economic justice, the rule of law, civil liberties and regional equality, seemed to have all coalesced when the uprisings, led by youth, in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, had successfully brought down entrenched dictatorships. As in other parts of West Asia and North Africa, these movements have transformed mindsets in Libya, imparting a powerful sense of self-belief, especially among the youth, who have realised that with careful preparation, fundamental political changes are indeed achievable.
Information is still sketchy about the role of the youth in using the internet as a tool for political mobilisation in Libya. “We will hear more about that in the days to come as the haze over the uprising settles. The only thing that I can say with certainty is that cyber-space was hyper-active ahead of the revolt,” says Tarik M. Yousef, a Libyan-American, who is currently the Dean of the Dubai School of Government in the United Arab Emirates. However, it is now emerging that unlike Facebook and Twitter, that Egyptian and Tunisian youth used effectively, some among the Libyan youth, preferred — perhaps to escape the regime's scrutiny — to use a popular football website to plan and organise the protests.
Mr. Qadhafi's slide towards isolation, driven by a combination of deep seated insecurity, and megalomania, began soon after the popular September 1969 coup. Deciding to monopolise power, Mr. Qadhafi, trusting his formidable charismatic powers, ensured that his potential political rivals have remained marginalised. He towered over the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) comprising several military officers, where power was concentrated after the coup. A failed attempt, by Major Umar Mihayshi, a RCC member and 30 army officers, to topple him in 1975, led Mr. Qadhafi to further tighten his grip on power. In the periodic purges that have followed, several hundred people were allegedly killed, in the wake of an unsuccessful army revolt, in 1980, in Tobruk. It is, not surprisingly, one of the flashpoints of the on-going uprising.
Acutely aware of the danger that the armed forces could pose to his survival, the Libyan leader has systematically undermined the power of the conventional army. He has promoted the Revolutionary Guard Corps (RGC), an ultra-loyal well equipped force of around 3,000 men, drawn mainly from the Qadhadfa tribal groups surrounding Surt, the leader's hometown. Also called the Jamahiriya Guard, the RGC, formed mainly in the 1980s, was tied to the powerful Revolutionary Committees, another contraption of the regime embedded in work places and communities. The Revolutionary Committee buildings, a prominent regime symbol, were fiercely targeted during the current uprising in Benghazi, before protesters established their control over the city by February 20. Troops sent in to quell the revolt also turned around to join the dissidents. They are now taking the lead in military preparations to counter Mr. Qadhafi's loyalists, as they head towards Tripoli, the leader's stronghold.
In its future confrontations with the regime, the opposition is likely to encounter the Khamis brigade — a highly potent force, which has been assigned the Pretorian guard role in the defence of the regime. It could also encounter legions of mercenaries drawn out of Africa, that Mr. Qadhafi has cultivated for long to fulfill his utopian pan-Arab dreams.
Mr. Qadhafi's emergence as a target of hate-filled vendetta can also be attributed to the offensive doctrine of physical liquidation that his regime has adopted toward its opponents abroad. Some among the Libyan expatriates, who are mostly educated but left the country in droves in the early 1980s, have been lethally targeted for their anti-regime activism abroad. The regime's agents have assassinated many of them, especially those who moved to Western Europe, where they began to raise opposition groups. Given their animosity towards the regime, the expatriates are playing a significant role in fuelling the revolt. Apart from the youth, they have been making active use of the internet to help create the critical mass required for the success of the uprising.
In his aggressive campaign to deepen the “revolution,” Mr. Qadhafi has further alienated the Libyan clergy, now an important element in the revolt. His contention that his “Green Book,” a self-acclaimed philosophical guide to chart Libya's future, is compatible with Islam and his nationalisation of properties belonging to Islamic endowments had already driven a wedge. The clergy has now formalised its break with the regime. In a statement, the newly formed Network of Free Ulema, which includes 50 prominent Libyan clerics and scholars, on February 22, condemned the use of State-violence against the protesters.
As the momentum gathers against the regime, the participation by ever-larger numbers of tribes has begun to make a critical difference to the regime's survival. In the city of Az-Zintan, 150 kilometres west of Tripoli, the powerful Warfala tribe has turned against Mr. Qadhafi. The Az-Zintan tribe, on its part, is trying to facilitate the entry of youth into Tripoli to challenge the regime. Significantly, around one-third of Tripoli's residents belong to the Tarhun tribe, which is disassociating itself from the government. Cracks are also appearing in the Qadhadfa tribe.
In the end, Mr. Qadhafi is staring at defeat, not necessarily on account of his stated ideals of Arab unity and economic equity, but because of his methods, which have revolved around authoritarianism, a personality cult and the use of brute force. As many among the Egyptian youth have recently shown, soaring idealism has a better chance of realisation when it is premised, not on force, but on principles of transparency, grassroots organisation and a political culture, which readily allows dissent and animated debate.