There exists a recipe for instability and chaos, and civil society is virtually non-existent.

No obvious successors or opposition movements are waiting to take over Libya if Muammar Qadhafi is forced from power after four decades in which political dissent was crushed and society atomised.

Academics, analysts and diplomats agree that until recently his most likely heirs were his sons, primarily the reformist-minded Seif al-Islam. But that option appears to have disappeared after Seif's TV address warning of “civil war” while promising reforms late on February 20.

Benghazi a centre of dissent

“Seif was considered the most pro-western and most liberal of the family and most in touch with youth — and he blew it,” said veteran Libya-watcher Charles Gurdon of Menas Associates. “Any idea that he could take over has now gone.” Qadhafi destroyed any hope for his sons' succession by playing them off against each other, argued George Joffe, a Cambridge University Maghreb expert. “If he goes, the whole family goes.” Opposition in Libya is fragmented regionally and there is little sign of organised anti-regime activity at the national level. Benghazi, in the impoverished east has long been a centre of dissent and calls for a constitution. Tripoli has traditionally been quiescent, if resentful of Qadhafi's orders to move government offices from the capital to his home town of Sirte.

‘Libya a special case'

But previously unknown individuals are now emerging to organise protests as unrest spreads in Tripoli. Exiled groups such as the National Front for the Salvation of Libya are thought to enjoy little support among the country's 6.5 million people.

Conventional politics was abolished by the leader's “Green Book” and replaced by people's committees and the general people's congress — a sort of parliament. When Hafez al-Assad, Syria's President and the Ba'ath party leader, visited Libya in the 1970s he was greeted with placards saying “Political parties are treason”.

If the Qadhafi regime falls, anyone associated with it would be tainted. “There's no one whose face is known on TV who isn't associated with Qadhafi ,” said another old Libya hand. A possible exception could be Shukri Ghanem, a former Prime Minister and now head of the national oil corporation.

“Libya is a special case,” said a former Tripoli-based diplomat. “In other countries — Egypt, Jordan or Bahrain — you can construct scenarios about what might happen after an uprising. In Libya you can see only instability, chaos and violence.”

Takeover by the army looks unlikely. Qadhafi, a military man himself when he seized power and overthrew the monarchy in 1969, deliberately kept the army weak and refused for long periods to issue it with ammunition. The regime is protected by special battalions like the one commanded by his son Khamis, said to have been crushing protests in Benghazi. Civil society is virtually non-existent and the business sector still young and weak though angry about the corruption of the Qadhafi family and their favourites.

Reformist activity was led by Seif al-Islam through his Qadhafi charitable foundation. He did some work promoting human rights and semi-independent media but met resistance from the old guard in the revolutionary committees and the security services.

No one seriously expects Islamists to play a big role in the post-Qadhafi era. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an al-Qaeda affiliate which sent many young men to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, was defeated, its members now either in prison or freed and pardoned. The mosques are carefully monitored and generally tame.

Libya's once powerful tribes, experts predict, could become more significant players in a Qadhafi-free future. “The tribes will be important and there will be a combination of old secular opposition with an Islamist element,” said Gurdon. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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