Libya After Gaddafi: Why How He Leaves is as Important as When

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As I was preparing to leave Tripoli, I had a conversation with an Algerian British journalist who had just been released from detention by Libyan forces for reporting in the east of the country.  He was angry that he had been picked up for doing his job, but didn’t let it color his reporting on the situation. As I had been gleaning whispers of dissent in the souks of Tripoli, he had been listening to the muted protests of Gaddafi supporters outside the rebel-held stronghold of Benghazi. There were not many he said, but it was important to let that side of the story be told even if it didn’t fit the popular (and easier to comprehend) narrative of a country neatly divided into east and west, anti-or pro Gaddafi.

His nuanced take on what was going on in the east paralleled that of a Libyan friend I had come to know during my sojourn as a guest journalist reporting from Gaddafi’s gilded cage. My friend, whom I cannot name for security reasons, is quietly but forcefully anti Gaddafi. He didn’t start out that way. At the beginning he supported reform, as did Saif-al-Islam, one of Gaddafi’s sons. He applauded the groups going out on the streets demanding their rights, though even then he thought they were naively following the Egyptian and Tunisian examples. But when the protesters started attacking military barracks, he was disgusted. “A peaceful revolt that attacks a military installation shows how unthinkingly everyone went into it,” he told me. “I don’t think anyone really knew what they wanted to achieve.” Still, the regimes’ ham-fisted response was over the top he said. Now, the continued persecution of any scrap of dissent has him convinced that Gaddafi has abandoned any pretense of wanting to preserve the country. Blame for whatever happens next, says my friend, will rest entirely with Libya’s Brother Leader. “You can’t treat this like an accident. There needs to be justice. Before [the 17th of February, when the protests kicked off] there were no deaths, people just went to prison for a few months and came back. Now people have died. You can’t forgive that.” My friend has little faith, however, that the rebels in the east of the country will provide a better alternative. He worries that the original push for reform will be eclipsed by tribal feuds, personal vendettas and long-held political and power grievances.

In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, when asked how the NATO Libya campaign would be concluded, said, “it will end with the departure of Gaddafi.” That might be enough for NATO, but for Libya’s population, not to mention its neighbors, we need to start thinking about what comes next.

To be sure, Gaddafi has committed heinous crimes against his own people. He has unleashed his security forces against civilians and has sworn to hunt down the “rats” against him “house by house, street by street.” For 42 years he has presided over a police state that makes a mockery of his own philosophy of rule by the people. The flip side of that, of course, is that for 42 years the Libyan people have been consuming a steady diet of propaganda. They know no other leader, and have never been allowed to speak out against the government, let alone form opposition parties. So while there is a strata of supporters that claim they will die for Gaddafi every day that they get their pay, there are also genuine believers. The price may have been high, but Gaddafi brought stability. As long as you played by his rules, you would be taken care of. The import of that kind of predictability cannot be dismissed.

As a captive journalist being shepherded to near daily rallies in support of Gaddafi I quickly learned to scout the fringes in search of the rare dissident who might have attempted to communicate his disgust under cover of the crowd. What I failed to appreciate at the time was the real undercurrent of fear. Not of the ubiquitous goons—those are fact of the Libyan existence—but of the unknown: après lui, le deluge.

So we should be careful about painting the rebels as a purely liberating force. The truth is, the east and west of the country have had bad blood going back decades, so supporting the rise of one group over the other is not necessarily going to lead to a peaceful and prosperous Libya. Tunisia and Egypt were exceptions. As a rule, revolutions are bloody affairs that scar generations. Libya, where arms are plentiful, threatens to become a bloodbath if conflict is not averted.

It would be easy to dismiss Gaddafi’s assertion that the country would descend into tribal infighting should he leave as megalomaniac propaganda, (he is, after all, the man who said that the unrest was caused by young men hopped up on hallucinogen-laced Nescafe), but just because he lies about everything else doesn’t mean that the threat isn’t there.  There are examples to the contrary, of course—in the mountainous region south west of Tripoli rival tribes united to battle Gaddafi’s fores. Whether tribes stay united once (and if) Gaddafi is foisted from power remains to be seen. That Gaddafi must go has been made clear, but how that happens is just as important as the fact that it does happen. External intervention risks leaving a dangerous power vacuum that could be easily exploited by rival groups. An ouster by rebel groups (how ever improbable that sounds now) could lead to a bloody cycle of revenge by alienated tribes and clans. A referendum, if he could be persuaded to accept such a proposal, could lend a sense of national will, but it would be too easy to manipulate in his favor.

These are the complexities that are important to understand. Unfortunately they don’t play well to an international community looking for a quick solution. Gaddafi’s departure is not the end of the Libyan crisis. Unless it is done right, it might be just the beginning.