The reign of Muammar Qaddafi has come to an end. That he was a cruel despot deserving of an unforgiving end is a given, but now a new chapter in Libya, rife with uncharted, ominous struggles has begun. Foremost among theses struggles will be preventing the ensuing anarchy and civil strife brought on by Qaddafi’s defeat from being utilized by Islamists to gain power and to establish a Sharia state. With the likes of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood openly supporting the Libyan rebels, the danger is that the downfall of the proverbial devil we knew, Qaddafi, may yet unleash something far worse.
The International Criminal Court confirms that Saif al-Islam, Muammar Qaddafi’s likely heir, has been captured by the rebels. It is also confirmed that Mohammed Qaddafi, another one of the dictator’s sons, has been taken into custody. There is ongoing fighting around Qaddafi’s compound, and foreign journalists are being held at the Rixos hotel. There are reports that South Africa is negotiating Qaddafi’s passage to another African country, such as Angola or Zimbabwe, but it is difficult to see why the rebels would settle when they are on the precipice of complete triumph. It is incontestable that the rebels in Libya are victorious, no matter what the truth is.
The overthrow of Qaddafi came even quicker than the rebels expected. They originally pledged to defeat him by the end of August, and then a defector predicted victory within 10 days. Qaddafi’s loyalists failed to put up much of a fight in the western parts of Tripoli. Apparently, they recognized that defeat was inevitable, as the city faced offensives on three sides, and the strategic oil city of Zawiyah fell. The unit in charge of protecting Qaddafi surrendered, and the dictator offered to directly negotiate with the rebel leadership. The Green Square was soon swarmed by rebel supporters, bringing Qaddafi’s rule effectively to an end.
One of the reasons for Tripoli’s rapid fall was the effective uprising strategy employed by the rebels within the city. Arms were smuggled to operatives in the eastern part of the city, and when these cells rose up at a predetermined time, the security forces were surprised and overwhelmed, as they expected an assault from the west. Widespread protests immediately erupted, collapsing the regime’s defenses. Of course, over the long term, Western intervention was the most decisive factor in the rebels’ victory, saving them from a massacre in Benghazi in March. NATO flew over 20,000 sorties, including 7,500 strikes, and spent billions of dollars to weaken the Qaddafi regime.
Several challenges now lie ahead. First is in the necessary marginalization of internal Islamist or jihadist elements in the anti-Qaddafi coalition. Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood supported the rebels for a reason, and Hamas in fact congratulated the rebels on their victory. The crucial question is on the actual composition of the rebel forces, which has never been completely clear. U.S. intelligence has claimed that there is no organized Al-Qaeda or Islamist element among the opposition, although media evidence has suggested that there is some Islamist influence. Encouragingly, the rebel leaders have pledged to create a secular democracy, with the vice chairman of the National Transitional Council bluntly stating, “There is no place for an Islamic state.” However, the 14-page “constitutional declaration” written by the opposition does open the door to the Islamists in very significant ways.
The constitutional declaration states that “Libya is a democratic and independent state…the people are the source of authority, Tripoli is the capital, Islam is the religion and Islamic sharia is the principal source of legislation.” Furthermore, one of the rebel commanders who received widespread attention for his support for Al-Qaeda, Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, said that “no Islamist revolution has ever succeeded. Only when the whole population was included, did we succeed and that means a more inclusive ideology.” In other words: a popularly-supported Islamist state.
The second major challenge is ensuring security. It will be difficult to unify the different rebel militias, tribes, and former Qaddafi loyalists under a single authority. The murder of the top rebel commander, Abdel Fateh Younes, by either Islamist militants or Qaddafi supporters, shows how deadly these divisions can be. One rebel commander said, “The first thing my brigade will do is set up checkpoints to disarm everyone, including other rebel groups, because otherwise it will be a bloodbath…All the rebel groups will want to control Tripoli. Order will be needed.”
The rebels must now work on the huge task of creating a new national army and new security forces, which requires disarming the different militias and preventing arms from falling into unsavory hands. It also requires contending with the rivalries between the eastern and western tribes, and ensuring the loyalty of the approximately 140 different tribes and clans. Ideological differences, such as those between the Islamists and non-Islamists, will also threaten the stability of the new Libyan government. The patience of the population will also be a problem, as they may demand improvements faster than can be delivered. For example, it will take up to 36 months to bring oil production back to 1.6 million barrels per day. A lack of economic or political progress will unravel support for whoever the next leaders of Libya are.
Qaddafi has been overthrown by the rebels with the aid of NATO and other international allies, and the scenes of celebration are reverberating through Tripoli. But we must not get caught up in naive euphoria, assuming that Libya has been irrevocably changed for the better. The fact remains that Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists took part in the fight against Qaddafi with the aim of establishing an Islamist state – so the real battle for Libya’s future has just begun.