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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Libya: The End of the “L’enfant Terrible”?

Filed under: Jerusalem

Libya, holder of Africa’s largest oil reserves, is the latest Arab nation to be rocked by protests that culminated in the ouster of Tunisia’s president and the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But, unlike Tunisia, Egypt, and other “orderly” Arab states, any end of Kaddafi’s four-decade rule may not be enough to stabilize the country since Libya has no succession procedure. The “mass-state” (Jamahiriyyah in Arabic) created by Kaddafi, meant to be a state ruled by the masses, does not have a system or a legal procedure that allows the transfer of authority in cases of constitutional crisis.

Exactly according to the pattern of the other protests in the Arab world, the protest against Kaddafi is a popular protest with no recognized leader. Still, Kaddafi’s potentially stepping down leaves an unparalleled situation. There is a clear difficulty in pointing at potential successors.

The modern history of Libya since 1951 can be divided in two: the first period was the monarchy under Idris the Sanussi, which lasted until September 1, 1969, when 27-year-old Captain Muammar Kaddafi took power in a bloodless coup. Kaddafi has been the longest serving ruler of Libya since Tripoli became an Ottoman province in 1551. Nothing and no one has prepared Libya to overcome the current political vacuum.

Still, one can think of a few scenarios:

a.) A take-over by the army, which is still the main force on the ground. Clearly, units that have followed Kaddafi’s orders and used force against the protesters will be “punished.”

b.) A take-over by the General People’s Congress, which is the body at the top of the “mass-state” (Jamahiriyyah). The General People’s Congress is headed today by its secretary general, Mohammad Abu el-Kassim Zwai, who serves in fact as the President of Libya. The executive powers are delegated to the General People’s Committee (government) which is headed by Baghdadi Mahmudi, an obstetrician, who also presides over the High Council for Oil and Gas and the Libyan Investment Authority. Most probably, the leaders of those two governing bodies would be identified with the former regime and would not remain in office.

c.) There are a number of political groups opposed to Kaddafi which could become potential leaders of the country:

  • The National Conference of the Libyan Opposition, founded in June 2005, comprises seven opposition groups led by the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, headed by Ibrahim ‘Abd el ‘Aziz Sahad, formerly a military officer and diplomat. Its most recent national congress was held in the U.S. in 2007. The National Front has been involved in support of the “days of rage” held in Libya since the beginnings of the latest protests.
  • The Committee for Libyan National Action in Europe
  • The Geneva-based Libyan League for Human Rights (LLHR), whose website actively seeks Kaddafi’s overthrow, petitioned Gaddafi to set up an independent inquiry into the February 2006 unrest in Benghazi in which some 30 Libyans and foreigners were killed.
  • Fathi Eljahmi, a prominent dissident who has been imprisoned since 2002 for calling for increased democratization in Libya, could become a national hero to rally around.

One thing is certain: Libya after Kaddafi will not be the same. Nobody will shed a tear over the obsessive, bizarre, and grotesque Kaddafi, if and when he steps down following the upheaval in Libya. “L’enfant Terrible” of Arab politics has turned into a ruthless tyrant who did not hesitate to command his air force to bomb the protesters in the streets of Tripoli.

From a disillusioned pan-Arabist, he became an obsessive pan-Saharan Islamist who rallied around him all the so-called “liberation forces” around the globe, invaded his neighbors (Chad ), funded and initiated terrorist attacks (Lockerbie, La Belle Discotheque in Berlin), sent assassination squads against his opponents, eliminated religious clerics (Moussa Sadr), and finally came to confront the U.S. This last chapter brought the Americans to target him (his adopted daughter Hannah was killed instead) and to ask for an international boycott. Under pressure he complied with the U.S., paid compensation to his victims, and adopted a more realistic foreign policy in later years.

Although he claimed to be a fervent Islamist, he did not let the religious establishment be part of running the modern state he wanted Libya to be. His stepping down again raises the question of whether Islamists will take over and rule the country according to the old tribal traditions that still characterize Libyan society.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.