Analysis: Libya may face civil war as Gaddafi's grip loosens

DUBAI Mon Feb 21, 2011 12:47pm EST

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi attends a ceremony marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Mohammed in Tripoli February 13, 2011. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi attends a ceremony marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Mohammed in Tripoli February 13, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ismail Zitouny

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Libya faces chaos and possible civil war as Muammar Gaddafi fights to maintain his 42-year grip on power in the face of a popular uprising.

Even if he flees -- assuming he could find a refuge -- Gaddafi would leave a nation with few normal structures for a peaceful transition, after four decades of his idiosyncratic rule.

"Any post-Gaddafi period is fraught with uncertainty," said Middle East analyst Philip McCrum. "There is no organized opposition, there are no civil institutions around which people could ordinarily gather.

"The opposition in exile is small and disparate. It will therefore take a long time for a new political order to establish itself and in the meantime, political tensions will run high as various competing groups, such as the tribes, the army, Islamists and liberals vie for power."

Dozens of people were reported killed in Libya overnight as anti-government protests reached the capital, Tripoli, for the first time. Several eastern cities appeared to be in opposition hands. The revolt has already cost more than 200 lives.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of the mercurial leader's sons, appeared on state TV overnight, mixing threats with appeals for calm, saying the army would enforce security at any price.

"We will keep fighting until the last man standing, even the last woman standing," he said, waving a finger at the camera.

McCrum said Saif al-Islam's speech had probably scotched any hopes among young Libyans that he could be a force for reform.

The uprising in Libya already looks set to be the bloodiest in a series of popular protests racing across the Middle East from Algeria to Yemen. Possibilities for compromise look slim.

CIVIL WAR

"Libya is the most likely candidate for civil war because the government has lost control over part of its own territory," said Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

"Benghazi was lost to the opposition and there are reports of other smaller cities going the same way. It is not something the Gaddafi regime is willing to tolerate."

Benghazi, a city in eastern Libya -- the region that is home to most of the country's oilfields -- is a traditional hotbed of anti-Gaddafi sentiment among tribes hostile to his rule.

As the protests have snowballed, Islamic leaders and once-loyal tribes have declared for the opposition.

Saad Djebbar, a London-based Algerian lawyer who for years defended Libya in the Lockerbie airline bombing case, said Gaddafi must go.

"I'm sure he has armed to the teeth his own tribesmen and those tribes linked to him. I'm sure he will be also giving them as much cash as possible," Djebbar told Reuters.

He said Gaddafi had narrowed the circle of his power to his close family and tribe in recent years, alienating allies and tribes who had backed him after he seized power in 1969.

"Gaddafi will go down fighting and Libyans will butcher each other. It's a fight to the bitter end. If he activates the tribal card, it will only turn Libya into another Somalia."

Djebbar said Western powers should consider protecting any rebel-held areas such as eastern Libya by using air power to bar Gaddafi from bombing his foes into submission -- similar to the no-fly zone they set up in Iraqi Kurdistan after the 1991 Gulf War to deter Saddam Hussein from reasserting control there.

CORNERED ANIMAL

"Gaddafi is like a cornered animal -- when threatened he attacks ferociously," said McCrum. "Throughout his rule, he has shown no qualms in brutally suppressing any opposition.

"He is highly unlikely to make any concessions and if he goes down, he will take as many people with him as possible," he added, predicting that events in Libya "will only get bloodier."

McCrum said he doubted the army would turn on Gaddafi or emulate the role played by the military in facilitating the departure of long-serving autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.

"The army will not actually effect regime change as in Egypt. They will simply perpetuate the status quo to protect their own interests," he said, noting that main arms of the security services were controlled by sons of Gaddafi.

Libya, once a pariah accused of sponsoring international terrorism, rehabilitated itself by paying compensation to victims of the Lockerbie bombing and other attacks, and by renouncing its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

"If ever there was a regime which exposes the West's hypocrisy, Gaddafi's is it," McCrum said.

"The West has fallen over itself to rehabilitate Gaddafi so they can get at his oil and now it will pay the price in political capital -- if it has any left.

In terms of investment risk, it's obviously very serious," said Julien Barnes-Dace, Middle East analyst at Control Risks.

"People are just pulling out. Even if Gaddafi survives, there will be huge worries and reputational issues about doing business in Libya. Libya would be much more isolated after this."

Analyst Geoff Porter said Gaddafi had "nowhere to go," unlike ousted Arab leaders such as Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who found refuge in Saudi Arabia, or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, in internal exile in Sharm el-Sheikh.

"Possibly the only place he can go is Zimbabwe," he said. "So there is no alternative. (If he is toppled), he will be like Saddam Hussein and end up hiding in a hole."

(Editing by Richard Mably and Mark Trevelyan)

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