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

Related Topics

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.


"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.


"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)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see
Comments (5)
NukerDoggie wrote:
Libya is on the verge of becoming a failed state – what fertile ground for Islamic radicalism and an al Queda terrorist base. Who in the West has the troops, the money and the will to take over nation-building in Libya once Muammar Cadaver falls? No matter, because the Libyan people won’t permit such foreign interference anyway. Libya is rushing headlong down a path similar to another failed state – Afghanistan. Libya is demonstrating the awful truth that, as horrendously bad and evil as autocratic rulers like Muammar Cadaver are, it can get a hell of a lot worse. The huge wave sweeping the Middle East is going to wash over and obliterate Western strategic interests in the entire region, and beyond. The West has been caught massively on its heels, and cannot hope to ride the crest of this wave. Instead, it’s being left to flounder in its wake.

Feb 21, 2011 2:48pm EST  --  Report as abuse
gordo365 wrote:
Nuker – I am curious what you think SS “caught massively on its heels” should have done/be doing differently?

Feb 21, 2011 4:06pm EST  --  Report as abuse
NukerDoggie wrote:
Tough question to answer AFTER you’ve fallen in a 20ft hole. But the U.S. should have seen this coming when the Soviet Union fell in 1989-1991. That demonstrated the fact that peoples will allow oppression only for just so long. So the West should have begun back then to privately put increasing pressure on the oil-rich autocratic regimes to democratize. If no progress was evident after several years of effort, then it should have quietly but steadily positioned itself to be able to ride the crest of this wave whenever it inevitably would occur, and thus be looked to by the region’s peoples as the true champion of their freedoms and rights, rather than an interfering power that propped up autocrats perpetually. But, having utterly failed to look ahead and plan for this, the U.S. is really without options at present. All it can do is play a limited role in trying to limit the bloodshed and hope that the region’s peoples won’t completely cast it and its strategic interests aside. Both Republican and Democratic administrations utterly failed us here – none looked ahead and planned ahead sufficiently. This is scandalous considering the fact that the West is still utterly dependent upon oil, and will be for at least two more decades. This is what happens in the medium-to-long term when your words and your actions don’t even come close to matching up. The U.S. has proclaimed “Democracy!” and “Freedom!” and “Human Rights!” while at the same time perpetually propping up insane, bloodthirsty dictators. The chickens have come home to roost.

Feb 21, 2011 5:17pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.