Libya after Gadhafi

With revolution spreading throughout Libya, chances are increasing that Moammar Gadhafi will release the brutal stranglehold he's had on the country for over 40 years, but what will a Libya without the eccentric dictator's arbitrary rule look like?

Experts speculate on what direction North African country will take if dictator falls

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi sits behind a pane of bulletproof glass observing a military parade in Tripoli on Sept. 1, 2009, the 40th anniversary of his rise to power. ((Ben Curtis/Associated Press))

With revolution spreading throughout Libya, chances are increasing that Moammar Gadhafi will release the brutal stranglehold he's had on the country for over 40 years.

"He will fall; it's not if; it's when," said Jens Hanssen, an assistant professor of Middle East history at the University of Toronto. "I give him days rather than weeks."

Hanssen is quick to point out, however, that the complexities of Libya's political system will make the establishment of a new government after Gadhafi less than straightforward.

"Constitutionally, … [Libya is] a bit of an oddball," he said. "Gadhafi is not a president, and there isn't even a constitution. The idea is that the masses administer themselves, and he's merely a leader, using his Green Book as a policy guide. This system, therefore, allows for arbitrary rule, in the name of the masses. In that sense, it's unique."

Louis Delvoie, who served as Canada's ambassador to Algeria in the early 1980s and is now a senior fellow at the Centre for International Relations at Queen's University, puts it more bluntly.

"Gadhafi is certifiably a mental case in terms of his narcissism and his megalomania," he said. "There is no sign on the horizon for any sort of unified leadership. You could have a very messy situation in Libya."

Tribal warfare bogeyman

According to Delvoie, centuries-old tribal divisions could again come to the fore if Gadhafi is deposed. In 1969, when Gadhafi seized control from King Idris I in a bloodless coup, he represented tribes from the western part of Libya, once known as Tripolitania. Animosities between that region and the east, where uprisings have taken place in the past week in the eastern city of Benghazi, could eventually lead to civil war, said Delvoie.

Protesters hold signs and shout slogans condemning Moammar Gadhafi during a demonstration in Tobruk, Libya, on Feb. 23. Gadhafi has warned that the uprising will descend into tribal warfare if he doesn't quash it. ((Hussein Malla/Associated Press) )

"It will depend on how much the movement in Benghazi gets portrayed as an anti-Tripolitania movement," he said. "Gadhafi has been a very adept manipulator of the political process within his country.

"He has been remarkably shrewd in a divide-and-conquer way with the various tribal groupings. That's how he's stayed in power for such a long time."

Gadhafi and his second son, Seif al-Islam, have used the threat of the country's descent into tribal warfare to justify their suppression of anti-government protests but Hanssen argues that civil war is not necessarily the only possible outcome of the Libyan uprising.

"We have to understand it's the Gadhafis putting out these stories of possible tribal clashes," said Hanssen.

"Their line is, 'We are the state and have created the state out of medieval tribes who, without us, would be at loggerheads. We have prevented the spread of Islamic emirates.'

"If we use the same language, we know where it comes from. This is what kept him tolerable for the West. We should look beyond that."

Sins of the father

When Seif al-Islam, 38, appeared on Libyan television on Feb. 21 espousing the same rhetoric as the elder Gadhafi, it shocked many in the West who had once thought of him as a reformer.

Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the second son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, before a press conference in Tripoli on Feb. 22. ((Hamza Turkia/Associated Press/Xinhua) )

"A lot of hope had, at one point, been put on Seif al-Islam," said Delvoie. "But he came on the air, pretty incoherent, and in the end, vowed undying loyalty to his father. So, there was not much offer of anything in particular to the Libyan people."

Even if Seif al-Islam does hold reformist intentions and was simply acting the part of the loyal son, he ruined his chances with the Libyan people by standing so fiercely by his dictator father, said Hanssen

"He is not an option to Libyans right now," he said. "Whether he was torn in some sort of Shakespearean tragedy between loyalty to the father and his will to reform is a moot point.

"He's shown that, out of the Gadhafis, this is all that you can expect."

Over the past 15 years, Gadhafi has installed his seven sons into various positions of power in the country. Three in particular have been given top positions within the regime: Mutassim is in charge of Libyan national security; Khamis oversees an elite fighting battalion; and Seif al-Islam is responsible for communications with the West. With all the Gadhafis so tightly entwined, the only option for Libya is change, Hanssen said.

"It will be a totally new Libya, which worries those who may want to buy cheap oil, but it's an incredibly exhilarating prospect," he said.

African Union will survive without Gadhafi

One constant during Gadhafi's rule has been the country's vast oil supply, the largest in Africa.

"The most important thing to note is that Libya is a rentier state that relies on its oil," said Hanssen. "It's a monoculture; oil is the one export and the one economic source of wealth. In the last 40 years, Col. Gadhafi has made sure that he and his family determine where the revenue goes."

Gadhafi has used oil money in numerous attempts to acquire more power throughout the region, Delvoie said, the most recent being his involvement in the transformation of the Organization of African Unity into the African Union in 2002.

Moammar Gadhafi motions to a map of Africa during a meeting of regional leaders in Ethiopia on Jan. 29, 2008. Gadhafi was instrumental in the creation of the African Union. ((Abdel Magid Al Fergany/Associated Press) )

"Gadhafi tried for a long time to become a leader of the Arab world, particularly of the so-called revolutionary countries, like Algeria, Iraq, Syria, and even Egypt," said Delvoie. "None of them took him very seriously, and [he] was never able to establish himself as that leader."

Gadhafi then used his wealth to reach out to various revolutionary and paramilitary outfits throughout the world, from the German Red Army to the Irish Republican Army, in hopes of unifying their causes and becoming a "grand champion of revolution."

"He then turned his attention to Africa and was instrumental in [the establishment of] the African Union," said Delvoie. "His notion was that he was going to create a union of all African countries, comparable to the European Union, with guess who as the head?"

But the African Union, says Hanssen, will continue even without Gadhafi at its helm and perhaps even without Libya.

"Libya won't have this need to spread the revolution," he said. "It will re-embed itself in its Arab context, along with Egypt and Tunisia; that will be the extent of their foreign policy.

"Perhaps some countries will feel the pinch in Africa, but [these regimes] might roll, too. His economic help was mostly nominal, part of the charade of Gadhafi thinking he's a global leader."

'A hopeful moment'

Regardless of what happens to Gadhafi, both Hanssen and Delvoie agree that it is too early to tell what will happen in Libya. The emergence of another autocratic leader will only lead Libyans down the same path they've been on for more than 40 years, Hanssen said.

"We should look to grassroots mobilization, council meetings, regional elections, that sort of thing," he said. "If you have a strong parliament with a president, you don't need to look for that single-man show."

Delvoie, however, does not share Hanssen's optimism.

"There is absolutely no tradition of democratic election in Libya," he said. "There is no recognized opposition party. Gadhafi ran this place as a so-called assembly of people without any clear-cut political structures.

"If you decided tomorrow to hold an election in Libya, it would be chaotic because all of the old tribal disputes [would] come back to the fore."

"Uncertainty exists about the type of system they may have and how political parties may stretch across tribal interests, but we have that in the West as well," said Hanssen, countering that, in Canada, political parties need to stretch their policies to be relevant in many different regions.

"[We should] see this as a hopeful moment. These guys want a basic human need to have dignity, to have equitable wages and income and to have political representation."