The Day After: Libya

The Sons Also Rise.

The disarray in post-Saddam Iraq offers a sharp reminder that ridding a country of a despotic regime is a lot easier than figuring out who or what comes after. In that spirit, FOREIGN POLICY speculates on the Day After in several oppressed nations. From Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, what groups are likely to come out on top when the Big Man goes down? Which are most likely to embrace democracy and pursue economic reform? What role will each nation’s diaspora have in rebuilding and reengineering its society? Sadly, almost all of our contributors note that any sudden regime change will first yield only chaos and greater hardship. But by identifying the forces most likely to shape these countries’ futures, our authors also open the possibility of transcending the tragedies of the past.

Grappling with a dysfunctional economy and fearful that his country might be on U.S. President George W. Bush’s short list of countries in need of regime change, Libyan strongman Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, has reinvented himself of late as a reformer. In an address to a June 2003 session of Libya’s General People’s Congress, Qaddafi acknowledged the failed policies of the past three decades, effectively repudiated the socialism that has been at the core of his governing philosophy (known as the Third Universal Theory), and called for the privatization of the state sector, including the oil industry.

Even more striking, he told delegates he might soon relinquish power and depart Libya, a possibility he has evidently also raised in meetings with close advisors. Indeed, Qaddafi has spoken several times of his desire to relocate to South Africa, to be near his friend Nelson Mandela. All of which raises an intriguing question: Has Libya’s Day After begun?

Libya is already in the throes of a transition from outright autocracy to an oligarchic, if no less repressive, system. This change was initiated in response to the economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation imposed on Libya for its role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Fearing the seizure of Libyan assets abroad, Qaddafi transferred control of companies with international operations from the state to various business cronies. Far from improving the economy, however, the move to quasi-private ownership has merely made a handful of well-connected Libyans obscenely wealthy while fostering unprecedented levels of graft.

But while Qaddafi has thoroughly mismanaged the country, he has done an effective job of stifling his critics. Even though many Libyans now view the regime as bankrupt and illegitimate, the pro-democracy opposition is too weak to affect or shape the processes of change now unfolding. Other potential sources of unrest and catalysts for change — the military, rival tribes, Islamic fundamentalists — have been similarly neutralized.

Thus, Qaddafi is in a position to choreograph his departure. The 61-year-old dictator has long had dynastic ambitions, and the likeliest scenario is for two of his sons, Al-Mu’tassim and Seif el-Islam, to be given shared power. Many observers think such an arrangement would be the best way of assuring an orderly transition and avoiding civil strife. Qaddafi appears to be preparing for just such a handover. There is rampant speculation, for instance, that the dreaded Abdullah Al-Sanousi, Qaddafi’s brother-in-law and head of Libyan external intelligence, will soon be marginalized or purged, along with members of his entourage, in order to eliminate a possible rival to Qaddafi’s sons.

The brothers have complementary strengths. Al-Mu’tassim is a professional military officer; he is the leader of Force 70, the most modern, disciplined, and best-equipped unit in the Libyan army. His accession would please the military and greatly diminish the chance of a coup in the post-Muammar era. It is also believed that the Qaddafi tribe views Al-Mu’tassim as the best guarantor of its interests and safety once his father is out of power. Al-Mu’tassim would thus secure the support of three linchpins of the regime: the army, the state security organs, and the ruling tribe.

Seif el-Islam is a philanthropist and artist who is perceived as pro-Western. He has studied in Europe and still spends considerable time there. He is also seen as willing to engage critics of the regime, if only to help save it. He has held discussions with exiled Libyan activists, seeking their input and promising them some degree of meaningful political change. Seif is also credited with convincing his father to appoint the Western-educated Shukri Ghanem as prime minister.

Libya is likely to head in one of two directions if the sons take over. The first possibility is that the oligarchs, who are known to covet political influence commensurate with their economic power, effectively take control, with the sons serving as figureheads. The oligarchs would probably move to end Libya’s isolation and introduce domestic improvements, such as better health care and education. More likely, though, they would continue to plunder the country’s wealth.

There is also a more encouraging possibility. Many government technocrats have the desire and ability to implement true economic reform. They have played an important role in running the oil and banking sectors and can help turn the economy around. Their goals will intersect with those of Libyan intellectuals, many of whom are quietly committed to bringing about secular liberal democracy. If Seif el-Islam is truly a reformer and the political system begins to open up, a “Tripoli spring” could materialize.

However the transition plays out, the first priority of the post-Muammar era will be economic recovery. The oil sector, which should be a source of immense wealth, is stagnant and underdeveloped. Unemployment hovers at around 30 percent, while even state employees go months without paychecks. Schools and hospitals are crumbling, some cities overflow with sewage, and crime is surging.

Another priority must be to free Libya from Egypt’s clammy grip. The Mubarak government has exerted pernicious influence in Libya by fostering corruption and providing support to the Qaddafi regime. The Egyptians are interested in maintaining the status quo in Libya and will attempt to hinder any changes that threaten their interests there. The United States can, and must, use its influence to stop Cairo from meddling in Libyan affairs.

In general, sustained American interest and pressure is the best way of ensuring a more agreeable future for Libya. The Lockerbie sanctions have greatly weakened Qaddafi, and he appears to have come to the realization that his regime’s survival depends on rapprochement with Washington, not least because Libya is desperate for foreign investment.

The U.S. government must first demand that Qaddafi step aside. U.S. political and economic muscle can probably force him out. Once Qaddafi is gone, Washington should insist on sweeping changes — the establishment of the rule of law, freedom of expression, and other such safeguards and liberties — as a precondition to reestablishing normal ties. If Libyan reformers are to have any chance at succeeding, the United States must demonstrate that it is squarely behind them.

Colonel Muammar El-Qaddafi, 61
Years in Power:
Experience with Democracy:
5.5 million
GDP per capita:*
Asylum Applications: **
Political Prisoners:
Population Under Poverty Line :

Military Expenditures:
3.9 percent of GDP
*GDP per capita estimates in purchasing power parity
**Asylum applications submitted in 37 countries, 1980-2001

Sources: Amnesty International; Central Intelligence Agency; Migration Policy Institute; United Nations Development Programme; World Bank; The CIA World Factbook; U.N. Human Development Indicators 2003; World Development Indicators 2003  

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