Mogadishu on the Mediterranean?

Muammar al-Qaddafi is dead. Now comes the hard part -- preventing Libya from turning into another Somalia.


While fireworks light up the skies of Tripoli and Libyans dance in the street, a note of caution is now in order. Simply removing a dictator is not an automatic cure-all for a society long terrorized. Yes, toppling a tyrant can pave the way toward viable democracy; and there are many examples — from Chile to the Philippines.

But there are also less inspiring ones. In 1991, the man who had ruled Somalia in brutal style for 22 years — Mohammed Siad Barre — fell from power. He died four years later in exile in Kenya, by then completely irrelevant to the fate of his country.

Somalis took little consolation in his departure. The collapse of Barre’s highly personalized tyranny gave way to a power vacuum that continues to this day. Long-suppressed rivalries of clan and tribe broke into the open and tore the place apart.

Mogadishu is a good distance from Tripoli, of course. But that hasn’t stopped some people from worrying about possible parallels. "One of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into chaos and becoming a giant Somalia," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee back in early March — a note struck by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in his own Capitol Hill testimony a few days later, when he worried aloud about a "Somalia-like situation" ensuing in place of Qaddafi’s rule.

It is understandable why the comparison presents itself. Libya has existed as a modern, unified state only since 1951. Tribal divisions persist. (The defection early in the rebellion of the one-million-strong Warfalla tribe, a mainstay of the old regime, was viewed as a near-fatal blow to Qaddafi; its members now play a prominent role in the opposition.) The rebellion against Qaddafi’s rule has been very much a localized and fragmented affair, breeding a new class of powerful militia commanders like Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the ex-Islamist leader who led the assault on Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound in August, or Fawzi Bukatif, who publicly refused to integrate his powerful February 17 Brigade  into a national army.

The members of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s government-in-waiting, have been saying for months that the war against Qaddafi had to be completely won before there the country could move on to the difficult task of building a new one, based on democratic norms.

"Now the clock starts ticking," says Stanford political science professor James Fearon. And this is where it gets tricky. Libya’s new leaders no longer have their hatred of Qaddafi to unify them; from here on out they’ll have to focus on building solid political institutions that can resolve the tensions within society.

Fearon, whose work has focused on revolutions and civil wars around the world, says that one key question is what happens with the men who control the guns: "How do you incorporate them into the new political structure?" Control of Libya’s vast oil wealth is also likely to prove a thorny issue, he notes.

Vincent Cornell, a Libya expert at Emory University, says that observers make too much of the tribal factor. Qaddafi’s 42-year rule, he says, rubbed most of the sharp edges off tribal divisions. "I’m actually more hopeful about Libya than Egypt," he says, noting that much of the political systems created by ex-President Hosni Mubarak appear to have survived his removal from power. In Libya, by contrast, the end of Qaddafi’s highly personalized style of rule means that the revolutionaries have the chance to "start from scratch." Many members of the NTC, he says, are "moderates" — quite a few of them Western-educated — who know that they have to transcend old schisms if they are to make a go of the new state.

That, of course, is easier said than done. Manal Omar, of the United States Institute of Peace, has spent considerable time on the ground with the rebels this year, and she says that she’s been encouraged by their ability to unite. Tribal divides are still potent, but she points out that the Libyan opposition has so far demonstrated a considerable willingness to overcome them. The best example came when rebel commander Abdul Fatah Younes was assassinated in July under mysterious circumstances. Leaders of his tribe managed to restrain their followers from violence after the NTC promised a "detailed criminal investigation" into the affair. (There has been talk that they made some sort of deal with the tribes, but the details remain obscure.) "Libyans are clearly demanding the rule of law," she says.

Yet Omar points out that the NTC never actually delivered on that promise of an investigation, an omission that has ominous implications. She worries that the NTC isn’t taking the tribal factor into sufficient account. The old divisions can re-assert themselves with a vengeance, she says, if people have the sense that the central authorities aren’t willing to look out for their interests. "If [the NTC members] continue to marginalize the tribes by not responding to them, they could force them into a political role."

That’s also why, Omar says, the NTC must deliver on its oft-repeated promise to cede its leading role to a more representative government. NTC Chairman Mahmoud Jibril has promised to step down following the liberation of the country, which is to be announced within the next few days.  "As long as they don’t see delays, people will be ready to cooperate," says Omar. She also urges Libya’s leaders to consult civil society groups — including women and young people — in every stage of the state-building process that’s to come. There are sure to be plenty of bumps along the way.

Nothing is predestined. No scenario is inevitable. There’s no question that Qaddafi’s demise opens up countless opportunities for Libyans to proceed along the path of determining their own future. But openness also brings risks. Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, once warned Europe that Libya would turn into a Somalia on the Mediterranean if European forces didn’t come to the regime’s aid. That hasn’t happened yet, but it still could.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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