Daily Mail (Link) - John R. Bradley (August 23, 2011)
As Tripoli fell to anti-Gaddafi rebel forces, the euphoria that erupted in some parts of the city was matched only by that which broke out among Middle East pundits in the West.
The fall of the Libyan capital represents a clear victory for freedom over tyranny, they tell us, and a new country — defined by an enthusiastic embrace of democracy, pluralism and representative government — will emerge.
However, we have been here twice before in the Middle East in recent months. First, when Tunisia’s strongman, Zine El-Abidene Ben Ali, fled Tunis, and then when Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak vacated the presidential palace in Cairo.
Seven months on, both countries are as authoritarian as ever. The Islamists have hijacked the popular uprisings there. And little evidence of a popular thirst for democracy can be found.
In Tunisia, a paltry 16 per cent of eligible voters had bothered to register before an initial deadline for doing so passed last month.
Egypt’s first free and fair election in March — voting for a new constitution — drew just 41 per cent of the population to the polling booths.
If the Arab Spring has so miserably failed to blossom into an enthusiasm for democracy in these two relatively modern and unified Arab states, what chance is there of it doing so in a desert backwater such as Libya?
Other events in the Middle East also bode ill for Libya’s future. A decade after the American-led invasions, Afghanistan and Iraq — also deeply tribal countries — are, despite regular elections, just as far in social terms from Western notions of liberalism and pluralism.
Instead, their populations are busy tearing each other apart along tribal and sectarian lines, and the liberals are so marginalised they barely manage to get a word in.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban, once Enemy No 1, are looking more and more like an acceptable negotiating partner if the land is to be, if not pacified, then at least becalmed.
In Iraq, as in Libya, the U.S. was only able to fight its enemy by buying the support of local Sunni tribal leaders — never the most open-minded kind of men one is likely to find.
Now, more suddenly than any of us imagined, we are confronted with the same question that has caused us so many problems in those countries: what happens next?
Several months ago, as the West became ever more deeply embroiled in its Libyan misadventure, it became increasingly clear that it did not have the faintest idea who the ‘Eastern Rebels’ they were defending and arming actually were.
Yet the coalition forces have gone to dramatic lengths to assist this ragtag army in its attempt to unseat Gaddafi, with NATO flying 2,000 sorties, which (to put it charitably) pushed to the limit its UN mandate giving authorisation only to protect civilians.
Now, we will reap the fruits of those expensive labours as the National Transitional Council installs itself at the head of a nation with a large military armoury and a lot of oil.
Only in the weeks and months to come will we discover if the West has repeated the deadly mistake it made in Afghanistan and Iraq: arming fanatical jihadists and tribesmen who will, sooner or later, turn against their paymaster.
For not all the rebels are chaotic. One of their commanders, Abdel-Hakim Al-Hasidi, has been a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) since the Nineties.
This is a violent jihadist outfit that, for decades, had been waging a holy war against the Gaddafi regime with an aim of creating an Islamic state.
It was banned worldwide after the 9/11 attacks, when Al-Hasidi fled to Afghanistan.
Cars burn and shooting continues as rebel fighters in Tripoli continued to battle against pro-Gaddafi forces Now he admits he recruited dozens of Al Qaeda members to the insurgent cause in Iraq, where the LIFG made up the second largest group of foreign fighters; and, worse, that many of his jihadists have joined the rebellion in Libya.
Al-Hasidi said his fighters in Libya ‘are patriots and good Muslims’, but added that Al Qaeda men ‘are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader’ in Iraq.
Even as the rebels continue to pour into Tripoli, the numerous Islamist militias, who have been fighting independently, are still refusing officially to join their ranks.
Loyalties pledged by more than 2,000 notoriously fickle, ancient Libyan tribes ultimately determined the war’s duration and outcome.
Like paid mercenaries, Arab tribes switch allegiances on a whim. Ultimately, they have no loyalty to anyone other than to their fellow clansmen — and they pour scorn on the concept of a nation state.
Only a fool would bet on their long-term allegiances, or consider them a unifying national force. And only a buffoon would expect them to embrace Western democratic principles any more sincerely than the Islamists will.
At first, NATO’s strategy of recruiting the tribes seemed successful. But already the rebel leadership has descended into in-fighting.
Take the powerful Obeidi tribe, which was among the first to join the anti- Gaddafi alliance.
For them, maintaining honour is always paramount, and there could have been no greater provocation than the assassination, by unknown assailants, last month of their leader Abdel Fattah Younes.
Once a powerful interior minister under Gaddafi, Younes had defected to the rebels in February 2011 and became their star army commander.
He was shot dead with two aides, also from the Obeidi tribe, after being summoned to Benghazi by the Western-backed National Transitional Council (NTC).
Immediately, the suspicion was that the NTC had something to do with the assassination, but the Obeidis rejected an offer of an investigation into Younes’s death by the Council, instead deciding to take the law into their own hands.
‘We will leave it to the tribe to bring us justice,’ Younes’s son threatened, hours after his tribal followers went on a gun-firing rampage.
The entire NTC was then sacked by its acting leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, as a pacifying move, meaning the only way for the rebels to maintain any semblance of unity since then has been to have only a nominal, national political leadership.
Not that the rebels have ever managed to achieve anything other than superficial unity. Even before Younes’s assassination, rebels from Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, were refusing to join ranks with revolutionaries from Benghazi, because of different tribal affiliations. And they still refuse to take orders from the NTC.
Factions within Misrata have been at each other’s throats because of a historic feud between the Misratans and other locals known as Tawerghans. They still refuse to recognise the transitional council.
Rebels from the Zintan tribe, meanwhile, instead of fighting Gaddafi’s forces head-on, took up arms specifically against the pro-government Mashashiya tribe — taking advantage of the chaos to settle old scores.
This confusing mish-mash of alliances is a taste of the way Libya will be ruled in the future, if and when the rebel groups attain national power.
And from all this it will be clear why the only way Gaddafi was able to rule Libya for decades was by playing a much more skilful game of tribal repression and coercion, all the time trying to undermine tribal alliances through intermarriage, modernisation and urbanisation.
But the tragic irony of the Libyan civil war is that the tribes, and their byzantine web of links and rivalries, have once again became central to the fate of the country — as have the once-repressed radical jihadists.
Rebel leader Abdul Jalil says his opposition forces had chosen to start their first attack on Tripoli on the 20th day of Ramadan, which marks the ancient Islamic Battle of Badr, when Muslims fought for the holy city of Mecca in AD 624. That hardly inspires confidence in a secular, liberal future for Libya.
The fiercely independent Islamists, moreover, will not relent on their demands for an Islamist state. In the transitional council’s draft constitution it is clearly stated that Islamic law will be ‘the principal source of legislation’.
NATO, then, can at best achieve replacing the Gaddafi regime with an Islamist-infiltrated tribal council.
And that means Libya is as far as ever from being a Western-style democracy. Indeed, it is more likely to turn into the West’s worst nightmare. †