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Will Gaddafi Survive?

Demonstrators hold up a banner featuring Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi reading 'Kadhafi is a murderer' as they stage a protest outside the Libyan embassy in Istanbul on February 21, 2011
Mustafa Ozer | AFP | Getty Images
Demonstrators hold up a banner featuring Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi reading 'Kadhafi is a murderer' as they stage a protest outside the Libyan embassy in Istanbul on February 21, 2011

In light of all that has happened in Libya over the last week, it seems fair to wonder how Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi has thus far avoided suffering the same fate as Hosni Mubarak, who was forced from power in neighboring Egypt earlier this month.

In Egypt, the military's apparent lack of willingness to fire en masse upon protestors, in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, has often been cited in the media as one of the causes of the revolution's success.

In Libya, forces loyal to Gaddafi have apparently exhibited no such compunction, as numerous reports of civilian massacres at the hands of the Libyan military would seem to make clear.

Some of those accounts, which are difficult to independently verify because of a scarcity of Western media in country, include nightmarish tales of government forces opening fire on unarmed civilian using machine guns and artillery.

Reports of defecting pilots refusing orders to bomb protesters—then defecting or even crashing their jets—seem to be reasonably well substantiated in the western media

Which returns us to our original point: Why have efforts to drive Gaddafi from power in Libya not succeeded as they did in Egypt—and what are the forces at play that have shaped the respective military responses in each country?

The answer to that question may lay in the very structure of Libyan society itself, as suggested in an article by Frank Gardner of the BBC.

First, Gardner suggests that a relative lack of importance of a centralized military in Libya has contributed to the limited power that that institution seems to have been able to project in the Libyan revolution.

He writes: "The actual Libyan Army is almost symbolic, a weakened and emaciated force of little more than 40,000, poorly armed and poorly trained. It is part of Col Muammar Gaddafi's long-term strategy to eliminate the risk of a military coup, which is how he himself came to power in 1969."

(I wondered alouda few weeks ago about the Egyptian army's ability to hold together despite the powerful centrifugal forces of revolution. Ultimately, the military in Egypt managed to continue functioning through the course of the revolution as a single unit—which does not seem to be the case in Libya.)

In the absence of a strong centralized military in Libya, what other forces and institutions are shaping the outcome of the revolution there?

Gardner suggests that the first place to look may be a powerful "Internal Security" apparatus, which seems to carry more actual power than the military itself:

"Like many countries in the region, Libya has an extensive, well-resourced and brutal internal security apparatus Think East Germany's Stasi or Romania's Securitate pre-1989, where no-one dared criticise the regime in public in case they were reported to the feared secret police, and you can see the similarities. Think East Germany's Stasi or Romania's Securitate pre-1989, where no-one dared criticise the regime in public in case they were reported to the feared secret police, and you can see the similarities."

Of the power and entrenchment of the security apparatus's internal leadership, Garnder observes:

"Some of Col Gaddafi's own sons have worked in internal security but today, the key figure in Libya's security apparatus, both internal and external, is Gaddafi's brother-in-law, Abdullah Senussi. A hardliner with a thuggish reputation, he is strongly suspected of being the driving force behind the violent suppression of protests, notably in Benghazi and the east of the country."

In a similar vein are the numerous paramilitary organization functioning within the country.

These "special brigades," according to Gardner, are "answerable not to the army but to Gaddafi's Revolutionary Committees," and may be lead by one of Gaddafi's "maverick" sons, Hannibal Gaddafi.

Gardner writes: "If the paramilitaries changed sides and joined the protesters en masse this would seriously undermine Col Gaddafi's ability to survive."

Next, Gardner addresses the population of mercenaries who have allegedly flooded the country, on the payroll of Gaddafi.

Gardner writes: " This [the mercenaries] has been one of the darker and particularly disturbing facets of the Libyan uprising. There are persistent reports that Col Gaddafi's regime has been making extensive use of hired African mercenaries, mostly from the Sahel countries of Chad and Niger, to carry out atrocities against unarmed civilian protesters. Libyan witnesses say they have been firing from rooftops into crowds of demonstrators, in essence carrying out the orders that many Libyan soldiers have refused to obey. Col Gaddafi has long fostered close relations with African countries, having turned his back on the Arab world some time ago, and there are an estimated 500,000 African expatriates in Libya out of a total population of six million."

The British newspaper The Guardian has also written about the mercenaries alleged to be unleashed on Libya—and is also similarly vague on their provenance. ("Their origins vary according to speculation: Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Mali, Sudan and possibly even Asia and eastern Europe.")

But the Guardian speculates that the use of mercenaries may ultimately backfire on Gaddafi's regime, according to semi-official—or formerly official, depending upon your perspective—Libyan sources:

"The claims are hard to pin down but persistent. Ali al-Essawi, the Libyan ambassador to India, who resigned in the wake of the crackdown, told Reuters on Tuesday: 'They are from Africa, and speak French and other languages.' He said their presence had prompted some army troops to switch sides to the opposition. "They are Libyans and they cannot see foreigners killing Libyans so they moved beside the people."

At the very least, the mercenary forces in Libya seem to be one of the wild cards drifting through a shuffling deck of complex alliances and tenuous allegiances.

Finally, Gardner concludes with the nature of The Tribes in Libya.

Tribal allegiances may have been the most fundamental unit of Libyan society well into the middle of the 20th Century, but Gardner casts doubts on whether that remains so today:

"Libya, like the other Arab revolutionary republics of Yemen and Iraq, is a country where your tribe can help define your loyalties, but in recent years the tribal distinctions have blurred and the country is less tribal now than it was in 1969. Col Gaddafi himself comes from the Qadhaththa tribe. During his 41 years in power he has appointed many of its members to key positions in his regime, including those for his personal safety. Just as Saddam Hussein did in Iraq and President Saleh has in Yemen, Col Gaddafi has been adept at playing off one tribe against another, ensuring that no one leader risks posing a threat to his regime."

In any case, it would seem that Gaddafi himself believes in the great importance of tribal affiliations, if accounts of his attempted manipulations of tribal loyalties are to be believed.

Such a complex nexus of causal hierarchies may only be fully comprehended in retrospect, if at all, but the multitude of factors in play may at least help us to understand something of the complexity of the predicament in Libya.

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