Wolfram Lacher

Post-Qadhafi Politics

The momentous changes in the political scene raise questions concerning the nature of politics during the transitional period. Which actors are likely to dominate the transition, and along which lines will political mobilization occur?

The road-map laid out by the NTC for the transitional period requires a transitional government to be formed within one month of “liberation,” which was declared on October 23, 2011, shortly after Sirte and Bani Walid had fallen and Qadhafi had been killed.

Eight months after the liberation, elections for a national general assembly are to take place; the assembly then dissolves the NTC and appoints a new government as well as a constituent committee. Once the assembly has accepted a draft presented by the committee, a constitutional referendum is to be held within two months.

Within another seven months from the referendum, elections are to be held in accordance with the new constitution. In the best case, the transition to a fully legitimate and constitutional government will take at least 19 months, though it may well take longer.

The task to be accomplished during this period amounts to nothing less than the establishment of a new state. Qadhafi’s Libya had no constitution, and there are virtually no state institutions that could provide continuity. The transitional period will require fundamental questions about the nature of the state to be negotiated, without any possibility of returning to the previous system.

This is one reason the developments since February 2011 can already be described as a revolution. The transitional period is likely to be defined by a profound transformation of the political arena, and not only because of the transitional road-map, with its several phases in which new legislative bodies are elected and new governments appointed.

Power struggles are emerging between the representatives of prominent families, tribes and cities dominating the political scene after the fall of Tripoli. Among the most notorious manifestations of these rivalries have been the attacks by Abdelrahman Suweihli and the Sallabi family on leading NTC figures, including former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, as well as those by military leaders from Misrata and the Western Mountains on Abdelhakim Belhadj.

Given the patterns of mobilization on the basis of family, tribal or local interests during the conflict, it is likely that such power struggles will be a defining feature of the transitional period. Among other things, leading families, tribes and cities in northwestern and central Libya will seek to rectify the disproportionate influence held by representatives of the northeast in the NTC and its executive committee (cabinet).

This does not mean that regional rivalries are likely to define post-Qadhai politics, despite the fact that the weak development of central administration and national identity led to the adoption of a federal constitution under the monarchy. The patterns of mobilization during the civil war suggest that rivalries are emerging at the sub-regional — i.e. local and tribal — as well as national levels, rather than between the regions of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan.

The constituencies of the former regime — in particular the Warfalla, Magarha and Qadhadfa — will also need to be brought into the political process if their permanent alienation, with serious consequences for political stability, is to be avoided.

This has been rendered all the more difficult by the major displacement and civilian casualties caused by the assaults on Sirte, Bani Walid and several other towns, where summary executions and other transgressions by revolutionary forces occurred, potentially laying the groundwork for long-term local resistance against the new government.

But it is unlikely that politics during the transitional period will only be defined by parochial interests. The political arena is likely to see the emergence of broader political camps and coalitions of interests. Some of the rivalries outlined above can also be interpreted in other terms, such as power struggles between secularists and Islamists, or between former regime officials and members of the (previously imprisoned or exiled) opposition.

With respect to political parties, civil-society organizations and social movements, the political field remains almost virgin territory. Although several youth activist groups as well as some small parties have already been founded, the need to close ranks acts as a major impediment to the formation of rival political camps as long as the threat from Qadhafi’s rump security apparatus persists.

Even the Islamist currents, though comparatively well-established, have historically been much weaker than in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, and at the beginning of the transitional period have yet to coalesce into clearly defined formal organizations.

The Muslim Brotherhood has sympathizers and members within the NTC and its offshoots, but as an organization it showed little activity until mid-November 2011, when it announced that it would found a political party. Ali Sallabi, who is among the most prolific and inluential Islamist figures, is considered close to the Brotherhood but does not officially represent it, nor does he at the time of writing lead any other formal political organization — though he has announced that he aims to form a political party.

Former members of the LIFG, including Belhadj, say they have founded a new organization called the Islamic Movement for Change, but this organization is not visible yet. The emergence of parties and movements is set to transform the political scene.

While it is possible that some of them may promote the interests of certain families or tribes, broader coalitions could emerge through contests over a range of key questions. These include the choice between various strands of conservative and Islamist political thought on the role of Islam in the new state; secularism enjoys little support outside an elite group of former exiles.

Also contentious are the roles longstanding exiles and former regime officials should be allowed to play in the transition and in the future; how far-reaching the prosecution of corruption and crimes by the security forces of the former regime should be; as well as whether there should be a centralized, decentralized or federal system.

Public debate and activism centered on these issues increased significantly after the fall of Tripoli. In part, confrontations over such questions — as well as the rivalries among parochial interest groups — are likely to conceal power struggles over the control and distribution of the key prize at stake: oil revenues. The entire economy, in the form of budgets, salaries, investment projects and subsidies, depends on them.


Since the fall of Tripoli, rifts within the coalition that led the revolution are becoming increasingly evident. Also obvious is the need for the elitist political leadership to accommodate more broad-based political forces, whether they were at the forefront of the revolution, like the revolutionary brigades, stayed on the sidelines, or supported the regime, as parts of some tribal constituencies did.

The emergence of new political forces is set to profoundly transform the political scene. Some of the leading figures who served as the interlocutors of foreign diplomats are likely to disappear; previously unknown actors are likely to emerge. These power struggles will inevitably be protracted and cause instability, but for the outcome to have domestic legitimacy, external attempts to influence it should be avoided. The NTC’s foreign allies have already begun backing different players within the fractious revolutionary coalition.

(a) Abdelhakim Belhadj is said to have emerged as a key military player with Qatar’s support;

(b) Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has repeatedly suggested that a former close companion of Qadhai, Abdesselam Jalloud, should be part of the political leadership during the transition;

(c) France and the UK would like to see a continued leading role for the liberal figures with whom they have forged close relations and who promised their supporters preferential access to the Libyan market, like Jibril and Abdeljelil.

But support for individual players or groups within the revolutionary forces risks exacerbating tensions and will be used against foreign powers’ allies. Belhadj has been attacked as drawing his influence from Qatar, rather than support inside Libya; Jibril and former exiles such as Ali Tarhouni have been portrayed as being too closely associated with Western interests and their supposed secularist agendas.4

Suspicion of external, particularly Western, interests is widespread despite the fact that a majority likely welcomed the NATO intervention. In this context, international involvement in the transitional process can easily become a dividing factor. This also applies to the security sector, which has been selected by the UN and others as a priority for external support to stabilization.

In a situation in which command structures among the various militias are the subject of intense rivalries and the future role of former regime officials is a highly political question, external support for security-sector reform risks backing one faction against another —– or at least being seen as doing so.

The damage created by negative reactions to external attempts to influence the political settlement would almost certainly outweigh the perceived benefits, since external influence will be limited by the fact that Libya is, or will soon be, financially independent.

Even a small part of the frozen Libyan assets abroad will allow the NTC to run the state and begin reconstruction efforts until an elected government emerges and oil production has sufficiently recovered to sustain government expenditure.

In the meantime, the NTC’s quick access to ample financial resources could provide a powerful instrument for re-establishing the authority of the central government. The reemergence of a despotic leadership, however, is unlikely anytime soon. The localized and fragmented nature of political and military players, as they emerged during the revolution, suggests that the transition will be led by a loose and fragile coalition of interests, rather than any single political force or institution.

Too many local counter weights to central authority, in the form of local councils and revolutionary brigades, developed during the conflict. Families, tribes and cities will play leading roles in shaping the transition.


Wolfram Lacher is an associate fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP), Berlin.


Source: Middle east Policy, Vol. XViii, No. 4, WiNter 2011

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