The brutal end of Muammar Gaddafi’s life marks a political new beginning for Libya. The circumstances of his demise speak volumes about the road ahead.
Gaddafi was summarily executed after being captured by rebel fighters (the term “rebel” rather than revolutionary is correct in that it properly places the armed opposition in a civil rather than revolutionary warÂ whose outcome was largely determined byÂ external interference).Â His non-military convoy was attempting to flee the rebel’s final advance on Surt, his hometown, when it was struck by a NATO airstrike (in violation of the rules of engagement NATO publicly announced when it declared a no-fly zone that included attacks on land-based military targets that posed an imminent threat to civilians). Concussed and wounded by shrapnel, Gaddafi and a few loyalists took shelter in a culvert. They were discovered and some were killed then, while Gaddafi was dragged out and manhandled by a growing mob. Disarmed, confused, pleading for mercy and bleeding, at some point soon thereafter he was head shot at point blank range (images of his wounds show powder bruns at the entry point). He was not caught in cross-fire, as there was none.
Killing a captive after surrender or capture is a war crime, including in civil wars. The rage and thirst for revenge of Gaddafi’s killers is understandable, but it shows a lack of discipline and foresight. Gaddafi and his inner circle could have provided valuable intelligence on a broad range of subjects, be it the terms of the exchange that led to the release of the Lockerbie bomber, the grey arms networks in which Libya operated, or the extent of Gaddafi’s funding of influential Western agencies such as the London School of Economics or Harvard’s private political and strategic consulting firm. Similarly, although the outcome would have been pre-determined, his trial would have provided the Libyan people with aÂ facimilie of representative justice in which his crimes could be publicly aired, andÂ which could serve as a foundation for a new justice system once the new regime was installed. Even Saddam Hussein was allowed that much.
The barbarism of putting Gaddafi’s decomposing corpse on display in Misurata for public viewing speaks to the levels of distrust and base nature of the sectarian divisions within Libya. These will not go away simply because Gaddafi and his clan have been removed from power. The tactical alliance against his regime will not hold now that it is gone, and given that all of the main factions are armed, this raises serious questions about the political future of the country. The cross-cutting divisions are multiple and overlapped: Eastern versus Western, Islamicist versus non-Islamicist, Berber versus Arab, Benghazian versus Tripolian, urban versus rural, coastal versus land-locked, elite versus commoner, old royalist versus new upper class. Although the role of foreign military advisors and logistical support was crucial to victory, many rebel military commanders have carved out power centres of their own, and not all of the rebel political and military leadership are democratic in inclination.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) headquartered in Tripoli has announced the formation of an interim government within a month and presidential elections in 18 months. Both goals are very ambitious and the latter is inherently flawed. Imposing a presidential system in a multi-tribal society with no history of democracy and a long history of conflict Â is a recipie for authoritarianism, as political contenders will vie for and hold presidential power in pursuit of sectarian rather than national objectives. A parliamentary system with multiparty proportional representation would be a better fit given the realities on the ground, as it would force power contenders to negotiate and compromise in pursuit of coalition objectives, which in turn would put constraints on executive authority.
To put the issue in comparison, the Libyan polity is more fragmented than that of Iraq and does not have an occupying force that imposes transitionalÂ order and around which national opposition can coalesce. Iraq has a parliamentary system that recognises sectarian control of parts of the country as well as grant participation to key clans, and yet has yet to be free of violence or have fully cemented the institutional base of the post-Baathist regime. This portends darkly for the immediate prospects of a post-Gaddafi Libya.
The issue of disarmament and creation of a national military, to say nothing of disposition of Gaddafi’s purported chemical weapons stores and other sophisticated armaments, is bound up in the negotiations over the interim government and rules of the game for the political transition. Given that NATO allies are not the only foreign actors involved in Libya, and given that some of these actors are non-state or state-sponsiredÂ in nature and have conflicting agendas with NATO, this means that the post-Gaddafi situation may descend back into conflict sooner rather than later. To this can be added the purge and reconstitution of the Libyan state as a functioning sovereign entity, a process that will also be driven by mindsets as much focused on the division of spoils as it is by notions of the common good. That overlaps with the issue of oil resource control and distribution, as well as the status of contracts signed during the Gaddafi regime, both of which involve tribal politics as well as the interests on non-NATO foreign actors such as China.
All of which is to say that the circumstances of Gaddafi’s death tells us much about what the future holds in store for Libya, at least over the near term: chaos, violence and imposition rather than consensus, forgiveness, reconciliationÂ and compromise.