Libya: Explosive Tinderbox of the Middle East

by Sarah Charlton

The recent bloodshed in Libya, coupled with a “business as usual” speech from Libya’s so-called lead reformer, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, should be drawing more international attention to potentially explosive fate of Muammar Gaddafi’s literally crazy Jamahiriya regime.

Since voluntarily giving up its WMD program in 2003, around the time of the invasion of Iraq, Libya earned its way off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and “rejoined” the international community – then promptly fell off the global radar. Perhaps it’s because Muammar seemed lovably and harmlessly eccentric in his wild U.N. speech, perhaps because the supposedly Islamic country is run as one of the most secular in the Maghreb, or perhaps because it provides British and Italian companies with profitable access to nearby crude oil…

Whatever the reason, Libya didn’t seem to attract much attention for its highly repressive authoritarian ways. In Meghan’s posted Parade Magazine 2009 list of the world’s ten worst dictators, Gaddafi took spot #10 – behind Hu Jintao. Now that’s a successful PR campaign. (Doubts about the “campaign”? and

Now that Libya is beginning to fall apart, there are a few additional problems with this situation that make it particularly troublesome:

1. The government is used to silencing dissidents through particularly brutal use of force. From the Abu Salim prison massacre (, to the two-decades-long assassination program whereby dissidents everywhere from the U.S. to France were attacked and silenced, the Libyan regime has shown itself willing to use force to a shocking extent to maintain its absolute grip on power. The recent supposed hiring of African mercenaries to gun down protesters is, in all honestly, not a particularly shocking choice in light of historical tactics. This horrifying behavior is likely to continue until the absolute end of the regime – should the regime even fall.

2. Libya lacks an alternative power structure to replace the Gaddafi government, if it does fall. While signs point to a crumbling regime, with its own Justice Minister and U.N. representatives turning on it in recent days, there is little to nothing in the way of infrastructure to replace it. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has only a nominal presence in the country; there are no extensive underground parties that can take action or claim any legitimacy in forming a shadow government.

3. Libya lacks a clearly separate military structure, which could step in to set up a military dictatorship of sorts after the fall of the “civilian” government of (Colonel) Muammar Gaddafi. Egypt’s military transition solution is not likely to work here: whatever part of the military is not clearly controlled by Muammar and his cabal of elites is likely to be splintered among competing interests.

4. Libya also lacks educated elites that could offer an alternative civilian leadership. In part due to the international sanctions and visa restrictions that lasted nearly two decades, few Libyans have the advanced education required to run government ministries and the government itself. This is true of all but the very few top elites, most of whom – much like Saif himself, who was educated at LSE – are tainted through particularly close ties to the Gaddafi regime. Domestic education provides regular citizens with few skills with which to run the government with any effectiveness.

5. Libya has no shortage of guns and ammunition. While the protests are limited to Benghazi and Tripoli on the coast today, the guns and heavy ammunition are held by the desert tribes. There are an estimated 900,000 unregistered civilian arms for a population of just under 6 million (

The sum total of this is that, despite a relative lack of information on the domestic situation, Libya represents one of the most dangerous tinderboxes in the Middle East. The fall of its government, while highly desirable in many ways, will leave the Libyans without a legitimate alternative power – from the military to civilian political parties – and with few educated elites who can rapidly pull together a government from the ruins of the Gaddafi regime. The downfall of Gaddafi is likely to result in short-term chaos and, as Saif Gaddafi himself cautioned yesterday, potentially a brutal civil war.

The author worked on behalf of Saif Gaddafi while living in Tripoli, Libya, in 2007.

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