Thursday, November 20, 2008

Libya: Eyeing a Transition of Power


Libya: Eyeing a Transition of Power

November 17, 2008 | 2106 GMT

The European Union opened negotiations Nov. 13 with Libya on their first-ever partnership agreement, just days after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi visited Russia. Both the Kremlin and the West are seeking to engage Tripoli at a time when the Gadhafi regime is beginning to face problems at home.

U.S. President George W. Bush on Nov. 17 called Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to voice satisfaction over a U.S.-Libyan deal to compensate victims of terrorism. Additionally, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to meet Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, later in the week. Meanwhile, the European Union launched talks Nov. 13 to establish closer political and economic relations with Libya, as part of a Western drive to boost relations with energy suppliers.

These Western moves come on the heels of similar initiatives by Russia to align closely with Tripoli. Libya, meanwhile, is trying to position itself between the two sides, with Gadhafi making a trip to Russia at the beginning of the month.

Five years after Libya shed its global pariah status and was welcomed back into the fold of the international community, the country is beginning to enjoy the attention and revenues that come from being an energy exporter. A resurgent Russia makes this a double treat for Tripoli, which used to be a key ally of the Soviet Union in North Africa during the Cold War, because Libya stands to increase its gains by playing Russia and the West off each other.

Years of isolation, however, have done considerable damage to the Libyan state. As Russia and the West vie to win Tripoli’s heart, internal instability threatens to derail the plans of all involved. The state founded by Gadhafi in 1969 is not about to wither away any time soon, but problems have begun to surface and are eroding the country’s image as a stable polity. Increased contact with the outside world will only further complicate the cracks in the system.

Gadhafi is 66 years old and, like other Middle Eastern autocrats who have ruled their countries for decades, will eventually hand over the mantle of leadership to a successor. Seif al-Islam is positioning himself to take over once his father is no more (or simply can rule no more). While the son has been advocating reform and change to ensure the continuity of the republic his father built, it is very difficult to undo 40 years of command-style political economy.

What has kept Libya going are its oil wealth and its small (and therefore easily controlled) population, which is now considered to be 6 million. But under the pressure of international isolation and the inefficiency of a peculiar brand of socialism, the various systems of the country — education, health, transportation and so on — are collapsing, and the country’s infrastructure is in desperate need of restoration. There is an implicit acknowledgement on the part of Gadhafi that the rules of his Green Book have failed.

In a Sept. 1 speech to Libya’s legislature, the Popular Congress, on the occasion of the 39th anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power, Gadhafi announced a plan to abolish all ministries with the exception of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Security and Justice. “You always accuse the popular committees (ministries) of corruption and poor management. These complaints will never end. So everyone should have their share (of oil revenues) in their pockets,” Gadhafi said. He warned, however, of “chaos” during the initial two years of the plan until society learns to take care of its own affairs rather than relying on corrupt administrations. Later, after a meeting with Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmudi, Gadhafi said that the state body that manages oil revenue funds on behalf of the citizenry will release the cash to the masses. Gadhafi described the move as “sensitive” and “complex” and said it would require careful planning.

Amid the brewing uncertainty, one thing that works in the Libyan regime’s favor is that there is no organized opposition group that poses any challenge to it. Most secular Libyan opposition groups are based in the West and have very limited influence inside the country. Libya also is the one country in the Maghreb where jihadists have not been able to operate — even though Libyans can be found among the rank and file of the Iraqi node of al Qaeda and even in the top leadership circles of al Qaeda prime. Seif al-Islam has recently established relations with the more mainstream Islamist movement The Muslim Brotherhood, however, and has also reached out to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant Islamist group suspected of having ties to al Qaeda.

Libya has had its share of struggles with secular and Islamist opposition movements, but favorable economic and demographic conditions coupled with a robust security and intelligence apparatus have allowed Tripoli to contain unrest. That no longer appears to be the case, however. In the past week, there have been rare incidents of unrest in the country’s southeastern al-Kufrah region along the border with Egypt, Sudan and Chad, where members of the Tabu ethnic group rioted and attacked police stations. Sources tell Stratfor that the Tabu might have support from Chad, whose government recently defeated an insurgency of its own that was backed by Libya.

Given that this strife is taking place in a remote part of the country where the writ of the state is not as strong as it is in the population centers along the Mediterranean coast, the agitation does not constitute a major threat to the stability of the regime. The situation remains contained in the immediate term, but anger against the regime is not limited to a single region or a single communal group. The pending transition in power and the changes being pursued by the government have the potential to trigger unrest in the more densely populated northern areas. Up to 25 percent of university graduates reportedly are unemployed — a potent ingredient for possible agitation against the regime.

The largest threat to Libya’s regime comes from within. There are tensions between the old guard and Seif al-Islam, with Gadhafi trying to maintain a balance. Seif al-Islam’s recent move to retire from political life was designed to enhance his popular standing and to pressure the old guard, which sees its interests threatened by moves toward reform. The old guard — the security establishment, the revolutionary committees, the tribes, and the economic elite — will be the source of problems as the state approaches transition time.

But these concerns have not stopped Russia, the United States and Europe from pushing ahead with their various agendas involving Libya — nor have they stopped Tripoli from basking in the newfound international attention. But all of those agendas could face a rocky road ahead if Libya cannot keep its house in order internally.

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