Fears that Libya will become the next Somalia are probably over-blown, but any democratic transition is likely to be protracted and fragile.

Libya lies between Tunisia and Egypt, the two success stories, at least for now, of the Arab Awakening. But the Libyan story has been much darker. Colonel Muammar Gadhafi and his regime have put up a remarkable resistance, withstanding as of early May both external military intervention and significant internal defections. After more than four decades of authoritarian stability, the country’s future is unclear. Fears that Libya will become the next Somalia are probably over-blown, but even in the best case considerable difficulties lie ahead. Any democratic transition in Libya is likely to be protracted and fragile.

Gadhafi’s legacy and Libyan identity

More than a month after France, Britain and the United States decided, with UN authority, to intervene on the side of rebel forces in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, the question of ‘what the rebels want’ remains open. Self-proclaimed rebel leaders try to present a united front, but there are obvious disagreements and discontent. One divisive issue is the presence of major figures from the Gadhafi regime such as General Abdul-Fattah Younis, former interior minister and minister of public security. Another involves cooperation with the West. James Stavridis, NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, noted ‘flickers’ of al-Qaeda and Hizbullah presence among the rebels. While the threat of extremism in eastern Libya might be marginal, it is nonetheless real. Among those training the rebel forces can be found so-called ‘Afghan’ Arabs, veteran jihadists from the Soviet–Afghan war, including former Guantanamo Bay inmates such as Sufyan Bin Qumu. What worldview predominates among the opposition remains, for the moment, unknown.

The Libyan opposition is, in fact, an alliance of strange bedfellows built around a single purpose: the removal of Gadhafi. When that is achieved, there may be little agreement on how Libyan society should be organised. Among the 31 members of the Libyan Transitional National Council that has adroitly established itself as the prime interlocutor abroad are religious conservatives, liberals and social democrats. In a well-functioning democracy, such pluralism would create a basis for vibrant debate. But to make a democracy work in the first place, there must be a minimal sense of a common history, present and destiny.

Whatever sense of Libyan national identity exists today can be attributed to Gadhafi. One of the main obsessions of his idiosyncratic rule was to provide Libyans with a common purpose, a determined sense of national belonging and a strong feeling of citizenship. In Gadhafi’s mind, ‘the existence of a national identity is the basis for the survival of nations’. He developed a blueprint of what he thought Libya should look like and what the common characteristics of Libyans had to be. Beyond that, he wanted Libya to be the guiding nation for the spread of the Third Universal Theory, his own political, economic and social theories as expounded in his ubiquitous Green Book.

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Saskia van Genugten is a PhD candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, Bologna/Washington DC. Her dissertation focuses on Italian and British relations with Libya.

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