Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The endgame has begun for Gaddafi. But who can fill the vacuum?

The end for Mu'ammar Qadhafi could come at any time, although whether it comes at his own hand, by an assassin's bullet or with a short drive to Methega Airport, the old American airbase east of Tripoli, remains unclear.

Of these three possible exits, the latter – exile to a country still friendly to him – now seems the least likely.

Venezuela and Zimbabwe have been touted as possibilities, but there are few countries on the planet prepared to take this insanely defiant dictator.

So when he says he wants to die a martyr's death, I'm inclined to believe him. There is, however, a danger that a grotesque amount of blood could be shed before then.

The east of the country has been lost: even at his most deluded, Qadhafi must know that.

But, by cruel paradox, that makes the job of defending his heartland, Tripoli and its immediate surroundings, easier.

This is where his most loyal and best-equipped troops are located and where, unless Qadhafi makes an early departure, the final battle for Libya will be fought.

Everything now hangs on the continued loyalty of his Security Battalions, the crack forces which retain control of the vast majority of Libyan weapons and which are led by Qadhafi's sixth-born son, Khamis.

Along with his other military trained brother, Mu'atassim, they will have a key role to play over the next few days. If they remain loyal to their father and their troops to them, the fight against their mounting opposition could get very nasty indeed.

However, if any Security Battalions defect to the opposition, that will spell the immediate end for the Qadhafi regime.

And it could happen – if some of Qadhafi's most trusted ministers can defect, there's no reason why some of his hitherto most loyal troops couldn't do the same. They, like everyone, have to be thinking – and worrying – about what happens next?

In a country that has been Qadhafi's personal fiefdom for 42 blood-soaked years – and where no political opposition has been tolerated – that remains a good question.

Some answers, however, are beginning to emerge, particularly from the currently opposition-controlled east, where Qadhafi's former justice minister, Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil, is said to be working on a new constitution for Libya.

He is the figure considered most likely to emerge as an interim leader once Qadhafi goes. If so, Al Jeleil is likely to find himself leading a very loose coalition of tribal leaders, returning political exiles, Islamists and representatives of the army.

Unlike in Egypt, where the military is very much in control, a Libyan interim government will be predominantly civilian. The Libyan army simply isn't powerful enough to rule, and will be tarnished by its close association with Qadhafi.

You might think men such as Al Jeleil, so closely associated with Gaddafi, would suffer from the same problem – and that is possible. Just look to what is now going on in Tunisia, home of the Jasmine Revolution last month.

Security forces there killed three people this weekend when they opened fire on crowds protesting about the slow progress towards democratic elections – and the fact that the interim prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, was prime minister under the recently deposed and thoroughly disgraced regime of President Ben Ali.

The presence of men such as Al Jeleil in an interim Libyan government could spark similar protests in a post-Qadhafi Tripoli, but Al Jeleil did defect early and, despite being a former member of Qadhafi's ministerial inner circle, has a reputation for fairness.

He, and others associated with the Qadhafi regime, will be hoping the lessons from Iraq have been learned.

There, the dismantling of the ruling Ba'ath party after the toppling of Saddam Hussein is now considered a grave mistake, removing as it did the only group who knew how to run Iraq.

While it may be unpalatable to some, Libya, post-Qadhafi, will need experienced politicians like Al Jeleil if it is not to be plunged into anarchy and chaos.

Until last week, it had been assumed that one of Qadhafi's sons would replace him and the choice seemed to be between Saif Al-Islam and Mu'atassim, with Khamis as an alternative.

While the pro-Western liberal reformer, Saif Al-Islam, was seen as the most likely, largely because the thuggish Mu'atassim is a chip-off-the-old-block, he blew any chances with his disastrous and uncharacteristically rambling speech last week in support of his father's regime.

Had he apologised for the violent excesses in the East, had he promised to carry out urgent political reform, he might just have quelled the unrest.

But by standing so squarely behind his father, he signed the regime's death warrant. Unlike one or two of his brothers, Saif Al-Islam is no fool and must be bitterly regretting that almost absurd display of blind loyalty.

Further senior figures in Libya need to swap sides if Libya is to move towards democracy without further blood being shed.

If they don't, the consequences could be dire. Gaddafi is still the man with the key to the arms cupboard. He's already ordered the air force to bomb his own people; he's capable of ordering his Security Battalions to open fire on them in the same way.

As he said chillingly, in his own address last week: "I have created Libya and I can destroy it." This is a man who lost touch with political reality long ago and whose reaction to the United Nations' referral to the International Criminal Court will be a characteristic shrug.

He may rage against the dying of his deranged dreams for a few more days but, deep down, Gaddafi knows the truth. The endgame has begun. It's what happens next that is important.

For more news and expert analysis about Libya, please see Libya Focus and Libya Politics & Security.

© 2011 Menas Associates

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