Gaddafi may leave power vacuum

Feb. 27: Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi sounded a resonant warning, exhorting his dwindling supporters tow-ard civil war. “At the appropriate time, we will open the arms depots so all Libyans and tribes will be armed,” he shouted into a handheld microphone at dusk Friday, “so that Libya turns red with fire!”

That is indeed the fear of those watching the carnage in Libya, not least because Colonel Gaddafi spent the last 40 years hollowing out every single institution that might challenge his authority. Unlike neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, Libya lacks the steadying hand of a military to buttress a collapsing government.

It has no Parliament, no trade unions, no political parties, no civil society, no nongovernmental agencies. Its only strong ministry is the state oil company. The fact that some experts think the next government might be built atop the oil ministry underscores the paucity of options. The worst-case scenario should the rebellion topple him, and one that concerns American counterterrorism officials, is that of Afghanistan or Somalia — a failed state where Al Qaeda or other radical groups could exploit the chaos and operate with impunity.

But there are others who could step into any vacuum, including Libya’s powerful tribes or a pluralist coalition of opposition forces that have secured the east of the country and are tightening their vise near the capital.

Optimists hope that the opposition’s resolve persists; pessimists worry that unity will last only until Colonel Gaddafi is gone, and that a bloody witch hunt will ensue afterward.

“It is going to be a political vacuum,” said Lisa Anderson, the President of the American University in Cairo and a Libya expert, suggesting that chances are high for a violent period of score-settling. “I don’t think it is likely that people will want to put down their weapons and go back to being bureaucrats.”

There is a short list of Libyan institutions, but each has limits. None of the tribes enjoy national reach, and Colonel Gaddafi deliberately set one against the other, dredging up century-old rivalries even in his latest speeches.

There are a few respected but elderly members of the original 12-member Revolutionary Command Council who joined Colonel Gaddafi in unseating the king in 1969. Some domestic and exiled intellectuals hope that Libya can resurrect the pluralistic society envisioned by the 1951 Constitution, though without a monarch.

And there is the wild card, such as Colonel Gaddafi’s feat at age 27 as a junior officer when he engineered a bloodless coup against a feeble monarchy. The greatest fear — and one on which experts differ — is that Al Qaeda or Libya’s own Islamist groups, which withstood fierce repression and may have the best organizational skills among the opposition, could gain power. “We’ve been concerned from the start of the unrest that A.Q. and its affiliates will look for opportunities to exploit any disarray,” said a United States counterterrorism official, referring to Al Qaeda.

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