ANALYSIS: Will Gaddafi survive? —S P Seth - Friday, April 22, 2011

Gaddafi has so far held on because, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, he commands multiple security forces comprising militias under the command of his sons and regular armed forces 

Even as the popular revolutionary upsurge has spread to almost all Arab countries, it is probably facing its toughest test in Libya. The Libyan rebels, inspired by the relative ease with which Tunisian and Egyptian dictators were overthrown, and chuffed by their early successes in Benghazi, were hoping to topple Gaddafi and reach Tripoli in an easy swoop. Gaddafi, though, mounted a strong counter-offensive in a bid to demolish the rebellion. But for the French aerial intervention in the nick of time, backed up soon by the British and US bombardment of Gaddafi forces, his troops would have entered Benghazi to crush the rebels and their supporters. The aerial attacks to stop Gaddafi are now a NATO responsibility, with the British and the French doing much of the heavy lifting with the United States in a supportive role. The NATO operations draw their legitimacy from UN Security Council Resolution 1973, framed to prevent a possible massacre in the eastern part of the country.

The situation in Libya is very fluid, with Gaddafi forces engaged in a siege of Misrata, with its nearly half-a-million people subjected to constant pounding by heavy artillery. The NATO aerial operations are hampered by a fear of civilian casualties, as well as a failure to distinguish between Gaddafi and rebel forces, with the former often wearing civilian clothing to confuse the enemy. Though the rebels have been high on confidence and passion, they are sorely lacking in organisation, discipline, training and weaponry. They basically want NATO to turn the corner for them and get rid of Gaddafi.

But with political divisions in NATO ranks, as the French and the Brits carry much of the load, there does not appear any immediate prospect of the rebels having an upper hand. However, there are signs that the British and French might be getting involved on the ground in a supportive military role. Such incremental Western involvement is likely to erode Gaddafi’s military advantage. And will further crumble his power base in the country. At the same time, it will not be smooth sailing for the intervening Western powers with their already overstretched economies. There is, therefore, some urgency for them to bring down Gaddafi to limit their role. Besides, they are keen not to be seen as the old colonialists staging a comeback.

Gaddafi would like to play this card. But his problem is that he is neither popular with Arab rulers nor with the Arab masses. In a popular environment when dictators are disposable, Gaddafi might not be the right leader to lead a supposedly anti-colonial movement. Another problem for Gaddafi is that if he cannot prevail over the rebels soon enough, he might run out of revenues (from the sale of oil) to continue his military operations. And if Gaddafi cannot sell oil, he will not be able to maintain and support his political base. Like a number of Arab countries, Libya is heavily dependent on oil revenues and the political patronage that goes with it.

Gaddafi has so far held on because, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, he commands multiple security forces comprising militias under the command of his sons and regular armed forces. Having staged a military coup in 1969, Gaddafi knew how easy it was to overthrow the country’s monarchy. He, therefore, took steps to create balancing military structures that have enabled him so far to hold on to power.

However, his medium and long-term prospects might not be all that bright. The defection of some of his ministers, senior diplomats, and others point to a crisis in his inner circle that is likely to become more pronounced as NATO pushes on with its military intervention, mostly from the air. Although there are differences in the NATO ranks regarding the level of commitment against Gaddafi, the recent joint article in the press by Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron is a strong assertion of their common commitment to get rid of Gaddafi. It is, however, problematic because the relevant UN resolution does not authorise this.

Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron concede in their article that the “UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians... It is not to remove Gaddafi by force.” It adds, “But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power...It is unthinkable that someone who has tried to massacre his own people can play a part in their future government.” They contend, “So long as Gaddafi is in power, NATO and its coalition partners must maintain their operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds...”

The NATO strategy, therefore, is to keep up the military pressure on Gaddafi (including the arming and training of rebels in some way or the other), encourage defections in his inner circle, enforce multiple sanctions like the freezing of his government’s financial assets and a trade embargo, and help create an alternative political structure to take over from Gaddafi when the time comes. With international isolation, increasing erosion of his internal popular and political base, and fast depleting revenue, it is difficult to see how Gaddafi can survive for long. It might still be time for him to work out a safe exit passage for him and his family. But if he continues on his present course, he might eventually end up before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

What might follow after Gaddafi is a big question mark because the rebels do not have a clearly articulated political blueprint (disorganised as they are), apart from an omnibus commitment to freedom and dignity. As one Benghazi businessman told a reporter of The New Yorker, “We want democracy. We want good schools, we want a free media, an end to corruption...and a parliament to get rid of whoever, whenever, we want.”

The Libyan revolution, as revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world, has laudable goals but the future is murky and full of pitfalls. But it is still an inspiring time to see how the people’s power can topple long ruling dictators in the Arab world.

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at

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