After Gaddafi

By Vandewalle, Dirk | Newsweek, March 7, 2011 | Go to article overview
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After Gaddafi


Vandewalle, Dirk, Newsweek


Byline: Dirk Vandewalle

How does a country recover from 40 years of destruction by an unchallenged tyrant?

Libya was on the brink of tectonic change as NEWSWEEK went to press, with the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in a state of dramatic fulmination and ruin. As we watch that country become a patchwork of liberated zones and violently defended redoubts of the regime, we should be concerned about what a post-Gaddafi transition will mean, given the fact that the man has hollowed out the Libyan state, eviscerated all opposition in Libyan society, and, in effect, created a political tabula rasa on which a newly free people will now have to scratch out a future.

Libya will begin afresh after Gaddafi, in a comprehensive reconstruction of everything civic, political, legal, and moral that makes up a society and its government. But it remains dauntingly unclear where new leadership will come from. Perhaps some of the tribal chieftains will unite behind one of their own; perhaps some of the regime's overseas opposition figures will return, not so much as saviors but as masons who might lay a new foundation over the rubble. Or perhaps some younger Libyans, with overseas degrees under their belt, or young entrepreneurs, will rise to the occasion. There are even rumors that the heir to the country's monarchy may want to throw his hat in the ring.

Events in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the local population has spontaneously started to clean up the debris left by recent battles, give one hope that this traumatized country can still pull together while avoiding worse bloodshed. Getting Libya back on its feet will be an unwieldy, and probably fractious, process in which many scores are settled against those who once supported the Gaddafi regime. But the problem is, of course, that much like in the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, virtually everyone at one point or another had to deal with the regime to survive. Unless political authority can be restored quickly, the sorting out of claims will undoubtedly be a bloody affair in light of the pent-up frustration that is now being released. Libya has no fireproof options, and comparisons with Tunisia and Egypt--whose uprisings so energized the Libyan people--offer no road map to a Libyan civic reconstruction. Libya is truly a case apart. But how did Libya get to this state? How did its people come to be so shorn of political structure and experience? All answers, it would seem, begin and end with Gaddafi.

There was, for all the usual showmanship, something touching about Gaddafi's last visit to Italy a few months ago. Dressed in his singular combination of Arab cloak and Western-style white business suit, he had pinned a grainy black-and-white picture to his lapel--which Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi studiously avoided looking at. The picture was of a shackled Omar al-Mukhtar, a Cyrenaican tribal leader and Libya's national hero, who was taken prisoner in 1931 after resisting the Italian colonial invasion for several years. He was hanged by the Italians before an assembly of Libyan prisoners--his cloak and glasses remain a central exhibit in Libya's national museum on Green Square in Tripoli.

It was Gaddafi's way of paying homage to a man he believed represents the ideal of a true Libyan: a tribal warrior, brave, uncompromising, willing to take on insurmountable odds. Gaddafi wanted to remind Berlusconi of the horrors of the Italian occupation--during which as much as half the population of Cyrenaica, Libya's eastern province, may have died. It was no surprise that Gaddafi, in his first speech after the uprising against him spread across Libya, invoked these same qualities to explain that he would fight to the end and was willing to die as a (self-proclaimed) martyr.

History, particularly the disastrous Italian legacy in Libya, has been a constant element in Gaddafi's speeches since he took power in a bloodless coup in 1969.

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