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Libya revolution: Future scenarios and the West's role

By Dr Omar Ashour
Middle East analyst

Published
image captionThe army's role could be crucial but it has not acted as one unit since the beginning of the unrest
Col Muammar Gaddafi's continuing defiance limits his options as well as the future scenarios for the crisis. How far will he go and how will the West respond?
"I am a glory that will not be abandoned by Libya, the Arabs, the United States, and Latin America... revolution, revolution, let the attack begin," Col Gaddafi said on Tuesday.
The rhetoric was typical of the self-declared King of African Kings, Dean of Arab leaders and Imam of all Muslims, who has ruled Libya for 42 years.
But Gaddafi's tactics have boxed him in. Should he be defeated, finding refuge abroad, as Tunisia's former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali did, will be difficult. And internal exile, such as that currently afforded Hosni Mubarak, will be impossible.
image captionIt would be difficult to find a country willing to take an exiled Col Gaddafi if he is defeated
Although the capacity of the regime to commit wide-scale massacres has shrunk, the cost of Col Gaddafi's defeat would be quite high in human lives.
In an extreme scenario, he might use chemical weapons - as Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds of Halabja in 1988 - or order an intensive aerial bombardment campaign - as Syria's Hafez al-Assad did to the people of Hama in 1982. Both are possible.
At that point, international intervention would be more likely than ever. One-and-a-half million Egyptians and many other nationalities, including British citizens, are present and in an extremely vulnerable position in Libya.
In his first speech, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi mentioned an international conspiracy involving Egyptians, Tunisians and other foreign agents - hence inciting violence against foreigners.
Another possible scenario is a move by the army, or a significant part of it, against the colonel and his sons.
image captionAnti-Gaddafi activists in Benghazi have been very organised
The problem with that scenario is that the Libyan army has not acted as one unit since the beginning of the protest, in contrast to the Egyptian and Tunisian armed forces.
Senior and junior members of the army defected and joined the protesters. Two air force pilots landed with their fighter jets in Malta; they were followed by a navy warship - all in defiance of Gaddafi's orders to bomb Benghazi.
Still, there are no reported splits among the Revolutionary Committees, the die-hards of Gaddafi's regime estimated to be around 20,000 fighters.
The same can be said about Brigade 32. Headed by Khamis al-Gaddafi, the brigade is in charge of protecting the Bab al-Aziziya area in Tripoli where the colonel camps.
Military Intelligence headed by Abdullah al-Senussi, the Internal Security Forces headed by al-Tuhami Khaled, and the Jamahiriya Security Apparatus are all still intact with no reported splits.
However, the deep rivalry and mistrust between the military and security apparatuses has to be taken account of. It could be a key factor in undermining the colonel's regime.
But overall the tribal nature and tribal allegiances of the Libyan army still prevent it from functioning as one unit.
The tribal issue may also be critical if Col Gaddafi is defeated in the coming days.
Historical rivalries, vendettas and arms are widespread among Libya's tribesmen. This may suggest that an inter-tribal war in the post-Gaddafi era is highly likely.
However, some signs from the East, a 'Gaddafi-free' area now, suggest otherwise.
Tribal rivalries are intense in eastern Libya. Despite that, the level of organisation and co-ordination has been quite impressive.
Security, medical and other committees were rapidly set up, reminiscent of the reactions of Egyptian protesters when the Mubarak regime withdrew the police force on 28 January and concurrently released thousands of convicts.
Ahmed Qadhaf al-Dam and Said Rashwan, two leading figures in the regime, have already visited Egypt and attempted to recruit tribes - with Libyan connections - to attack the Gaddafi-free East from Egypt's western desert.
The attempt failed when Awlad Ali and other tribes refused a generous offer.
Libyan civil society is not as developed as its Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts. This, however, does not mean tribal warfare is the ultimate consequence of Col Gaddafi's removal.
The lessons of Iraq were learned across the Arab-majority world and the dedication and maturity of the Tunisian and Egyptian youth became inspirational models for other Arabs claiming their freedom and dignity back from the ruling dictators.
The Libyan people may be more politically mature and sophisticated than they are given credit for.
The international community has a major legal duty towards Libya. Well-known names head the coercive institutions responsible for the killings that occurred in the last few days.
If generals and colonels such as Abdullah al-Senussi, Abdullah Mansour, al-Tuhami Khaled, as well as Gaddafi and his sons, were placed on international watch-lists or if arrest warrants were issued against them, many of their subordinates would think twice before ordering their troops to shoot or bomb.
The West has known about crimes against humanity and terrorist plots committed by Col Gaddafi's regime for decades now, most notably the June 1996 Abu Salim massacre in which more than 1,200 political prisoners were gunned down after protesting against prison conditions.
Still there was no international inquiry, mainly due to oil interests.
The West owes it to Libya's people to protect them from another massacre. So far, the Obama administration and the Cameron cabinet have said all the right words.
Now it is time for concrete actions.
Dr Omar Ashour is a Lecturer in Middle East Politics and the Director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK). He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (London, New York: Routledge, 2009).