Libya's hunt for a Gaddafi alternative

Supporters of the anti-Gaddafi movement in Benghazi, Libya (28 Feb 2011)
Image caption The anti-Gaddafi movement has set up an interim authority in the city of Benghazi

One of the most difficult facets of the crisis in Libya to unravel is the nature of the opposition to the Gaddafi regime.

Apart from the amorphous mass demonstrations calling for freedom and an end to oppression and the regime, it is extremely difficult to identify any institutions or ideologies that represent alternatives to the current regime holding on to power in Tripoli.

This is, perhaps, the true measure of the regime's success: through the twin tools of "direct popular democracy" in the jamahiriya - Col Gaddafi's people's committees - and the Revolutionary Committee Movement, which has been used principally to suppress the slightest dissent, Libyan society has been atomised and fragmented.

Yet the success of the demonstrations in recent days has forced new forms of opposition to the regime to begin to emerge and old ones, submerged by the blanket repression of the past, to re-emerge.

Thus, in eastern Libya, the towns are gradually being taken over - ironically enough, by committees handling administration and supply.

They provide a spontaneous response to the deadening weight of the popular committees of the past, directed from Tripoli. They claim the leadership of the former justice minister who defected 10 days ago, although it is not clear exactly how real his role is.

Tribal leaders from the Sa'adi tribes, traditionally hostile to the Gaddafi regime, are also involved in the committees, thus bringing an ethos of tribal solidarity to them.

Army units that defected - and thus made the revolution in eastern Libya possible - are said to be led by the former interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi, who also defected 10 days ago.

The rebels claim to control 80% of the oilfields on the western edge of Cyrenaica, thus giving them potential financial muscle for the future.

Tribal ethos

And, so they claim, they are preparing to move westwards, to engage pro-Gaddafi forces around Tripoli, where the regime depends on its support from the three tribes that have been its traditional power base - the Qadhadfa, the Warfalla and the Maghraha - together with the army's 32nd Brigade and an unknown number of foreign mercenaries.

Already Misurata to Tripoli's east and Zawiya to the west appear to be in rebel hands.

And what of the rest of the country? Well, it appears that the tribes of Tripolitania and the Fezzan have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

They will not choose until they know who is going to win.

Yet tribal leaderships and, more particularly, the tribal ethos, remain one of the possible institutions upon which new political institutions could be built, largely because the Gaddafi regime allowed their continued existence as a means of controlling them through a system of collective responsibility for the behaviour of their members.

Marginal support

But when they do decide, then the institutions that could organise a new state will come to the fore.

There are only two possibilities. One is the gamut of opposition movements that emerged in exile between 1973, when the jamahiriyah was proclaimed, and 1980 when the largest of them, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya was created.

Although they have linked together, they have been absent from the political scene inside Libya for decades and their local support is probably marginal.

An Islamist alternative does not exist: the Gaddafi regime persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood virtually out of existence and, despite the colonel's current claims, extremist, violent Islam no longer exists after a brief anti-regime campaign in the late 1990s.

The other option is a revival of the dim, distant past. The Union of Free Officers, the movement which brought the Gaddafi regime to power in the 1960s, still exists, with more than 1,000 members, many of whom have long been opposed to the idiosyncratic political system.

They also have a presence in the army and could well represent a potential alternative political pole, reviving perhaps the values and ideals of Arab nationalism that fuelled the original Libyan revolution.

The reality is, however, that the new Libyan revolution is driven by much wider values, even if they now exist only in embryo - democratic participation, individual respect for the human rights and dignity of all and economic engagement in one of the world's oil-rich states in which the population has been denied access to the wealth that their own resources generate.

These are the ideals that the "opposition" - the vast majority of Libyans - seek and espouse and they should be the values that will inform the future state, provided that the Gaddafi regime is first removed from power.

And, here of course, Europe could help if it could overcome its customary arrogance and learn to offer help rather than demand reform.