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Qaddafi Is No Mubarak as Overthrow May Mean ‘Descent to Chaos’

Libya's old national flag flutters in front of a bridge as protesters shout anti-Qaddafi slogans during a demonstration in the eastern Libyan town of Derna. Source: AFP/Getty Images
Libya's old national flag flutters in front of a bridge as protesters shout anti-Qaddafi slogans during a demonstration in the eastern Libyan town of Derna. Source: AFP/Getty Images

Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Muammar Qaddafi may leave Libya without a way of avoiding further bloodshed.

After protesters forced out the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, both countries had constitutions that laid out the transfer of power to caretakers who are now negotiating a path to greater democracy. Libya, where Qaddafi has ruled since his coup overthrew the monarchy in 1969, has no constitution and political parties and unions have been banned for 35 years.

“If Qaddafi goes, there will be an enormous vacuum, not just politically, but also socially and economically,” Diederick Vandewalle, a professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said by telephone. “There’s no organization that could interact between the government and the protesters.”

Libya, home of Africa’s largest oil reserves, may be set for a longer and bloodier period of unrest than its neighbors as Qaddafi, the world’s longest serving non-royal leader, clings to power and no alternative leader emerges.

Already 300 people have died in the latest wave of political protests to sweep the Arab world, according to a Libyan foreign ministry official on state-run television. The regime used machine guns and air power in an effort to quash the rebellion.

“A further descent into chaos is a real possibility,” said Ettore Greco, director of the International Affairs Institute in Rome. “Qaddafi’s repressive regime was of a totally different scale than that of Tunisia and Egypt.”

‘Artificial Creation’

While Qaddafi created a regime that he said gave power to the people through so-called Popular Committees of ordinary Libyans, the country lacks a political class or group of army officers who can take power like in Egypt.

Qaddafi holds no official title and is referred to as Brother Leader or Guide of the Revolution.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 ceded power to the military, which suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament, saying it will rule for six months or until elections are held.

The lack of a national identity also complicates matters. In 1934, Italy merged three Ottoman provinces it had seized in 1911. The country became independent in 1951 under King Idris, whose support was mostly in the east. Qaddafi overthrew Idris to take power almost 42 years ago.

“Libya was a very artificial creation,” Vandewalle said. “The lack of identity has never been solved.”

Tribal Question

Leaders of Libya’s more than 100 tribes could be the only way out of the crisis, said Ronald Bruce St. John, an author of three books about Libya, including “Libya: Continuity and Change” published this month.

“Tribal affiliation has become important because Qaddafi destroyed civil society in Libya as we know it,” St. John said. “If this movement continues to gain speed and it overturns the regime, the tribes will try to create a new political system.”

Tribes, though, are no substitute for a political process, said Shashank Joshi, associate fellow at London-based Royal United Services Institute.

“It’s difficult to have a real democratic process when people vote along tribal grounds, as we have seen in some African countries,” Joshi said.

Prison or Death

Freedom House, a Washington-based foundation that tracks rights around the world, annually divides 194 countries into 13 rankings based on political, media and economic liberties.

In the 2010 rankings, Libya was in the bottom group of nine countries, along with North Korea and Burma. Tunisia and Iran were ranked two grades above Libya; Egypt, Yemen and Algeria three grades above; and Morocco six.

“Power theoretically lies with a system of people’s committees and the indirectly elected General People’s Congress, but in practice those structures are manipulated to ensure the continued dominance of Muammar al-Qaddafi,” Freedom House said in its last annual report. “Organizing or joining anything akin to a political party is punishable by long prison terms and even the death sentence. There is no independent press. There are no independent labor unions.”

Libya’s stunted civic society is matched by an underdeveloped economy. While sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing were lifted in 2003, the country is still overly dependent on energy, says the International Monetary Fund.

Libya is “one of the least diversified oil-producing countries in the Middle East,” the Washington-based lender said in an October 2010 report. Oil accounts for 90 percent of government revenue and 95 percent of exports.

Starting in the late 1970s, private companies were taken over by popular committees, said Paul Sullivan, a professor at Washington-based National Defense University. In March 1980, citizens were given one month to turn in all their cash in a short-lived campaign to “de-monetize” the economy.

“This and other really whacky policies led to the destruction of the Libyan economy,” Sullivan said.

With army units defecting and eastern cities slipping out of Qaddafi’s control, Libya is casting Tunisia and Egypt in a better light as popular protests swept their leaders from control.

“It’s a pervasive intrusive regime that left no room for the sort of civil society that took up the relay in those countries,” said Greco at the International Affairs Institute.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at gviscusi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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