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Libyan power struggle raises questions about post-Gadhafi future

A recent spat between conservatives and reformers in Libya has left leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi sitting on a fence between his government and his son, who is assembling a tribal coalition behind his reform movement.

Moammar Gadhafi

Gadhafi is torn between his reformer son and his conservative government

A new round in an ongoing power struggle between reformers and defenders of the status quo in Libya has left Gadhafi - who has led the country for over 40 years - in something of a dilemma. But as has always been the case, the ultimate decision lies with him - and he is clearly not yet ready to give his verdict.

The latest row pitted Gadhafi's pro-reform son Saif Al-Islam against powerful conservatives in the government, ending in another stalemate and continued uncertainty about the oil exporter's future direction.

It began soon after a media group linked to Saif Al-Islam launched a fierce attack on the government. In apparent retaliation, 20 of the group's journalists were detained and one of its newspapers was suspended. The spat only ended when Gadhafi intervened personally, and ordered that the journalists be freed.

Fence sitting

The incident illustrates Gadhafi's position in Libyan politics as the 68-year-old's reign enters its final phase. He stands apparently comfortable in his position as mediator, while political rivals - not least among them some of his sons - begin to vie for his legacy.

Saif Al-Islam Gadhafi

Some observers say Saif Al-Islam lacks his father's charisma and political savvy

Charles Gurdon, Libya expert at the London-based political risk consultancy Menas Associates, said he believes Gadhafi is himself caught in a personal struggle between conservatism and reform.

"When you look at Gadhafi, I think it's best to think of his heart and his head," Gurdon told Deutsche Welle. "At heart, he is still a revolutionary. For decades he's been anti-Western, has had little interest in the economy, and not a lot of interest in political or economy modernization. His main interest remains in foreign policy and, in particular, his personal legacy in both the Middle East and Africa."

But international developments in the last decade have brought out the pragmatist in Gadhafi, he said.

"His head recognized that a rapprochement with the West, and particularly with the US, was essential in 2003 if Libya was to avoid being attacked as Iraq was," Gurdon said. Libya was one of the countries in Washington's so-called "Axis of Evil."

In from the cold

As a result, in the past six years, Libya has gone from international outcast with a stagnating economy to a bustling country where new office buildings and hotels spring up every month. Foreign businesspeople flock in search of lucrative deals, the largest concerning Libya's rich oil reserves.

Tripoli

Libya is modernizing fast, but needs more infrastructure reform

"Gadhafi recognized that the oil sector is the economy's milk cow and that it urgently needed modernization and foreign investment," Gurdon said. "Continuing international sanctions had severely weakened the sector and therefore, there had to be a radical change in policy."

But Isabelle Werenfels, researcher for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) points out that attracting foreign investment means a lot more than reforming the economy. Western-educated Saif Al-Islam is currently leading a movement that potentially means a wholesale reform of many aspects of Libyan society.

"The son sees the mid to long-term problems of the country if they don't embark on economic reforms, but also the modernization of infrastructure, the constitution and education," Werenfels said. However, Gadhafi's commitment to this is ambiguous, according to Gurdon.

"With Colonel Gadhafi, reform is always two steps forward, one step back," Gurdon said. "But his son recognizes that things need to change in Libya, and he's spearheading the whole movement for a formal constitution, greater democracy, and other reforms which will turn Libya into a normal country as we in the West would know it."

Winning over the tribes

Saif Al-Islam faces much opposition from the old Libyan revolutionaries, though. His lack of military training has meant that he has no constituency in the army or the security services, whereas two of his younger brothers do. To counter this, Saif Al-Islam has reportedly been travelling around the country hoping to secure the support of some of Libya's all-important tribes.

"Libya is a very tribal state, and the whole Gadhafi system is supported by a number of big tribes that Gadhafi united around himself," Werenfels said. "Saif Al-Islam has been very busy in recent months, travelling to the east, where you have the more rebellious, more marginalized tribes."

Granted, Saif Al-Islam is winning popularity among the Libyan population, but there are plenty of reasons why Gadhafi will not name him as a successor any time soon, for example due to the country's political structure.

Libya has a dual political system. On the one hand, it has a pseudo-direct democratic system, and on the other it has a revolutionary sector made up of committees, informal groups, former comrades of Gadhafi, free officer organizations and the security sector. This second group is extremely powerful and has much to lose if Saif Al-Islam takes over.

"I'm not sure Gadhafi can afford to name him as a successor at this point, because there are so many people profiting from the status quo in the elite," Werenfels said.

Marshalling the endgame

On top of this, Gadhafi knows that naming Saif Al-Islam as successor would instantly weaken his own position.

"As with any leader who's been in power for over 40 years, you have to work out your endgame," Gurdon said. "The problem with all of the Middle East republics is that, as soon as a successor is nominated, it makes the head of state a lame duck." And then there is the old tugging on Gadhafi's revolutionary heart.

"Libya needs foreign investments - it wants to be part of the international community," Gurdon said. "At the same time, Gadhafi is very reluctant to scrap the political and economic system that he has established and maintained for over 40 years."

But whatever happens, post-Gadhafi Libya is bound to be profoundly different.

"Whenever Gadhafi eventually goes, I think Libya will operate more like a normal country," Gurdon said. "It is much less likely to be the maverick state it has been in the past."

Gadhafi has no official position in the country's legal system. He calls himself only the "guide of the revolution." If nothing else, it is unlikely that any successor will occupy a similarly unique position above and outside the Libyan system. This in itself will be an irreversible reform.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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