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Unlike Egyptian counterpart, Libyan army won’t stabilize country

As Libyan leader Gadhafi fights to crush a popular uprising and maintain his grip on power, experts say Libya’s faction-riddled military is unlikely to play the stabilizing role its Tunisian or Egyptian counterparts did.

Libyan soldiers during a military parade

Some say Gadhafi has instrumentalized the Libyan army to consolidate power

As the anti-Gadhafi revolt in Libya faces a brutal crackdown, prompting international condemnation, attention has focused on the country's motley military in quelling the protests.

In recent days, media reports have cited witnesses in Libya saying Gadhafi was using foreign mercenaries from African countries to protect his beleaguered regime. Foreign militias are reported to be cruising the streets in pickup trucks, firing into crowds of demonstrators.

Unconfirmed reports also claim the use of heavy weapons – including rapid-firing, anti-aircraft guns - against unarmed civilian protesters.

It's a far cry from the restraint and respect commanded by the armed forces during the recent 18-day uprising in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

'An instrument to consolidate power'

But analysts say that the use of violence against protesters isn't the only things that sets Libya's military apart from its counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt.

"The army, both in Tunisia and Egypt, saw itself as a mediator between the regime and the demonstrators and in the end decided to take the side of the protesters," Udo Steinbach, a Berlin-based Middle East expert told Deutsche Welle. "In Libya, the military has largely been an instrument used by Gadhafi to consolidate his power."

One of two Libyan pilots disembarks from his jet at Malta

Two Libyan pilots have reportedly flown to Malta and asked for political asylum

But that assumption has been thrown into question as reports emerge of some government forces, particularly in the country's east, abandoning their uniforms and joining the popular uprisings.

Deepening the sense of chaos pervading the army, two senior air-force officers reportedly refused to shoot at demonstrators and fled to Malta in a warplane. Protesters backed by defecting army units are thought to have almost the entire eastern half of Libya under their control.

Some analysts have suggested that Gadhafi, fearing the development of any network that could check his power, has deliberately kept the armed forces weak and divided into battalions.

The result has been that Libya's military - estimated to have around 75,000 personnel - lacks both the discipline and professionalism to serve as any kind of possible transitional structure to civilian government if Gadhafi were to step down.

Military lacks popular support

The armed forces are also reportedly plagued by a lack of usable military equipment. Most of the battle tanks and warplanes date from the 1970s- and 80s when the country bought most of its military hardware from the Soviet Union.

More importantly, some say, the armed forces lack the kind of widespread popular support seen in Egypt and Tunisia.

Gadhafi's female bodyguards

A clutch of female soldiers who serve as Gadhafi's close personal protection are reportedly extremely loyal and better trained

"Gadhafi's policy, dating back to his pan-African ideology of the 1970s, has always been to recruit the core of his military from neighboring African and Arab states. These soldiers thus have absolutely no emotional relationship with the Libyan people," Steinbach said.

Gadhafi is believed to have used foreign mercenaries in the past as well - in a 1987 war that it lost against its impoverished southern neighbor, Chad.

Tribal loyalties split army

The unraveling of the Libyan military also has its roots in the country's strong tribal culture. Experts point out that many Libyans continue to identify themselves as belonging to a tribe and that has been most pronounced in the armed forces where each of the main tribes is represented.

"Libyan society is shaped by tribal culture. Many people are primarily loyal to their own tribe and not to the state," Ziad Aql, a Libya expert at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Deutsche Welle's Arabic service.

A Libyan jet parked at Malta airport

Much of Libya's military machinery dates from the Soviet era

"There's a clear split within the Libyan army," Aql said. He pointed out that the army is largely headed by members of President Gadhafi's tribe with Gadhafi's son, Mutassem Gadhafi, responsible for the country's internal security. On the other hand, he added, many foot soldiers belong to the Tarruna tribe which has taken the side of the demonstrators.

"So there are two camps in the army - one that follows Gadhafi's commands and shoots at demonstrators. And another camp that refuses to follow his instructions and either flees with their weapons or joins the demonstrators," Aql said.

'A black hole'

Aql warned there was a danger that the simmering tensions among the various factions within the army could come to a head.

"There are indications that parts of the army that belong to Gadhafi's tribe will remain loyal to him. That has sparked concern that we could see violent battles within the army," Aql said.

There are concerns that the unrest in Libya could turn into a full-fledged civil war and analysts say that a future without Gadhafi looks ominous. His four decades of one-man rule has left the country without any national institutions - unlike in Egypt where the army has been a pillar of society.

Libyan leader Moamar Gadhafi

Gadhafi's violent crackdown has sparked international condemnation

"The Libyan regime lacks institutions in all sectors," Aql said. "Gadhafi rules the country as he likes. And that's how he's controlled the army too."

Some worry that Libya also lacks a civil society framework as is evident in Egypt or leading intellectuals as seen in Tunisia, many of whom have lived in France for decades.

"We can't rule out a civil war if Gadhafi were to go," Steinbach said. "Without any functioning institutions, there will just be a black hole."

Author: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Rob Mudge

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