Analysis: 'Dictator may drag world powers into long conflict'
COLONEL Muammar Gaddafi is not the world's longest serving ruler by accident. Although the international media routinely paint him as a madman - and he has done little to counter this perception with his rambling speeches of late - he has been both clever and brutal enough to remain in power for nearly 42 years.
He may well coerce international forces to get more deeply involved in the conflict than they would like.
Gaddafi's determination to fight the uprising contrasts starkly with the actions of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, who quickly lost the backing of their respective armies. After those uprisings, there was euphoria among Arab opposition groups and democracy activists, who spoke of an "Arab spring" of democracy and freedom. Many used the powerful phrase, "The barrier of fear is broken."
In recent weeks, a number of Arab rulers have sought to bring the fear back. The president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is one of them; his security forces shot 46 dead during demonstrations on Friday. Meanwhile, Bahrain has invited other Gulf armies to bolster its security forces as it cracks down on an uprising in which 23 people have died since mid-February. A victory for Gaddafi would be expected to encourage more of the same.
He has announced a ceasefire and has called for negotiations, but few expect he will be willing to negotiate his exit. The decision of the International Criminal Court to investigate him for crimes against humanity may have helped to encourage others to defect from the regime, but it makes it harder to see a viable exit strategy for him.
He already seems to be breaching the ceasefire he declared, and may try to draw in international forces in a way that would break their mandate, potentially dividing the international consensus behind the no-fly zone. What, for example, would happen if a western plane is shot down and its crew taken hostage? Gaddafi has often played a divide-and-rule strategy domestically, and may seek to divide the rare international unity displayed at last week's UN Security Council vote.
The real balance of forces on the ground is unclear, and both Gaddafi and the opposition are likely to be exaggerating their power and support. The opposition have bravely taken on his forces, and will be emboldened by the UN resolution, as well as France's decision to recognise them as the legitimate government of Libya.
Gaddafi will use all the propaganda tools at his disposal and will seek to portray his side as an anti-colonial struggle against western interference.
Nor is it clear what sort of government will ultimately replace Gaddafi, since opposition political movements have been repressed for so long.Tribal identities are strong in Libya, and tribal leaders are likely to be important. Islamists appear to be far less influential than in many Arab countries. Gaddafi still blames al-Qaeda - along with foreigners and hallucinogenic coffee - for the uprising, but the group is not believed to have significant support in Libya. Exiled opposition figures, some of whom have spent 30 or more years outside the country, are also likely to play a role, although experience in other countries shows there can often be tensions between those who remained within a country under dictatorship and those who left.
The current Transitional Council, representing the opposition, is a loose coalition of different figures, some of whom are recent defectors from the regime, including the leader, Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, who was Libya's justice minister until February.
The possibility cannot be ruled out that Gaddafi's most prominent son, Saif al-Islam, could yet try to strike a deal with some of these leaders. Saif had played the part of a western-friendly, pro-business reformer until the uprising; now he has been filmed waving weapons around, threatening massive slaughter and civil war, and laughing as he does it.
But his own father's history does illustrate that unexpected and bizarre comebacks can sometimes be possible.
• Jane Kinninmont is senior research fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, at Chatham House
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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