Libyan pro-government supporters march on Feb. 16 in Tripoli
SummaryUnconfirmed reports emerged Feb. 20 that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had fled the country. While it is extremely unlikely that Gadhafi would leave at this early stage in the unrest, the situation does appear to be escalating, and the Libyan leader’s reform-minded son, Seif al-Islam, made a televised speech Feb. 20 attempting to put himself forward as a new face of a regime more receptive to the protesters’ demands. However, any leader in Libya must have the support of the country’s security apparatus, and it is unclear whether Seif al-Islam has secured its loyalty.
AnalysisAn unconfirmed report from Saudi-owned Al Arabiya claimed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi fled the country Feb. 20. Qatar-based Al Jazeera has meanwhile quoted Libyan Ambassador to China Hussein Sadiq al-Musrati, who resigned Feb. 20, as claiming there had been a gunfight between Gadhafi’s feuding sons and that Gadhafi may have left Libya. Al Jazeera has also claimed that the al-Zuwayya tribe in the east, and the al-Tabu and Warfalah tribes in the south have turned on Gadhafi. The rumors follow another day of heavy-handed crackdowns on opposition protests in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi and the spread of protests to the capital of Tripoli, where pro-regime demonstrators are also concentrated.
Though unrest in Libya appears to be escalating, the claims of Gadhafi fleeing, or even seriously considering fleeing, are highly suspect for a number of reasons. The rise of Seif al-Islam in the long-simmering power struggle with his brother, Motasem, remains at the center of the conflict.
Opposition protests in Libya have been largely concentrated in the east, where tribal support for the Gadhafi regime is traditionally lower. Protesters have sustained the demonstrations despite Libyan security forces’ using live ammunition to put down the unrest, but their numbers do not appear to have grown large enough to overwhelm the state. Information on the demonstration is extremely scarce and subject to heavy spin by both the regime and the opposition, but the size of the protests seems to have averaged in the low thousands thus far, with most estimates ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 protesters at a time, though the opposition has claimed as many as 50,000 protesters (likely an exaggeration) in the town of Al-Zawiyah in the east.
Though many Libyans are dissatisfied with the high unemployment, lack of housing and basic services and other socioeconomic factors that have driven unrest elsewhere in the region, the Libyan regime benefits from the fact that it rules over a sparse population of only 6.4 million. The key to the regime’s sustainability, however, lies in the loyalty of the tribes and the army, and both loyalties may be coming into question.
Al Jazeera, which has been providing a great deal of airtime to Libyan opposition leaders (many of whom are exiled and are displaying an obvious agenda to paint the situation as more dire than what actually may be the case in an attempt to attract international support), has claimed that tribal leaders in the east are threatening to attack oil installations and that large segments of the security forces have defected to the opposition. Reuters published an unconfirmed report that members of a Libyan army unit told Benghazi residents Feb. 20 they had defected and “liberated” the city from forces loyal to Gadhafi. meanwhile, Libya’s envoy to the Arab League announced Feb. 20, he was submitting his resignation and “joining the revolution.” The Italian Foreign Ministry (which has more insight into the Libyan situation than most, given Italy’s former colonial relationship with the country) announced after holding talks with the Libyan Interior Ministry that the Libyan government will engage in reforms to appease the opposition.
Dissent may be in the air, but large-scale army defections and a leader as entrenched as Gadhafi fleeing the country this early in the unrest are doubtful. As long as the demonstrations remain limited in number, the real focus of the unrest will be on the regime itself, in which two of Gadhafi’s sons, reform-minded Seif al-Islam and National Security Adviser Motasem, have long been embroiled in a succession struggle. Seif al-Islam, who has deliberately shied away from the political spotlight and has called for major political, social and economic reforms as a way to present himself as an alternative to old-regime tactics, delivered a rare public speech late Feb. 20 in which he presented some elements of the army as reckless in dealing with the protesters and portrayed himself as one of the Libyan people. He said Libya is not another Egypt or Tunisia and that his father is not another Hosni Mubarak or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, making clear that the army was not going to abandon the regime. However, he said the regime is facing a difficult test at a time when tanks and heavy weapons are in the hands of thugs and opponents. He also blamed the unrest on exiled opposition using social media as their main weapon to destabilize the regime.
Seif al-Islam is likely seizing the opportunity to leverage himself in this power struggle, arguing that his reform approach and (what he views as) his cleaner image in relation to the rest of the regime are instrumental to the long-term survivability of the regime. But he is also taking a major risk if he is doing so without the support of the military old guard. Seif al-Islam would not have likely made such a statement without the support of his father and, presumably, without key elements of the military. He made it a point to draw a distinction between “seditious elements” trying to put down the unrest and the army and the national guard that would now be relied on to pacify the country. Notably, Motasem’s allies, including Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, appear to be on the defensive. Al-Mahmoudi said on state television Feb. 20 that the protests are part of a plan to make Libya a base for terrorism. He also said that Libya has the “right to take all measures to preserve its unity, stability and people, and to assure the protection of its riches and preserve its relations with other countries.”
Whether Seif al-Islam can negotiate the support of the army and the tribes in presenting himself as the face of the regime to put down the unrest remains the key to the outcome of this crisis. Motasem, who has strong links with the military old guard, has thus far remained silent and the army’s heavy-handed approach is thus far not producing results. Moammar Gadhafi is typically quite adept at managing these power struggles from the top, and so far it appears Seif al-Islam is more likely to gain his father’s approval to lead the way out of the crisis. Ultimately, however, the trust of the army must be won.