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Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is a skillful politician who has manipulated local rivals and his own sons so that he could remain in power, according to a series of US diplomatic cables on Libya, published this week by WikiLeaks. The cables describe Qaddafi’s consolidation of power over the last four decades and reveal some of the challenges Libya will face if the embattled leader steps down.
The United States and Libya have had a rocky relationship in the past and Washington at one time had Libya listed as a state sponsor of terrorism. Ties began to improve in 2003 when Qaddafi agreed to give up Libya’s nuclear weapon program, and three years later the US embassy in Tripoli was reopened.
Since then, US diplomats have been able to unearth some of the details of the workings of the Qaddafi government, in place now for more than 40 years. A cable dated Jan. 28, 2009 and written by Gene A. Cretz, the United States’ first ambassador to Libya since 1972, suggests that Qaddafi is a micromanager who continues to be involved with the everyday work of the government:
Despite a carefully cultivated image as a philosopher-king with no formal title and persistent rumors that he is passing day-to-day decisionmaking as part of an orchestrated succession by one of his sons, Muammar al-Qadhafi remains intimately involved in the regime's most sensitive and critical portfolios. He has used an influential but obscure administrative entity to politically vet commercial contracts involving GOL [government of Libya] funds and ensure that opportunities to extract rents from those contracts are distributed to key regime allies. In addition to his activist role in commercial affairs, al-Qadhafi's recent interventions in other high-profile issues undermine the claim that he is an oracle above the fray.
Ambassador Cretz continues to say that Qaddafi’s “mastery of tactical maneuvering has kept him in power for nearly 40 years; however, the unholy alliance of corruption and cult-of-personality politics on which the system has been based is ultimately limiting.”
The world has witnessed Qaddafi’s attempts to hold on to that power in recent days, as his security forces brutally suppressed thousands of Libyans gathering in the streets of the capital Tripoli and other cities in the past week. While it’s too soon to say how the battle between Qaddafi’s supporters and anti-government demonstrators will end, there are no clear successors if Qaddafi steps down.
The Christian Science Monitor reported that a possible leadership alternative in Libya might be the country’s tribal leaders, according to Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia regional director for Stratfor, a global-security forecasting company that is based in Austin, Texas. "But other Arab regimes ruling over tribal societies – from Saudi Arabia to Jordan and Yemen – will not want to see the kind of 'real regime change' that a shift to tribal governance would constitute."
Observers have long guessed that one of Qaddafi’s sons would take over as leader, though it has been uncertain who Qaddafi preferred. Another cable authored by Cretz, sent in November 2009, suggests that Qaddafi’s apparent wavering was merely another example of his political shrewdness.
“Qadhafi has placed his sons … on a succession high wire act, perpetually thrown off balance, in what might be a calculated effort by the aging leader to prevent any one of them from authoritatively gaining the prize,” writes Cretz.
While a February 2010 cable suggests that young Libyans favor Qaddafi’s second eldest son, Saif al-Islam, as the hope of “Libya al-Ghad” or the “Libya of Tomorrow,” it now appears that support for him as waned. The Monitor reported that Saif told protesters on Sunday that if demonstrations don’t end, Libyans could expect “the division of Libya piece by piece and for a civil war.” Since then, protesters have demanded the removal of the entire Qaddafi family from power.
In the January 2009 cable, Cretz predicts a disarray of leadership that seems more and more likely if Qaddafi steps down.
The reality is that no potential successor currently enjoys sufficient credibility in his own right to maintain that delicate equilibrium and keep the project going of transforming (at least superficially) the Jamahiriya. In that regard, al-Qadhafi is the architect of his own gilded cage and cannot yet relinquish
day-to-day decisionmaking, even if he wants to.