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With popular revolutions breaking out across the Arab world, few could have suspected that Libya would be next. Given its small population, relative wealth and Qadhafi's omnipresent security apparatus Libya was widely considered to be one of the most secure of all the regimes in the region. Yet, encouraged by events in Tunisia and Egypt, Libyans followed suit and took to the streets en masse - leaving the regime fighting for its life. The near-iconic figure of Qadhafi, one of the last relics of the Cold War, looks to be nearing his end. What comes next for Libya is highly uncertain.
The protests first flared up in Benghazi on 16 February in response to the arrest of human rights lawyer Fathi Terbil. They quickly spread to other cities in the east and it wasn't long before the whole of Libya was boiling. Such anger was hardly surprising given the deep resentments and long-held grievances with a regime that has displayed such utter disdain towards its own people. This protest did not come out of the blue: there had already been an attempt to rise up in January when, in a bid to emulate their counterparts in Tunisia, hundreds of Libyans occupied government-built housing units and demanded their rights. The regime moved quickly to contain this crisis and, bracing itself for worse to come, beefed up its security presence and began mobilising its supporters. But despite its best efforts, once the fear or retaliation had been overcome, the popular anger and dissent gathered momentum with breathtaking speed.
It is not surprising that the unrest began in the east, which has traditionally had a highly antagonistic relationship with the regime, based in part on old tribal rivalries that pre-date the Qadhafi period. The eastern regions have long been the focus of resistance to the dictatorship, providing the bulk of recruits to the Islamist opposition, including to the militant Islamist uprising of the 1990s. In response Qadhafi has purposefully kept the east in a state of perpetual underdevelopment, punishing it for its rebellious spirit - and hardening resentments in this traditionally conservative region.
Had the rebellion remained confined to the east, the regime may have been in with a chance. Once the protests reached Tripoli, however, Qadhafi was in serious trouble. Tripoli and the west of Libya have traditionally been the cornerstone of Qadhafi's regime and his power base. That is not to say that Tripolitanians don't share many of the same resentments and grievances as their eastern counterparts - rather, it was expected that the regime was strong enough to secure the western areas. Its failure to do so has left its future looking shakier than ever.
Qadhafi has responded with typical defiance. So much of the state has been built around him and his ideology that for Qadhafi a Libya without him is unthinkable. This is why he will hang on until the bitter end, and why he has been willing to employ such brutal tactics against his own people.
Yet this strategy has backfired. Qadhafi's willingness to kill with such reckless abandon has not only encouraged others to join in the fight, it has prompted members of his government to defect. He has alienated core supporters and a number of loyal tribes, irrevocably weakening his position.
But Qadhafi has not gone yet. While the east has fallen it is still too early to say whether he will be able to hold on to Tripoli. However, even if he does manage to do so it will be at immeasurable cost. He has lost all remnants of credibility, and it is difficult to see how he could actually rule. The one figure from within the Qadhafi clan who may just have been able to muster some authority - his son Saif Al-Islam - destroyed all his chances with his hawkish television address on 20 February. And so, even if the regime clings on to power, things will never be the same again.
If Qadhafi does fall, the challenges for any transition are immense. The nature of the highly personalised political system imposed by Qadhafi is such that there has been no space for anything beyond him and the core of his regime. Libya has no formal opposition, no political parties, no trades unions and no real civil society that could step in and play a role. Even those within the inner circle have only derived their power from their closeness to the leader. More importantly, aside perhaps from the army, the country is devoid of any functioning institutions that could hold the state together. Even formal government structures are a sham, serving as little more than vehicles for corruption. Moreover, while some of the protesters have formed themselves into committees, they appear not to have any clear-cut political agenda and are only united by their shared hatred of the regime.
This leaves the very real possibility of the emergence of a gaping power vacuum that various players may rush to fill. Most notable will be the tribes, who will seek to assert their authority in the areas in which they are strong. Given longstanding tribal disputes and rivalries, this is unlikely to be a harmonious process or a force for unity. The fact that there are already weapons in circulation among the protesters suggests that things could turn very ugly indeed. The fact that Libya is now sandwiched between two other states in a process of transition can only make things worse.
In such a scenario Islamist groups may also try to assert their authority. There are Islamists present in the east, including those of a militant bent, some of whom were recently freed from prison under the regime's de-radicalisation initiative. They may try to seize the chance to impose themselves in areas where they are strong. However, it seems unlikely they would meet with much success. It is true that there is a sensibility to the Islamist message in the east yet it seems improbable that there would be any widespread appetite for Islamist rule. Nevertheless, these Islamist groups may find pockets of support and neighbourhoods in which they may to try to impose their own ideology on the local population, fragmenting the country even further.
If the situation became this bad, the country may become ungovernable and the prospect of civil war would not be unimaginable. In the worst case scenario Libya may even divide, with the east trying to form its own region, something that would lead to a serious battle over control for the country's energy resources.
Given the seriousness of the situation Libyans are increasingly calling on the army to step in. Whilst the Libyan army is neither professional nor united, and has a reputation for being corrupt, it has rather more respectability than other forces that have been responsible for internal repression. As such it is conceivable that some parts of the army, possibly under its chief Abu Baker Younis Jabr, could step in to remove Qadhafi and oversee some kind of transition process.
In addition there are still some faint vestiges of respect for members of the Revolutionary Command Council that took power with Qadhafi in 1969. These include figures such as Qadhafi's former right-hand man, Abdelsalam Jalloud, who fell out of favour with the regime in the 1990s. Although these figures are certainly considered part of the inner workings of the regime, they are perceived to be slightly less tainted than other figures close to Qadhafi.
As such some of these members of the old guard, supported by the army, could conceivably manage a transition to a Presidential Republic with a functioning constitutional democracy. While it seems unlikely that these figures would go as far as allowing free and fair elections, they may, with an enormous amount of effort, turn Libya into a country that looks more like a functioning state than it has ever done under Qadhafi.
Yet whether such an outcome would be accepted by those in the east is not clear. They may feel that accepting the army in this way would be a betrayal of their revolution and may see it as the continued domination of the east by the west. As such, should these figures take over they may still struggle to keep control of the ground.
The other possible option being mooted is for a committee consisting of representatives of the opposition abroad and of the demonstrators inside to try and lead the country in the post-Qadhafi era. Yet whether such forces, notable for their political inexperience, would be able to unite is highly questionable.
Whatever transpires in the coming days and weeks, Libya is in for a very rough ride. Managing a stable transition will be far more challenging for Libya than for either Egypt or Tunisia, and will have far-reaching consequences for both North Africa and beyond.
Alison Pargeter is a freelance analyst and writer on North Africa and the Middle East. She also specializes in issues related to political Islam and radicalisation, publishing widely on these topics - her books include The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe and The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition. firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.