The elimination of rivals and accumulation of power that has kept Muammar Gaddafi in charge of Libya for four decades means that if he were to be killed, his system of rule would probably collapse.
Rabat – Gaddafi has created a political system of overlapping entities and structures that, whatever their formal function, are subservient to the “brother leader” and his close circle.
“The regime has already been shaken by the defection of core members,” said Ronald Bruce St John, author of several books on Libya. “It is highly unlikely that it could also survive Gaddafi‘s demise.”
NATO officials overseeing air strikes on Libya say they are not directly targeting Gaddafi but have repeatedly hit his main compound in Tripoli and, according to Libyan officials, he had a near-miss when one strike hit a house where he was staying.
One of the world’s longest-serving leaders who took office at the age of 27 in 1969, Gaddafi has developed a very personalized ruling philosophy that incorporates elements of Arab nationalism and socialism.
In recent years, the Libyan leader has given his sons greater authority, but many say, were Gaddafi to die, power would fragment in a country already divided by tribalism, historical division, and rivalry among his sons.
“Once a key node collapses, regime collapse could come relatively fast,” said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Internally a key defection or a key death leads to others deciding the game is up and defecting or collapsing.”
Divide and rule
The Libyan government still retains an army far better equipped and trained than the rebels, and the Western powers say they will not introduce ground troops.
Thus Gaddafi’s administration could fight on after his departure, even in the face of internal divisions and the whole system of rule splintering.
Officials in Tripoli say the entire Libyan people is engaged in the fight with the rebels and NATO, a battle they say will go on whether or not Gaddafi is in the picture.
“The psychological blow to the regime would be huge but his death would not necessarily resolve this conflict and might even make things worse,” said Alex Warren, a director of Frontier, a Middle East and North Africa research firm.
“I think the regime will have made contingency plans for Gaddafi’s death. One of the sons, probably Saif (al-Islam Gaddafi), might try to rally support and take on the father’s mantle, but that would be a very difficult task.”
Powerful Arab rulers have enabled their children to take power after their deaths in countries as diverse as Syria and Morocco, but such successions have taken place during peacetime.
Yet Gaddafi’s divide-and-rule philosophy, which extends to his own sons, will make any succession messy. Saif al-Islam has clashed repeatedly in the past with his influential brothers Mutassim and Khamis, Libya watchers say.
“No one son enjoys the support of the general public, military, intelligence and security services, and tribal leaders necessary to build the requisite political coalition, especially in a short-term, crisis milieu,” said St John, whose books include “Libya: From Colony to Independence.’.
“If the Gaddafi family and remaining regime members hesitate, that is do not immediately start shooting citizens demonstrating in favour of the rebellion, a widespread popular revolt could quickly develop in areas like Tripoli currently controlled by the Gaddafi regime.”