By: Malcolm Scott
Former Libyan Prime Minister Mustafa Jalil has made it clear that he hopes for NATO to remain in Libya for a few more months, and this should come as no surprise. The Libyan nation is not simply ending a civil war but also enduring the release of a reservoir of built-up grievances and frustrations. Now deceased dictator Mouammar Gaddafi had staffed key regime posts with Qathathfa, Warfala and Marghaha tribe members; Libyans have predictably framed their grievances against former Gaddafi supporters in terms of tribal affiliation. Tribal allegiance represents just one of many identities in Libyan society, but Gaddafi made it salient under his regime.
“Islamists and Arab nationalists have made efforts to install Arabic as the official Libyan language. These two identities will be another source of conflict, and these conflicts indicate perhaps the most dangerous impact of Libyan Islamists.”
There are also tensions involving ancestry and Islamism. There is newly-relevant friction between Arab and Berber Libyans; Gaddafi had attempted to coercively urbanize Berbers, and he discussed them contemptuously. With their chief oppressor gone, many have sought to renew their people’s position in Libyan society – this has posed obvious challenges to existing Libyan power structures. Meanwhile, Islamists and Arab nationalists have made efforts to install Arabic as the official Libyan language. These two identities will be another source of conflict, and these conflicts indicate perhaps the most dangerous impact of Libyan Islamists. Most Libyans seemingly have limited interest in militant Islam; words from an insecure, retired politician and an overexcited rebel commander are the only evidence that the transitional council supports Islamism.
The most relevant problem, however, is that the council is trying to acquire control amidst a flurry of released anger. There is simply no established national discourse that can adequately address these grievances or provide non-violent avenues to release the built up pressures that now spill out. Gaddafi ruined opportunities for dialogue and productive discussion. American fears about an Islamist state forming seem unlikely, but militant Islamists could still pose a problem. The danger lies in their capacity for popular mobilization as conflicts rage and the council struggles for legitimacy. The young government might be crippled by a movement that can channels and organize the nebulous, disconnected frustration of many Libyans into something more tangible. The council may need NATO both to prevent reprisals between Libyans and to maneuver around Islamists.