Libya's false chaos theory | Jane Kinninmont

An argument much used by Arab autocrats under threat in Libya and elsewhere is that disintegration would follow their overthrow

Moussa Koussa, the former Libyan foreign minister, has said that the country risks turning into another Somalia in the wake of the collapse of an African Union mediation effort. The AU's proposal for a ceasefire was, predictably, rejected by the opposition as it would have kept Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in power.

The future of Libya is highly uncertain, and it is not at all clear what a post-Gaddafi state would look like after four decades under a dictator who has deliberately weakened or banned all political alternatives or independent civil society.

However, Koussa's remarks should be treated with some scepticism. They are remarkably similar to comments previously made by Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, who said in a televised speech in February that the continuation of the uprising would lead to a bloody civil war – and eventually the country's disintegration. This was not so much political analysis as a threat, backed up by state violence.

It is a common strategy for authoritarian rulers to destroy and deny alternatives to their own rule. This allows the leader to argue that change – especially a popular uprising or democratisation – will lead to chaos, while the status quo promises stability. It's a powerful argument: in Britain, a similar case was made during the English civil war by political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argued that an absolute monarch was necessary to prevent man's natural state of war.

In the last few years Arab rulers have often pointed to Iraq as an example of chaos, claiming that this is the secret aim of western democracy promoters rather than the result of years of brutalisation and deliberate divide-and-rule tactics by the government of Saddam Hussein.

The chaos argument has been employed repeatedly during the so-called Arab spring. In Egypt, the former president Hosni Mubarak claimed in February that while he had no personal desire to remain in power he was worried that stepping down would lead to chaos. Meanwhile the Egyptian authorities sent paid thugs on to the streets in a theatrical attempt to prove his point.

Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, has also been claiming that protesters in the city of Deraa have been seeking to cause chaos. Saudi clerics have said much the same thing.

Another common tactic for authoritarian Arab rulers is to conflate the leader, the government, the regime and the state, so that any challenge to the ruler can be portrayed as treachery to the nation. Saif al-Islam presented his father as someone who was holding a tribal, clannish nation together.

The claim that the leader is the only person who can ensure national unity versus tribal, regional or sectarian interest groups can be a compelling argument in a post-colonial region where most states are relatively new. However, any concept of stability that is built around a single person is, by definition, unsustainable. It means, for instance, that succession is a major risk.

The sheer speed of the events in Egypt and Tunisia has left many people with unrealistic expectations. In an article last Wednesday, Benjamin Barber argued that the "exuberant naifs" who thought democracy was on hand in Libya have been proven wrong by the past few weeks of conflict. But the Libyan uprising began only in mid-February. No one seriously argued that an end to a four decades-old dictatorship and a transition to democracy would be completed within two months.

Libya's transition will inevitably be harder than Egypt's or Tunisia's, where the leaders have departed but the state institutions are almost entirely intact. In those cases, the debate is now about whether and how change and reform can go deeper.

Libya is a complete contrast. Gaddafi has cleverly constructed a political system designed to prevent anyone else building up a serious power base; he even played his sons off against one another. No institution, including the army, can easily step into the breach. The country's political institutions, based around a dysfunctional system of local "popular committees", will probably need to be rebuilt from scratch.

On the other hand the opposition has moved remarkably quickly to set up an interim leadership council in a country that had virtually no organised domestic opposition movements until recently. It still faces tough questions. One is whether its authority can be truly national.

Some analysts fear a protracted conflict between the east, led by Benghazi, and the west, led by Tripoli, with different tribes lining up on each side. The opposition itself claims to be crossing these divides, and it includes increasing numbers of ex-regime defectors from a variety of tribes. However, there are also likely to be future disputes over what role, if any, former regime insiders should play in future politics. The opposition's association with international intervention will also be divisive, and increasingly so, depending on the length of the conflict and the numbers of civilian deaths.

There are real reasons to fear a protracted conflict in Libya, given the violence that is already taking place; international intervention is always controversial and civilian deaths in Nato attacks will be exploited by Gaddafi's government, despite the thousands of civilian deaths it has been responsible for itself. The political transition will be difficult, given the weakness of state and civil society institutions, but prolonging authoritarian rule would not make them any stronger; the weakness of institutions is the result of authoritarianism, not a reason for it.


Jane Kinninmont

The GuardianTramp

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