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W&L Professor Sees Parallels to Libyan Rebellion in Congolese Wars of 1990s

As the world waits to see what might transpire in Libya over the days ahead, a Washington and Lee University politics professor believes there is a huge risk for chaos and infighting and points to the Congolese wars as a comparable situation.

Ayşe Zarakol, who studies political transformations and is the author of “After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West,” says that she sees no way for Muammar Qaddafi to retain power.

“He will not be able to hold even the quasi-control that he has had since March,” Zarakol said. “He will be lucky if he lives to die of natural causes some day.”

With Qaddafi gone, the question of Libya’s future is uncertain, and Zarakol believes there is an enormous risk of chaos and infighting. She sees little chance that a stable government, let alone a democracy, will take hold anytime soon.

“The rebels are not very well organized, nor have they been fighting for very long,” she said. “The only loose ties they have to one another are tribal and geographical. Even among the tribes, which are mostly from the east of the country, there are factions. Furthermore, not everyone who opposes Qaddafi, which is virtually the entire country besides those on his payroll, has joined the rebellion. This is true especially in the western areas of the country and in Tripoli.”

Consequently, Zarakol warns, the rebels come to power without a coherent ideological drive or plan. The only thing uniting the rebellion, in addition to tribal alliances, is the desire to get rid of Qaddafi. “Once that common raison d’etre is removed, it is unlikely they will remain united,” she said. “Because they have not been fighting for very long, they are unlikely to have developed a ‘barracks’ type of organizational culture or military discipline that would help keep different factions in line during the transition period.”

When it comes to historical examples of rebel forces that took over a country and successfully consolidated a stable government, Zarakol points to the American Revolution and to the Turkish Independence War in the 1920s. She notes that, in both instances, the rebels were more organized, had charismatic leaders and operated on clear ideological principles.

Zarakol also refers to the ouster of Mobutu from the former Zaire in 1997 as a comparable event to what is occurring in Libya.

“Mobutu was a reviled despot much in the vein of Qaddafi, so everyone was happy to see him taken out by the rebels during the First Congo War,” she said. “The rebel groups were supported by the neighboring countries. Later when the rebel leader, Kabila, tried to assert his independence from his foreign backers, especially Rwanda, the Second Congo War broke out, sucking in most of the neighboring countries. Millions of people died. Despite the ceasefire almost a decade ago, the situation is still volatile.”

If there is infighting in Libya, she said, it is unlikely to envelop the neighboring African countries like the Congo War did. The difference is that where Congo has rich reserves of coltan, which is used in the manufacture of electronic capacitors, Libya has oil, and that means the international community is heavily involved.

“It will be very difficult for NATO to balance aid and peacekeeping to ensure stability on the ground without upsetting the already fragile ties that hold the rebellion together,” she said. “It would be a good idea to study the lessons of the Congolese wars.”