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New Texts Out Now: Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, Libya, Social Origins of Dictatorship, and the Challenge for Democracy

[Cover of [Cover of "The Journal of the Middle East and Africa"]

Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, "Libya, Social Origins of Dictatorship, and the Challenge for Democracy." North African Revolutions, special issue of The Journal of the Middle East and Africa 3.1 (2012)

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Ali Ahmida (AA): This article was inspired by the democratic revolutionary uprising in the Arab World, especially Libya, the least known country. Also, I wanted to go beyond the orientalist and the colonial filtering and categories by bringing in the historical, comparative, and post-colonial context. For example, Libya’s colonial genocide under Italian Fascism is often ignored and is viewed through the category of tribalism, despite the fact the majority of the Libyan people live in urban areas, and it has the highest literacy rate in Africa. The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and even the critical London Review of Books have published material on Libya conditioned by these conventional views. The category of tribalism is an easy and simplistic one, but ahistorical and misleading. 

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does your article address?

AA: I examine the current media and mainstream academic view of Libya as a tribal country, mainly an invention of Qaddafi, and outside of history. I also analyze the national/colonial question and the social question in Libyan modern history, especially the genocide under Italian colonialism, the roots of the dictatorship, and the social changes in Libyan society since 1951. I looked at this social history from the point of view of the middle class and the subaltern forces and groups. The old regime was a populist one in the early stages and was supported by the vast majority of the Libyan people. Its social base changed after 1975, when a conflict emerged within the revolutionary twelve members who toppled the Sanusi Monarchy. Qaddafi‘s faction won the battle, and from this point on he eliminated his rival and dissolved the army. By 1980, the seeds of dictatorship became stronger and he relied on his own kin group, allies from central and southern Libya, and excluded all the rival opposition especially in the Eastern region of Barqa, the old social base for the Sanusi Monarchy between 1951-1969. The regime relied on informal organization such as his close associates, revolutionary committees, and the security apparatus. Ironically, the regime’s early progressive policies in supporting education for most men and women in the country created a high expectation for political and social rights. But by 2011, the regime was isolated and out of ideas. The very young men and women who were educated under the regime are the ones who challenged it. The current revolution is urban, not rural, as have been most resistance movements in Libyan modern history.  

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

AA: My PhD dissertation was on the social and regional origins of collaboration and anti-colonial resistance in Libya from 1835-1932. It was published under the title The Making of Modern Libya by the State University of New York Press in 2004, and a second revised edition was published in 2009. This book was published in Arabic in two editions, but was banned in Libya. My edited book, Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in the Maghrib: History, Culture and Politics, was published by Palgrave Press in 2000, and in 2005 I published my second book, Forgotten Voices; Power and Agency in Colonial and Post Colonial Libya, published by Routledge. This book was translated into Arabic but was banned in Libya, too. Then I edited a second book, Bridges Across the Sahara, published by Cambridge Scholars in 2009. This book challenged the colonial category of the Sahara as a divided and empty space. Based on this critical postcolonial theory and method, I updated my research and scholarship on the social history of the colonial period by examining the new context of the crisis of the state, the alienation of the youth, and the process of social mobilization, old and new, such as social media and international TV stations. I also took notes from my own visits to Libya and my interactions with my audiences to write this article. I built on my New York Times op-ed piece (published in March 2011) "Why Qaddafi Has Already Lost," which was circulated nationally and internationally.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AA: I hope readers will became aware of the poverty of conventional views regarding the elite, tribalism, and other clichés regarding Libya, and discover the long struggles of Libyan civil society against both colonialism and dictatorship. This is a society that is modern, diverse, and has the highest literacy rate in Africa. As I said, Libya society is urban and literate and comes first in the whole continent of Africa, ahead of even Tunisia. It is really silly to describe it as tribal and to overlook the fact that Qaddafi’s regime tried to invent this ideology for its own survival, despite the fact that most Libyans live in cities, and are economically integrated into the modern economy. I call this the ideology of tribalism. Let me add that this ill-informed image of Libya is common in the Arab world too. Libya is reduced to oil, terrorism, and Qaddafi.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AA: I am working on three book projects now. The first is a new book called The Libya We Do Not Know: A Social and Cultural History. The second is a book entitled Genocide and Silence: The Oral History of Concentration Camps in Colonial Libya, 1928-34. This is the forgotten genocide in Libya and the first one after World War I. I collected one hundred and fifty interviews among the survivors during the last ten years. Finally, I am finishing a biography of Omar Mukhtar, the legendary leader of the Libyan anti-colonial resistance.

J: What do you think are some of the implications of lack of political reform in Libya in previous years for similar political repression in other contexts across the Arab world today?

AA: We have to be aware that revolutions go through complex processes. The current struggle is not just internal, but also regional and international. The outside forces and money, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are trying to support the Islamists and the right-wing exiled Libyans. The question of arms and militias is crucial, but the question of transitional justice and of truth and reconciliation is an even bigger issue. There are at least half a million Libyans living in exile now, and many others inside Libya who feel they are branded as agents of the old regime. This exclusion is a big threat to the current revolution. Unless there are alliances and means for empowering and institutionalizing the revolution, these revolutions may be stalled, defeated, or appropriated by outside forces and the reactionary opposition. I have been teaching late twentieth century revolutions for ten years, and these are some of the lessons of the past.

J: Why have western academics tended to produce oversimplified analyses of the Arab Spring?

AA: They often focus only on elites and rarely take Arab civil society seriously, only through the category of Americanization or Westernization. Also, they are silent about the Western political support of the dictatorship—just remember that Tunisia was regarded as a model and Egypt as a stable country under Ben Ali and Mubarak, and even Qaddafi’s brutal regime was rehabilitated after Lockerbie.

Excerpts from "Libya, Social Origins of Dictatorship, and the Challenge for Democracy"

In 1911, Italy invaded Libya. The invading forces faced a well-integrated, unified, and cohesive society in eastern and southern Libya and northern Chad that maintained a significant resistance until 1931. Within western Libya, the leaders of local resistance organized their disparate groups into the first republic in the Arab world, the Tripolitanian Republic, in 1918. This republic had a collective four-person leadership, a shura or parliamentary council, a flag, a newspaper, and an army. The Italians managed to defeat the republic in 1922, when Mussolini and his Fascist army decided to reconquer the colony and abrogate all agreements that had been made with the resistance movement. The Sanusi movement and the Tripolitanian Republic constitute two early cases of state formation within Libya that make up the germ of modern Libyan nationalism. Qaddafi's new Libyan state emerged from these two precursors and incorporated a unique blend of pan-Islamic aspirations, skepticism toward central state rule, and social linkages based on fluid, far-reaching, family-based organizations.

After the 1969 revolution, Libyan society experienced major social, political, and economic advances, but Qaddafi's new government initially enacted its policies without significant popular support. The pro-Qaddafi faction within the RCC did not consolidate its power within Libya until 1976. At that time, it began to experiment with creating what it called an “indigenous pastoralist socialist society.” While trying to attain this objective, the state simultaneously benefited from significant petroleum revenues that provided steady employment to not only Libyans, but also a large expatriate workforce.

To give Qaddafi credit, he was able to create a state ideology that resonated strongly with the entire spectrum of pan-Arab, pan-African, and Third-World national liberation movements. He achieved this aim while employing language and referring to a common history that could be understood by all Libyans. Qaddafi was able to mobilize nationalist cadres effectively and attack his opponents and rivals both inside and outside the country. At the core of his self-presentation was the image of the Bedouin tribesman. He spoke, ate, and dressed like a Bedouin from the hinterland. He led prayers like an imam.

The new regime also began to pursue a cultural policy of “bedouinization” that attacked urban culture and encouraged the propagation of rituals based on “tribal values,” as evidenced in dress, music, and festivals. Students, intellectuals, and the urban middle class in the big cities found themselves on the cultural defensive and were compelled to shift their own self-presentation. They were not wrong in imagining that the regime's bedouinization policies were aimed at undermining their own prestige in society. As a result of deliberate de-urbanization policies, Tripoli, the most urban and cosmopolitan city in the country, lost its relative cultural importance even as its population increased to two million people.

Behind the rhetoric of a pure Bedouin identity unsullied by Western modernity, however, lurked a more mundane reality. The Libyan population had increased from one million in 1950 to 6.5 million by 2010, with a very large youth cohort whose median age was twenty-four. Sixty-five percent of the population was under the age of thirty, but the unemployment rate was very high, at thirty percent. Today, eighty percent of Libyans live in towns and cities. Well-paying jobs in Tripoli, Benghazi, and the oil fields have attracted many rural people to move north to these cities. As a result, the population of Tripoli increased from 130,000 in 1951 to 1.8 million in 2010, and Benghazi grew from 70,000 residents in 1951 to 650,000 in 2010.

Supporters of the Qaddafi regime—like those of the democratic uprising—included lawyers, judges, journalists, engineers, writers, academics, officers, and diplomats. Libyan citizens fully participate in the state's complex oil-driven economy. Libya enjoys the highest literacy rate in Africa (eighty-eight percent), and the average life expectancy is seventy-eight years. The 2010 UN Human Development Index ranks Libya first in Africa and fifty-third in the world.

In other words, it is necessary to account for the disconnect between the official regime's image of Libyans as timeless Bedouins and the more complex reality of its modern society. Moreover, it is important to confront the fact that the representation of Libya as inherently tribal is rooted in the Qaddafi regime's battle to ideologically disenfranchise the country's urban middle class—that is, the majority of the population. The anti-Qaddafi revolution included 6.5 million persons who are globally connected to international education, travel opportunities, social media, and international television stations such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. These factors of globalization played important roles in supporting the Libyan revolution.


The revolutions that occurred in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt may have precipitated the events in Libya, but the Libyan revolution was at core motivated by the nation's brutal experience of colonialism. The first set of young protesters in Benghazi replaced Qaddafi's green flag with the pre-Qaddafi flag and resurrected the figure of Omar al-Mukhtar, one of the heroes of the anticolonial resistance. Other young men in Nalut, Zentan, and Misurata raised photos of their own local anticolonial resistance heroes. What is most striking about the rhetoric of the Libyan revolution is how Colonel Qaddafi's anticolonialist themes, such as quotes from Omar al-Mukhtar, were turned against him in antiregime cell phone text messages and TV videos broadcast through al-Jazeera and Facebook. Yet even while assaulting Qaddafi's forces, the rebels resisted calling for Western intervention by NATO military forces while simultaneously asking NATO to impose a no-fly zone. Libya's experience with colonialism explains the reasoning behind this decision.

Processes of modernization, urbanization, and especially education played important roles in this revolution. The expansion of education began as early as independence in 1951 and was facilitated by the help of the United Nations. The educational initiatives introduced at this time helped accelerate social change. In 1954, the foundation of a new Libyan university with two campuses in Benghazi and Tripoli created additional educational opportunities, which led to the expansion of colleges and universities across the country. New educational policies led to the rise of a salaried middle class, a student movement, a small working class, trade unions, and the emergence of modern intellectuals by the late 1960s. The number of students increased from 33,000 in 1952 to 300,000 in 1970. By 2010, there were two million students in Libya, including 300,000 at the college and university levels.

The position of women in Libya has been remarkable. In 1943, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world, with an illiteracy rate as high as 98 percent. Thanks to women's social movements in Libya, education has particularly increased among women. Such progress made it possible for women to participate in the 2011 revolution. It is important to remember that mothers of the 1,200 political prisoners who were killed at Abu Salim Prison in 1996 have marched every year since in memory of their deaths. Their February 15, 2011, protest and the arrest of Fathi Terbil, the lawyer representing the families of the executed prisoners, triggered the revolution. Women also contributed to the Libyan revolution by taking care of the wounded, providing food for the fighters, filming videos of the regime's atrocities, speaking to the media, and broadcasting Internet messages. In Libya today, there are more women in higher education than men. In the humanities and social sciences faculties, female students make up eighty percent of the student population.

Beginning in the 1980s, excessive centralization, heightened repression by security forces, and a decline in the rule of law undermined Qaddafi's experiment in creating an authoritarian regime based on indigenous populism. Many civic associations, which had made Libyan society seem more democratic than other Persian Gulf states in the 1970s, withered or were eliminated. A hostile international climate and fluctuations in oil revenues added pressures to the regime. Nevertheless, because education and health care were free and energy, basic food materials, and water were subsidized, Qaddafi's Jamahiriya government continued to receive public support from the lower and middle classes. But these educational and social achievements were diminished by the regime's excessive political control and the development of a cult of personality that centered on Qaddafi as “Brother Leader” of Libya and led to his assumption of the position of president for life. Power became a personal matter.

The regime responded by transforming its rituals of hero-worship and joining them with pan-African ideology while using violence to repress dissent. Because of repeated coup attempts, the regime tortured, imprisoned, and exiled dissidents. Qaddafi's state staffed its security forces with reliable relatives and allies from central and southern Libya. As economic sanctions took their toll during the 1990s, health care and education began to deteriorate and unemployment soared to thirty percent. The economy became even more dependent on oil, and the regime grew increasingly corrupt. Qaddafi's sons dominated the oil industry, communications, and most state-controlled contracts. His sons, including Mu'tasim, Hanibal, and Sa'adi, spent millions on wild parties that many young Libyans viewed via YouTube videos. At the same time, many educated Libyan professionals were paid a mere three hundred dollars a month and were forced to borrow money to obtain medical treatments in Tunisia. In 2010, Transparency International ranked Libya as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, at number 146 out of 178 nations.

Although social media were not used as widely in Libya as in Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Maghreb, thousands of people still used cell phones and had access to independent websites, al-Jazeera, and other TV stations. Furthermore, after the resolution of the Lockerbie crisis and Libya's renewal of contacts with the international community, more media outlets and newspapers were allowed to circulate within the nation, which helped accelerate the rise of reformist and dissident forces, especially among the youth, whose interaction with the outside world had begun to increase.

The regime's growing reliance on excessive centralization and informal security organizations at the expense of more formal state institutions and the rule of law undermined its earlier achievements and led to the decline of the experiment in indigenous political populism. A hostile international climate and declining oil revenues from the late 1970s onwards compounded the regime's crisis of legitimacy and further weakened important public institutions such as courts, universities, unions, hospitals, and banks. Thus, a confluence of internal and external dynamics weakened the state's ideology, which was based on populist authoritarianism and Qaddafi's cult of personality.

This decline was exacerbated by Libya's June 1983 defeat in its war with Chad, in which 10,000 Libyans were killed. Also significant was the regime's confrontation with the United States in April 1986. Conditions worsened further after 1992, when the UN Security Council imposed sanctions against Libya after evidence was presented linking Libyan agents to the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Four years later, in 1996, the regime killed 1,200 Islamist political prisoners in the Abu Salim prison massacre. According to human rights organizations, the victims were Islamist political prisoners who had opposed the Libyan regime in the early 1990s. When they protested against their guards and expressed their demands, General Abdullah al-Sanusi, head of Libyan intelligence and brother in-law of Colonel Qaddafi, ordered his troops to open fire on the prisoners. The regime buried the corpses in a secret location and refused to say anything about their fate. However, this horrific massacre haunted the regime and was one of the primary issues that instigated the 2011 revolution.

The 2011 revolution started when the families of the Abu Salim victims gathered for a protest in Benghazi on 15 February 2011. Many of the city's residents subsequently joined the original group of protestors. During the demonstration, Fathi Terbal, the lawyer representing the aggrieved families, was arrested. His arrest led to a social media announcement declaring a Day of Rage on 17 February. When the regime's troops fired on the peaceful demonstrators, residents of the cities of Bayda and Benghazi rebelled, and protestors stormed the Qaddafi security garrisons. Many soldiers and officers defected, including General Abdulfattah Younes, the Minister of the Interior, and Mustafa Abduljalil, the Minister of Justice. Younes and Abduljalil would later become leaders of the newly formed Interim Libyan Transitional Council in Benghazi.

[Excerpted from The Journal of the Middle East and Africa 3.1 (2012), Special Issue: North African Revolutions. For the full text of the article, please click here.]

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