With the 42-year reign of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi coming to a seemingly inevitable end, it is worth reflecting on the significance and regional implications of his ouster. Perhaps most importantly, Qaddafi’s removal cannot but result in genuine regime change. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Libya does not possess autonomous state institutions or state-sponsored elites with the capacity to force out the leader in order to perpetuate their custodianship of the state. If Qaddafi falls – and absent foreign intervention – Libya’s power elite will either go down with him, or remain masters of institutions and networks that no longer exist, are shattered beyond repair or have lost their relevance. Libya, in other words, will be spared the spectre of a permanent transition, and any successor appointed by the Ancien Régime will make Shapour Bakhtiar’s 39-day tenure look everlasting. As with the national uprising against the Shah in the late 1970s, the only possible outcomes are restoration or revolution.
If not quite a tabula rasa, Libya is also almost certain to escape the clutches of democratic reform – best represented by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and advocates of partnership between government, capital and civil society – and proceed directly to regime transformation. In contrast to Tunisia or Egypt, the Libyan people will not be required to engage in a further series of mass demonstrations against the new-old regime because there will be no one left to demonstrate against. Rather, the Libyan people will have a unique opportunity to speedily establish a new constitutional order and associated institutions that remove the security establishment from the apex of the power structure, and ram these down the generals’ throats.
The abiding weakness if not absence of Libyan institutions to mediate conflicts and prevent new divisions from turning violent of course also means it can all go horribly wrong. Nevertheless, there are reasonable causes for optimism. The first is the extraordinary collective spirit, voluntarism, creativity, and unity of purpose unleashed by the uprising. A second is the likelihood that enough Libyans will reflect on their miserable fate during the past several decades and insist upon – and act to ensure the application of – iron-clad guarantees that they won’t be subjected to another lifetime of tyranny. Third, the regime’s desperate attempts to manipulate tribal and regional differences in order to sow division appear to have failed, despite a previous record of relative success. Last but by no means least, the entire Arab world is watching – and participating. Just as Qaddafi is unable to escape being held to account by his own people, so Libya will be held, and appears keenly aware it will be held, to the new standard of Arabism – including dignified governance – that is being forged across the region. Just as Egyptians began walking like giants after simultaneously shedding themselves of Mubarak and the stereotype of docility, so Libyans appear equally keen to walk with their heads high after years of being maligned by fellow Arabs on account of Qaddafi’s antics.
On the other side of the ledger Libya is and will remain a rentier state, and such entities have a tradition of producing absolutism and the means to keep their populations quiescent. But that is precisely why the Libyan case is of such significance. It is not Syria or Morocco, but rather the “Kuwait” of the Maghreb. More to the point, and despite its huge resources and small population, socio-economic discontent appears to have played a prominent role alongside political fury in unleashing the uprising. True, Libya is not a Gulf state and unlike the latter proved incapable of resisting the winds of change during an earlier revolutionary period. But Bahrain is already on fire, and the implication is that the prospects for upheaval in some of the latter’s neighbours – particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – is more than wishful thinking. Why, indeed, do the potentates of such islands of eternal stability feel suddenly obliged to gift their subjects billions if they are immune to the Tunisian virus that has become an Arab disease?
Another noteworthy aspect of the Libyan experience is the significant role the diaspora has played in demolishing regime legitimacy. Reminiscent of the role played by Iranian students in the 1970s, and exceeding the previous efforts of overseas Tunisians and Egyptians, it has in this case been Libyan diplomats who have taken the lead. By vociferously deserting the regime they represent in droves, they have sent an unambiguous message to their compatriots that the ship is sinking and thereby encouraged others to turn against Qaddafi. Given the sheer magnitude of Arab diasporas – itself an indication of the staggering scale of misrule – and the visible impact of Libyans abroad, diasporas are likely to respond more energetically in future.
When Libya’s youth begin practicing penalty kicks with the head of its most famous football star’s reformist brother, it will also be the ultimate retort to those who justified the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq on the grounds that the Iraqi people were incapable of removing Saddam without “foreign assistance.” There is, in point of fact, not all that much separating Qaddafi’s Libya from Saddam’s Iraq, or for that matter Libya’s Qaddafi from Iraq’s Saddam. One key difference is that Iraq was by 2003 well on its way to failed statehood on account of more than a decade of the American-led blockade, while Libya in 2011 appeared well on its way to WTO membership after the Bush-Blair-Berlusconi embrace.
More to the point in the present context, Libyans have almost unanimously rejected the prospects of foreign intervention during or after their revolution, on the grounds that its objective will be to keep Libya and its oil safe from the Libyan people. Should they succeed in safeguarding their sovereignty, this may prove their best insurance against a “democratic transition” Iraqi-style.