After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the strong man of the Middle East on February 11, 2011, the Arab Spring appeared to be an unrelenting force. In the week following his downfall, three theaters of major rebellion—Libya, Yemen, Bahrain—quickly emerged, with Iran’s suppressed Green revolution resurfacing for a while as well. In the weeks that followed mass demonstrations demanding significant political reforms continued or sprang up in countries such as Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Palestine, and Oman. As of late, these tremors have even reached Saudi Arabia and Syria.
The Supposed Libyan “Exception” & The End of the Old Arab Order
Should the Arab revolution make its next stop in Libya, it will be greeted by an already horrific bloodbath, which has transformed a peaceful revolution into armed resistance. Just as former-Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu’s violent ouster two decades ago was the glaring exception to otherwise peaceful transitions in Eastern Europe, so too has Libya come to appear as the glaring exception to the largely peaceful Arab revolts that have taken place over the last several months. At the same time, however, there is little doubt that the largely peaceful nature of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was a result not of the benign nature of those regimes, but rather was a function of the dearth of repressive resources at the disposal of those governments. In both cases the army, the only potentially repressive apparatus left to these regimes, in the end refused to quash the revolts.
While this difference is real, the underlying dynamics of the Libyan revolution nonetheless retain powerful similarities with those that were at play in Tunisia and Egypt, which I discussed in earlier articles on those revolts. In all three instances, spontaneity, rather than established organizational structures or leadership, was the key element. Moreover, these uprisings, which all began at the peripheries of these societies, initially took on a peaceful cast.
While the current violent trajectory of the Libyan uprising may seem to signal its departure from this trend, certain elements of this revolution suggest the continuing salience of civic and ethical calls to action. even after the Libyan uprising turned violent, the opposition continued to promote a new civic ethic, a fact reflected not only in the institutions established by the opposition forces in the last few weeks, but also in their actions on the battlefield: for example, while Qaddafi’s forces slaughters captured opposition, the revolutionary camp takes its captives as prisoners of war.
Furthermore, the apparent exceptionalism of the Libyan revolution should not be understood as implying that the relation of Libyan society to its state differs in anything but degree from the society-state relation in the rest of the Arab world. Just as in other parts of the region, Libyan society over the last decade has become more modern than its regime. As in Tunisia and Egypt, a key factor in galvanizing the Libyan revolution was autocratic deafness to this fact. Autocratic deafness means a structural inability for the regimes to hear their peoples’ grievances or to understand them as little more than childish noise, which could be allayed with economic or other types of transient gifts, rather than as demands for fundamental political change.
As such, all the Arab revolutions, Libya’s included, should be seen as symptoms of an established social modernity, fortified by high rates of education, various communication technologies, and vibrant youth populations, whose economic and political expectations have been profoundly frustrated by a monopolistic, closed and antiquated governing style. These revolutions, whether peaceful or otherwise, have been borne out of a realization that such systems, having never before seen any need to reform, cannot now be entrusted to follow-through on sudden promises to improve their citizens political, social, and economic plights. The Arab world’s new revolutionaries, comprised of vast numbers of ordinary individuals many of whom had never before participated in any form of political mobilization, tend to have little faith in what they increasingly regard as illegitimate governments, so out of touch and lacking in credibility that they must be dismantled (and in all cases, beginning with their head) rather than negotiated with.
In this environment, the demise of the old Arab order has become certain. Contrary to what some may think, the Libyan revolution does not indicate that the inevitable regional transformation will necessarily become dominated by violence. In fact, the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Yemen have demonstrated the vast benefits of non-violence in the face of regime brutality. Nonetheless, in some cases fundamental change may come in the form of a gradual deconstruction of autocratic regimes—internal and slow, but displayed enough to be not only perceptible but also credible. This may be a possible scenario especially for challenged monarchies, notably in Morocco, but perhaps also in Bahrain and Jordan as well. Whatever the precise dynamics of change, it remains unlikely that any of the old Arab regimes will survive the Arab Spring in its current form: as they exist now, their static structure simply contradicts the dynamic modernity of their societies.
The Libyan Case
Libya represents one the clearest examples of this lack of fit between state and society. The extreme violence accompanying the revolution is indeed an expression of the distance between the two, demonstrating the profound structural deafness of the Libyan regime. For example, when regime’s spokespersons as Saif al-Islam, Qaddafi’s son, insist that Libyan society is “tribal,” they describe less an empirical reality than express two other phenomena: first, the regime’s awareness that much of Libyan society exists outside the purview of the state and is organized in its own manner (though not necessarily along tribal lines). Second, “tribalism” as the state understands it reflects the regime’s own retrograde organizational apparatus, rather than the civic and voluntary ethics of real tribal associations.
As a matter of fact, in Libya, actual tribal allegiance, understood as the loyalty that members of one distinct tribe have to their fellows, has never been unconditional. Just as during the Italian occupation of Libya from 1911-1943, contemporary tribal discourse blends with and is clearly subordinate to a collective patriotism, which forms the root of the current national struggle. Since this movement began, Libya’s various tribes have issued numerous statements about the situation, which largely reflect the patriotism that pervades these associations. My personal examination of a sample of 28 tribal declarations, issued between February 23 and March 9, 2011, reveals that the vast majority highlighted national unity or national salvation rather than tribal interests. These declarations also demonstrate that Libya’s tribes are not homogenous entities, but rather are comprised of diverse members with varying social and economic backgrounds. This reality reflects the nature of Libyan society as a whole, which has a 90% urban population and in which inter-marriages across tribal lines are common.
Furthermore, these declarations emphasize the fluidity of tribal solidarities. Only 25% of the tribal declarations examined claimed to have been issued in the name of the tribe as a whole. More commonly, the practice appears to have been that declarations were issued in the name of specific sections or locations of a tribe (43%), or alternatively spoke in the name of the tribe as a whole but proceeded to list its locations as if to implicitly exempt those residing elsewhere (32%). Of the total 28 declarations, 39% included a bara’a statement, which dissociates the tribe from named relatives who are high-ranking officials still serving in the regime. As a part of this examination, I also examined all published appeals made to tribes by their members during the same period, and was struck by the fact that none of them made an appeal to the tribe as a whole and without qualifications. Rather, all individuals who published such appeals addressed them to specific sections of the tribe, located in the particular town or region where support for the opposition was most needed, calling upon their distant relatives to respond to ensure the opposition’s success in their local community.
Both the tribal declarations and these tribal appeals demonstrate how tribal discourse becomes in this revolution another vehicle to express Libyan patriotism and articulate a sense of national duty. It also shows how tribal discourse helps to locally contextualize that sense of responsibly with the aim of producing concrete local successes rather than registering grand symbolic stands.
The combination of an abiding patriotism with a pragmatic tradition of fluid tribal solidarity, point in the direction of a nascent flexibility in Libya’s civic and social organization, which will likely be critical in a post-Qaddafi era. Traditions of local civic authority, historically associated with a fluid mix of tribal networks, Sufi orders, and coastal communities, were vital to Libyans as they built their country following horrific colonial experience. Having experienced more than three decades under Italian rule, the Libyan population, which was no more than 600,000, experienced the full impact of fascism including population control as mass incarcerations in concentration camps as of 1930. Though exact numbers have never been established, a very large percentage of the native population, possibly as high as a third, died as a result of fascist policies, aimed at suppressing determined anti-colonial revolts. Trans-tribal patriotism, a basic catalyst in the anti-colonial revolts in Libya, is now again being revived in full force as one of the foundations of the modern civic ethics of the Libyan revolution.
It is against this dynamic historical reality that Qaddafi’s rule sought to build a state after the model of a tribal structure, yet the structure he had in mind had never existed in the country’s colonial or modern history. Unlike real, fluid tribal structures, the state consisted of concentrated executive power in a few hands—eventually a ruling family--free from popular consent. Far from embracing the spirit of Libyan tribalism, the Qaddafi state adhered to a Mafia-styled ethics, in which fluid and flexible allegiances were replaced with an unquestioned dictatorial style and governed according to conspiratorial ethics.
Libya Before the 1969 Coup
While observers have long noted Qaddafi’s behavioral oddities and mental imbalance, the question as to how he remained in power for so long is perhaps the most interesting in the current environment. The answer, in part, can be found in the fact that a modern state barely existed in pre-Qaddafi Libya. By and large, society was organized around various associations outside the state, including tribal networks, Sufi orders, trade unions and nationalist political parties. The social cohesion of the Libyan state, which was largely reliant upon foreign aid until the discovery of oil a few years before Qaddafi’s coup, rested almost exclusively around the monarchy--itself a new, post-independence institution without deep roots in Libyan social or political history. The relatively short life of the monarchy (18 years) has often been traced to the aloofness of King Idris, the first and last monarch of Libya, whose poor handling of the lethal violence used against student protests in Benghazi in 1964 precipitating a crisis that led to the government’s resignation.
Against this background, Qaddafi’s 1969 coup resembles a conquest of an abandoned castle, which only later would be transformed into a formidable instrument of patronage and fear. This would be accomplished by transforming the state itself into a “protection racket,” as Fred Halliday once described it. Symptomatic of how it was run is an incident in 2009, in which two sons of Qaddafi fought each other with tanks, until one of them forced the other to sell him his share in a new Coca Cola plant.
The absence of any civic element in the Libyan state as it developed under Qaddafi is evident in the exceptional violence of the situation now. When Qaddafi took over the country, a modern Libya was just beginning to take shape, where economic and educational infrastructures were being established, and in which trans-tribal and Arab patriotic sentiments were strong. Yet the relative short life of the pre-Qaddafi Libyan state did not allow it to build enough of itself so as to avoid the task that the new regime set about, which was to replace all normal state institutions with mafia-like networks.
During the reign of King Idris, Libya, with its small population and oil wealth, seemed destined to become a monarchy modeled after those of the Persian Gulf, enjoying economic bounty similar to that of the Gulf states. While Qaddafi may have dispensed with the monarch, he gladly usurped the country’s oil wealth, but the fact that it was largely for purposes other than systematic economic and infrastructural development is evident in the surprising poverty one encounters in Libya in comparison to its Gulf counterparts. Much of that wealth was used as gifts to international friends, to fund poorly thought-out development projects, and to build-up militias loyal to his regime. Libya’s oil wealth also fueled the new regime’s taste for power, financing a number of misguided military campaigns, including a brief war with Egypt in 1977, a clumsy invasion of Chad in 1978 that destroyed an astounding amount of Libyan military equipment, and a sequence of misanthropic, unfocused terror plots.
The Cult of Qaddafi
The 1969 coup, which ultimately brought Qaddafi to power, was led by a group of “free officers” from largely marginal backgrounds. Ali Abdullatif Ahmida has noted that 9 of their 12 leading members, including Qaddafi, came from minor tribes in Libya’s interior or from poor coastal social segments. Supported by this core group of socially marginalized military officials, Qaddafi was able to use the state’s wealth to take innovative and destructive steps unavailable to other Arab leaders to solidify his power. Like other autocrats in the region, Qaddafi aspired to base the new Libyan state on his own cult of personality. Because of the weakness of the pre-1969 state and the oil wealth under his command, Qaddafi’s cult of personality eventually transcended all imaginable limits. As a part of this transformation and under the guise of bringing “genuine democracy” to the country, state institutions were replaced with a network of local agitators and informants—so-called “revolutionary committees” though essentially fascist structures entrusted with policing any deviation, and accountable only to the leader and his narrow clique. This structure, coupled with constant purges, ensured that credible threats to the regime would not emerge from within state institutions.
As part of the program of creating this personality cult, the regime took steps early on to eliminate all other competing cultural symbols. For example, amongst his first acts as leader, Qaddafi gave a speech at the tomb of Umar al-Mukhtar, the legendary leader of the struggle against Italian colonialism. Immediately after the speech, Qaddafi ordered the removal of Mukhtar’s tomb from Benghazi, where it regularly drew many visitors, to a location in the desert where it could not be reached. The leader’s personality cult was not yet well-developed at that point, but its seeds were already apparent in the fear of the presence of any competing symbols, even those of dead heroes.
The personality cult took firmer root in the second half of the 1970s, after the original Revolutionary Command Council that had stood in for the free officers who had overthrown the monarchy, was decimated, and as any potential competitors to Qaddafi’s power were removed or executed. Even god appeared as a suspicious competitor to the great leader: Abdel-Salam Jallud, Qaddafi’s former second in command, once stunned his audience by paraphrasing a Qur’anic verse (from 7:43) so that Qaddafi’s name was inserted in the place of god as the ultimate source of guidance.
In 1977, eight years after assuming power, the “leader of the revolution” claimed to cede his power to the people and assumed the position he continues to hold until today, one in which he has no official political position from which to resign: he only has “moral authority.” The same—minus moral authority—is true of Saif al-Islam, the most promising of Qaddafi’s seven sons and his heir apparent, who likewise occupies no government post yet regularly represents the regime and speaks on its behalf—as for example when he gave the first address to the nation, on behalf of the regime, after the breakout of the revolution. One is hard-pressed to find a political system quite like this anywhere in the world. The regime’s anti-institutional nature, where control is both strict and informal, may be precisely the main reasons for why it must rely on militias and mercenaries, rather than regular armed forces, in its combat against the revolution.
It is probably due to this complete lack of fit between state and society that this was thus far the first modern Arab revolution in which an opposition government was formed before the revolution was over. This was due to three facts, the first two of which are traceable to the extreme condition of autocratic deafness. First, unlike the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, in Libya the unrestrained state violence necessitated early on that government officials must demonstrate their upstanding character by leaving the regime and joining the revolution. But as a result, the revolution could find no trusted partner within the government who, like in the case of the other Arab revolts, could be relied upon to lead a transitional period. At the same time, the defection of a large number of high-ranking state officials, including members of the diplomatic corps who had the close contacts with global institutions (and also most freedom to defect) supplied the otherwise spontaneous uprising with a body of politically experienced recruits who placed a high importance on the development of institutions to support the uprising. At the same time, the opposition’s success in liberating parts of Libyan territory created a pragmatic need for a government-like structure to run and manage these areas.
Thus out of this least institutionally developed condition of state we encounter the emergence of the most institutionally developed model of a revolution. The apparent Libyan exception is thus not only one of violence and bloodshed. This tremendous example of indigenous organizing, arising amidst spontaneous and fearless resistance to state violence, belies Western complaints about the alleged “absence of civil society” in Libya. As Western diplomats and commentators have struggled to identify the exact character of this movement, they have missed its most crucial and illuminating element: that it represented less a specific ideology and more the forceful rebirth of modern Libya’s long repressed civic traditions. As such, out of the most desperate of circumstances, the Libyan revolt has, out of all the Arab revolutions thus far, made the greatest leap forward.
This article was first published on muftah.org