Solidarity and Intervention in Libya

By Aslı Ü. Bâli and Ziad Abu–Rish
Jadiliyya, March 16, 2011

The Libyan uprising is entering its fourth week. The courage and persistence of the Libyan people’s efforts to overthrow al–Qaddafi have been met with ongoing regime brutality ranging from shoot–to–kill policies to the indiscriminate use of artillery against unarmed civilians. When we last wrote on this subject, we already recognized that the situation in Libya was dire. Since that time the violence of the regime’s unhinged bid to subdue the armed insurgency has only escalated. The mounting civilian death toll resulting from regime brutality has amplified previous calls for international intervention.

The Security Council unanimously issued a resolution imposing tough measures against the Libyan regime including an arms embargo, asset freeze, travel ban and a referral of the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court for investigation. More recently, the Arab League has called on the Security Council to impose a no–fly zone over Libya. The issue of a no–fly zone is only one of several proposals now being loudly advocated. Others include funneling arms to Libyan rebels and proposals to coordinate with Egyptian commandos allegedly already operating in Libya to provide logistical assistance and training to the rebels. Despite the intuitive appeal of the argument that something must be done, we write again now to oppose calls for the types of international intervention that are currently under discussion.

The desire to act in solidarity with the Libyan people demands that we assess the available options against the core principle of legitimacy that any intervention must satisfy: do no harm (that is, do not do more harm on balance by intervening). The likelihood that any of the current proposals involving coercive intervention would satisfy this principle is severely constrained when evaluated against the historical record, logistical realities, and the incentives and interests of the states in a position to serve as the would–be external interveners. Put simply, coercive external intervention to alter the balance of power on the ground in Libya in favor of the anti–Qaddafi revolt is likely to backfire badly. The attendant costs would, of course, be borne not by those who call for intervention from outside of Libya but by the Libyan people with whom we hope to show solidarity. In what follows we argue that embracing the call for solidarity requires a much more careful appraisal of the interventionist option, precisely because the potential risks will be borne by Libyan civilians.

Mixed Motivations and Regime Change

Of the arguments against intervention, the most straightforward draws on an assessment of the long history of external intervention in the Middle East and North Africa.

There is no need to rehearse that history here since the failure of such past interventions to advance the humanitarian welfare or political aspirations of local populations is well–established. But because the possibility of intervention is debated in some circles as if the starting point is a tabula rasa, it is important to begin by recalling this dismal history.

 For instance, the imposition of a no–fly–zone on Iraq did little in and of itself to shift the balance of power against the Saddam Hussein regime, but it did result in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Further, the no–fly zone served as a predicate for the subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq insofar as the ongoing use of this coercive measure against the regime from 1991 until 2003 was cited in support of the argument that there was “implied authorization” to forcibly topple the regime. Indeed, in some ways the modes of intervention that are currently being suggested—including a no–fly zone—should be understood precisely in the register of regime change (rather than humanitarian) intervention.

While humanitarian considerations are often invoked in defense of intervention, humanitarianism is far from the only issue on the table. Other reasons that have been adduced in favor of intervention in Libya include vindicating international norms, re–establishing the leadership of the U.S. in the region, preventing spill–over of the refugee crisis into Europe, and the stabilization of world oil markets.

The Libyan people are struggling to change their regime on their own terms and there is no reason to presume an overlap between these various logics of intervention and their interests. The historical record clearly establishes that an external regime change intervention based on mixed motives—even when accompanied with claims of humanitarianism—usually privileges the strategic and economic interests of interveners and results in disastrous consequences for the people on the ground. Indeed, the discord currently evidenced among Western powers concerning intervention in Libya is precisely based in their doubts as to whether their strategic interests are adequately served by such a course.

The incongruence between the interests of external interveners and those on the ground in Libya is already apparent. Beyond their eleventh hour timing, serious mobilizations for intervention on the part of Western powers were issued only after most Western nationals had been safely evacuated from Libya. The fact that outside powers were unwilling to act while their nationals were on Libyan soil demonstrates their understanding that treating the regime with coercion may lead to civilian deaths either directly as a result of an intervention or indirectly through reprisals against civilians identified as opponents. Furthermore, the evacuation channels made available to Western nationals – airlifts across the Mediterranean – were not and are not being offered to Libyan civilians nor African migrant workers trapped in Libya. If the humanitarian welfare of civilians in Libya were paramount, they, too, would have been offered this secure escape route. Instead, once Western nationals were safely out of harm’s way, coercive measures were adopted without any effort to protect or evacuate the civilians that were left behind in Tripoli and beyond.

No–Fly Zone, Local Calls, and Solidarity

To be clear, we are not categorically rejecting any and all forms of intervention irrespective of the context. Instead, we reject forms of intervention that, on balance, are likely to produce more harm than benefit. This is a context–specific determination that requires an assessment of the forseeable consequences of particular proposed interventions.

With respect to the context in Libya today we are critical of current proposals for intervention in light of the identities and interests of would–be interveners and the limited understanding of intra–Libyan politcal dynamics on which they rely. There are circumstances under which a no–fly zone might conceivably serve a humanitarian purpose. In particular, if air strikes were the principal means by which the regime was inflicting civilian casualties there would be a much stronger case for a no–fly zone. Though the military situation within Libya remains unclear, the empirical evidence that is available suggests that al–Qaddafi’s artillery poses a more serious threat to both civilians and rebels than air strikes. In addition, the regime’s aerial assaults have primarily employed helicopter gunships, which would be difficult to counter through a no–fly zone because they fly lower and are harder to target than warplanes.

Further, a no–fly zone imposed either through the Security Council or NATO would involve an attack on Libyan runways, radars, and anti–aircraft artillery installations with the potential for significant “collateral damage” against civilians and civilian infrastructure.

A no–fly zone that risks killing Libyans would also run the risk of strengthening the regime’s hand by enabling al–Qaddafi to style himself as an anti–imperialist defender of Libyan sovereignty. Rather than persuading elements of the military and air force to defect, such a move might produce a counter–productive rally–round–the–flag effect in parts of Libya still under the control of the regime. The fact that for logistical and political reasons a no–fly zone poses a serious risk of backfiring is an important consideration. But it is not the only reason to question whether heeding local calls for a no–fly zone necessarily represent an act of solidarity.

Unlike many other parts of the Middle East, Libya is a relatively unknown political context for outsiders whether they are progressive activists or conventional analysts.

In a context where intervention is based on the logic of regime change rather than the well–being of the people on the ground, the absence of on–the–ground knowledge about local actors is especially worrying. Elsewhere, for instance in the Palestinian context, much is known about the different parties on the ground. As a result, activists, scholars, and analysts are able to disaggregate different calls emanating from local actors and determine which they deem to be “representative” of the civilian population or entitled to “solidarity.”

By contrast, little is known about the groups that now comprise the Benghazi–based National Transitional Council of Libya and the degree to which they represent the wider demands and interests of the Libyan civilian population. Libyans from other regions of the country (whehter liberated or regime–controlled), who experience allegiance to different tribal leaders and/or political factions among Libyan social forces, may or may not be represented by those currently calling for no–fly zones. Furthermore, a response to calls emanatating from one region may risk fragmenting the country. The fact that we know so little about the domestic context among non–regime actors in Libya is precisely the reason that the types of external intervention currently being proposed are so likely to backfire.

The desire to act in solidarity with local Libyans struggling for their liberation is important. But without a clear sense of the consequences of a particular intervention – or the interests and diverse actors likely to be impacted – there is no way to satisfy the do–no–harm principle.

Notwithstanding the provenance of the calls for a no–fly zone – whether within Libya or the Arab League – and their attendant “authenticity” or legitimacy, we cannot justify intervention unless we can appraise its likely consequences for the civilian population with whom we are allegedly acting in solidarity. This difficulty is further compounded by the fact that neither the Western nor Arab powers currently calling for intervention have a record of privileging particular domestic partners based on the interests or aspirations of local populations. There is little reason to expect that Libya will be exceptional in this regard, particularly in light of the mixed motives of any potential intervener.

We do not argue that the international community has no obligation to support Libyan civilians. To the contrary, we strongly believe there is such an obligation, but that current coercive options pose serious risks to the Libyan population with little concomitant benefit in terms of humanitarian protections.

The interests of potential external interveners are not well aligned with those of Libyans on the ground beyond that of regime change. This is evidenced both by the eleventh hour nature of current discussions about strategies of intervention and by the fact that the policies under consideration are largely symbolic, such as a no–fly zone that would offer little concrete support to Libyans on the ground.

Further, the identities of those contemplating intervention reinforce concerns about such proposals. Many members of the Arab League are currently undertaking repression of democratic uprisings against their rule. The legitimacy and representativeness of any call they issue should be called into question by their own internal anti–democratic practices. As Saudi troops enter Bahrain to shore up the defenses of an authoritarian ruling family against its own people, the bankruptcy of calls for intervention in Libya by members of the GCC and the Arab League is evident. Members of the Group of 8, who met in Paris to discuss a no–fly zone this week, are also compromised by their ambivalence towards democratic demands met with repression by their regional allies and their own long history of brutal interventions and direct support of authoritarian regimes.

Libyans have already made great inroads on the ground and without external support towards a goal of regime change in which they will determine the day–after scenarios for their country.

To date, measures adopted by the international community have done little to aid, and may have undermined, Libyan efforts at liberation. For instance, the call for an ICC referral in the measures adopted by the Security Council was most likely counter–productive. The first priority should have been a negotiated exit strategy for al–Qaddafi and his family, not unlike the path already paved for the other recently deposed Arab despots, Ben Ali and Mubarak. Instead, by immediately referring the regime for investigation by the ICC the international community has signaled to al–Qaddafi that neither he nor his children will be allowed to go quietly, potentially redoubling his resolve to fight to the last. Allowing a negotiated exit to exile in an African or South American country would not have precluded a subsequent ICC referral, but might have facilitated an early end to the violence currently ravaging Libya. Further, the same resolution that referred Libyan authorities to the ICC contained a specific exemption from ICC jurisdiction for foreign interveners not party to the Rome Statute, anticipating and providing impunity in some cases for civilian deaths that result from possible Security Council–authorized operations in Libya down the line. The ICC referral has been described as an attempt to incentivize those around al–Qaddafi to defect. Rather than vindicating international accountability, this logic of incentives suggests impunity for last–minute defectors notwithstanding decades of crimes against the Libyan population. At its most basic, the ICC referral represents the triumph of a set of international goals (vindicating a constrained conception of international accountability through the Libyan regime) over the immediate interest in an early resolution of the Libyan crisis through the provision of a regime exit strategy. This privileging of international over local interests is typical of external intervention and would only be exacerbated by options involving the use of force.

We argue for forms of international assistance that reverse this privileging and begin from the known interests of Libyan civilians. At a minimum, resources must be mobilized to offer relief supplies to the Libyan population that is currently outside of the control of the regime (bearing in mind some of the problematic dynamics also associated with such forms of “aid”). Urgent priority should be given to addressing shortages of medical supplies and provision of essential foods and clean water.

Beyond these basics, an evacuation corridor for civilians – including non–Libyan African workers trapped in the territory – should be secured and responsibility for shouldering the burden of refugee flows should not be restricted to Tunisia and Egypt. To the contrary, rather than imposing these costs on Libya’s poorest neighbors – in the early stages of transitions of their own – Libya’s relatively wealthy northern neighbors in Europe should be absorbing a much larger share of the costs, human and material, of offering refuge to fleeing civilians. The fact that the airlifting of Libyan and other African civilians to safety out of Tripoli is an option that is not currently on the table speaks eloquently to the misalignment of priorities between those who would potentially impose a no–fly zone – NATO countries – and the local population. Dropping the xenophobic European rhetoric on the “dangers” of African immigration would also have the benefit of removing one of the Libyan regime’s major levers with the EU. As al–Qaddafi threatens to terminate the agreements by which he has been warehousing African migrants at Europe’s behest, he lays bare the cruel logic of tacit alliances (based on immigration, energy, and security interests) that has long lent support to his rule. A Europe willing to take concrete steps to facilitate the evacuation to its own shores of civilians who wish to leave Libyan territory regardless of nationality would at least have broken with its record of shameful complicity in regime brutality.

Acting in solidarity with the Libyan people within a do–no–harm principle presents many constraints and frustratingly few options. This is not because of an absence of concern for the interests of the Libyan population but because there are few good options beyond the provision of relief supplies and evacuation channels. There may be other alternatives short of external coercive intervention that might be considered – such as sharing tactical intelligence with Libyan rebels or jamming regime communications – though such options would have to be carefully evaluated in light of potential risks. By contrast, overt and covert coercive options ranging from no–fly zones to arming Libyan rebels or using regional commandos to train them all implicate external actors in altering the balance on the ground in unpredictable ways. To engage in such coercive strategies without being able to evaluate the full range of consequences amounts to subordinating the interests of the Libyan people to our own sense of purpose and justice. As of this writing, reports from Libya suggest that the tide may be turning against the rebels. We are deeply concerned about these developments, though they do not alter our assessment. We strongly advocate creative strategies of solidarity with the Libyan people while underscoring that calls for coercive external intervention do not qualify. Indeed, it is possible that demands for Western support to the rebels may already have done more harm than good.

In the end, we argue for humility in imagining the role we might play in the course of Libyans’ struggle. The international community is neither entitled to take the reins today nor dictate the post–regime scenario tomorrow. Further, those of us who wish to stand in solidarity with Libyans from outside of their country must recognize that we may not be best placed to indentify which local actors enjoy broad–based support. Solidarity cannot be reduced to the diplomatic politics of recognition nor to arguments for external intervention. In the end, we counsel acting from the outside only when our actions are clearly aligned with the interests of Libyan civilians. Imaginative strategies to offer much–needed relief and refuge to Libya’s vulnerable population represent a challenge the international community has yet to meet. That is a good starting point for transnational solidarity.

Is the 2011 Libyan Revolution an Exception?

By Mohammed Bamyeh
Jadiliyya, March 25, 2011

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.