The February 17th Revolution in Libya

By Ronald Bruce St John - Atlantic Council Working Group on Libya | Aug 1, 2011
Flickr user Nasser Nouri
Flickr user Nasser Nouri
The February 17th Revolution in Libya

The recent uprisings in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen share associated economic grievances and a common call for responsive government and a more dignified way of life; however, their underlying social dynamics are the product of diverse encounters with the outside world and years of oppression under very different political regimes. This is particularly true in the Libyan case, where socioeconomic and political structures and institutions shaped before as well as during the Qadhafi years have combined to produce a unique political economy. To play a positive role in the construction of a post-Qadhafi Libya, the members of the Contact Group and other states engaged there need to understand these differences, distancing themselves from the idea that the uprisings that make up the Arab Spring constitute a cohesive Arab revolt.

What Makes Libya Different

Libya enjoys enormous hydrocarbon reserves, the largest known oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves in Africa, making it a relatively wealthy state when compared to Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Moreover, the high quality of Libyan crude oil and the proximity of its oil and gas deposits to Europe mean it will enjoy a ready market for those resources in the foreseeable future. Western Europe took the bulk of Libyan hydrocarbon exports before the outbreak of the revolution, and it will do so again once the fighting stops.

Afraid that civil organizations could become centers of opposition, the Qadhafi regime systematically destroyed civil society in Libya. There were no political parties, independent trade unions, Kiwanis clubs, or parent-teacher organizations in Libya before the revolution. Qadhafi was fond of describing a multi-party political system as one in which people are ridden on like donkeys and derided the very idea of civil organizations, arguing that his system of direct democracy made them redundant. Denied civil organizations, Libyans turned to the family and the tribe for individual and group support. In a post-Qadhafi Libya, it will take time to develop civil organizations supportive of democratic institutions. In the rebel-controlled areas, this process has already begun with as many as 80 civil organizations reportedly operating in the Benghazi area. In addition, ten or more daily newspapers, over 30 weekly publications, and a new television channel have opened their doors since the revolution began.

Libya is a homogenous Muslim society, with 99% of the population self-identifying Sunni Muslim compared to the religious fissures found in Egypt and Syria. Moreover, radical Islamist movements are weak in Libya unlike Egypt which has an active Muslim Brotherhood and Yemen with al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula. Even though the Libyan people are conservative in outlook and religious in nature, they have shown little appetite for the radical Islam advocated by al-Qa‘ida or its North African affiliate, al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb. Libyan nationals made up the second largest group of foreign fighters in Iraq after the Saudis, but their opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq does not in itself portend an Islamist threat in Libya. Much has also been made of the presence of former Guantanamo detainees in rebel ranks; however, they appear to be fighting as individual citizens and not as an organized group. In short, there is limited public interest at this point in an Islamist alternative to the non-ideological February 17th Revolution.

Regarding the recent assassination of General ‘Abdel Fattah Younes, the details surrounding his death are in dispute and may never be known. A longtime associate of Qadhafi, Younes was directly responsible for a number of highly repressive regime policies; consequently, he had many enemies, inside and outside Islamist ranks. While his murder might appear to have broader policy implications, it may represent little more than the settling of an old score. The Transitional National Council (TNC) appears to remain committed to a policy of reconciliation, and in this context, it is important to differentiate between individual acts and the policies of the interim government. Islamists can be identified in rebel ranks; however, there is no evidence to date that they have undue influence over TNC policies or that they are positioning themselves to establish an Islamist government in post-Qadhafi Libya. That said, if the rebellion deteriorates into a prolonged civil war or coalition forces intervene with “boots on the ground,” the potential for militant Islamist groups to increase the space in which they operate will surely grow, a prospect that concerns the TNC.[1] Hence, the risk of al-Qa‘ida gaining a foothold in Libya stems more from rebel defeat than rebel victory.

Libya is a tribal society, and as they do in Yemen, tribal identities remain strong, although they are not in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia. Recognizing the power of traditional tribal leaders and fearful that they would oppose his radical reform agenda, Qadhafi initially tried to eliminate their role and influence; however, when those efforts failed, he turned to them for political support. As early as the late 1970s, members of Qadhafi’s own tribe, the Qadhadhfa, together with affiliated tribes, especially the Maqarha and Warfalla, were appointed to powerful political, military, and security posts. In 1993, the Qadhafi regime created a nationwide system of People’s Social Leadership Committees (PSLCs), consisting of tribal leaders and other influential local persons, and in 1996, he brought the PSLCs together in a national PSLC organization. The creation of the PSLCs marked the first time in the history of Libya that its 140 tribes had been organized into even a quasi-national structure. As the Qadhafi regime turned more and more to the tribes for political support, tribal identities were strengthened and tribal affiliation became increasingly important, reflecting both the prohibition on alternative civil organizations and the celebration of the tribe in The Green Book, Qadhafi’s ideological manifesto.[2]

Over the last few months, some tribes have joined the rebel movement while others have remained loyal to the Qadhafi regime; however, many if not most tribes have tried to remain neutral, either because they are too small or poorly placed to effect the outcome or because they are waiting to see which side will gain the upper hand. In mid April, 61 tribal representatives met in Benghazi where they issued a call for a free, democratic, and united Libya. In so doing, they explicitly rejected recent suggestions by Qadhafi that his regime was the only thing keeping the tribes from engaging in internecine violence. Not to be outdone, Qadhafi later convened his own tribal gathering in Tripoli with regime spokesmen suggesting that some 2,000 tribal chiefs representing 851 tribes and tribal factions were in attendance. Given there are only 140 tribes in Libya, the real size and actual composition of the Tripoli gathering has remained in doubt.

In contrast to the ambivalent stand of many of the tribes, the Amazigh (Berber) minority who speak Tamazight and are concentrated in the Nafusa Mountains southwest of Tripoli wholeheartedly joined the rebels. Ethnic populations like the Amazigh and the Toubou around Kufrah in southeastern Libya have long been repressed by the Qadhafi regime, which in its zeal to promote pan-Arabism tried to erase their cultural identity. Looking to a Libya without Qadhafi, the key demand of the Amazigh is that their language be equal in status with Arabic in a new Libyan constitution.[3]

Although regionalism has marked Libya for many centuries, a growing sense of national identity marked the country after independence in 1951 and especially after the Qadhafi regime came to power in 1969. The strength of this national feeling is apparent in the signs the rebels have displayed since the early days of the revolution, signs that read “Benghazi is with Tripoli,” “Libya is one Nation,” and “One Libya Undivided.” Recognizing this widespread interest in and desire for national unity, the TNC has emphasized from the start that its goal is to represent all the people of Libya. In contrast, the Qadhafi regime has continued to perpetuate the myth that its fall would lead to chaos and civil war.

Road Map to Democracy

In early May, the Transitional National Council unveiled a road map to democracy which calls for the transition to an elected government to begin with the installation of an interim government made up of TNC members, select technocrats from the Qadhafi regime, senior military and intelligence officers, and a Supreme Court judge. The interim government is to hold municipal elections in rebel-held areas under UN supervision, and with the defeat of the Qadhafi regime, it will organize a national council of municipal representatives to elect a committee to draft a new constitution which will be submitted to a referendum. Once the Libyan people have approved the new constitution, parliamentary elections will be held in four months followed two months later by presidential elections. Despite reported dissension within the rebel movement in general and the TNC in particular, the proposed road map appears to be grounded in democratic convictions and the belief that human rights are universal. More recently, all of the TNC members signed a pledge promising to recuse themselves from political life for four years in any post-Qadhafi government, another indication of their commitment to a democratic Libya.[4]

The drafting of a new constitution will be a crucial step on the road to a more democratic Libya. In 1969, the Qadhafi regime replaced the 1951 constitution, the only one the country has known, with a constitutional proclamation. The latter document assigned all powers to Qadhafi and his fellow army officers on the Revolutionary Command Council and thus will be of no help. There is support in some Libyan circles for bringing back the 1951 constitution, but it was a flawed document which helped create the conditions leading to Qadhafi’s 1969 coup d’état. It called for a hereditary monarchy with a federal form of government and joint capitals in Benghazi and Tripoli. As Libyan politics evolved into a form of benign despotism, political parties were outlawed, demonstrations banned, newspapers censored, and opposition suppressed. A unitary format later replaced the federal government; nevertheless, the graft and corruption continued.[5] Libyans will need to create a new constitution, and this will take time as there is little in their 60 years of independent life to guide them.

Shortly after the rebels in eastern Libya liberated towns and cities like al-Bayda and Benghazi, they began to form popular committees to collect weapons, control traffic, and supply electricity and water. The structure and operation of these committees is reminiscent of the nationwide system of congresses and committees established by the Qadhafi regime after 1973. Most Libyans were reluctant participants in the latter, which were organized and controlled by the regime; however, many Libyans gained some experience in managing local government institutions and functions which they are now putting to good use. In the rebel-controlled areas, judges, educators, lawyers, and other middle class opponents to the regime are directing this effort, and similar individuals can be expected to do the same elsewhere in Libya as the rebel-controlled area expands.

Next Steps

Some observers have questioned the inclusion of former regime officials in the Transitional National Council; however, the involvement of technocrats with proven administrative skills — as distinguished from ideological stalwarts — will benefit a country devastated by war. It will also send a message of national unity and healing and quiet fears of factional interests and petty retribution. The rebels can learn from the Iraqi experience in which a mass purge of Saddam Husayn loyalists under an American-backed program of “de-Baathification” stripped tens of thousands of officials of their jobs and contributed to years of insurgency.

The TNC has promised to expand its membership to better represent all regions and interests which is a welcome move, but it also needs to take additional steps, including an increase in the inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability of its deliberations. TNC meetings have been held behind closed doors with no minutes issued, and the rebel council has offered little or no accounting of how it spent money taken from the Libyan Central Bank or donated by Libyans living abroad. On a related front, the TNC needs to exert stronger command and control over rebel forces in the field. Reports of arson, looting, and the abuse of civilians by rebel forces is highly counterproductive, undermining support for them at home and abroad.[6] The TNC also needs to take steps to broaden the representation and participation of women in the political process in general and in the interim government in particular. After 1969, the Qadhafi regime promoted a more open, expansive role for women, especially in the field of education; consequently, female activists in Libya were rightly dismayed when the rebels appointed only one woman to the initial interim government.[7]

Finally, the TNC needs to flesh out the proposed transition outlined in the road map and begin institution-building. The road map was a good first step, but rebel plans in a post-Qadhafi Libya remain largely in an embryonic form and detailed, concrete governing and security strategies must be formulated for the decisive days that will follow the end of the Qadhafi regime. Security in the form of a new police force will be an initial concern, but a functioning court system and impartial judges to uphold the rule of law must quickly follow. The speedy resumption of oil production to fund a post-Qadhafi Libya will also be paramount. In conjunction with these efforts, a whole new set of institutions needs to be created, essentially from scratch. This will be a time-consuming and imperfect process; therefore, it is important to advance the process now, improving and refining the output as time and conditions permit. The members of the coalition have an obvious role to play in the reconstruction process; however; it is vitally important to let the Libyans take the lead, providing advice and support as they request it. A post-Qadhafi Libya will have its problems, to paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi as the independence of India approached, but they will be Libya’s problems, not those of France, Great Britain, the United States, or any other country, and Libyans must deal with them and learn from them.

 

[1]. Noman Benotman, “Libyan Rebels Must Weed out the Jihadists Now,” The Times (London), July 11, 2011.

 

[2]. Ronald Bruce St John, “Why Tribes Matter,” The New York Times, February 23, 2011.

 

[3]. Peter Graff, “An Amazigh Cultural Rebirth Begins in Libya’s Mountains,” The Daily Star (Beirut), July 13, 2011.

 

[4]. Gert Van Langendonck, “Libya Rebel Council Prepares for the Day after Qaddafi,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 23, 2011.

 

[5]. Ronald Bruce St John, Libya: Continuity and Change (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 37–47.

 

[6]. Human Rights Watch, “Libya: Opposition Forces Should Protect Civilians and Hospitals,” July 13, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/07/13/libya-opposition-forces-should-pro....

 

[7]. Diaa Hadid, “Taboo-breaking Women among Gadhafi’s Biggest Fans,” Associated Press, June 8, 2011, http://www.ap.org.

 

the Qadhafi regime systematically destroyed civil society in Libya