Upheaval in Qaddafi's Libya isn't just another Arab uprising
Libya's motley modern structure is largely tribal – without centuries of nationalist history or a strong military like Egypt or Tunisia. Libya is an ideologically driven oil state, but Qaddafi's grip has prevented real economic reforms. The tides are turning his brutal hold, but what happens next?
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The shocking change within Libya
Initially, the violent clashes between security forces and protestors that started in Benghazi on Feb. 16 were motivated by the same factors that have sporadically caused unrest in Cyrenaica (Eastern Libya) over the last two decades – regionalism, tribalism, Islamism, and the injustices of Qaddafi’s rule. Next, the conception of Libya as the next state to be engulfed by a general Arab Awakening against dictatorship spread, enhancing the movement’s ability to both recruit inside Libya and elicit sustained interest in the West. Then something happened that nearly all analysts of Libya thought was impossible. On Feb. 20, protests previously confined to areas historically inhabited by Qaddafi’s opponents in the East began to spread to the traditionally quietist capital city of Tripoli in the West. Historically in Libya, firing into crowds of protesters has caused them to disperse; this time the revolutionary successes of Egypt and Tunisia have given average Libyans the belief that change was within their grasp. The regime missed the meaning of this unique historical moment and employed outdated tactics.Skip to next paragraph
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Arguably, the decisive event that forever modified the dynamics was a speech by Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, broadcast late on Feb. 21 on Libyan national TV. Mr. Islam might have rolled out new reforms, blamed the reactionary conservatives like Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmudi for the situation in the country, and promised that he would use his weight with his father to stop the violence against the protesters. Instead, he played the Mubarak card – if you don’t stick with me, you’ll get Islamism, separatism, Western intervention, and total chaos. Although these are potentially valid points, Islam's tone was standoffish rather than conciliatory, and his speech was brazenly an effort to justify the Qaddafi family’s efforts to hold onto power by any means. Less than 10 minutes after the speech’s completion, it had already backfired, uniting the disillusioned mob across Libya, bringing them into the streets of Tripoli, leading to more deaths, and causing an enormous media backlash against the Qaddafis on Al-Jazeera.
Impossible to predict outcome
Recognizing this remarkable change in Libya’s internal dynamics cannot guide us as to what will happen next. Will the elite security services staffed with Qaddafi’s tribal allies and aging Soviet armaments be able to retain control in pockets of the west of the country? Or will the new national movement, aided by outside pressure and defections of Qaddafi loyalists, facilitate the final implosion of the regime, leaving an enormous power vacuum? Either way, the events of the last days seemingly guarantee that Libyan society will become even more atomized. Libya lacks a professional, non-tribal army like Egypt’s or Tunisia’s that could serve as a mediating force in a transition period.
It is impossible to estimate how Qaddafi or his tribal and revolutionary allies will respond to these events, which have caught them totally unprepared. Over the past four decades Qaddafi has survived countless assassination attempts, internal coup plots, Cyrenaican uprisings, and the American bombing of his headquarters in 1986. However, the events of the last few days have re-stitched the very fabric of Libyan society, and no pundit can tell you where it will end.
Martin van Creveld is a military historian and author of “The Rise and Decline of the State,” “The Culture of War,” and many other books. Jason Pack researches Libya at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, and has worked in Washington, DC, on US-Libya relations.