The deep roots of Libya's psychology of violence
For more than four decades, Libya's self-declared 'Brother Leader,' Muammar Qaddafi, has waged a brutal form of psychological warfare against his own people, analysts say. Rebel forces have also been shaped by that violent history.
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“Libyans have had a very rough time over the last century or so,” says George Joffe, a Middle East and North Africa specialist at Cambridge University. “Under the Italian occupation they saw their numbers halved, and they just simply died off like flies in concentration camps during the Italo-Sanussi wars, and that certainly left a mark.”Skip to next paragraph
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“And … under the Qaddafi regime," says Mr. Joffe. "there has been an extreme intolerance of any dissidence of any kind at all, and the population has been very profoundly disciplined by the regime itself.”
Add the longstanding confrontation between tribes, which provides a further reason for violence – as manifest in the execution of those involved in a 1993 coup – and “you can see where some of this viciousness comes from,” notes Joffe.
True believers blame the rebels
For true believers, the government’s application of force is justified and always right, and Qaddafi’s use of violence is no different from any other government protecting itself from its enemies. Libya’s leader has also learned, argue some, lessons from the pro-democracy revolts sweeping the Arab world.
Qaddafi “looks at Tunisia and Egypt, because what made Ben Ali and Mubarak leave? It was blood,” says Abdul Jalil, a television host working with foreign journalists on behalf of the government. “[Qaddafi] is not stupid. He knows what happens when you kill people.”
Still, Mr. Jalil has no time for rebels who capture loyalists and “slit their necks from ear to ear, they burn people. Muammar Qaddafi did not do these things in all his life.” So he says he understands the calculation in towns that have risen up against the regime.
“Speaking individually, with more than 300,000 people in Zawiya, if I have to kill 500 people to protect 300,000, then I will kill them – even if they are Libyans.”
Qaddafi's psychological game
Such cold calculations may partly stem from the chronic uncertainty that has characterized life in Libya throughout the Qaddafi era, a “psychological game” that has “kept Libyan society off balance,” says Mansour el-Kikhia, chairman of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
“It’s like having people in a bag, and shaking the bag and you keep shaking it, never allowing them for one second to come to a rest, to think about it,” says Mr. Kikhia, a Libyan dissident and author of the 1997 book “Libya’s Qaddafi: The Politics of Confrontation.” “So they spend their whole time, their whole existence just thinking about how to make it from one hour to the next.”
Kikhia left Libya in 1980, not long after seeing five people – two of them his personal friends – hung as a public spectacle in three locations in Tripoli. Traffic was diverted to force drivers to the scene. “They showed it on television, so every Libyan can see… ‘Don’t oppose me, in any way.’ "
For decades, Libya has been charged with serious human rights abuses such as routine torture. Some events have been formative, such as the death of some 1,200 inmates in 1996 – the figure calculated by a Human Rights Watch source – when the regime responded to a prison revolt by opening fire with heavy machine guns.