The remarkable spread of the 2011 Arab revolts across the face of North Africa causes many journalists to portray the current Libyan uprising as fueled by similar factors to those at play in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. There are more differences than similarities. True, most Libyans are under 30 years old and youth unemployment is painfully high. Granted, many Libyans are justifiably frustrated by 42 years of a kleptocracy that squanders Libya’s vast resource wealth and denies freedom of expression. And yes, increased access to the Internet and social networking sites has allowed the disenchanted youth to organize themselves in a way that can no longer be effectively monitored and repressed by the regime.
But this is where the key similarities between Libya and her neighbors end. Tunisia and Egypt have been coherent nation-states for well over a century. National sentiment is strong, while tribal identification applies to only a minority of the non-urban population. Libya is the opposite. The country consists of three provinces of the Ottoman Empire (Tripolitania, Cyreniaica, and Fezzan) gradually lumped together by the Italian colonizers from 1911 onward. In 1951 it was molded into an independent federal kingdom to secure British and American strategic interests in the cold war. Although Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, during his 42-year rule, has rhetorically denounced regionalism, he has wisely drawn the top tier of his supporters from his native town, Sirte, and from tribes loyal to him around Sebha, where he went to high school. Therefore, one would have expected that these key props to his regime would be unlikely to abandon him now, just as they remained loyal when exclusively Cyrenaican uprisings donned Islamist garb in 1996 and 2006.
On this motley structure modern Libya has been built, an ideologically driven oil state that has massively benefited from a decade of consistent economic growth spurred by improved relations with the West. Yet, due to the regime’s outdated ideology, horrifically inefficient bureaucracy, and opposition by those with vested interests, true economic reforms have not been undertaken. Now it appears to be too late, and efforts to rehabilitate Libya from its former international pariah status by renouncing terrorism, giving up its weapons of mass destruction, and seeking to privatize its economy appear to have come to naught. In his current moment of need, Colonel Qaddafi is being deserted en masse by both his own diplomats abroad and by the very same Western countries that courted him to secure lucrative oil contracts. By the time you read this, he may be very well have been overthrown, be going into exile, or be facing a UN resolution with (or without) teeth.
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.
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.