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.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Libyan soldiers and militiamen loyal to Muammar Qadaffi showed they had control of part of Tripoli Street in the rebel-held city of Misratah, Libya late last month.

The video clip ran late at night on Libya’s state-run TV with a warning: not suitable for children.

It was a gruesome scene that appeared to show an antigovernment mob beating the dead body of a Col. Muammar Qaddafi loyalist in the rebel bastion of Benghazi.

Such visceral imagery has long defined political discourse in Libya. The roots of extreme violence stretch back to the colonial period under Italian rule. But from the earliest years of his reign, Colonel Qaddafi has employed violence – from assassinating dissidents abroad to killing opponents at home – to sow fear among Libyans and warn against dissent.

Think you know the Middle East? Take our geography quiz.

For more than four decades, the self-declared “Brother Leader” has waged a form of psychological warfare against his own people, analysts say. And taking what he believes to be the lessons from the recent dictator-toppling revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Qaddafi today continues to use brutal images to undermine the rebellion, which he consider a personal affront to his near-perfect rule that must be tackled with “no mercy.”

The rebel forces, shaped likewise by that violent history, know the power of persuasion achieved with propaganda gore, and spread their own version.

“Our country is different from others in the world,” says a Libyan professional in Tripoli who could not to be named for security reasons. “Here [people] are welcoming. But if you touch them [aggressively] even a little bit, they will pound you in response.”

The rebels hand out their own imagery of government crimes, and say one reason for their fight is because the preponderance of violence comes from a regime that has used violence as a tool of control for nearly 42 years.

IN PHOTOS: Libya conflict

The validity of that view is mounting daily in news reports of regime-inflicted violence, from eyewitness accounts of Libyan soldiers branded traitors and killed by their own side, to apparent evidence of serious abuses found in a burned-out police station west of Tripoli.

The dangers are so widely accepted that even the fear of a vengeful bloodbath by Qaddafi forces, if they routed the rebels weeks ago, was enough to prompt a US- and European-led military intervention.

Decades of brutality

At the same time, government officials distribute their own atrocity videos, of acts carried out by rebel “terrorists” who must be hunted down – in the words of Qaddafi – “alley by alley.”

“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.”

“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.

In decades past, Libyan dissidents abroad – dismissed as “stray dogs” by Qaddafi – were tracked down and assassinated in the United States and Europe. But such actions are not acknowledged publicly.

"My father didn’t kill anybody…. He didn’t say, ‘Go and kill innocent people,' " said Seif al-Islam, Qaddafi’s most influential son, when asked about the risks of criminal proceedings in a BBC interview broadcast on Tuesday.

The International Criminal Court has another view, says the Court's lead prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. He told Reuters this week that Libya explored ways to put down protests, after the events in Tunisia and Egypt.

Think you know the Middle East? Take our geography quiz.

“The evidence we have is that the shootings of civilians was a predetermined plan,” Mr. Moreno-Ocamps said. “The planning at the beginning was to use tear gas and [if that failed to work] … shooting.”

According to Mr. Islam, it was the rebels that committed crimes. “They hang people, they execute people,” he told the BBC. “You saw the picture of cutting the hands and the legs and head of one guy in front of the people. So do you think the Libyan people are barbarians, and wild and happy with that? Of course not.”

Added Qaddafi’s heir apparent: “Listen: God [is] with us, because this time we are fighting [for] the right cause.”

That perception of serving a higher purpose, among the Qaddafi family and their supporters, may in fact be adding fuel to the repressive drive against the rebels.

“[Qaddafi] thinks that he has created the ideal political system, and that’s what’s been introduced into Libya,” says Joffe of Cambridge University, about the tangle of ideas found in Qaddafi’s famous Green Book, which he has widely distributed throughout Libya since 1975 as a guide to his "democratic socialism" philosophy.

“Now when it is rejected by Libyans, in the rebellion in the east, this is more than just simply a political dispute – this is a personal rejection, which he takes very personally,” says Joffe. “And since he considers the system to be in some ways perfect … he takes this as a personal insult which he must personally avenge.”

But Libyan officials maintain that does not mean targeting civilians, regardless of their role in the uprising.

“Have they seen us attacking or killing civilians? They haven’t,” says Musa Ibrahim, the government spokesman, about loyalist attempts to capture the rebel-held enclave of Misratah.

Yet hundreds of wounded were evacuated by sea from the city this week: 71 by the French charity Doctors Without Borders, and 250 by Turkey.

Many evacuees recounted stories of Libyan snipers shooting civilians, and tanks blasting the town indiscriminately.

“As a Libyan citizen, I will not stand and speak for a government that kills civilians. I will never do that,” said Mr. Ibrahim on Monday night. “The team that works with me here … we are young men and women.

Do you think we are going to stand here, face the whole world … to defend a government that kills civilians? What do you think we are, monsters?”

And yet, evidence appears to grow of regime abuses. The New York Times reported discovering a number of photographs, their provenance still unclear and during an official trip on Tuesday, on the second floor of a police station destroyed during fighting in the city of Zawiya, 20 miles west of the capital.

The Times reported that the images showed “corpses bearing the marks of torture;” one of a man with scars across his back, and another with his hands bound. There were also photographs of puddles of blood and one of a long pruning saw; their provenance was not clear.

Al Jazeera English on Tuesday interviewed a former Libyan soldier, who said he had witnessed the execution of fellow soldiers accused of sympathy for the rebels in Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.

Such violence appears to have spurred lethal antagonism on the rebel side. Kikhia of the University of Texas says that rebel friends of his on the frontline in Misratah have been astonished at how many nations are represented fighting alongside loyalist forces, from Algeria and Chad to Ukraine and Serbia.

"When they catch them, they kill them straight away,” says Kikhia of rebel treatment of the mercenaries.

He says he counsels them to avoid such retribution because “Qaddafi is not our teacher,” and “the point of this whole revolution is to end what Qaddafi has been doing, to end [his] atrocities."

Kikhia says the rebels should instead heed the example of Omar Mukhtar, the Libyan who led a rebellion against Italian Fascist rule in the 1920s, when the resistance chief was confronted by a similar problem.

“Someone said they wanted to kill the Italian prisoners, and Omar Mukhtar told them, ‘Don’t do that,’” explains Kikhia. “One of his fighters said, ‘But they kill us.’ And Omar Mukhtar said to him, ‘But they are not our teachers. Therefore we should not learn wrong from them.’”

IN PHOTOS: Libya conflict

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The deep roots of Libya's psychology of violence
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today