After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the strong man of the Middle East, on February 11, 2011, the Arab Spring appeared to be an unrelenting force. In the week following his downfall, three theaters of major rebellion—Libya, Yemen, Bahrain—quickly emerged, with Iran’s suppressed Green revolution resurfacing for a while as well. In the weeks that followed, mass demonstrations demanding significant political reforms continued or sprang up in regional countries, such as Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Palestine, and Oman. As of late, these tremors have even reached Saudi Arabia and Syria.

The Supposed Libyan “Exception” & The End of the Old Arab Order

Should the Arab revolution make its next stop in Libya, it will be greeted by an already horrific bloodbath, which has transformed a peaceful revolution into armed resistance. Just as former-Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu’s violent ouster two decades ago was the glaring exception to otherwise peaceful transitions in Eastern Europe, so too has Libya come to appear as a dramatic exception to the largely peaceful Arab revolts that have taken place over the last several months. At the same time, however, there is little doubt that the  peaceful nature of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was a result not of the benign nature of those regimes, but instead a function of the dearth of repressive resources at the disposal of those governments. In both cases the army, the only potentially repressive apparatus left to the state, in the end refused to quash the revolts.

While the differences remain real, the underlying dynamics of the Libyan revolution nonetheless retain powerful similarities with those at play in Tunisia and Egypt, phenomena which I have analyzed in earlier articles on those revolts. In all three instances, spontaneity, rather than established organizational structures or leadership, was the key element. Moreover, these uprisings, which began at the peripheries of society, all began as non-violent movements for change.

While the current violent trajectory of the Libyan uprising may seem to signal its departure from this trend, certain elements of this revolution suggest the continuing salience of civic and ethical calls to action.  Even after the Libyan uprising turned violent, the opposition continued to promote a new civic ethic, reflected not only in the institutions established by opposition forces in the last few weeks, but also in their actions on the battlefield: for example, while Qaddafi’s forces slaughter captured opposition members, the revolutionary camp holds its captives as prisoners of war.

Moreover, the apparent exceptionalism of the Libyan revolution should not be understood as implying that the relationship of Libyan society to its government differs in anything but degree from the state-society dynamic dominating the rest of the Arab world. Just as in other parts of the region, Libyan society over the last decade has become more modern than its regime. As in Tunisia and Egypt, a key factor in galvanizing the Libyan revolution was autocratic deafness to this fact. This deafness refers to the structural inability of regimes to hear their peoples’ grievances or to understand them as little more than childish noise, which can be allayed with economic or other types of transient gifts, rather than as demands for fundamental political change.

As such, all the Arab revolutions, Libya’s included, should be seen as symptoms of an established social modernity, fortified by high rates of education, various communication technologies, and vibrant youth populations, whose economic and political expectations have been profoundly frustrated by a monopolistic, closed, and antiquated governing style. These revolutions, whether peaceful or otherwise, have been borne out of a realization that such systems, having never before seen any need to reform, cannot now be entrusted to follow through on sudden promises to improve their citizens’ political, social, and economic plights. The Arab world’s new revolutionaries, comprised of vast numbers of ordinary individuals many of whom had never before participated in any form of political mobilization, tend to have little faith in what they increasingly regard as illegitimate governments, so out of touch and lacking in credibility that they must be dismantled (beginning with their leaders) rather than negotiated with.

Because of this environment, the demise of the old Arab order has become certain. Contrary to what some may think, the Libyan revolution does not indicate that the inevitable regional transformation will necessarily become dominated by violence. In fact, the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Yemen have demonstrated the power of non-violence in the face of regime brutality. Nonetheless, in some cases, fundamental change may still come in the form of a gradual deconstruction of autocratic regimes—internal and slow, but still appearing to be credible so far. This scenario seems particularly plausible for a number of regional monarchies, notably in Morocco, but perhaps also in Bahrain and Jordan as well. Whatever the precise dynamics of change, it remains unlikely that any of the old Arab regimes will survive the Arab Spring in their current forms: as they exist now, their static structure simply contradicts the dynamic modernity of their societies.

The Libyan Case

Libya represents one of the clearest examples of this lack of fit between state and society. The extreme violence accompanying the revolution is indeed an expression of the distance between the two, demonstrating the profound structural deafness of the Libyan regime. For example, when regime spokespersons, such as Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, insist that Libyan society is “tribal,” they are describing less an empirical reality, and more two important elements demonstrating the disconnect between state and society. First, the regime’s use of this term reflects its awareness that much of Libyan society exists outside the purview of the state and is organized in its own manner (though not necessarily along tribal lines). Second, “tribalism”, as the state understands it, reflects the regime’s own retrograde organizational apparatus, rather than the civic and voluntary ethics of real tribal associations.

As a matter of fact, in Libya, actual tribal allegiance, understood as the loyalty that members of one distinct tribe have to their fellows, has never been unconditional. Just as during the Italian occupation of Libya from 1911-1943, contemporary tribal discourse blends with and is clearly subordinate to a collective patriotism, which forms the root of the current national struggle. Since the current uprising began, Libya’s various tribes have issued numerous statements about the situation, which largely reflect the patriotism that pervades these groups.  My personal examination of a sample of 28 tribal declarations, issued between February 23 and March 9, 2011, reveals that the vast majority highlighted national unity or national salvation rather than tribal interests. These declarations also demonstrate that Libya’s tribes are not homogenous entities, but rather are comprised of diverse members with varying social and economic backgrounds. This reality reflects the nature of Libyan society as a whole, which has a 90% urban population and in which inter-marriages across tribal lines are common.

Furthermore, these declarations emphasize the fluidity of tribal solidarities. Only 25% of the tribal declarations examined claimed to have been issued in the name of the tribe as a whole. More commonly, the practice appears to have been that declarations were issued in the name of specific sections or locations of a tribe (43%), or alternatively spoke in the name of the tribe as a whole while proceeding to list the supporters’ specific location as if to implicitly exempt those tribal members residing elsewhere (32%). Of the total 28 declarations, 39% included a bara’a statement, which dissociates the tribe from named relatives who remain high-ranking officials still serving in the regime. As a part of this examination, I also looked at all published appeals made to tribes by their members during the same period, and was struck by the fact that none made an appeal to the tribe as a whole and without qualifications. Rather, all individuals who published such appeals addressed them to specific sections of the tribe, located in the particular town or region where support for the opposition was most needed, calling upon their distant relatives to ensure the opposition’s success in their local community.

Both the tribal declarations and these tribal appeals demonstrate how discourse amongst among its members during this revolution has become another vehicle to express Libyan patriotism and articulate a sense of national duty. It also reveals how this discourse works to contextualize and localize a sense of national responsibly, with the aim of producing concrete local successes rather than simply registering grand symbolic declarations.

This combination of an abiding patriotism with a pragmatic tradition of fluid tribal solidarity points in the direction of a nascent flexibility in Libya’s civic and social organization, which will likely be critical in a post-Qaddafi era.  Traditions of local civic authority, historically associated with a fluid mix of tribal networks, Sufi orders, and coastal communities, were vital to Libyans as they built their country following the horrific colonial experience.[1] Trans-tribal patriotism, a basic catalyst for the anti-colonial revolts in Libya, has now been revived in full force as one of the foundations of the Libyan revolution’s modern civic ethics.

It is against this dynamic historical reality that Qaddafi’s regime sought to build a state upon the model of a tribal structure, though the model applied never in fact existed yet in the country’s colonial or modern history. Unlike real, fluid tribal structures, the state’s conception of the tribe consisted of concentrated executive power, free from popular support, in the hands a few individuals, who would eventually come to constitute a ruling family. Far from embracing the spirit of Libyan tribalism, Qaddafi’s  state adhered to a Mafia-styled ethics, in which fluid and flexible allegiances were replaced with an unquestioned dictatorial style and conspiratorial ethics.