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.

Libya Before the 1969 Coup

While observers have long noted Qaddafi’s behavioral oddities and mental imbalance, the question as to how he has remained in power for so long is perhaps the most interesting in the current environment. The answer, in part, can be found in the fact that a modern state barely existed in pre-Qaddafi Libya. By and large, society was organized around various associations outside the state, including tribal networks, Sufi orders, trade unions, and nationalist political parties. The social cohesion of the Libyan state, which was largely reliant upon foreign aid until the discovery of oil a few years before Qaddafi’s coup, rested almost exclusively around the monarchy–itself a new, post-independence institution without deep roots in Libyan social or political history.[2]

Against this background, Qaddafi’s 1969 coup resembles the conquest of an abandoned castle, which later would be transformed into a formidable instrument of patronage and fear. This would be accomplished by transforming the state itself into a “protection racket,” as Professor Fred Halliday once described it. Symptomatic of how it was run is an incident in 2009, in which two of Qaddafi’s sons fought each other with military tanks, until one of them forced the other to sell him his shares in a new Coca Cola plant in the country. The absence of any civic element in the Libyan state as it developed under Qaddafi is particularly evident in the exceptional violence currently being used by the government against opposition forces.

When Qaddafi overtook the country, a modern Libya was just beginning to take shape, with economic and educational infrastructures slowly taking form and where trans-tribal and Arab patriotic sentiments remained strong and well. Yet the relative short life of the pre-Qaddafi Libyan state did not allow for the building of strong state institutions, a fact that would ultimately make Qaddafi’s plan of replacing these institutions with mafia-like networks a relatively easy task.

During the reign of King Idris, Libya, with its small population and oil wealth, seemed destined to become a monarchy modeled after those of the Persian Gulf, enjoying economic bounty similar to those of the Gulf states. While Qaddafi may have dispensed with the monarch, he gladly usurped the country’s oil wealth, using it not to alleviate poverty, as many Gulf countries did, but rather expending it in a way that actually exacerbated the poverty rate in the country. Much of this wealth was used to make gifts to international friends, to fund poorly thought-out development projects, and to build-up militias loyal to the regime. Libya’s oil wealth also fueled the new regime’s taste for power, financing a number of misguided military campaigns, including a brief war with Egypt in 1977, a clumsy invasion of Chad in 1978, which destroyed an astounding amount of Libyan military equipment, and a sequence of misanthropic, unfocused terror plots.

The Cult of Qaddafi

The 1969 coup, which ultimately brought Qaddafi to power, was led by a group of “free officers” from largely marginal backgrounds. Professor Ali Abdullatif Ahmida has noted that 9 of the 12 leading officers, including Qaddafi, came from minor tribes in Libya’s interior or from poor coastal social segments. Supported by this core group of socially marginalized military officials, Qaddafi was able to use the state’s wealth to take innovative and destructive steps unavailable to other Arab leaders to solidify his power.

Like other autocrats in the region, Qaddafi aspired to base the new Libyan nation on his own cult of personality. Because of the weakness of the pre-1969 state and the oil wealth under his command, Qaddafi’s cult of personality eventually transcended all imaginable limits. As a part of this transformation and under the guise of bringing “genuine democracy” to the country, state institutions were replaced with a network of local agitators and informants, so-called “revolutionary committees”, which essentially acted as fascist structures for policing political deviation and which were accountable only to the leader and his narrow clique. This structure, coupled with constant purges, ensured that credible threats to the regime would not emerge from within state institutions.

As part of creating this personality cult, the regime took steps early on to eliminate all other competing cultural symbols. For example, amongst his first acts as leader, Qaddafi gave a speech at the tomb of Umar al-Mukhtar, the legendary leader of the struggle against Italian colonialism.  Immediately after the speech, Qaddafi ordered the removal of Mukhtar’s tomb from Benghazi, where it regularly drew many visitors, to a location in the desert where it could not be reached. The leader’s personality cult was not yet well-developed at that point, but its contours were already apparent in the fear of all competing national symbols, even those of dead heroes.

The personality cult took firmer root in the second half of the 1970s, after the original Revolutionary Command Council, which replaced the monarchy after the coup, was decimated and potential competitors to Qaddafi were removed or executed. Even God appeared as a potential usurper of the great leader’s powers: Abdel-Salam Jallud, Qaddafi’s former second in command, once stunned his audience by paraphrasing a Qur’anic verse (from 7:43) so that Qaddafi’s name was inserted in the place of God as the ultimate source of guidance.

In 1977, eight years after assuming power, the “leader of the revolution” purported to cede his power to the people and assumed the role he continues to hold today, one in which he has no official political position (and therefore nothing from which to resign), but in which he enjoys “moral authority” over the nation.   Though enjoying no such moral authority, a similar status has been accorded to Saif al-Islam, the most promising of Qaddafi’s seven sons and his heir apparent. Despite lacking a government post, Saif al-Islam regularly represents the regime and speaks on its behalf, such as when he gave the first official government address to the nation shortly after the revolution began. One is hard-pressed to find a political system quite like this anywhere in the world. The regime’s anti-institutional nature, where control is both strict and informal, may be precisely the reason why it has come to rely on militias and mercenaries, rather than regular armed forces, in its battle against the Libyan revolution.


It is likely due to the complete disconnect between state and society that the Libyan uprising has thus far been the first of the current Arab revolutions in which an opposition government has been formed before the revolution has ended. This disconnect has been reflected in three developments during this uprising, the first two of which are traceable to  extreme conditions of autocratic deafness. First, unlike the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, in Libya unrestrained state violence necessitated early on that government officials’ demonstrate their moral character by quitting their posts and joining the revolution. However, as a result, the revolution had no trusted partner within the government who, as was the case in the other Arab revolts, could be relied upon to lead a transitional period. At the same time, the defection of a large number of high-ranking state officials, including members of the diplomatic corps who had close contacts with global institutions (and also the most freedom to defect), supplied the otherwise spontaneous uprising with a body of politically experienced recruits who placed a high importance on the development of institutions to support the revolution. At the same time, the opposition’s success in liberating parts of Libyan territory created a pragmatic need for a government-like structure to run and manage these areas.

In such a way, the most institutionally-developed of the Arab revolutions emerged from a state with the least amount of institutional structures. The apparent Libyan exception is, thus, not only one of violence and bloodshed. This tremendous example of indigenous organizing, arising amidst spontaneous and fearless resistance to state violence, belies Western complaints about the alleged “absence of civil society” in Libya. As Western diplomats and commentators have struggled to identify the exact character of this movement, they have missed its most crucial and illuminating element: that it represents less a specific ideology and more the forceful rebirth of modern Libya’s long repressed civic traditions. As such, out of the most desperate of circumstances, the Libyan revolt of all the Arab revolutions thus far has made the greatest leap forward.

[1] Having experienced more than three decades under Italian rule, the  Libyan population, which was no more than 600,000, experienced the full impact of fascism including population control as mass incarcerations in concentration camps as of 1930. Though exact numbers have never been established, a very large percentage of the native population, possibly as high as a third, died as a result of fascist policies, aimed at suppressing determined anti-colonial revolts.

[2] The relatively short life of the monarchy (18 years) has often been traced to the aloofness of King Idris, the first and last monarch of Libya, whose poor handling of the lethal violence used against student protests in Benghazi in 1964 precipitating a crisis that led to the government’s resignation.

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