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Why Libya Is Not Immune To Revolution

Commentary, 24 February 2011
Middle East and North Africa
The causes of dissent in Libya are diverse - as are the factions which may end up jockeying for power. But the fact that they have emerged at all is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the uprising thus far.

The causes of dissent in Libya are diverse - as are the factions which may end up jockeying for power. But the fact that they have emerged at all is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the uprising thus far.

By Professor George Joffé for


Many believed that Colonel Qadhafi's regime in Libya would withstand the gale of change sweeping the Arab world because of its reputation for brutality which had fragmented the six million-strong population over the past forty-two years.  Its likely disappearance now, after a few days of protest by unarmed demonstrators, is all the more surprising because it has systematically destroyed even the slightest pretence of dissidence and has atomised Libyan society to ensure that no organisation - formal or spontaneous - could ever consolidate sufficiently to oppose it.  Political Islam, whether radical or moderate, has been the principle victim, especially after an Islamist rebellion in Cyrenaica in the later 1990s.  Other political currents have been exiled ever since 1973, when 'direct popular democracy' was declared and the jamahiriyah came into existence.  Even the Libyan army was treated with suspicion, with its officer corps controlled and monitored for potential disloyalty.  No wonder that major units now seems to have broken away from the regime and made the liberation of Eastern Libya possible.

The only structures that the regime tolerated, outside the formal structure of the Jamahiriya - the 'state of the masses', Colonel Qadhafi's idiosyncratic vision of direct popular democracy in Libya's stateless state in which all Libyans were theoretically obliged to participate - came from Libya's tribal base and the Revolutionary Committee Movement, itself tied to the regime by tribal affiliation and ideological commitment and used to discipline and terrify the population through 'revolutionary justice'.  Apart from that, there was only the colonel's family and the rijal al-khima, the 'men of the tent' - the colonel's old revolutionary comrades from the Union of Free Officers which had organised the 1969 revolution against the Sanussi monarchy which had brought the colonel to power.  And even the tribes did not necessarily support the regime, although they were constrained by the 'social popular leadership', a committee bringing together thirty-two of the major tribal leaders under the watchful eye of the regime.

Causes of collapse

Yet, in reality, the Sa'adi tribes of Cyrenaica, for example, had little love for the regime, for they had been the cradle of the Sanussi movement which had controlled much of modern Libya and Chad in the nineteenth century, in partnership with the Ottoman Empire, and had led the resistance to Italian occupation between 1911 and 1927. They had been disadvantaged by the revolution, not least because the revolutionaries came from three tribes - the Qadhadhfa, the Maghraha and the Warfalla - which had originally been subservient to them.  It could be argued, in short, that the revolution was, at its heart, a reversal of tribal politics, despite its ostensible commitment to Arab nationalism.  Indeed, the regime has been consciously constructed on the back of these three tribes which populated the security services and the Revolutionary Committee Movement. Yet even they had their own grievances: the Warfalla had been implicated in the unsuccessful 1993 Bani Ulid coup and its leaders had refused to execute those guilty as a demonstration of their loyalty to the regime.  Colonel Qadhafi's henchmen organised the executions instead, earning tribal enmity and probably explaining why tribal leaders so quickly declared for the opposition when the regime began to collapse.

Then there is also a geographic imperative for the rapidity of the collapse of the regime.  Libya is essentially a desert, with the only areas that can support dense residence located in the Jefara Plain, around Tripoli in Tripolitania, and the Jabal al-Akhdar behind Benghazi in Cyrenaica.  The result has been that Libya's six million-strong population, as a result of oil-fired economic development in the rentier state that emerged at the end of the 1960s, is now highly urbanised and largely concentrated in these two cities and the satellite towns around them. 

This means that any regime which loses control of them has lost control of the country, even if it controls all outlying areas, such as the oil fields in the Gulf of Sirt between them (which is also the home base of the Qadhadhfa) or the Fezzan that still seems to be loyal to the Qadhafi regime.  It is this that explains how, once the army in Benghazi changed sides, the regime lost control of Eastern Libya and why its hold on Tripoli has been so rapidly contested.

Sowing the Seeds of His Own Demise

Nor should the nature of the regime or the Qadhafi family be ignored as a factor for the collapse. The regime has, in recent years, benefited from the growing foreign investment in Libya, alongside its massive oil revenues, after sanctions in connection with the Lockerbie affairs were removed in 1999.  As foreign economic interest grew, so did corruption and, although Colonel Qadhafi himself may not have been corrupt, his seven sons and one daughter certainly were, drawing their fortunes from commissions and income streams siphoned off from the oil-and-gas sector. 

Libyans themselves have been excluded from the benefits of oil wealth for decades, so the blatant corruption inflamed their resentment in recent years.  In addition, the Libyan leader, who had no formal role inside the jamahiriyah but made sure that the Revolutionary Committee Movement answered only to him, has played on the aspirations of his sons to succeed him, pitting one against the other to ensure that none of them could amass sufficient power to threaten his position.

In such an atmosphere of eternal mistrust and suspicion, it is hardly surprising that the ultimate bastion of the regime has been the 'foreign mercenaries' that have terrified Libyans with their indiscriminate violence during the country's latest revolution.  Yet, they too form part of the leader's conception of the state.  In the 1980s, Libya opened its borders to all who were Muslim, as part of its vision of Arab nationalism and Islamic radicalism.  The regime also recruited an 'Islamic Legion' to aid it in its foreign adventures, particularly in Africa, as Chad, Uganda and Tanzania were to discover. 

In 1997, Libya also renounced its self-image as an Arab state, prioritising its African destiny instead, opening its borders to sub-Saharan Africa, despite the intense domestic tensions that the inflow of migrants generated, which resulted in the riots and deaths of September 2000.  Now, apart from using African migrants as a tool to coerce European states such as Italy with the threat of uncontrolled migration, it has also recruited them into its elite forces around the 'Deterrent Battalion' (the 32nd Brigade) which are used solely for internal repression.  They have no loyalty to Libyans who hate them and they are the forces on which Colonel Qadhafi relies to ensure that his regime ends in a bloodbath to punish Libyans for their disloyalty to his political vision.

Professor George Joffe is Professorial Fellow and Director, RUSI Qatar. He lectures in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

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