Libya, it seems, just went from a civil war to a revolution. At least that’s what the title cards on Al Jazeera suggest, as “The Libyan Revolution” replaced headlines like “The Crisis in Libya” after opposition forces appeared to take Tripoli over the weekend. Speaking of the Confederacy, Eric Foner once said that an uprising is just a rebellion until you win; only then does it become a revolution. The Declaration of Independence gives people license to overthrow an unjust authority, but the overthrowers’ authority only becomes accepted and legitimate once they have successfully pulled off the overthrowing. Otherwise, you are no more than a riot or a rebellion that got snuffed out – not unlike what is happening in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime has cracked down ruthlessly and relentlessly on dissenters.
Libya stands quite apart from many other participants in the so-called “Arab Spring” – a term that was coined by Western journalists, apparently alluding to the “Prague Spring” of reformism that was so brutally crushed by Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia back in 1968. The term always seemed to evoke “Springtime for Hitler” for me, along with a sort of soap commercial way of describing political change – Get Fresh with the Arab Spring – but for whatever reason the term has stuck. It stuck so well that you hear people speaking of a “Libyan Summer” – one stickier, uglier, and plainly more violent than its closest parallels, more so than Tunisia and Egypt, though not as vicious as the repression occurring in Syria or Bahrain.
What set Libya apart is that a protest movement rapidly shifted into armed resistance, with the emergence of a nascent rebel authority in Benghazi and the emergence of a shambolic military presence in the east, in the western city of Misrata, and in the mountains west of Tripoli. Whereas Egyptians protested peacefully in Tahrir Square, and the military establishment felt somewhat (if not entirely) constrained in dealing violently with them, Muammar Qaddafi’s regime responded aggressively right away and the opposition moved to resisting authority on a military basis, with the result, more or less, of a civil war breaking out.
Now that the rebels have swept into Tripoli with less initial resistance than expected, the opposition appears close to gaining control of the country. The smiling, sneering appearance of Saif al Islam, Qaddafi’s favored son, among crowds of regime loyalists Monday, after he was already reported arrested, shows how foolish it is to rush to judgments, positive or negative, about what is happening in Libya. The eastern and western halves of the resistance, which grew up mostly apart from each other, could break out in conflict even after the regime is definitively beaten; certainly, the Transitional National Council (TNC) has been dominated by people from the eastern city of Benghazi, while those who actually stormed Tripoli were rebels from the western parts of the country like Misrata, which are closer to the capital city. Divisions could emerge between the Benghazi crowd and everyone else; ethnic conflicts between Berbers and Arabs could erupt; and people who depended on the old regime may find themselves on the outs and seek whatever means to destabilize the new government. All these things are possible, and more – the simple inability to keep the lights on or the water running could prove the undoing of the seemingly triumphant rebels.
But Libya has certain things going for it. It is a small country, with a population about the size of metro Atlanta’s in a space the size of Alaska (America’s biggest state). Though tensions between Arabs and minority Berbers exist, the country is still relatively homogeneous compared to other nations in the region; it lacks the stark sectarian divisions of Iraq or Bahrain. The leaders of the TNC have so far evinced a commitment to moderate Islam, as well as reconciliation with former Qaddafi collaborators.
If anything good ever came from the Iraq War, it is that people have learned from the neoconservatives’ tragic experiment in “nation-building” (which consisted primarily of dismantling the nation and selling it off for scrap). Most Libyans realize that liquidating the entire police and army and disempowering anyone who had any ties to the regime is unrealistic; the US tried dissolving the security forces in Iraq and denying anyone with Baathist connections a role in the new government, but this move ostracized huge numbers of people. In Libya, blacklisting anyone who had anything to do with Qaddafi just would not work, since anyone who held any kind of position of influence or responsibility in the country had to work with him in some way or another. The rebels have so far shown a considerable openness to figures with ties to the former regime, though the assassination of Abdul Fatah Younis, a very close ally of Qaddafi who resigned to lead the opposition’s military forces before his killing under mysterious circumstances, suggests that old scores may be settled and supporters of the dictatorship might not get off with a free pass.
In any case, the outcome of this conflict is sure to be rough – as the leader of the TNC said, a revolution is not a “bed of roses.” But the profile of the opposition movement is promising, at least as far as prospects for an open society are concerned. The instigators of this revolution are lawyers, doctors, writers, professionals – the liberal bourgeoisie, backed by untold numbers of young, jobless, frustrated working class and middle class youths in a country that had 20% unemployment before the revolution, despite having immense mineral wealth and one of the higher GDP per capita ratios in the world – if not amazing, certainly out of line with the ratio of wealth to population in most Arab and African countries.
Libya, perhaps, has a better chance of achieving a liberal democratic revolution and public sphere than some of its neighbors. The country lacks the same deep-set, entrenched, immovable military establishment that is inevitably a giant part of the political landscape in Egypt, even after Mubarak’s humiliating departure – the “deep state,” to borrow a term from Turkish politics. The opposition forces say they will retain as many members of the old army and police force as possible, barring only those closest to Qaddafi and with the most blood on their hands. Still, the possibility remains that a hardcore of loyalists will continue to make life miserable through bombing and the like. An Iraq-style insurgency of disenfranchised hardliners could ensue, though many seem to doubt that Qaddafi has the committed ideological supporters to sustain such a campaign of resistance or terror. My own father, who knows far more about Libyan politics than I do, seems remarkably sanguine about the prospects for a peaceful transition. He believes that most of the people working for Qaddafi are simply opportunists, lackeys, hangers-on, and sycophants, who lack a deep sectarian or ethnic allegiance to Qaddafi himself. He is perhaps too optimistic – indeed, those allied with Qaddafi’s family and tribe in his hometown of Sirte may be willing to fight on, for the sake loyalty or simply revenge – but it is safe to say that a long-smoldering insurgency is, at least, not inevitable.
Libya may have the ingredients for a prosperous, liberal society: a rebel leadership that claims to support religious moderation and political reconciliation; the lack of any one interest with a preponderance of power, whether military, business, feudal landowners, clerics, etc.; a highly literate population; a wealth of expatriates with skills who are ready to come back to the country; and, of course, oil. What it lacks is a charismatic cleric, who could seize the initiative and try to steer the revolution in a more Islamic direction, as occurred in Iran’s revolution of the late 1970s. Some Islamist groups have participated in the rebellion, and some observers believe they were behind the assassination of Younis. But Islamist rhetoric and ideology has not been especially conspicuous in Libya’s rebellion; the TNC’s leaders have taken pains to emphasize that, while Libya is a Muslim country, it will not pursue a fundamentalist policy after the revolution. TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil described their intentions in this way:
We are on the threshold of a new era … of a new stage that we will work to establish the principles that this revolution was based on. Which are: freedom, democracy, justice, equality and transparency, within a moderate Islamic framework.
As many nervous observers in the West have been happy to see, protesters throughout the Arab world have eschewed religious or even ethnic nationalist language in favor of a broad rhetoric of human rights. Pan-Arabism and Islamism have not been the dominant paradigms driving these rebellions, even if religious conservatives have backed and participated in them. As one excited young Libyan told al Jazeera on the streets of Tripoli, he and his compatriots had no interest in “Islamists and racists.” If religious language has suffused the rebellion at times, it is only to the extent that people of faith see a higher power guiding them in the course of dramatic events, not necessarily because of an agenda to impose fundamentalism on society at large. It is by no means uncommon for people to see their own political struggle in spiritual terms. In other words, the protesters who appeal to Allah in the streets are more Martin Luther King than Pat Robertson.
To me, one of the most emblematic moments of the remarkable events of recent weeks was an interview al Jazeera conducted as rebels shocked the world by storming Tripoli far faster than most expected on Sunday evening. The reporter began the interview by saying she would not ask for his name, but she wanted to know what he was experiencing. Before she could finish her question, he told her he was not afraid to give his name. She said okay, and he stated his first name. She went on trying to ask her question, and then he gave his last name, and then he began to spell out his name for the channel’s viewers. “I am not afraid anymore,” he said. “It’s over.” Not only the ability to speak his mind, but the freedom to state who he was and stand by his views was a euphoric feeling for him. He wanted to be known, perhaps for the first time.
This is the hope of a new public sphere in a region where outside experts long characterized the people as passive and the politics hopelessly stagnant. Not long ago Mubarak and Qaddafi both looked likely to pull off the repugnant succession of power to their smooth, Western-educated sons, Gamal and Saif. Now there is at least an opening for something better, even if remnants of the establishment hold onto power as tenaciously as possible. The challenges of building a new, open civil society remain daunting after years of stifling authoritarianism. Countless protesters are still being held in Egypt, even after Mubarak and some his lackeys lost power. The military government there claims to be moving toward a new, democratic regime, but it will only let go of as much as of its power as it absolutely has to – just like Mubarak and every other venal power-hoarder in the region.
The challenges Libya faces will be different, and the threat of tribal, ethnic, and regional conflict looms especially large. So does the perennial problem of “petrocracy,” the inefficiency and corruption that haunts so many countries that are blessed with mineral wealth. To top it all off, actually finding jobs for the dispossessed and frustrated youth who set off protests throughout the region will be no small order in the midst of political and economic upheaval. But compared to its huge neighbor Egypt, Libya seems to be moving toward a kind of democracy unencumbered by the burdens of a powerful military or Islamist political constituency, and the rebel leaders represent a capable, technocratic, seemingly open-minded lot.
University of Michigan professor Juan Cole has a list of suggestions for how Libyans could best manage the transition and minimize these pitfalls – including a proposal that Libyans avoid letting their national resources be privatized and sold off to corporate interests, as occurred in Iraq under the regency of L. Paul Bremer. Like me, Cole is more of an optimist about the revolutions and rebellions in the Arab world. Things could, of course, take a turn for the much, much worse, if, say, the wily Qaddafi had some kind of plan to destabilize the country even after his fall from power, or his loyalists prove to be much more determined than expected. The old line about making God laugh by telling him your plans is especially true where the Middle East is concerned. The Libyan people may not create a classic Madisonian democracy or Habermasian public sphere in Tripoli, but there remain many reasons to hope – not the least of which is the shocking fall of the world’s longest “serving” despot at the hands of a motley band of rebels (and, of course, NATO jets).
Earlier this week, a young man who was among the rebels to storm Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound captured this hope when he spoke to Sky News. He had just raided Qaddafi’s bedroom and rather comically put on his hat and elephant scepter, looking a bit like a character from an early 90s Brand Nubian video. His comments reflect the unifying rhetoric common among many members of the opposition, which is conciliatory, not particularly religious in character and nationalist (a “Libyan” identity that transcends tribe, ethnicity and sect) if anything:
Now we should forget all the past. We should take a better stance, and we should work together as Libyans, the Arabians and the Berbers. And I am sure Libyans will shock the world, because we would like to do something, since Qaddafi has put us in a bad situation these past years… I wouldn’t have this feeling to have revenge against those people that stood with Qaddafi. I would like to ask them to be with us, to shake our hands, and to start a new beginning, a new life, a new future, a new Libya, as we all Libyans would like to have.
Alex Sayf Cummings
[Note: I write this not as a scholar of Libyan history or an expert on the Middle East and North Africa, but as a person with family in Tripoli who follows events there closely. If I have erred on the facts or the analysis, let me know in the comments.]