People of Libya! In response to your own will, fulfilling your most heartfelt wishes, answering your incessant demands for change and regeneration … have undertaken the overthrow of the reactionary and corrupt regime, the stench of which has sickened and horrified us all. At a single blow your gallant army has toppled these idols and has destroyed their images … From this day forward, Libya is a free, self-governing republic.
That was Muammar Gaddafi, following his coup against the monarchy of Libya on September 1st, 1969. As I witness the events unfolding in Libya, I’m saddened by the thought that Libyans have gone down this road before, and – were they to succeed – could once again tragically end up gaining false freedom. Disturbingly, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt came to power under similar circumstances and with presumably similar noble aims. In fact, many of the world’s most noxious and venal dictators started off as populist warriors who aimed to overthrow the oppressive regimes of the time – only to become the very monsters they claimed to have destroyed.
In any case, the situation in Libya has been unfolding very differently from uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world. No other country has yet reached the scale of violence and brutality that has thus far occurred (though Bahrain looked as if it came very close). Indeed, Libya’s protests have now escalated into what I would consider a full-fledged civil war. Several Libyan officials have resigned or defected, and many Libyan soldiers – reportedly including entire military units – have actually joined the ranks of the protesters, along with several tribes from the East and South.
The National Conference for the Libyan Opposition, an organization formed in London several years ago by Libyan exiles, has been credited with playing a titular role in fomenting and leading these protests, and is the only organized representative of an otherwise ragtag alliance of numerous different factions all united under one goal: the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi. Otherwise, the opposition – as diverse as that of other protesters elsewhere in the region - lacks a unifying figure or recognizable leader (more so than in Tunisia and Egypt, each of which at least saw a number of prominent figured involved, even if none were predominant).
Meanwhile, Libya’s noxious and murderous autocrat, who has stubbornly but unsurprisingly refused to budge, has resorted to using mercenaries to shore up his lack of support among the military (and the country as a whole for that matter). Indeed, Qaddafi’s brutal suppression and inane attempts at rallying supporters strongly hint at his powerlessness and desperation. Even Mubarak and Ben Ali fell rather quickly without having their own state apparatuses turn against them or flee ( although comparing countries, even when they share similar circumstances, is always a difficult endeavor, given the multiple dynamics unique to each of them).
The turning tides of the rebellion certainly helps to reinforce the inevitability of his fall. As of the most recent updates, Libyan opposition forces control most of the country, especially the east, where rebel tribes in particular have a strong foothold. I personally did not think the rebels would’ve been so successful, so quickly. I’ve seen and studied my fair share of revolts, and rarely do they go down well or last very long, especially against regimes as oppressive and entrenched as Libya’s. They’ve even managed to repel Qaddafi’s forces during an assault on their strongholds very close to the ruler’s seat of power.
That a diverse and leaderless collection of people – among them unemployed youths, the secular and the religious, tribesmen, defecting troops, and other still others – could score such resounding victories against a four-decade-old regime is astounding, and reveals two things: the tenacity, bravery, and discipline of the rebels and the stupidity, corruption, and venality of Qaddafi and his increasingly frail regime. Though long believed to be one of the toughest regimes to crack, and the least likely to have ever changed let alone fallen, Libya now seems poised for a successful revolution. If the momentum continues, there is little doubt that Qaddafi may fall or flee within the coming week (despite what Qaddafi’s own son has to say about the situation).
In any case, my views on the events are ambivalent. On the one hand, I am inspired and taken aback by the courage and will of the people of Libya, who’ve defied all odds as they give one of the most intractable regimes in the world a run for it’s money. As I remarked somewhat romantically in my previous post concerning the unrest in the greater Arab world, I find it gratifying and enlightening to see a people long considered untouched by the values of freedom facing certain death in the name of it. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of Libyans are said to have perished in just these past few days, and more will likely lose their lives as the fighting intensifies.
On the other hand, Libya’s revolution is also taking a far more grimmer tone than any other so far. Aside from the virtual state of civil war that it is enduring, there are reports of much brutality on both sides. Mercenaries and loyalists have terrorized the population with attacks against civilians, households, and mosques. Secret prisons have reportedly been uncovered by rebels, as have mass graves that likely date back to the horrific acts of state terrorism under Qaddafi’s rule. Troops refusing to crackdown on rebels have been tortured or executed. Meanwhile, several rebel factions have taken to lynching police officers and other security personnel, and killing mercenaries after they’ve been taken prisoner.
It’s a grim reminder that even the most seemingly romantic events, whatever their idealized aims, are as tainted by the worst of human nature as they are inspired by it’s greatest machinations. While I’m tempted to be excited about the seeming wave of democratization that is sweeping the region, I can’t help but feel both guilty and cautious; the former for allowing myself to get caught up in the romance of revolution without considering the moral ambiguity and bloody cost; and the latter for realizing that things are far from certain to improve from here on out. The quote from the beginning of this post cruelly sums up the precedent of past fights for freedom.
The bitter infighting that has characterized Libya’s rebellion may brew a lot of bad blood that could mire the country in instability and polarization for some time, even if Qaddafi were to fall. And the status of Egypt and Tunisia, the initial “victories” of the freedom fighters, remain ambiguous and concerning. Ultimately, there is no telling whether these revolutions will match those of Eastern Europe circa 1989, or resemble a long and tragic history of false positives that have bedeviled the region one too many times.
For what it’s worth, I still remain hopeful.