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Libya's Revolution: A Work in Progress

By Mohamed El-Khawas

Guyana Journal, January 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 3, 2012: For forty-two years, Muammar Qaddafi ran Libya without being accountable to anybody, setting all policies, making all decisions, and ruling the country with an iron fist. He used police, intelligence, and the military to suppress any sign of dissension to ensure the regime's survival. In his appointments, he valued loyalty over competence. He trusted his tribe and appointed its members in government agencies and embassies not because they were qualified for the posts but because of their blind loyalty and readiness to carry out orders. They also served as his eyes and ears by spying on their coworkers and reporting disloyal employees. His supporters encouraged neighbors to spy on neighbors and report questionable activities.

Throughout his reign, Qaddafi tried to weaken Islam by replacing the Quran with the Green Book. It became a requirement for students to study and learn his Third Universal Theory. His law enforcement agencies arrested people who went to the mosque regularly to pray. Some were tortured and disappeared. Furthermore, he did not allow any form of political opposition to exist. Anyone suspected of being disloyal to the regime was arrested and kept in jail indefinitely. The unlucky ones were hanged publicly to discourage dissent within the country. His repressive actions went far and beyond Libya. He dispatched death squads to Europe and the U.S. to eliminate his opponents and silence opposition. Some students were paid well to write reports on fellow students. Those who dared to criticize the regime paid a high price. Their scholarships were terminated and their relatives at home were harassed.

In February 2011, Libyans, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets in Benghazi, the second largest city, for a day of peaceful protest against the regime. At the time, the odds were against their success in mounting a serious challenge to Qaddafi's dictatorial rule because, as Libya's Ambassador to Washington, Ali Aujali pointed out, “Whenever anyone has risen up against him in the past, there was no mercy. He hanged people in the streets. He crushed them. At the time, no one would have predicted that this single event would turn into a protracted civil war to get rid of the strongman. At the beginning, the rebels had neither organization nor a unified leadership to guide the struggle against a stubborn leader who had no intention of going away quietly and was ready to throw everything he had in the arsenal to defeat them. They had no weapons. They were outnumbered and outgunned.

Qaddafi launched a brutal campaign to bring a swift ending to the rebellion. His use of deadly force against civilians led two Air Force pilots to fly their fighter jets to Malta rather than drop bombs on rebel positions. Some senior officials, including Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Minister of Justice, and Abdel Fatah Younis, Minister of Interior, quit their posts and joined the rebels. Ambassador Aujali to Washington and Ibrahim Dabbashi, deputy ambassador to the United Nations, resigned in protest over Qaddafi's use of excessive force against his own people.

The uprising quickly spread to other towns and cities and Qaddafi's brutal campaign continued. Franco Frattini, Italy's Foreign Minister, reported that “more than a thousand people were killed during the first week-long uprising.” Misrata, a western city, was under attack by Qaddafi's forces, leading Valerie Amos, United Nations Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, to stress that “Humanitarian organizations need urgent access now. People are injured and dying and need help immediately.” The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for “an immediate halt to the government's disproportionate use of force and indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.” In March, the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 1973, establishing a “no-fly zone” over Libya and authorizing the use of “all necessary measures . . . to protect Libyan civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” by Qaddafi's forces. NATO's military intervention was conditional upon Arab endorsement. The Arab League supported it as long as no foreign troops were used on the ground. At the beginning, American, British, and French airpower saved Benghazi from imminent destruction by a government armored-column that had reached its outskirts. In doing so, it saved the revolution and put Qaddafi on notice that his days in power were numbered.

Because of Congressional opposition, the U.S. limited its involvement to intelligence and the use of Predator drones, while Britain and France enforced the no-fly zone, bringing Libya's air traffic to a halt. They conducted selective air strikes targeting the country's air defense, military installations and communication centers to minimize collateral damages and to help rebel forces gain on the ground. They believed that controlling Libya's airspace would bring Qaddafi down quickly. They were wrong and, on June 1, the NATO extended its mission there for another ninety days.

The armed conflict continued for months, dividing the country into a government-controlled west and the rebel-controlled east. The National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi was the de facto government of Free Libya and flew the pre-Qaddafi's monarchy's flag over the liberated cities and towns. It sought recognition as well as financial and military assistance from abroad. It tried to persuade foreign governments to unfreeze Gaddafi's assets so it could pay wages and cover its other costs. Gulf States were quick to aid the rebels with money, oil, weapons, and other critical supplies.

By late June, the fighting stalled on the ground at a time when Europeans began to question the cost of the NATO's involvement in Libya. The following month, France's Defense Minister Gerard Longuet encouraged the Libyan warring parties to enter into talks to reach a peaceful solution. The French later acknowledged that they were having indirect contact with the Libyan government but remained committed to Qaddafi's departure.

The African Union, which was critical of the NATO-led air campaign, dispatched a team, headed by Mauritania's President Abdel Aziz, to Libya several times to try to reach a negotiated settlement to the bloody conflict. However, its proposal for forming a unity government in Libya was rejected by the NTC, Britain, France, and the U.S. because Qaddafi was left in charge. By the end of the summer, it had become clear that Qaddafi's grip on the country was slipping away. President Abdel Aziz said for the first time that Gaddafi's departure was necessary because “he [could] no longer lead Libya.” By August, the UN special envoy, Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib, had failed to make any progress toward a political solution because of Qaddafi's refusal to relinquish his power.

Qaddafi's intransigence led the NATO to intensify air strikes and increase the use of Predator drones against his forces, paving the way for rebels to reach Tripoli. On August 22, thousands of rebel fighters entered the city and pushed Qaddafi's loyalists into the center of the city. They met stiff resistance near Qaddafi's fortified Bab al-Aziziya compound, but it was successfully captured. It took a few days to eliminate other pockets of resistance in the city, including the pro-Gaddafi Abu Salem neighborhood. Meanwhile, Qaddafi and his family had slipped out of Tripoli. The transitional government offered a $2 million award for any information leading to Qaddafi who had been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of committing crimes against humanity.

There were reports that Qaddafi was with his tribe in Sirte. The rebel commanders gave its elders a deadline to surrender. It was extended several times to avoid bloodshed and the destruction of a town that Qaddafi had made a showcase. When the talks broke down, the battle began in earnest to find Qaddafi. In the following month, he was captured and killed on the outskirts of Sirte. The Libyans were relieved by Qaddafi's demise and looked forward to start the process of rebuilding Libya as a free and democratic society.

The new Prime Minister Abdulrrahim El-Keib kept the Islamists out of the cabinet and appointed secularists to supervise the drafting of a constitution and the elections in 2012. His choice of Taher Sharkas as the economic minister was problematic because he had served under Qaddafi. In view of strong opposition to his appointment, Sharkas submitted his resignation to end the controversy. Activists wanted new people who had no affiliation with Qaddafi in the government to push the revolutionary agenda forward.

Challenges Facing the New Government

The new government faces many challenges that can complicate the transition to
democracy. First, the biggest challenge is to bring about national unity. This task is not easy to accomplish because of tribalism and ethnicity. For forty-two years, Gaddafi had emboldened the tribal system, “cunningly playing tribes off against one another and, predictably, took full advantage of the huge support he received from his own tribe.” This situation led to rising tensions and enmity among tribes, making it hard to reconcile. The revolution has provided some tribes with opportunities to settle old scores and to avenge past humiliation at the hands of pro-Qaddafi tribes. Ethnicity is another deep-seated problem. For example, the Berber language and culture were suppressed under Qaddafi. They might now try to reaffirm their ethnic identity by seeking political autonomy in recognition of their participation in the fight to oust Qaddafi.

Second, a serious government challenge is how to assert control over tribal and private militias which had participated in ousting Qaddafi. The absence of a national army has complicated the government's effort to rehabilitate rebel militias and to convince them to turn over their weapons. When Qaddafi's army hurriedly fled their bases around Tripoli, some sizeable arms depots were left unguarded, allowing rebels and civilians to haul out weapons and explosives. For example, the ethnic Berbers, who played a major role in ousting Qaddafi and his army from Tripoli, remained in the capital and have resisted coming under civilian authority. They have sent land mines, rockets, shells, and others to the Nafusa Mountains to enable the Berber minority to resist Tripoli's domination, a legacy of having suffered during Gaddafi's regime. Some weapons and explosives were taken to Misrata. Their commander Salem Jhey said, “We will never give up our weapons until the country is being run by those who deserve to run it.”

Third, the government faces a daunting task to establish democratic institutions in a country that had no democratic fabric, no political parties, no constitution, no civil society for over forty years. They have to start from scratch, meaning that progress will be slow, messy, and difficult. The good news is that the NTC leader has declared that the NTC is not a political party and will dissolve after the elections. Now, there are six broad groups, which can influence the outcome of the electoral contest.

The nationalists, the largest group, do not espouse any specific ideology, and favor the establishment of a democratic state, while maintaining the country's Islamic culture. The liberals and the secularists want to have a secular, democratic system. The latter however seek a separation between religion and politics. This group will have a hard time selling its program in a society where religion is strong.

The Islamists are not homogenous. The salafists and the jihadists are conservatives and wish to create an Islamic regime with strict interpretations of the scripture. They are not likely to attract many votes. But they could still act as a spoiler. The political Islamists are influenced by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. They are moderate and have endorsed the democratic process. They are encouraged by the gains the Islamist parties have made in the elections in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. They are working quietly to build alliances and form coalitions to expand their base of support. They are expected to do well because they had fought Qaddafi throughout his tenure, while other groups were silent.

Two other groups cannot be left out of the equation. Qaddafi's loyalists are lying low for now but could emerge at the right time and form a political party to compete in the elections. They are well organized and have resources. They can attract votes in the tribal areas that benefited from the old regime. Tribal votes will play a crucial role in the upcoming elections because tribesmen tend to vote as a bloc. The other group is the military whose senior officers have an interest in deciding who will govern the country in order to protect their economic interests.

So far, revolutionary leaders are saying the right things but, as usual, the devil is in the details. Their cohesion might unravel when political parties are formed and competition for votes intensifies. Libyans are traveling in uncharted waters, with a swift undercurrent that can throw them off course. The transition to democracy is expected to be difficult. Establishing civil society can help make the transition a lot easier.

Mohamed El-Khawas
, Ph.D., is a professor of history and political science at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C. He is the author of Qaddafi: His Ideology in Theory and Practice (Amana Books, 1986).