Libya unrest continues

Feb 25, 2011

Update from AIJAC

February 25, 2011

Number 02/11 #08

The unrest and violence in Libya continue, with allegations of thousands killed, terrible stories coming from refugees, and dictator Muammar Gaddafi apparently consolidating his hold over the capital Tripoli even as rebels gain control of more and more other towns. This Update is devoted to provide the background, details and analysis to help understand both what is happening in Libya and what is at stake.

First up, providing important background and looking at the implications of events in Libya are Simon Henderson and David Schenker of he Washington Institute for Near East Policy. They review the history of Gaddafi’s eccentric and brutal rule, the role of the military and tribes in the past and in the current unrest, and discuss policy concerns about both Libyan Islamist groups and oil in the current turmoil. Finally, they offer some policy suggestions for both dealing with the fallout from Libya’s civil war and  encouraging the best possible outcome. For all the background you need on Libya, CLICK HERE. Plus, military analysts Jason Hanover and Jeffrey White look at the possible risks and benefits of a NATO military intervention in Libya.

Next up is Libya expert Dana Moss, going into more detail in a paper written for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Moss summarises what is known of the events and trends of the current uprising, the regime’s reaction and the context for both. Additionally, she canvasses a number of ways the current civil conflict might end, and their implications. For Moss’ long but valuable summary of all the details of what is going on in Libya, CLICK HERE. Also offering some interesting scenarios for how the unrest could be resolved is Israeli strategic analyst Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah.

Finally, peripatetic Middle East journalist Michael Totten looks at the wider implications of what is happening in Libya. Totten argues that the Libyan case is fundamentally pretty different from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt given the much more totalitarian and ideological nature of Gaddafi’s regime. Recalling a trip he made to Libya a few years ago, Totten concludes that if the Libyan regime can be threatened by the unrest sweeping the Arab world, absolutely no government is safe. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. Totten’s account of his almost surreal trip a few years ago to Libya is here.

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‘The Last Bullet’: Qadhafi and the Future of Libya

By Simon Henderson and David Schenker

PolicyWatch #1761
February 22, 2011

Following this weekend’s widespread disturbances in Libya, Muammar Qadhafi could lose power within hours or days as his military units and security services crumble in the face of popular discontent. Alternatively, he could decide — in the ominous words of his son Saif al-Islam — to “fight to the last bullet,” which suggests even more horrific levels of violence and anarchy. In a rambling television broadcast today, February 22, the colonel pledged to “die as a martyr.”

Qadhafi’s personal eccentricities, as well as his responsibility for the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, will make few sorry to see his departure. But the challenges of this turn of events for whoever forms the next government would be enormous. The consequences of missteps for the region — and especially Europe, for which Libya is an important oil and gas supplier– could be significant and rapid.

In the four decades since he overthrew King Idris with other young army officers in 1969, Qadhafi has ruled notionally unopposed. The current system of government, introduced as he consolidated power in the 1970s, consists of people’s committees; Qadhafi himself has no formal role. In reality, however, Libya is a police state with Qadhafi as a dictator, marked by a frequently quixotic style. The only institution in the country has been Qadhafi himself.

Moreover, Qadhafi’s divide-and-conquer strategy has accentuated the country’s already serious societal and tribal cleavages. The most obvious of these splits emerged when he took power. Many residents of the eastern Cyrenaica province (home to some 30 percent of the population) traditionally supported the king — who led the influential anticolonial, Islamist, Senussi movement — and have never really accepted Qadhafi’s rule.

At the same time, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where professional militaries served as arbiters during recent unrest, the Libyan army has never been particularly competent or coherent. During its last real test, a 1987 border war with Chad, Libyan military casualties were nearly 10 percent, an astonishingly high figure. It appears that Qadhafi has intentionally fragmented his armed forces over the years in order to insulate the regime against coup attempts, instead relying on several overlapping security organizations for protection.

Role of the Tribes

Given Cyrenaica’s history, the potency of recent demonstrations in the east is perhaps not surprising. For years, the area has been regarded as a relative hotbed of antiregime sentiment, most prominently the cities of Benghazi and Darna. Reports of military defections — including two Mirage F-1 fighter pilots who were purportedly ordered to attack civilians but landed in Malta instead — also come as little surprise.

Many of the military’s conscripts are from the tribes, which appear to be increasingly siding against Qadhafi as news of the atrocities spreads. Several key tribes have publicly declared opposition to his continued rule, most of them based in the east. For example, the Zawiya tribe near Benghazi threatened to cut off oil exports if the colonel remained in power. And on February 21, the Warfallah — one of Libya’s largest tribes, located south of Tripoli — announced it was joining the movement to oust him.

Prospects for Regime Survival

From the outside, the array of forces lining up against the regime seems difficult to defeat. Yet Qadhafi still has a few cards to play. During a speech broadcast on Libyan television Sunday night, Saif said the regime would be prepared to make some “radical” but unspecified reforms. But if the demonstrators do not capitulate, he warned, Libya might slip toward a bloody civil war.

Although the latter threat was clearly self serving, Saif did have a valid point given the current trajectory of the struggle. The regime has already demonstrated just how ruthless it can be in its efforts to suppress the revolt, with the body count moving well into the hundreds and helicopter gunships deploying into Tripoli. Indeed, during its forty-two years in power, the regime has shown no compunction about murdering Libyan citizens or foreign nationals. And although the ferocity of Qadhafi’s self-preservation efforts was expected — one of his other sons, Khamis, commands the unit charged with regime protection — every atrocity only ensures the loyalty of those units still linked to the dictator. After all, if the regime falls, those soldiers implicated in the violence could face the gallows.

Given the fast-moving pace of events, the regime could collapse at any moment. Should it persevere, though, what remains of the state could face infighting for some time to come.

Islamists and al-Qaeda Links

If the crisis continues, the country’s long-repressed Islamist movement could benefit. Led by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the movement has an impressive history of supporting jihadist causes, having worked with al-Qaeda for more than a decade. Since 2003, Libya has been the second-leading source (after Saudi Arabia) of insurgents entering Iraq via Syria. And not coincidentally, a plurality of these jihadists hailed from Darna, the epicenter of the rebellion. More recently, al-Bayda –a village not too far from Darna — was declared an “Islamic Caliphate” by the locals following its liberation this week.

Oil and Gas Riches
Libya’s oil export facilities and refineries are already reported to have closed because of labor strikes. The country has significant hydrocarbon wealth, though not as huge as the Persian Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Its reserves are still larger than those of other African countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel: Algeria, Angola, and Nigeria. Spare global capacity should be sufficient to replace any Libyan cutbacks, but the immediate reaction of the commodity markets has been to bid up the prices.

Most of Libya’s oil goes to Europe, with Italy — a comparatively short voyage across the Mediterranean Sea –importing about a third. Germany, France, and Spain are also significant purchasers, and even China takes 10 percent of Libyan oil.

Libya also has significant natural gas reserves, although neighboring Algeria and Egypt are much larger producers. Here, too, Italy is a major customer: a 370-mile undersea pipeline transports gas from Libya to Sicily, from which it is piped to the Italian mainland. Libya also ships liquefied gas to Spain.

Policy Recommendations

Although the United States is working diplomatically to facilitate democratic transition in Tunisia and Egypt, the situation in Libya calls for more urgent, possibly military, involvement. In the region, Qatar has appealed for urgent Arab League mediation and condemned the violence against Libyan civilians. Yet given the emirate’s track record — such as hosting indicted Darfur war criminal Omar al-Bashir at the 2009 Arab Summit in Doha — the Qataris will probably not serve as a compelling moral voice. A more likely place for progress is the UN Security Council, which is meeting today to discuss the crisis.

One proposal that the council will probably consider is the imposition of a no-fly zone across Libya to halt Qadhafi’s use of fighter aircraft and attack helicopters against civilians. This would be similar to the zone set up over northern Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era to protect Kurdish civilians. As in Iraq, a Libyan operation would require the United States to take the dominant role, backed by its European allies. In order to function under the UN’s aegis, such an operation would also require Russian and Chinese approval, which might not be forthcoming. The European Union could be much more supportive, however, given its fears regarding potential energy supply disruption and the flow of economic migrants from Libya becoming a flood of asylum seekers. But for Europe as well as the United States, the presence in Libya of many thousands of their own citizens will prompt caution.

Aside from action on the diplomatic front and examination of military-based peacekeeping operations, the Europe-based International Energy Agency (of which the United States is part) should check its plans for sharing the burden of energy supply disruptions by releasing emergency stocks. This might prove necessary even though Saudi oil minister Ali Naimi declared on February 22 that OPEC would make up any “shortage in supply,” a wording that might not ease a price shock.

The events in Libya are a powerful example of the yearning for greater freedom across the Arab world and are likely to encourage unrest elsewhere. Indeed, North African neighbors Algeria and Morocco are already being affected. But Washington must keep in mind that such processes do not necessarily end within a few days, even as dictators depart amid joyful protestors.

Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute. David Schenker is the Institute’s Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics.

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By Dana Moss

Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 2011

Following in the footsteps of the revolutions first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, the protests currently taking place in Libya have entered their second week, casting doubt on the continuation of Qaddafi’s rule. While reports coming out Libya are conflicting—and a partial media blackout is in effect—it appears that the eastern part of the country has fallen into the hands of protesters while Qaddafi has maintained control of Tripoli.

For Libya, the size of these protests is unprecedented. In order to decipher the direction in which Libya is heading, it is important to examine both the origins of the protests and the regime’s response. Libya is very different from both Tunisia and Egypt, with geographical and tribal divisions overlaying the country and indeed encouraged by Qaddafi, and with the Great Leader holding near-absolute power, providing for a dearth of other political players. This has impacted both the nature of the uprising and the reaction of the regime. What is clear is that Qaddafi is more than willing to put up a very violent fight to retain control of the country, and that unfortunately, the West and the international community are unlikely to do much to stop him.


Libya had experienced mounting political activities by activists planning a “day of Rage” on February 17, the anniversary of a 2006 protest in Benghazi. Exiled opposition groups and activists built on cyber-activism within Libya to get the word out, with Facebook groups such as “the Day of Anger in Libya against Corruption and Nepotism.” The protests actually began two days earlier, sparked by the arrest of Fathi Tarbel, a lawyer for the families of prisoners killed in the 1996 massacre in Tripoli’s Abu Slim prison. These families held a sit-in in front of the police headquarters in Benghazi and drew strength from Benghazi residents, with reports of over a thousand demonstrators.

From the outset, the protests have appeared not to have a united leadership, a massive youth led-presence, or a specific political platform. Libya does not have an independent civil society, strictly speaking, as all existing non-governmental organizations are headed by those close to the regime. No real unified opposition exists in the country, as political parties and movements are banned. Moreover, Libya itself is an artificial construct, where, partly as a result of Qaddafi’s policies over years, tribal and provincial identity has trumped nationalism and a sense of citizenship, with consequent implications for the end result of these protests.


From the beginning of the revolts in the Arab world, Qaddafi threw his lot in with Ben Ali, announcing that he was the “best person who could rule Tunisia,” thereby indicating some concern about the prospect of Libyan unrest on the heels of the events in Tunisia. Nevertheless, it is clear that Qaddafi did not seem to have envisaged the extent of the opposition in Libya or the potential for events to unravel as they have.

Prior to the outbreak of protests, the regime had taken various preventative measures, including the outlawing of soccer matches. (In previous years, these matches, particularly in the East, had turned into opportunities for protesting the regime, on occasion.) Apparently, as reported on Libya al Youm, an opposition website, such action was matched by outreach to imams, to ensure that they warned against demonstrations during Friday prayers.

Such preventative measures came hand in hand with financial inducements and cooptation, targeting the specific needs of the Libyan population and weaknesses in the Libyan system—primarily in the lack of public housing. As Turkish companies were unexpectedly placed under heavy pressure to complete housing projects, Qaddafi, on state television, asked Libyans to claim rights to public housing, reportedly leading thousands to rush into the as yet uncompleted housing units. [1]

Qaddafi also activated the pre-existing tribal structures in the country, apparently holding meetings with—and offering incentives to—the members of the “People’s Social Leadership Committee,” a grouping of tribal leaders that forms a backbone structure to Qaddafi’s regime, to prevent the “Day of Rage” from taking place. Meetings were also reportedly held with journalists and media figures to ensure damage limitation on the media front. Some personnel changes were also made to mollify potential protestors, such as the replacement of the Dean of Qar Younis University.

Meanwhile, even before the protests began, repression appeared—as always in Libya—a key factor in Qaddafi’s reaction to opposition. Before the protests, such repression remained under the cover of the legal system—not just Terbil’s arrest but also human rights activist Jamal al Hajji’s detainment, in early February. Though he was accused of hitting a man with his car, the probable reason for his arrest was his call for peaceful protests, and the arresting officers are assumed to be members of the internal security agency. [2]


The February 15 demonstrators were met with rubber bullets and water cannons. Over the next few days, the numbers of protesters grew, with concomitant numbers of deaths. By February 18, over 40 people had been reported killed and that number has risen to over 300. Some victims were reported to have been shot dead during funerals and marches for those killed in anti-government demonstrations by security personnel. Meanwhile, the uprising spread to cities such as Bayda, Derna, Toburk and Misrata. Reports have been sketchy and witness accounts difficult to verify as a result of the media lockdown on Bengazi and the rest of the country, with conflicting accounts given by opposition activists. By February 20, it appeared that much of the East had fallen to the opposition, with army officers and police reportedly siding with people in the street and al Jazeera reporting that a group of army officers, and figures such as Major General Suleiman Mahmoud had reportedly issued a statement vowing their support for the protesters.

Meanwhile, in recent days protests had taken a new turn and begun to cross over to Tripoli, a very different landscape.


That the protests began in Benghazi is no surprise. The Eastern part of Libya had been affiliated with the monarchy and traditionally opposed to Qaddafi’s regime. Although initially Qaddafi and the Revolutionary Command Council were in theory opposed to the predominance of tribes and tribal affiliation in Libya, over time Qaddafi came to rely on the tribal system to safeguard his revolution in the face of political opposition. The tribes Qaddafi relied on were not those from the East, but rather his own tribe—the Qaddadfa—from the Sirt region, as well as the Maqraha tribe from the Fezzan and the Warfalla tribe from West Tripolitania. These were promoted to positions of political power to the exclusion of tribes from Cyrenaica, previously affiliated with the monarchy. To this political exclusion has been added economic woes, with rife unemployment and underemployment and ever-erratic economic policies issued by Qaddafi, which—especially against the backdrop of the relative hydrocarbon riches of the country—created a sense of instability and resentment.

These troubles reached a head in the mid-1990s when an Islamist uprising originated from the East, with gun clashes between Islamists and security services in the streets of Benghazi. In reaction to political opponents, especially since facing the Islamist opposition, Qaddafi began relying more narrowly on his own tribal community. Sensitive positions—therefore political power and financial incentives—were given to members of his own tribe, to the exclusion of other tribal allies, rendering the regime more stable in some ways, but also narrowing the basis of its support.

This may have led to the Warfallah tribe—which holds a blood tie to Qaddafi’s own tribe—declaring on al Jazeera that they now side with the protestors. Assuming this is a clear decision, it is a new and unexpected development that adds to the regime’s woes.

In addition, in recent days there have seen a spate of resignations by relatively high-level representatives of the regime leading to speculation that Qaddafi’s days are numbered. As well as Ambassador Ali Aujali, Libya’s Ambassador to the U.S.—a crucial posting—Libyan Ambassadors from Poland to Belgium left their posts, with others—such as deputy UN Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, the deputy UN Ambassador, accusing Qaddafi of carrying out a “genocide” against his own people.

These diplomatic figures were joined by Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud al Jaleil, who opposed the “excessive use of violence.” Increasingly, reports came in of the resignation of military figures, particularly in the East of the country. Most significantly, General Abdul Fatah Younis—a former secretary of the General People’s Committee for Public Security, effectively Libya’s interior minister—delivered his resignation on February 22, claiming in an interview with al Arabiyya that he had “begged Qaddafi not to send in planes” (against the protestors).

In all likelihood, these figures are driven not by ideological opposition to the regime, but by calculating that the regime is teetering on the brink of a fall and that it is best to leave this sinking ship. Yet it is unclear to what extent their abandoning the regime is likely to impact its stability. After all, the majority of these people are not part of Qaddafi’s inner circle nor are they crucial for the security of the regime. Heads of the various security elements have made little public pronouncement, leading to the assumption that, for the moment, they are sticking with the regime, while pro-regime sources—by no means objective informants—have indicated to media outlets that allied tribes are also holding steadfast to Qaddafi. [3] However, should some of these people reach decide that Qaddafi’s regime has reached a tipping point, they too may be tempted to turn on the Great Leader in order to save their own skin, if indeed that is still possible.


As the protests continued and grew in strength, the earlier regime response intensified. More emphasis was placed on repression, with the subsequent death toll mounting to over 300. There have been reports of sniper shootings and airstrikes by war planes and helicopters. Meanwhile, rumours of repressive action against those political power holders who have tried to break with regime are emerging, with reports that General Abdul Fatah Younis had been kidnapped.

Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the army is relatively unimportant as both a mainstay of the regime and as an institution. Qaddafi does not seem to trust the rank and file of his army, which is criss-crossed and divided by tribal affiliations. Reportedly, foreign mercenaries have been flown in to help quell the uprising. Qaddafi, through his own route into power—through an army coup—is naturally suspicious of power of the army. He has faced coup attempts before, including one in 1975 by the Revolutionary Command Council. In more recent times, an Islamist uprising in Bengazi in the 1990s reportedly evoked sympathy from the conscript army. And in the mid-2000s rumors of coup attempts circulated—a major factor for this is the inlaying of the army by tribal and provincial divisions.

Yet in any case, key players in the Qaddafi regime, including his children, have been placed in charge of special brigades essentially responsible for protecting the regime, such as Khamees, who leads a special forces unit (the 32nd brigade) and had previously requested the purchase of military hardware from the United States. There is also Muatassim, who has functioned as national security advisor. Meanwhile the army’s overall importance to regime stability pales beside that of overlapping security services, often headed by Qaddafi’s kin and family members. These—from the Jamahiriyya Security Organization (Hai’at amn al-jamahiriya) to the military secret service (Al-Istikhbarat al-askariya)—were created in response to threats to the regime to safeguard it and are led by those with a personal tie to Qaddafi. It is likely that these are groups that Qaddafi is relying on regardless of conscript army sympathy with the protestors in the Eastern part of the country. It is these security services that are guarding key installations and sensitive buildings—a central factor in assessing regime longevity.

Indeed, these overlying organizations traditionally have been part of the regime’s crucial divide and rule calculus. Part of the assumption for Qaddafi is that they will defend the regime as they are competing for political and economic goods with other groups and should the regime collapse, they will face vicious reprisals by the protestors, leading to a life and death battle for control between pro and anti-regime voices.

Aside from resorting to violence, the regime also imposed a media blackout in the country, initially cutting off citizens’ access to Facebook and other Internet websites. Meanwhile, the official regime response has come primarily through two channels— Saif al Islam, Qaddafi’s son and the reported “reformer” of the country and Qaddafi himself. These responses have reflected the various tried and tested strategies of the regime: divide and rule, repression, and – primarily in the case of Qaddafi senior—relying on anti-imperialist rhetoric to gain legitimacy. These speeches appeared to be aimed both at an internal Libyan audience and at the international community. Although each of these addresses differed in terms of delivery and tone, much of their underlying message was the same, despite the assumption by many in the West that Saif is the more moderate face of the regime.

Saif’s address on state-television took place on February 20. That the “reformist” face of the regime was the one that first captured the media discourse appears to indicate that Qaddafi has seen the need to mollify and respond to protestors’ demands. Nevertheless, the speech itself seemed woefully out of touch with Libyans’ demands. In it, Saif promised political reforms, including much of the same platform that had been part of Saif’s Libya al Ghad (Tomorrow’s Libya) program that he has purported to push since about 2005, but which has seen little advancement.

Yet the speech itself provoked more than pacified, as political concessions were just a small part. Saif tried to frame protestors as drug addicts, and blamed the presence of outsiders—including Arabs and Africans—that were threatening Libya’s unity and aiming to break up the country into small states, as well as using the threat of Islamist radicals. Such a strategy was much in line with JANA news, the official media channel, which argued that “foreign networks” intended to “destabilize Libya’s security and national unity.” Saif also tried to conjure up the (very real) demon of instability—much as his father had done in the case of Ben Ali. In his speech, he spoke of the threat of “civil war,” while JANA news spoke of “attacks aimed at blundering banks and burning of files of criminal cases in courts” in an attempt to convince Libyans of their need for their strong leader. Meanwhile, much like Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled al Ghaa’eem, he attempted to frame the deaths of protestors as mistakes on the army and police, as opposed to on the regime’s strategies.

Saif al Islam also hinted at the threat of repression, arguing that “We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet’’ to safeguard the regime. Within the speech were allusions to economic repercussions of the current instability, including the loss of foreign investment, perhaps intimating at the use of an economic stick against protestors.

Qaddafi, meanwhile, made two separate speeches. The first was a brief one, allegedly against the background of the “House of Strength” museum, a former Tripoli residence that was bombed in the U.S. attack in 1986. The speech, with little fanfare, seemed to be primarily aimed at assuring Libyans that, despite rumors, he remained in the country. Framed in the context of Libya’s former struggles, the short statement aimed to both invoke the legitimacy of his rule through its struggle against foreign “oppressors” and, in picturing Qaddafi in a car, free of security personnel, to show that his rule was safe and that opposition was limited and non-threatening.

Qaddafi’s second speech, an hour long address on state television, reflected many of the usual Qaddafi strategies and again took place against the background of the 1986 bombing. Qaddafi attempted to position himself as separate from the politics of the country, arguing that “I am not a president to step down.” Such a tactic in the past allowed him to disassociate from any political and economic crises, in order to cast blame on other actors and manipulate actors from a safe political position.

Ominously threatening is his use of force against protestors, who he called “greasy rats.” Qaddafi’s discourse had not changed since the 1980s, when he encouraged extra-judicial killings of political opponents, known as “stray dogs.” Here, too, Qaddafi called on Libyans to arm themselves to “cleanse Libya house by house.” This echoes Qaddafi’s strategy in the late 1970s, when facing political opposition, he inaugurated the Revolutionary Committee’s structure as a way for out-sourcing ideological compliance with the Jamahiriyya and a means to stabilize his rule.

The appeal to national symbols again reflects Qaddafi’s long-term strategy in cloaking himself in an anti-Western and anti-imperialist mantle. In the wake of the brutal colonial occupation of Libya by Italy, such a strategy has in the past found popular appeal and bestowed upon Qaddafi much-needed legitimacy. Indeed, Qaddafi continued in this vein, asking Libyans “do you want America to come and occupy you? Our country will become like Afghanistan. Is that what you want?” Qaddafi has always seen himself as a leader beyond that of the borders of Libya, having viewed himself as the symbol of pan-Arabism and later anointing himself as “King of Kings” of Africa. In his speech, this quest appeared to be a bulwark against his removal from power as “I am the glory that cannot be abandoned by Libya, the Arabs, the United Stated and Latin America.”

Lastly, Qaddafi appeared to resort to divide and rule mechanisms, primarily through the use of the Islamist specter. Like Saif, he blamed the uprising on Islamists that wanted to “create another Afghanistan,” mistakenly followed by “drugged” youth. To invoke religious legitimacy, as he has tried to do whenever he has faced religious opposition, Qaddafi took to citing the Qur’an, claiming the protestors’ acts were punishable by religious edicts.

The one concession Qaddafi seems to have been willing to grant is the formation of a constitution. Long advocated by Saif, the advancement of such as document had been blocked, most likely by Qaddafi, who opposed such an instrument in his Green Book. This, together with Saif’s earlier address and Qaddafi’s mention of his son during his television address, appears to hint at increasing reliance on the son to ensure stability. It may also be a realization, a little too late, that an earlier adoption of Saif’s proposed reforms would have undercut some of the current opposition. Although Saif was rumored to be making a follow-up speech, it has not taken place to date, showing confusion in the upper echelons of the regime as to how to best handle the uprising.


The next steps for Libya are as yet unclear. Although Qaddafi seems to have maintained control in Tripoli, the East of the country currently seems beyond his reach. Yet the lack of institutions in the country bodes badly for stability, whatever way the situation pans out. Any number of scenarios could take place:

  • A successful crackdown on Tripoli, and the regime later gaining control of the East of the country through economic repression, including perhaps a siege. A subsequent bloodbath may take place, with violent revenge being exacted on regime opponents.
  • Continued chaos and a de-facto separation of the country into smaller states.
  • A realization by some within Qaddafi’s inner circle that to best preserve their power they must jettison the Great Leader, with his subsequent death or departure from the country. This may lead to inter-regime struggles, as well as potential internecine struggles, with increasing violence. Previously documented rivalry between Saif and his brother Muatassim, affiliated with security organizations, may end up playing a role here.
  • The presence of oil in the Eastern part of the country will no doubt play into Libya’s final scenarios, as the hydrocarbon industry functions as the cash cow of the regime. Saif al Islam slyly referenced this in his speech, noting that “Who has the ability to manage oil in Libya? How can we split the oil… there will be major and bloody conflicts over it.”

Either way, as for the past 40 years under Qaddafi, the Libyan people will be the ultimate losers, with stability and a functioning government nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, the West will have its own repercussions, with increased illegal immigration to Europe, higher oil prices, and possibly a freer operating area for terrorists, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Dana Moss is an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Her latest publication is a study of US.-Libyan relations entitled “Reforming the Rogue: Lessons from the U.S.-Libyan Rapprochement” available at http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC04.php?CID=330

[1] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=libya-urges-turkish-companies-to-finish-projects-quickly-2011-02-02
[2] http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/libyan-writer-detained-following-protest-call-2011-02-08
[3] http://www.aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=1&id=24246

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Libya’s Legacy

Why the overthrow of Qaddafi might matter more than the events in Egypt and Tunisia.

Michael J. Totten

The New Republic

February 23, 2011 | 12:00 am

Not since Saddam Hussein’s regime was demolished in 2003 has an Arab head of state run a more ruthlessly repressive terror state than Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were small-government libertarians by comparison. The implications of the uprising in Libya are therefore much bigger than they were in Tunisia or Egypt: If ordinary citizens can overthrow Qaddafi, of all people, every other despot in the region may look vulnerable—including Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.

I managed to finagle a visa for myself just after Libyan-American relations defrosted in 2004, and the U.S. government lifted the travel ban. I was one of the first Americans to legally visit the country in decades, and what I saw there was appalling. The capital looks and feels gruesomely communist, which wasn’t surprising, considering that Qaddafi’s “Green Book,” where he fleshes out his lunatic ideology, is a bizarre mixture of the Communist Manifesto and the Koran (though references to Islam are stripped out). What did surprise me was how much terror he instilled in the hearts and minds of his people. No one I met said they liked him. No one would even speak of him unless there were no other Libyans present. Some were even afraid to utter his name, as though saying it out loud might conjure him. “We hate that fucking bastard, we have nothing to do with him,” one shopkeeper told me when we were alone. “We keep our heads down and our mouths shut. We do our jobs, we go home. If I talk, they will take me out of my house in the night and put me in prison.”

The system he runs is basically Stalinist and one of the last total surveillance police states in the world. Freedom House ranks Libya near North Korea and Turkmenistan, the most oppressive countries by far, in its utter dearth of human and political rights. I believe it. Obvious intelligence agents worked my hotel lobby, staring at and listening to everyone, and the U.S. State Department warned Americans at the time that even hotel rooms for foreigners likely were bugged.

Posters bearing the boss’s face are typical in dictatorships, but, in Libya, Qaddafi’s arrogant portrait is everywhere, on every street and in every shop. State propaganda appears on billboards along the sides of the road out in the desert. He even carved “Al Fateh Forever,” the name of his “revolution,” into the side of a mountain. The only way you can truly get away from him is to venture into the roadless sand seas of the Sahara.

The contrast between Libya and its neighbors is stark. When I visited Tunisia just a few months before going to Tripoli, I met plenty of people willing to criticize Ben Ali even when others were present. Sure, they lowered their voices, but they didn’t cower in fear. Egypt under Mubarak was even more open. I spoke to dissident bloggers like “Big Pharaoh” and “Sandmonkey” in restaurants and bars, and they didn’t care if anyone heard them slagging the president. Cairo’s mukhabarat didn’t seem to mind what anyone said as long as they didn’t act on their disgruntlement. Granted, regimes like these wouldn’t have lasted decades if they were easy to get rid of, but, ultimately, they lack the staying power of the hard totalitarian states.

States like Libya, that is. Tunisia is pleasant, prosperous, and heavily Frenchified, while Egypt is a poverty-stricken shambles, but Ben Ali and Mubarak were both pragmatic, standard issue authoritarians. Qaddafi, by comparison, is an emotionally unstable ideological megalomaniac. He says he’s the sun of Africa and swears to unite the Arabs and Africans underneath him. He has repeatedly threatened to ban money and schools, and he treats his country, communist-style, like a mad scientist’s laboratory. What I knew when I was there holds true today, even as his grip on power seems shaky: This guy is not going to liberalize, and he is not going to go quietly.

Indeed, his instruments of internal repression are proving as ruthless as promised in the face of strong civilian protests. (Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi and third largest city of Bayda are now reported to be in the hands of the opposition and under the guardianship of citizen militias and officers who have switched sides.) They’re busy assaulting demonstrators not with rubber bullets and tear gas but with artillery fire, attack helicopters, and war planes. Qaddafi has even imported mercenaries from Sub-Saharan Africa in case his own military officers flinch at orders to murder their neighbors (which some of them have, joining the demonstrators in the streets).

Ben Ali and Mubarak were low-hanging fruit, but, if a tyrant as vicious and murderous as Qaddafi can be taken out, it would seem just about anyone can be. If the people of Libya manage to overthrow him, it might even inspire Iran’s Green Movement to finish what it started in 2009 and push all the way to the end. But if Qaddafi survives by mass murder, which he just might, and if the world lets him get away with it, the Iranian regime and other despotic governments will take comfort in the knowledge that they, too, might do the same without consequence.

Michael J. Totten is an independent foreign correspondent and foreign policy analyst. His first book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel, will be published in April.

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