Libya: The Tale of Two ‘Revolutions’


The “Jamahiriya,” the republic of the masses, never was. For those who recall the stench of the hangings in public squares, it was in thought and action redolent of the killing fields of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution.” Muammar Gadhafi’s dictatorship was born in the bosom of the ideological divides and foreign tutelage of a bygone global era in which coups and prevalent political sensibilities easily propelled military strongmen into power.

The Jamahiriya was invented by Gadhafi to keep all parts of the state under his dynastic control, to keep his own rule fluid and yet rigidly cast in the stone of monopolistic coercion and tribal networks, and to have a supply of petrodollars to bribe local and international allies and tempt or sanction enemies, real and imagined. At times he decorated it with the vagaries of pan- Arabism; and when that failed he laced it with the rhetoric of pan-Africanism.

Regardless, it takes money, coercion and nepotistic ties, after all, to keep a whole people in check with their aspirations for representation, distribution, and citizenship manipulated by senseless sloganeering from the mediocre “Green Book.” All over Libya, one slogan read “partners not wage-earners.”

The very few challenges Gadhafi faced from fellow free officers and civil servants in the 1970s and 1980s turned him into an unremitting foe of all critics and opposition efforts. That is, except against his own megalomania as he began by the turn of the third millennium grooming his progeny, Saif, Mu’tasim, Sa’adi, and Khamis to inherit his ‘Jamahiriya’. Some of those foes either died mysteriously, some fled, and some, like [first name?] Kikhi were kidnapped and most certainly killed in Libya. During the February 2011 uprising, his narcissism fueled his denial that the Gadhafi revolution had failed, and that his Jamahiriya created belts of misery in a sparsely populated country where per capita income should have approximated that of Qatar or the United Arab Emirates.

By then the “contamination” from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was too widespread to cure. From that point onwards, the coming fall of Gadhafi irreversibly began in earnest. The light of one revolution is being dimmed; in its stead, the moral flame of another is being lit.


The Feb. 17 revolution, as the Libyan rebels call it, still intensely violent and stalemated, has certainly dented the credibility of Gadhafi ‘s own 42-year-old ‘Al-Fatih revolution’ (in reference to Sept. 1 1969). Mounting evidence collected almost daily from the liberated towns across Libya’s vast territory add ammunition to the erosion of all things “Gadhafi .”

With every discovery of Gadhafi ‘s henchmen’s atrocities: massacre victims, such as the dozens of incinerated bodies found in a Benghazi military compound; executed deserters; and the demolition of vacated towns, a nail is hammered into the coffin of a dying body politic. For Libya’s six million Sunni Muslims, rape by and on orders of the state, is an affront to religious and moral sensitivities; and it adds salt to their wounds. The tally now nears 2,000 victims of systematic rape, hailing mostly from Zintan and the Western Mountains (Al-Jabal al-Gharbi) region.

Recently, investigators in one compound stumbled upon a most bizarre finding: the files of a spy ring charged with preventing the rise of stars, luminaries or charismatic figures. Gadhafi wanted no rivals. His speeches often kept rented crowds listening for hours to the endless rants of a selfdeluded persona juggling the masks of the “brother-leader,” colonel, king of kings, and quintessential revolutionary.


The state has dissolved. A strong sense of déja vu returns to Arab politics. As in Saddam’s Iraq, no sooner had the tyrant fallen than his state and its façade of fierceness disappeared without a trace from the political landscape. That is where Libya is today. The arms, the armies, the police bureaucracy, the intelligence apparatuses and the hardware are all today the debris that is left from the superficial ornaments of statehood. They did not spare Saddam’s fall from power; and today they will not spare Gadhafi the same fate.

How cruelly ‘deterministic’ history can be for tyrants! It is the moment of truth: the passing from political eminence to transience, an inevitability Gadhafi is resisting with all his might. Yet today he still survives for three interconnected reasons. Firstly, the ‘critical mass’ lacks a ‘tippingpoint’ dynamic. Even NATO’s firepower has so far shaken Gadhafi ‘s confidence but not his stranglehold on power. Tenuous as it might be over the expanding vacuous tracts of land of the emerging ‘Swisscheese’ state, he still controls Sabha, Sirte, and Tripoli where some fighting units, including well-armed forces run by his sons Khamis and Sa’adi. Capital cities make a difference, and that’s where governments live and die.

Secondly, being the Houdini he is, Gadhafi has prepared for the eventuality of mutiny and renewed sanctions. Dwindling perhaps, but he has supply of cash perhaps in hundreds of millions still at his disposal. Lastly, Gadhafi has lost none of his cunning, expressed through the tribal alliances, sanguine ties, and the patronage-clientelism networks. Similarly, the unmistakably old patrimonial ways are amply on display as Gadhafi spews vitriol at a rebellious nation: “sons of dogs…,” addressing them in one recent speech. Gadhafi fears for his life and his family and the dynasty slipping from his tight grip; but he will never act petrified. The numerous crises he has had to manage over his 42-year-old tenure at the helm has sufficiently hardened and drilled him for the current crisis.

In this, and this is worthy of psychoanalytical inquiry, Gadhafi remains a Houdini par excellence. His state and standing are tattered daily by NATO’s sorties, more than five thousand now, and the valiant resistance Libyans are displaying in the liberated towns where the royal tricolor (black, green and red) flag flutters to the breeze of newly-found freedom.


Nonetheless, thus far Gadhafi ‘s survival tactics have prevailed, bringing with every day illusions, delusions, and envoys. NATO’s firepower alone may not be enough, and Gadhafi is banking on the knowledge that the powers arrayed against him could not stomach additional misfortunes of war after Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gadhafi may be defanged militarily, but not politically. He is an old dog with many a trick picked up on many a learning curve, including confrontation with Reagan, sanctions under Clinton, and today a war endorsed by Obama and a second regime of sanctions. Historically, this is a first.

The following dynamics could catalyse a number of scenarios.

The real battle today is political. Gadhafi wishes not to end up exposed in his underwear like Saddam Hussein was, or nabbed by international judges like Charles Taylor of Liberia. Plus, he probably has got the safety of Saif and co. uppermost in his mind. The rhetoric may be defiance and sabre-rattling, but scabbard is what Gadhafi might right now have in mind.[not sure what this mean, that he may be stabbed in the back?] He is at a point where he no longer can stomach the combined assault of the rebels and NATO.

He is possibly baiting his interlocutors for a deal that saves him from facing an international trial, and secures the safety of his family. It is a tall price, but one worth getting if Gadhafi leaves the state voluntarily.

There are strong indications from the United States, the European Union and even the rebels’ National Transitional Council that this might be one possible exit route if Gadhafi de-couples from all statecraft and the state. The NTC’s foreign affairs spokesman Ali Issawi would seriously consider the scenario of Gadhafi retiring with impunity. The U.N. envoy, Abd Al-Ilah Al-Khatib, like previous messengers, brings more confusion to an increasingly opaque situation. What is certain, however, is that secret diplomacy is trying to open up the kinds of cracks that NATO’s firepower has so far failed to widen to enable Libyans to enter a post-Gadhafi era.

The worst-case scenario is the failure of such a plan. Gadhafi will then have no choice but to fight – the modus operandi or logic of the Moorish General Tariq bin Ziyad would present itself. In 711, Bin Ziyad set fire to his fleet upon disembarking in Gibraltar (Mount Tariq) when conquering Andalusia, leaving his soldiers, caught between the sea to their back and the enemy at the front, with the single choice to advance or die.

No right-thinking person expects Gadhafi to fight a clean war. If forced to fight for his life, he will employ all the dirty tricks at his disposal, including plunging the whole of Libya into a protracted civil war. This is one reason one carrot (voluntary exit from power) makes more sense than another carrot (exit from power and prosecution along with his son).

For NATO and the rebels, a longer conflict, with it being the holy month of Ramadan, will make neither good political nor military sense. The Libyans directly bearing the brunt of the civil war, the leading representatives of the freed areas, and the Western powers arrayed against Gadhafi may now be inclined to pause, to talk and consider an exit policy for Gadhafi .


Despite the buoyancy in Benghazi, the contact group’s meetings and the European corridors of power, there may be cracks in the anti-Gadhafi coalition. These may be smoothed over with the over-optimistic rhetoric such as by the French as Gadhafi ‘s exit nears. The exit door: Gadhafi volunteers to leave power, leaving wide open all kinds of possibilities.

One possibility, and a very ironic one, is for a synergy of sorts to be mediated so that the children of Gadhafi ‘s delegitimized 1969 revolution share power with the children of Libya’s Feb. 17 revolution. A wedding of the two revolutions as a potential midwife of a new Libya may sound ludicrous but it may be an option.

The NTC is in essence “fathered” by Gadhafi . Its technocrats were under Gadhafi ‘s bankroll till the eruption of the protests in the second half of February. Many worked with Saif; others worked closely with Gadhafi ; and most kept silent, for obvious risks, on the atrocities committed by the regime.

One possible route, for such synergy to emerge, is that technocrats from the NTC and those currently working for Gadhafi right now join forces to ease Libya into smooth transition till a Constituent Assembly is voted in and a new constitution is written.

Whatever scenario unfolds, the children of the Feb. 17 revolution will not easily shake off the Gadhafi nightmare, and probably not swiftly and completely till the NTC dissolves once new institutions and laws are in place for a republic that will see greener pasture with no green books or green flags.

Larbi Sadiki is Senior Lecturer at University of Exeter whose work focuses on democraticization in the Arab Middle East. Dr. Sadiki is also a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English.


1/14/11 President Moammar Gadhafi makes televised statement about recent events in the region.

2/16/11 Protests erupt in Benghazi, Libya’s 2nd largest city, after a human rights campaigner is arrested.

2/17/11 Day of Rage protests are met by Gadhafi loyalists, sparking violent clashes with at least 15 people reportedly killed.

2/20/11 After protesters have been killed in demonstrations, Gadhafi ‘s son appears on television to defend him.

2/22/11 Gadhafi makes a public address and vows to fight till the death against armed rebels.

2/23/11 Benghazi reportedly controlled by rebels.

3/07/11 Gadhafi launches military assault against rebel strongholds.

3/18/11 The UN Security Council passes a resolution authorizes using all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack.

3/19/11 Western air and missile strikes begin against Gadhafi ‘s forces in Benghazi to protect civilians in Operation Odyssey Dawn.

3/23/11 Western forces agree to hand over operational command of Libya’s no-fly zone to NATO.

5/16/11 Gadhafi and his family named as war crimes suspects by the International Criminal Court.

5/24/11 NATO forces pound Tripoli and Gadhafi ‘s residential compound, killing members of his family.

6/27/11 ICC issues arrest warrant for Gadhafi and his charging them with crimes against humanity.

7/08/11 Gadhafi threatens to deploy Libyans to attack targets in Europe in retaliation for the NATO strikes.

7/15/11 Libyan rebel leaders are recognized as the government of the country by the USA.

7/16/11 A meeting between US diplomats and envoys of Gadhafi take place, informing the Libyan leader that he must step down.

7/27/11 Britain recognizes the rebels as the legitimate government and expels Gadhafi ‘s ambassadors.

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