Quilliam Foundation-Libya Uprising by douglasmatthewstewar


									                      Briefing paper: Understanding the Libyan uprising

                                        22 February 2011

Following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya has now been in revolt for almost a week,
leading to large parts of the country coming under the control of pro-democracy protestors.
In response the regime has responded by launching repeated large-scale military attacks on
demonstrators, leading to many deaths. While much of the ongoing Libyan uprising is a
straightforward popular revolt against the brutal and authoritarian rule of the Gadaffi family,
as in Tunisia and Egypt, there are also many unique local factors that also need to be taken
into account in order to understand the unfolding events in Libya.

Nb. This briefing paper was written with the help of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
leader Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at Quilliam, who returned to London yesterday
after spending two weeks in Tripoli, Libya.

Internal regime politics

The uprising has led to the Gadaffi family and the ‘Revolutionary Command Committee’
which governs the country closing ranks in order to defend the regime. This has led to any
reformist trends within the government largely disappearing. The Gadaffi family itself has
also closed ranks around Colonel Gadaffi. Saif al-Islam Gadaffi, the heir apparent to Colonel
Gadaffi, in particular no longer aspires to lead a reformist wing within the government but
has instead sided with the hardliners – as he demonstrated in his televised speech on 20
February. The likelihood of Gadaffi being forced out by senior members of his own regime
(which is what happened in Tunisia and Egypt) therefore seems remote at present.


The regular Libyan army is small, run-down and ill-equipped. As a matter of policy Gadaffi
has long kept the army weak in order to prevent it from developing into a rival power-base
that could one day turn against him (as happened in Egypt with Mubarak). Instead, power is
largely vested in a series of paramilitary formations, bolstered by groups of foreign African
mercenaries, that have largely remained loyal to the Gadaffi family. Reports of army units
joining the demonstrators are therefore in themselves not necessarily significant or fatal to
the regime on their own.


Libya is a highly tribal society, particularly in rural regions, and tribal identities and loyalties
can often take precedence over national or ideological loyalties. Although most of the tribes
in Eastern Libya have come out in support of the demonstrators, many of the key tribes in
Western Libya and in Tripoli (such as the Warfala, the Tarhuna and the Amazigh) are leaning
towards the protestors but have so far not played an active role in the conflict. The anti-
regime protestors would be greatly strengthened if these tribes actively joined them against

Lack of civil society

During the last forty years, there have been no independent civil society movements or
organisations in Libya. While in Tunisian and Egypt a relatively active and organised civil
society has shown itself vital for smooth regime change, in Libya there are few organisations
or movements that can either be a focus for protests, which can articulate a clear message
or which can step into any power vacuum that might develop following the fall of Gadaffi’s

Islamist influence

In the absence of an independent or secular civil society, some underground Islamist and
hardline salafi currents have developed in Libya. These seem to have played a role in some
of the anti-regime protests in Eastern Libya. Although their influence appears to be limited,
the Gadaffi regime’s current behaviour could easily have a radicalising influence on these
movements and might led to them adopting indiscriminate violence themselves (as
happened in Algeria in the 1990s following the military’s crackdown on pro-demoracy
protestors there). At the same time, however, there is not just a simple choice between
Islamist terrorism on one hand and the current Gadaffi regime on the other. As Egypt and
Tunisia have demonstrated, there is a democratic alternative. Fears of terrorism should not
lead to the West endorsing despotism.

International bargaining chips

The Gadaffi regime has a number of bargaining chips that it may seek to use in order to
shore up support for its activities. For instance, Libya has received heavy investments from
several major international oil firms and many senior regime figures have close relations
with many of these firms. Libya may seek to persuade these firms to lobby on its behalf.
Libyan oil is often highly profitable because it is easy to extract. The country is also a key oil
supplier for a number of countries such as Italy. In addition, the Gaddafi regime may
increasingly use the threat of Islamist terrorism - and the possibility of Libya becoming a
failed state - in order to demand international support. Using oil revenue, Gadaffi has also
built strong ties with many African rulers who may now in return seek to delay or block any
international action against the Libyan regime.

Outlook and recommendations:

At present, the prospects for a smooth transition to genuine multi-party democracy in Libya
seem much more remote than in the case of other Middle Eastern countries. In particular
Libya does not have a civil society culture that can easily take the place of the Gadaffi regime
or which can even co-ordinate opposition to it. That said, some former regime figures (such
as ambassadors) who have publicly resigned in protest could play a part in a future
transitional government, while tribal leaders will also undoubtedly play a key role in any
progress towards democracy.

International governments can assist pro-democracy protestors in Libya by putting pressure
on the Gadaffi regime through condemning its actions, cutting trade and political ties and
threatening to isolate Libya until the current regime steps down. Western or Arab non-
governmental civil society groups can also help Libyan democrats by helping overseas Libyan
activists to form a government in exile that can begin acting as a viable alternative to the
Gadaffi regime.

In addition, overseas assets held by senior regime figures or by military leaders with the
protestors’ blood on their hands can be frozen and their properties seized. If the Gadaffi
family continues to escalate military attacks on unarmed demonstrators, other measures
such as the implementation by the UN of a ‘no-fly zone’ could also be considered. At the
same time, however, a diplomatic door needs to be kept open so the Gadaffi family and
their supporters can leave Libya into exile if they chose – this is important in order to avoid a
repeat of the sanctions against Saddam Hussain which led to him and his close supporters
believing that they had no choice but to further entrench themselves in power.

Quilliam is ready to offer consulting to private and public organisations wishing to
understand more about the recent events in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East. For
further details please contact information@quilliamfoundation.org or call (+44) 0207-182-

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