The March for Freedom in Libya

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The people of Libya are closer than ever to freedom from the 42-year-long rule of the world’s longest serving leader in the Arab world, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Though notorious for severely repressing opposition movements, the Libyan regime is no longer in a position to exercise the level of control it has enjoyed over the past four decades, as Libyans no longer fear their government and are now closer than ever to changing it. The Libyan people’s direct confrontation with the Qaddafi dictatorship highlights the many factors that have brought them closer than ever to their long-awaited goal.

One of the main contributors to unrest in the country lies in Libya’s economic sector. Libya is one of the richest Arab nations in terms of its natural resources particularly oil. The country exports approximately 1.5 million barrels per day, yet approximately one-third of Libyans live at or below the poverty line. The Libyan people tend to blame this inconsistency on their government’s rampant corruption.

Aside from facing economic challenges, Libya also enjoys the unique position of being “sandwiched” between the Arab world’s two successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. This provides not only inspiration but also logistical support to popular revolt in Libya. It is therefore no surprise that the Libyan revolution began and has been most robust in the easternmost part of the country where people enjoy close relationships with their Egyptian neighbors.

It is particularly significant that the revolution began in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, which during a brief period in the 1960s enjoyed a “joint-capital” status with Tripoli, and was also the site of the execution of Omar Al Mukhtar, the Libyan figure who led the revolution against Italian colonialism, making it a symbolic launching point for revolution.

Another important factor that helps Libyans in their struggle against the regime is the homogeneity of their society: 97 percent of the Libyans are Sunni Muslims, which is a shared characteristic of Tunisian and Egyptian societies that proved helpful in uniting social forces against the regime. Conversely, sectarianism, as seen in Lebanon, and tribalism, prevalent in Yemen, has hindered mass political mobilization, particularly when the expectation is a public revolution where participation is expected from all segments of the society. The state’s homogeneity allows the uprising to be framed as a society-state movement, where anger is directed against one source, in this case Qaddafi’s dictatorship.

Qaddafi’s use of mercenaries demonstrates that the people’s uprising is bankrupting the regime and that his militia, the revolutionary committees, is either being ineffective or not demonstrating the level of loyalty that the regime would like to see. In either case, it seems that the regime is running out of options and that the people are making serious progress.

It is becoming increasingly likely that current events will lead to the fall of the Qaddafi regime. The tribal leaders’ announcement of their support of the protests leaves the Colonel in a very difficult position on the domestic level. Internationally, several Libyan diplomats are defecting and joining the revolution. This is especially important for creating momentum to encourage more Libyans to join the revolution. Furthermore, the role of the mercenaries has been quite ineffective in helping Qaddafi’s government maintain control of the country. Understandably, these paid soldiers do not have a stake in the matter, as they stand to benefit only economically. Their role, consequently, is isolating the regime and increasing its chances of falling.

The Libyan Diaspora has a significant role to play in this uprising. Though undeniably important, it is not enough for Libyans to protest outside embassies overseas. Due to Qaddafi’s shut down of the Internet, the Diaspora has become more important, particularly in spreading information about gatherings on Facebook and Twitter and pressuring the international community to support the well-deserved and long overdue freedom for the Libyan people.

The fall of the Qaddafi regime will certainly create a political vacuum in a country that already lacks the infrastructure of a civil society. This vacuum could allow long-entrenched social groups to take a leadership role in the post-Qaddafi era. In particular, it is likely that tribal leaders will come to power, as they have already positioned themselves well by declaring support for the revolution. Moreover, the Libyan Diaspora will play another significant role in the aftermath as they have privileged connections with the outside world, and also have the skills and education to contribute to a new political order. Of course, we should also expect that new leadership will emerge, especially from the youth, who have already assumed that leadership role in Benghazi and the rest of the Libya’s east.

As with all other revolutions in the Arab world, the same lesson has emerged: once people go to the streets, nothing can stop them. No threats from the regime can frighten them enough to make them stand down. The march for freedom continues in Libya, and the future of the country is being shaped as we speak.