Valerie Stocker


Depuis plusieurs mois, l’actualité mondiale laisse une place importante aux évènements libyens. Alors certaines images tournent en boucle, d’autres aspects du conflit, tel que l’impact du facteur tribal, sont négligés ou demeurent flous. Inspirées par le “printemps arabe” et amplifiées par la communication et mobilisation sur Internet, les premières manifestations se sont vite transformées en soulèvement général. L’irruption de la colère populaire ne vient cependant pas de nulle part; les tensions et maux sociaux sont profonds et le système sclérosé de la Jamâhîriyya est depuis longtemps en crise de légitimité.


For months now, constant media reports on the war in Libya have held the world’s attention. While some pictures reappear over and over, other facets of the conflict were either neglected or remained unclear, such as the tribal factor. Inspired by the “Arab Spring” and amplified by online communication and mobilization, sporadic protest in February quickly turned into a full-fledged uprising. Peoples’ anger didn’t however come “out of nowhere”, as social grievances and tensions run deep and the outdated Jamâhîriyya system had long been in a crisis of legitimacy.


Note: Except for the addendum, the article was written in early May.

Although much has recently been published on Libya and various aspects of the current conflict, ongoing events are not always interpreted in a wider context. This article intends to elucidate the underlying causes of the uprising, the motivations of the people involved, and the chain of events that led up to the NATO intervention. It also looks at the regime’s rhetoric and both sides’ strategies to mobilize their supporters. Rather than being a historical or political analysis, this is an attempt to give some insight into peoples’ everyday lives before and since the start of the uprising, their fears, hopes, and expectations.

Roots of rebellion

The tribal system – a fragile equilibrium

Commentators often invoke the tribal system to explain what they call “the Libyan exception”. The situation is however more complicated than this. Both the social fabric and parts of the state structure have emerged from the tribal system, but they have also developed beyond the primordial social order and changed it in the process. Libya is so to speak more than just “tribes with flags”[1].

Origins of the tribal system

Libya has for many centuries been the land of Berber nomads, some of whom settled down in the coastal regions and were arabized by tribes moving westwards from the Arabian Peninsula. Some of today’s tribes claim to be direct descendants of the “Khalîjis” and people are proud to say they are “shurafâ’” or “ashraf” that is “the honorable ones” of the direct lineage of the prophet. Among the assumed 140 tribes and clans in Libya, about 30 are thought to be – or to have been – influential. They include the Warfalla, the Zintân, Qadhâdhfa, Magrâha, Beni Hilâl, Beni Salim, Majâbra, Zuwâyya, Misrâta, Kargala, Tawajîr, Awaqîr, ‘Abdiyât, Farjân and Hasâwna[2]. Tribes and clans are not necessarily from only one town or area, but they all have their “strongholds”. For instance, the “Misratis” (originally from the town of Misrata, 200 km east of Tripoli) are said to be influential in Benghazi and Derna, in Eastern Libya[3]. Some of them have settled down in urban areas, while others have continued to live a season-oriented semi-nomadic lifestyle, especially those in remote parts of the country. Every political change has also been a power shift between different Libyan tribes. The 1969 so-called Al Fâteh Revolution[4] was not only a military coup reflecting popular disenchantment with the monarchy and the young officers’ grasp for power. It also represented the rise of previously disadvantaged tribes from the rural periphery, which had had a history of resisting centralized power. Of the over 100 members of the army opposition movement, 75% were of rural origin, 20% Bedouin and virtually all were from the lower middle class[5]. While some tribal alliances are centuries old, others were forged in the wake of the coup or later under Qadhâfi’s rule. Tribal leadership could be synonymous with religious authority. This applied most notably to the Sanûsiyya, a politico-religious order with considerable authority in the eastern region that came to rule Libya under the monarchy after World War II[6].

Though national cohesion is considered structurally weak in Libya, a strong social cohesion has been maintained throughout the 20th century, largely due to the tribal structures in place. The tribal system binds the individual through loyalty to his family, extended family and tribe. Loyalty mostly implies obligations, such as supporting or shunning relatives to safeguard the reputation or cohesion of the tribe as a whole. The tribal system however also provides an array of possibilities and guarantees. Libyans do seem to think and speak in terms of tribal relations. When people meet for the first time, introductory questions such as where the other is from or what his full name is provides valuable information about his or her background.[7] . Having family or tribal links can open doors and pave the way for good personal, as well as work relations. This applies in particular to obtaining government jobs. At the same time, belonging to a tribe limits individual freedom. Tribal leadership is a source of authority and as such demands obedience when issues are of general concern, such as family disputes, criminal offense or political affairs.

Tribal alliances guarantee the stability of Qadhâfi’s rule

As mentioned above, tribal relations are not only essential to understand Libyan society but also its political system. When the Free Unionist Officers took power in 1969, one of their proclaimed goals was to abolish the tribal system and replace it with a modern state structure. Tribal rule was viewed as incompatible with the progressive socialist-inspired and Arab nationalist ideals that the new state was to be based upon. Tribal relations proved to be more persistent than expected and the revolutionaries failed to present a viable alternative.

By the time he created the Third Universal Theory (TUT)[8] and, in a historic speech of Sebha in 1977, proclaimed the Jamâhiriyya – literally “State of the masses” – Qadhâfi had changed his strategy and gave room for tribal relations within the ruling system. This may have been a strategic move; it was nevertheless consistent with Libyan cultural identity. The “leader” himself has always shown pride in his bedouin origins and called for a simple, traditional way of life, as opposed to urban “decadence” and moral decay. “Tribalism” would gradually become a distinctive feature of Libyan politics. In order to consolidate his rule, Qadhâfi co-opted tribal leaders through selective favoritism and manipulation of allegiances while simultaneously undermining their influence through the institutions he created. The Revolutionary Committees that were called to life in 1977 as the new elite were meant to be independent from all social and political influence and obey only direct orders by the “Leader” and the regime’s inner circle. But even they recruited many of their members on a tribal basis. Repeatedly challenged by internal and external forces, the regime exploited the rivalry between tribes. In 1993, after a failed military coup whose main authors were members of the Warfalla tribe, Qadhâfi replaced many high-ranking officers with people from his own tribe and family. In 1997, fearing public disaffection due to the declining standard of living and the spreading corruption, Qadhâfi set up a network of “Social Leadership Commandments”, a sort of jamâhiriyyan version of tribal councils, at the local and national level. The new institution reflected a further step towards tribal politics, as well as the intention to punish the Revolutionary committees whose excesses had made them deeply unpopular amongst the people.

Other than to back the regime, tribal networks also worked to reinforce control over the population. Tribal leaders and elders had the implicit obligation to watch over their “sons’” activities if directed against the state and punish them accordingly. The risk of putting one’s family at danger and staining the image of one’s tribe would be a powerful deterrent from any kind of deviant behavior. According to a law passed by the General Peoples’ Congress (the official legislative body) in 1994, an entire tribe can be held responsible for an individual’s “crime”.[9]

The current crisis will not be determined by tribal alliances alone

The role of the tribes today is somewhat difficult to assess for an outsider. On the one hand, tribal relations continue to play a vital role for society and some tribal chiefs certainly have considerable leverage in political decision-making. On the other hand, the state largely functions through officially non-tribal political institutions such as Popular Congresses and Committees as well as the Revolutionary Committees; the Jamâhîriyya having created its own relations of dependence and loyalty. Interpreting the Libyan system as a power struggle between tribes and revolutionary elites does not give enough credit to the personal dimension of individuals. About 15 % of Libyans have no tribal affiliation at all[10]. And if they do, their tribe does not necessarily determine their behavior. According to some, “(…) people take notice of what tribal chiefs say only if it suits them”[11]. In addition, intermarriage and urbanization have over time weakened tribal structures. Tribal leaders may therefore not be able to reach out to all members, especially since the conflict has split some tribes into pro- and anti-regime factions. In summation, the regime clearly relies on the revolutionary structure[12] that exists in parallel to the democratic institutions as well as on Qadhâfi’s personal leadership. But if it were to lose its tribal backbone, it would also lose the authority needed to rule.

The embittered East

It is no coincidence that the uprising began in eastern Libya and that the opposition leadership is now based in Benghazi. Diverging historic trajectories and experiences of the country’s three regions – Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and the Fezzan – have produced distinctive identities and mentalities. After having been the land of dispersed and fairly autonomous tribes, the territory was unified under the monarchy of King Idriss I. At a time in which there was potential for nation building, Libya was ruled by a reluctant tribal leader from the East who did not make a great effort to instill a sense of national belonging. Although the regime that came to power in 1969 initially tried to unify the country and to synchronize political process, the east-west divide has remained strong over time, the regime persistently treating the “easterners” as potential troublemakers.. Traditionally rebellious against the central government, the east has given birth to an Islamist movement that Qadhâfi has been trying to contain for decades. The small town of Derna has become an epitome of the radicalization of the marginalized Libyan youth. When, on June 29th 1996, Qadhâfi allegedly ordered the killing of over a thousand prisoners at the Abû Slîm detention center in Tripoli[13], the repercussions were felt mostly in the Cyrenaica, where most of the prisoners came from. For years now, relatives of the “martyrs of Abû Slîm” have taken to the streets in Benghazi on every anniversary of the massacre; mainly women calling for an end to the silence and final clarification regarding the fate of their sons and husbands – some of whom might still be alive but are denied contact to the outside world. Demonstrations in the east were usually met with brutal repression by the security forces. While sometimes acting out of precaution, the regime was at other times clearly seeking revenge. Once a major political and cultural center[14], the city of Benghazi was gradually marginalized in both real and symbolic terms. In order to cleanse collective memory of potentially rivaling references, the regime repeatedly destroyed historic monuments and documents linked to the monarchy, the Sanûsiyya movement and even the liberation struggle. When, back in 2000, the popular Al Ahli football team from Benghazi was defeated by Al Akhdhar, a team associated with the Qadhafi family, enraged Al Ahli supporters took to the streets and protested against the allegedly predetermined outcome of the game. In response, Qadhâfi had the historic Al Ahli club in Benghazi demolished[15].

In addition to historical differences and political tensions, economic grievances have added to the overall malaise. Despite nation-wide development plans and the revolutionary regime’s declared goal to improve living standards, especially in rural areas, regional imbalances have not significantly diminished under Qadhafi’s rule. The selective allocation of government funds in and around Tripoli, as well as in the Sirt area – the Qadhadhfa’s ancestral land – angered people in other parts of the country. University professors would complain about the lack of funding and recall the days when educational standards were higher at the University of Benghazi than in Tripoli. The youth in the eastern towns would lament that job opportunities were rare and leisure activities virtually inexistent. “I bet you feel sorry for us”, or “life here is hell” one would hear from them. There was also a great deal of distrust and disrespect in the way people spoke about each other. “Those from Benghazi are conservative and backward”, was a common statement. “Don’t trust people from Tripoli”, one friend from the province advised me: “they have criminal minds”. These individual opinions don’t necessarily reflect the true state of development and tend to be broad generalizations; they do however convey widespread perceptions and the sense of a nation having grown apart.

Generational change – possibilities and disillusionment 

In terms of human development – life expectancy, per capita income, literacy rate etc. – Libya is clearly one of the better-ranked countries in the region. This is undeniably a result of the jamâhîriyyan welfare-state model and continuous – if not always very efficient – efforts to improve public services.  The implementation of a socialist-type economy from 1978 on had resulted in the corrosion of previous structures and introduced several decades of strict state-led development. Facing economic difficulties in the late 1980s, the regime first loosened the tight rules and laws, but only the end of the international sanctions and Qadhâfi’s rapprochement with the West allowed for a gradual opening-up of the economy. In the past few years, times of hardship under the embargo have given way to an economic boom characterized by a rising number of businesses, rapidly expanding foreign trade and a blossoming construction sector; all fueled by continuously high oil revenues and increasing foreign investment. This has enabled the regime to begin catching up after years of stagnated development and to reward an increasingly demanding population.

In spite of the overall consensus that the state-led economy is not a viable option for the future, development is still hindered by persistent state-involvement, a cumbersome bureaucracy and an opaque legal system. In business circles, calls for reform and a more rapid liberalization have been growing louder. While the welfare system has already been scaled back, the system still doesn’t encourage private entrepreneurship, as the idea contradicts the Jamâhîriya’s very own principles. As a result, the increasing number of young, reasonably educated graduates is not met with sufficient opportunities for employment and advanced training. In the eyes of many, the government has not been very good at keeping its promises and announcements of new development programs and social funds therefore elicit little enthusiasm. Young people around the country complain about the lack of opportunities and naïvely wonder why “Libya is not as developed as Dubai” (a commonly heard statement).

Speaking of a generational clash between the old establishment and young over-educated job seekers however, is not entirely accurate, and Libya is in this respect different to Tunisia. There is no doubt that unemployment is a major problem. Heavy manual work and badly paid services are almost exclusively carried out by foreigners. An estimated population of one to two million migrants, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa, ensures that cheap labor is available at all times[16]. This has less to do with harsh competition on the job market than with insufficient specialization and the lack of know-how taught at Libyan educational institutions. Cultural sensitivities also play a role: for a woman to work as driver, waitress, or even as a shopkeeper is still generally regarded as unacceptable[17]. In order to alleviate unemployment figures, quota requirements to raise the ratio of domestic employees in local and even foreign companies have been introduced and repeatedly reinforced. Unable to find the profile they were looking for, many companies would accept the additional costs of employing some Libyans pro forma, while actually entrusting foreign employees with the real tasks. Because the country is still in the process of opening up and diversifying its production; more time is required to build up the necessary foundations and develop the local workforce accordingly. According to many educated Libyans, the quality of secondary and higher education has not significantly improved since the end of the sanctions. Students are nowadays offered a larger array of university courses, exchange programs with foreign institutions, lectures by visiting scholars, and foreign language classes[18]. However, there hasn’t been any general overhaul of course programs and, in most fields, it is still necessary to go abroad to pursue graduate studies. Medical and technical schools do not have sufficient equipment for appropriate practical training and libraries are still poorly equipped. According to students and young professionals, the system doesn’t provide equal opportunities for employment. Rather than on rewarding talent and effort, they claim that it is based upon family ties and political allegiances.

Libya under Qadhâfi has been less prone to social rigidity in comparison to other Arab countries ruled by old elites and closed upper class circles. This is not to say that there are no elites in the “State of the masses”, but they have been very much affected by political change throughout the past decades. In the years following the 1969-coup, the revolutionaries set out to eradicate what was left of the former economic and political establishment in accordance with their socialist ideals through what they called the “cultural revolution”. The formation of strong socio-professional lobbies was persistently hindered by the constant reshuffling of positions within the state apparatus, the frequent remodeling of institutions and unexpectedly changing of rules. New pressure groups have emerged since then, and previous elites have regained some influence. In fact, much of the corruption criticized nowadays can be blamed on patronage networks through which the regime has consolidated its power. Many former Revolutionary Committee members profited from the partial economic opening in the late 1980s to amass wealth via state structures. A system that was initially meant to give equal chances to all, irrespective of their social background, has been subverted by favoritism of all kinds[19]. Today, upward social mobility is no longer guaranteed exclusively through involvement in the Revolutionary Committees or the security apparatus, but has also become a matter of social and tribal background, financial assets, and, most importantly, whom you know. The right contacts can get you admitted at the preferred department, exempted from the obligatory military service, give you access to a scholarship abroad, or to the opportunity of a public service job. Often, people are surprisingly frank about their career, such as the 20-something accountant who explained how family relations got him a high-level job at one of the powerful Libyan investment funds without him having to apply for it; or the friend, whose career was predetermined by his father’s position within the NOC (Libya’s National Oil Corporation). Rather than exceptions, these cases seem to be general practice.

Al Fâteh Abadan – a revolutionary system stuck in time

Contrary to regime propaganda, both Qadhâfi’s words and deeds and peoples’ perception of them make clear that “popular authority” is a myth. His often reiterated claim that he has no official position and offers only well-meaning recommendations to the people to adopt or not is clearly seen as a farce by many. He gives speeches, represents Libya abroad, speaks on behalf of Libyans; in short he acts as head of state. Only particularly stubborn ideologists would describe the Libyan system without mentioning his part in the game. Similarly, criticism of the system focuses on Qadhâfi’s persona and his position. In a way, all sides perceive “the Leader” as the main point of reference.

Revolutionizing society was not intended as a one-time effort, but a guiding principle that would every now and then gain momentum, depending on the overall political climate. The “Leader” would regularly call upon “the people” – and especially “the youth” – to rebel against their elders in order to recall the forgotten ideals and accomplishments of the revolution. Agitating society was part of his survival strategy in order to keep the upper hand. In the same logic, the creation of the Revolutionary committees was destined to undermine rivaling forces from within the inner circle of power through youthful enthusiasm. Having become a much feared and often despised political force, the influence of said committees has dwindled in recent years. By all standards, the revolution is no longer “what it used to be”, and most young people nowadays show no interest in participating in the political process. The regime failed in many ways to convince people to respect the legacy of the revolution. Generations of Libyans have been exposed to indoctrination through the schooling system and public life in general, but little of it is left today. Nevertheless, disbelief does not necessarily imply disobedience, and the regime successfully established the patronage networks and control mechanisms needed to maintain social calm. 

An opposition contained

Throughout the past four decades, Qadhâfi’s rule has repeatedly been challenged, including several attempted coups[20], several assassination attempts[21],,tribal revolt, and an islamist uprising in the mid-1990s. In order to survive, the regime relied mainly on strategic alliances, the constant remodeling of state institutions, and a firm grip on society through an array of repressive practices including censorship, surveillance, intimidation, arrests and “physical liquidation”. Throughout the 1980s, the Libyan regime acquired international notoriety for having numerous opponents assassinated, both at home and abroad. The cultural revolution and subsequent purges eroded whatever civil society might have existed[22]. Even universities – traditional breeding grounds for revolt – posed no substantial threat after student activism was brutally put down in the early 1970s. Just to make sure that the message had gotten through, the regime would carry out public hangings on campus. In recent years, brutal force has given way to more subtle forms of repression and control, but no real political reforms have been made. All forms of independent organizations are still banned. Opposition groups have been operating from abroad for decades and none has been able to build up a broad support base within Libya. Among royalists, Berber groups and liberal democrats[23], the Islamist opposition[24] seems to have been most capable of building a working structure and garnering some support among the disenchanted Libyan youth. An uprising that was launched by Islamist groups from the eastern mountains back in the mid-1990s was violently suppressed by regime forces. In recent years the Libyan regime sought a certain rapprochement with moderate elements of the movement willing to publicly repent their past in exchange for the liberation of a few hundred prisoners. Remnants of jihadist groups, including returnees from Afghanistan and Iraq, however continued to worry the authorities.

Controlling words and minds

One could get the impression that the Jamâhîriyyan state was not fit for modern age information and communication technology. Controlling information through state media was an anachronistic exercise, given that few Libyans read the official press or watch public TV channels, as Internet and satellite TV are widely available. Paradoxically, censorship and Internet monitoring was by far not as awe-inspiring as in Syria and Tunisia, for instance, and only few people were, in all likelihood, subject to systematic surveillance. Whether the authorities were restraining themselves or simply weren’t able to extensively monitor the Internet is open to speculation. Although a few websites spreading the views of the exiled communities were permanently or occasionally unavailable, most foreign Internet news outlets could be accessed freely, including some Libyan online newspapers on foreign domains with independent (i.e. non-official) reports. The national print press, however, remained strictly controlled by the state. On some occasions, the authorities would take special precautions. When, in 2010, a controversy arose over exclusive parties hosted by Qadhâfi’s offspring (Saif Al Islâm and Hannibâl) in Italy, Monaco and elsewhere, during which several million dollars were paid for private shows by western celebrities (Beyoncé, Nelly Furtado, etc.), censorship blocked access to YouTube[25] to prevent people from watching online video clips of these events. The motives were never quite clear; in fact the trigger could also have been footage of the so-called “martyrs’ families” protesting in Benghazi. In the days leading up to February 17th 2011, opposition websites such as Libya Al Mostakbal and related Facebook profiles were blocked. A mouthpiece of the opposition in exile, these pages had previously been used to call for protests and to spread negative headlines on the Qadhâfi family.

Although the uprising came as a surprise, it is clearly rooted in various problems that the regime has been unwilling or unable to tackle. One of the issues is representation. Official discourse has certainly had its effects on several generations of Libyans, but the young generation seems to be beyond its reach. In terms of information and opinion making, the regime has clearly lost its monopoly. Officially, Libyan politics is the pure expression of the people’s will and anyone who wishes to contribute can do so through the “popular democratic” institutions. Whatever the theory is, in practice the majority of young people don’t see any point in participating in a system they have never believed in. While today’s youth until recently has shown no interest in politics, they are keen on “making something out of their lives” and getting their share of the increasingly visible wealth. And they have been frustrated at how slow things have been progressing. Whether on the street or in business circles, there has been no shortage of complaints regarding corruption and elitist practices within government institutions. Young professionals feel that the heavy burden of the past keeps them from putting their ideas into action. Despite the economic boom, the country lacks a clear orientation for the future. Contradicting visions and diverging interests have made a clash between generations inevitable. The widespread feeling among the youth of being at the mercy of seemingly arbitrary rules and of being the loser in a game of money and power was amplified by the east-west divide. Young people from the east were more likely to grow up in an environment at the very least critical of the regime. Some may have seen their older brothers and fathers disappear in state prisons, others may have been arrested or interrogated by the security services for having the “wrong” family ties or acquaintances. The grievances and frustrations we have mentioned certainly played a part in planting the seeds of revolt. But then again, it should not be forgotten that revolutions are a matter of timing and the Libyan one could very well have been delayed for another decade had it not been for the extraordinary circumstances on either side of Libya’s borders.

The February 17th Movement

Foreign observers are slightly at loss with the Libyan uprising. At least initially, both origins and intentions seemed vague. Looking at opposition websites written in perfect English and hearing representatives speak about human rights while fighters on the front fire into the air with guns they can hardly handle, one was left to wonder: who are the rebels? Who are the debaters and who are the revolutionaries? Are they really united in their struggle? Is it about “democratic movements led by tribes or tribes exploiting the language of democracy?”[26] The difficulty lies in understanding what forces behind the uprising and what their intentions are.

Anger lurking beneath the surface

As described above, Libyans have long held grudges against their leadership for various reasons. Young people were especially fed up with tolerating the regime’s daily interferences in their lives and with studying an outdated ideology[27]. As a result, they would simply ignore politics and concentrated on their career, family and daily life. The privileged would go on holidays to the US or Europe for a breath of “fresh air” and unlimited possibilities. In order to vent their frustrations, the urban youth would turn toward computer games, Internet, music or nocturnal car races, all of these outlets being both means of expression and escape from reality. The predominant attitude was to accept and simply “make do” with the way things were. As explained above, access to foreign media and an overall moderate censorship meant that society was not as isolated from world affairs as some would assume. Moreover, no one seemed particularly worried about being caught on subversive websites; in fact acquaintances would mock me for being “excessively cautious”. On Internet forums some people even identified themselves with their full name and place of origin. It wasn’t uncommon to be sent links to radical opposition websites or bold critical statements on Facebook. On the occasion of Qadhâfi’s long and disorganized speech to the UN General Assembly on September 23rd 2009, friends posted comments such as “the madman is embarrassing us again”. People were questioning the existing order in various different ways, by exposing the perceived “unjust rule” and experienced cruelties, as well as speaking of their everyday sorrows. Criticism would mostly focus on economic and social shortcomings. Despite the control of the print press, mild criticism in editorials or readers’ comments was accepted. Harsh criticism was generally limited to the online sphere. When three elderly Libyans from Tobruk went on a hunger strike in late January to raise awareness about their precarious situation, comments on included the following: “Qadhâfi stole the Libyan peoples’ money”, “we are waiting to see our country as developed as others”, “we want to lead a happy life”, followed by the appeal to fellow countrymen: “stop thinking about petty aspects of everyday life and start thinking about issues concerning our country”. Others expressed their anger about the regime’s false promises, such as the recently announced 24 million dinar budget for social projects. Some did not even engage in the discussion: “We want Qadhâfi out of Libya” and “the revolution is near”.

As a sign of approaching trouble, the regime had in the months prior to the uprising experienced several security threats. Last November, rumors spread about an ambush near the town of Ghât and the Algerian border during which about 30 soldiers were killed by anti-regime fighters and/or members of a terrorist network[28]. At the time, the event went completely unnoticed in Tripoli. The comments online were surprisingly diverse, critical and at times belligerent. From arguments about the exact sequence of events, people went on to discuss more general issues, including the regime’s legacy. One pro-regime comment (“the Al Fâteh revolution will prevail”) provoked plenty of responses threatening either him (“you will die of fear before they even catch you”) or regime supporters in general (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”).

The revolutionary wave reaches the Libyan shore

Early in February, I was told the following joke: “Finally, the regime has achieved something: they built a huge bridge so that the revolution could go from Tunisia straight to Egypt without touching Libyan soil”. History proved us wrong.

Partly, the events that initiated the uprising were the consequence of a domino effect, sparked by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Of course, motives and claims were not synonymous, but in many ways, peoples’ messages to their respective leaders revealed a common sentiment of frustration and anger that had too long been contained. What could help explaining the sudden “explosion” among people previously regarded as apolitical and relatively content with (or resigned to) the status quo, is that the time seemed appropriate to demand change. Like one man said to a correspondent from the Daily Telegraph: “Now the best chance (…) has come along. This is no time to stay at home and see how things turn out”. Public opinion was not unanimous with regards to the “Arab Spring”. At the time, I heard numerous statements, such as: “in any case, this could never happen in Libya. We are satisfied with our lives”. Assumingly, many sympathized with protesters in the neighboring countries or even admired their courage, but were hesitant to say so and skeptical as to whether upheaval should spread to Libya or not. Some careful commentators would remind fellow Libyans that “being safe is good enough; learn a lesson from Tunisia and Egypt, what happened there was the work of Israel and the Americans”, calling on people not to believe in “the story of democracy and empty words” or simply warn people not to “play with fire”[29]. In view of the general mood and the announced “day of anger”, the security forces did not at all act in a way that would have appeased people. The event that sparked anticipated demonstrations on February 15th was the arrest of Fathi Terbil, lawyer[30] and human rights activist.

In the first days of protests there was a lot of turmoil, even in the capital. While rumors about anti-regime street marches in some urban areas were circulating, Qadhâfi staged a counter-attack – one of his preferred tactics – by calling upon the young to fill the green square and demonstrate in support of the regime. On March 17th, the announced day of protest, hordes of young men were cruising through town in cars plastered with green flags and Qadhâfi portraits (unsurprisingly, the portraits were mostly identical, which indicates that they had been handed out by Revolutionary committees). Eventually, they gathered on the square and held reckless car races until late at night. This initial outburst was not so much an expression of genuine support or outrage, but rather the reaction of an otherwise generally frustrated youth who get told to “go out on the streets and dance” and who know that at least for one day their excesses will go unpunished. Such youthful abandon also played a part in triggering the first anti-regime protests, which, however, does not make the protesters “rebels without a cause”. Rather, some of them were oblivious to the gravity of the situation, or that they were indeed “playing with fire”. Articulated demands only gradually emerged from the general havoc. By the time security forces began shooting into the crowds, the youths’ frustrations had solidified into something more serious and they began to realize the real issues at stake.

Generation Facebook 

As opposed to Tunisia and Egypt, the preliminary online mobilization may have been less significant in Libya, where only a few websites were created in the weeks prior to the announced “day of anger” (such as “Khalas Gaddafi” and “Libyafeb17”). One person’s reply to calls for protests on “Libya Al Mostakbal” reflected the attitude of many Libyans with regards to the opposition in exile: “How about you come here to start the protests? We will follow you.” Initially, that was exactly the main obstacle: too many people who were out of touch with ordinary Libyans and their concerns were criticizing the regime and calling for revolt. Debates that were launched from outside did spark debate inside Libya, but the ultimate impetus for the protests came from within. The first public protests started a dynamic of online activity that Libya had never seen before. The previous “Arab Revolutions” had showed the importance of implementing an effective communication strategy from the outset. One of the Libyan National Council’s first moves was to establish its presence on the Internet via a Facebook group and Twitter feeds. When mobile networks temporarily broke down in the first few days of the uprising, Twitter was instrumental for instant communication and coordination. YouTube had long been a popular tool for sharing all sorts of information, including mockery of Qadhâfi and the regime. Videos filmed since the start of the uprising, showing demonstrations, crackdowns by the security forces, the wounded and the destruction resulting from the fighting has had an important emotional impact on the opposition and is likely to have made many people reconsider their support for the regime. A potential vector of criticism that previously hadn’t widely been made use of is music. Only in the weeks prior to the uprising did genuine protest songs spread via opposition websites and community networks. The Libyan rapper Ibn Thâbit, who had first put his anti-regime songs online in 2009 but remained fairly unknown until recently, has become a minor celebrity thanks to his Internet exposure. The song that was adopted as soundtrack for videos calling for the day of protest is called “The Question” and leaves no doubt as to the singer’s political stance: “Mo’ammar, you never served your people. (…) Mo’ammar, you cannot run. Revenge will run you over like a train (…)”. He has since recorded plenty of songs in direct response to recent events, addressing the underlying causes of the uprising or reacting to speeches by Qadhâfi and his sons.

From protests to uprising

Compared to previous challenges to the regime, the current uprising is of a very different nature. The driving force isn’t a coup from within the inner circles of power (be it a tribal conspiracy, a disgruntled army), no more than it is a foreign controlled Islamist uprising, a “peasants’ revolt with AK-47s”[31] or a zero-sum “rule or die” game[32] as foreign media sometimes portray it. Commentators unfamiliar with the Libyan society often succumb to the same rapid conclusions as Saif Al Islâm when he warns of tribes “killing each other in the streets”[33].

The uprising sprang from isolated protests by young Libyans who thought this was their one and only chance to become masters of their own destiny. Frustrated teens and twenty-somethings, predominantly from the urban middle class, who had long been hoping for better possibilities of social advancement, civil liberties, appreciation by their elders, in short: real change. The protesters found support in already established structures and networks operated from abroad and via the Internet. The existence of a small but resolute opposition in exile – that had in the meantime been cranking up its usual accusations against the regime – immediately gave legitimacy to their actions and put them in a wider context. Mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter allowed for these dispersed groupings to communicate with each other and coordinate their actions. It soon became clear that the protests weren’t going to ebb down within a few days as previously assumed. As the confrontations with increasingly brutal security forces intensified and spread across the country, reform minded people of the business community and even disgruntled members of the regime began expressing their solidarity with the opposition. The movement was relatively diverse as it did not consist of one particular group or organization, and as such it could address the concerns and demands of different segments of society.

The rapid transition from protest to full-fledged uprising was surprising. The cycle of violence and retaliation quickly made the situation escalate. In addition to practices and cruelties already known of, the takeover of Benghazi and the first direct confrontations revealed even more reasons to rebel. In confronting the regime, the movement’s main problem was precisely the lack of formal structures. Clearly, the armed revolt that evolved from the protests has been partly manned, but not led by the young. Militarily, the loosely organized protesters received support from defected soldiers, while decision-makers who had decided to turn their backs on the regime took care of giving the uprising political backing. With the takeover of Benghazi and other eastern towns by the opposition, frontlines hardened and the conflict reached a point of no return. Since, the stalemate (or rather alternating advances and withdrawals) on the battlefield has curtailed the initially widespread euphoria but to all appearances not the fervor of the movement’s most militant strand.

The tribal factor

A change in tribal alliances has the potential to determine the outcome of the conflict. Being the only form of permitted social organization, tribes yield considerable power to mobilize people. In the first days of the protests, it looked like the balance was shifting in favor of the opposition. Members of the Warfalla – the largest and one of the most powerful of the Libyan tribes – said Qadhâfi was “no longer (their) brother”[34]. The Zuwâya threatened to cut off deliveries from the oilfields in the southwest and the Bani Walîd announced they would withdraw from the security brigades. All things said, one cannot yet speak of a tribal front against Qadhâfi. Some tribes have split along the lines of the conflict, depending on where most of their members live and what local elders decide. While senior members of the Warfalla have defected or even joined the National Transitional Council (such as its Chairman, Mahmûd Jibrîl), other sections of the tribe still firmly support the regime. Tribal leaders who were initially thought to side with the opposition have since back-pedaled; some still hesitate. Both, Qadhâfi and the NTC are now courting hesitant tribes, calling for congresses to make them pledge their loyalty. In addition, Qadhâfi has offered tribal leaders considerable financial reward in exchange for their support, or so it has been claimed. [35]

A symbolic revolution

Revolutions are never entirely spontaneous collective action but require some degree of mass persuasion and mobilization. And fighting for power is also fighting for the mastery of symbolic representations that in some way “resonate” within society, i.e. correspond to cultural or historic references. In Libya, both sides are competing for symbols that can grant some legitimacy to their struggle. We have witnessed how much the recent uprisings in the Middle East have relied on images and symbolic action amplified by media coverage: video footing of mass demonstrations, protest posters, slogans chanted in unison, fists held up and flags waving above the crowds. But even though protesters in Eastern Libya were quick to realize the power of such symbolic representations, the pool of “usable” cultural references is limited. In a country in which contemporary historiography has been used to alter or even erase inconvenient episodes in history, there are nowadays few national symbols unrelated to Qadhâfi, his regime and his ideology. Although the flag of Libya under King Idriss I has been erected as symbol of the uprising, few Libyans actually look back to the time of the monarchy with nostalgia and most had not even been born at the time. The other image that has begun to proliferate is the portrait of Omar Al Mukhtâr. He may have been a true revolutionary, but the memory of his struggle has already been extensively exploited by the current regime. Both sides now want to convey the idea that they are treading in the national hero’s footsteps.

In light of the lack of unifying factors, religion appears to have filled the void for many of the anti-regime militants who seem to believe they have a divine mandate to overthrow Qadhâfi. Among the scenes most shown by the media are men bending down to pray, visibly undisturbed by the bullets flying above their heads, as well as pick-ups full of armed fighters shouting “Allahu Akbar”. Despite these images, which only show a fraction of what is happening on the ground it is unlikely that many perceive the uprising as a holy war. Qadhâfi has always displayed a peculiar attitude towards Islam and in the eyes of many people he is not the pious messenger he would like to be seen as. On the other hand, being religious and pro-regime has not been mutually exclusive for the majority of Libyans. It is more likely that in the present situation both sides use religious arguments to discredit the other and appear as morally superior.

From uprising to transitional government

Overall, the “revolution” still seems to be in search of its real nature. Political objectives are not yet clear and there is a lack of coordination, even in areas controlled by the opposition. On the battleground, fighters lack not only equipment, but mostly know-how to lead a war of such dimensions. Moreover, the opposition is not as united as some may want to make the press believe. But for the time being potential disagreements and distrust are pushed to the background for the sake of military victory. It remains to be seen whether the self-declared transitional authority – the Libyan National Council or National Transitional Council – will be capable of organizing the political transition, that is, if it gets the chance to do so. Abroad, the NTC was welcomed and almost immediately officially recognized as representative of Libya by a handful of foreign governments. More importantly, the Arab League decided to cooperate with the NTC. From an outsider point of view, seeing a “face” of the rebellion is certainly better than supporting a movement without designated representative or spokesperson. This does not however solve the problem of legitimacy. Will the Council be accepted by the majority of Libyans or even the majority of the opposition? So far, a number of Libyans living or working abroad, including the exiled grandson of former monarch King Idriss I and senior diplomats under Qadhâfi, have given it their support.

Holding on to power 

Survival strategies and reactions to the uprising

Events in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt had certainly put Qadhâfi on his guards and some preventive measures were taken. Shortly before the first day of protest, reinforcement for the security apparatus was sent to the Eastern region and commanders in senior positions were replaced. At the same time, a fax listing instructions on how to anticipate, prevent and react to demonstrations was sent to local security offices. The content was leaked and shared via online forums for everyone to see. The circular showed that, at least on a local level, the system relies not only on designated officials and military personnel but also on informal networks of supporters, volunteers and cliques.

When the protests erupted, authorities plainly denied their existence. It took them a week to even acknowledge that the demonstrations were not all in support of the regime. From then on, the official media and public officials tried to discredit the opposition in every way possible. Qadhâfi denied all responsibility and blamed external forces. The image of the enemy was an incoherent mix of clichés: the enemy’s embodiment were foreign infiltrators, Al Qaeda cells, drug addicts, Al Jazeera, Facebook, the UN Security Council, the Arab League, Israel and “the traitors” in general. If people were taking part in protests, it could not be out of their free will, the logic went. Young people had thus been drugged and manipulated. In one of his early speeches, Qadhâfi announced they would purify Libya “inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley and one by one”[36] to “get rid of the rats”. He also read out the criminal code, listing possible punishments for treason, which needs no further comment. Qadhâfi is famous for eccentric public appearances and his most recent public declarations and speeches therefore don’t come as a surprise, although the wording has become more extreme and conveys a feeling of despair. Saif Al Islâm Al Qadhâfi, the regime’s long-time reformer and liberal counterbalance to his father’s extreme views, caused more disappointment. He has left no doubt that he ultimately stands for the regime and would not refrain from brutal repression to defend it. Moreover, he responded to the opposition’s demands with cold arrogance.

 Some of the attempts by the regime to convey the picture of a unified people backing their beloved leader were outright pathetic. The official TV channels showed videos glorifying the Jamâhîriyya and vilifying the “foreign infiltrators” and “traitors” with occasional interruptions for heavily biased news reports and the transmission of Qadhâfi’s speeches. The rhetoric was exceptionally figurative: “shame on you, we are with Mo’ammar; shame on all the foreign news channels, shame on the dogs who live abroad”, the word “shame” used literally meaning ridicule or irony. A scene filmed inside a public company, during which a group of employees condemn Facebook in form of a poem could almost be comical. Another scene displayed a crowd of pro-regime demonstrators holding up signs such as “shame on Al Jazeera, we don’t want another leader”.

To the attention of the West, Qadhâfi chose a different discourse, raising the specter of mass migration into Europe, regional instability and the terrorist threat, while appealing to the western states’ solidarity: “We are in a battle against terrorism and you aren’t helping us”. He accused the West of imperialism. The bottom-line was: “It’s either me or Al Qaeda”. Under the given circumstances, it was impossible not to see the hypocrisy and irony in his words, especially when he later threatened to join forces with Al Qaeda against the West.

While publicly denying the crisis, Qadhâfi did attempt to appease opponents by announcing reforms and special budgets for development programs. In anticipation of possible unrest, the regime had already introduced tax exemptions for basic foodstuff earlier in February. By the end of the month, the regime went a step further by distributing 500 Libyan Dinar (about 300 euros at the time) to each family. Only then it was too late to halt the course of events.

“My people love me” – Mobilization in defense of the regime

Throughout the past few weeks, Tripoli has experienced a return to the dark age of propaganda and repression. First and foremost, the illusion of a strong and popular regime must be maintained. People have been called upon to rally behind their “Leader”, defend the “accomplishments” of the Jamâhîriyya and stand up for the legacy of the Al Fâteh Revolution. In this last struggle, one is constantly reminded to choose the “right side”, and denounce anyone who doesn’t. Practices that had begun to vanish are again spreading fear and distrust; teachers questioning their pupils on which TV channels their parents watch or what they say about the uprising; people informing on their neighbors. Tribal support being crucial to the regime, Qadhâfi has made considerable efforts to keep or win back the support of tribal leaders.  Whatever the real stance of the respective tribal leaders is, open support of the regime is a way to guarantee the members’ safety. Posters held up during pro-regime marches make statements such as: “The Magrâha Tribe from the land of honor and dignity stands with you, oh Leader, oh King of Kings”. Such oaths have long been common means to express loyalty in times of turmoil or to avert accusations by the regime.

The seemingly surreal and disconnected rhetoric of Qadhâfi and his supporters should not be considered a proof of their imminent doom. Qadhâfi may always have been a controversial figure, even inside Libya, but he undoubtedly knows how to manipulate the masses and address his different constituencies. The claim that the young protesters are all under the influence of drugs and alcohol and have been led to protest against their own will may sound completely delusional. But many Libyans of the older generations have long regarded today’s youth as degenerated, a problem and threat to society. The consumption of cannabis is widespread among young men and illegally brewed alcohol can easily be obtained. To many of them, these claims might seem a viable explanation. The state media have sought to corroborate the claims with video footage of young men confessing their sins and telling how they were dragged into the demonstrations.

Security Council resolution 1973 and the ensuing NATO air strikes have pushed the regime towards resorting to the most extreme tactics. Three weeks into the crisis, the revolutionary guards began arming the population in the capital, to prepare them for the ultimate battle. To deter the western powers from bombing him, Qadhâfi let civilians into his Tripoli residence and military stronghold, Bâb Al Azîziyya, as human shields. What stronger message could there be than women and children holding up green flags and portraits of the “Leader”, shouting into the cameras “Allah, Mo’ammar, Lîbya u bass” (“Allah, Mo’ammar, Libya, that’s all”) and that only death would make them move. The most frightening evolution in recent weeks has been the increasing number of arbitrary arrests and disappearances. There are witness reports of students not coming home after class, fathers being taken from their homes and teenagers being forcibly recruited as pro-regime militia fighters on their doorstep. The secret services and special forces such as the Khamis brigades allegedly take people to secret detention centers on the outskirts of Tripoli for interrogation.

Lîbyâ Al Ghad – imagining the future

It is ironic that the frequently reiterated slogan “Lîbyâ Al Ghad” (the Libya of Tomorrow) – referring to a reformist master plan to thoroughly modernize the country under the auspices of Saif Al Islâm – has now taken on a totally different meaning. Far from the limited transition intended, Libya is now facing an uncertain but most certainly radically different future. The situation raises many important questions such as: Has peoples’ behavior and attitude towards authority changed irreversibly? If that is that case, are negotiations between the opposition and the regime even imaginable? Or is Libya already firmly set on a path towards a partition of the territory? If Qadhâfi steps down or is removed by other means, what could a future government look like? If the country remains one, how can reconciliation be brought about? And what is the meaning of freedom?

Beyond the barrier of fear

The ideological veil has been lifted. It is as if Libyan politics was a play in which the actors refuse to acknowledge that they are only acting. Then, suddenly calls erupt from the previously silent audience and denounce the actors as such.

By maintaining a climate of fear and clearing the public sphere from any alternative worldview, the regime had long managed to contain visible opposition of all forms. But the uprising has set off an irrevocable development: people breached the barrier of fear and many for the first time denounced what they had always taken for granted. Once this stage had been reached, violent repression by the security forces will only provoke further outrage and strengthen the protesters’ will. As former prisoners and ordinary citizens targeted by the security forces finally dared to speak out, accounts of the regime’s past atrocities have surfaced throughout the past three months.

Both in terms of quantity and explicit wording, interactions in the public sphere have been taken to another level. On occasions, people have virtually been trying to outbid each other with insults and metaphorical speech. The violence found on opposition websites is striking. While some recall violent crackdowns by the regime, illustrated with gruesome images, others indulge in debates on whether Qadhâfi should be beheaded or hung in public. Fortunately, there are also more subtle ways to express criticism, be it through words, music or images. In the past few weeks, people have found particular pleasure making fun of the “Leader” and thereby exposing the nebulous Jamâhîriyya system as a farce. Of course, political jokes and anecdotes had existed before, but they were usually uttered only in the presence of family members and like-minded friends. “I can now openly joke about Qadhâfi and I’ve never felt this good”, a friend recently said. Other forms of ridicule inspired by the uprising are political caricatures. Previously shared only via the Internet, they now cover entire walls in Benghazi and other “liberated” towns. Songs of rebellion are also increasingly popular. In response to Qadhâfi’s latest speeches, the rapper Ibn Thâbit wrote a very ironic song called “What’s with those pills”, referring to Qadhâfi’s claims that young people had been given drugs to make them demonstrate. Other rappers and alternative rock groups from Benghazi such as Guys Underground, who before the uprising refused to speak of politics at all now happily tell journalists what a relief it is to finally be able to create and record their music without having to fear censorship[37].

Irreversible changes

 All these examples make it clear that the uprising has truly transformed Libyan society and that things will never again be as they were. The uprising has given people the chance and strength to stand up against the regime but it has also made a part of the population firmly take sides with the regime. Previous differences of opinion have now become irreconcilable positions and people are willing to go much further for what they believe in. Qadhâfi and the leaders of the uprising still reject the idea of dividing the country, both sides claiming to be speaking on behalf of the population as a whole. At first, the NLC did not want to be seen as a transitional government, as this would imply that the East could go separately if it were under firm control by the opposition. “We do not want to split up Libya, but liberate the country as a whole”, is a phrase commonly quoted by journalists reporting from Benghazi. On the 23rd of March they did however form an interim government. Both sides are promising the population in the areas controlled by the other camp that they will “soon come to liberate them”. In any case, secession of the east would only be a solution of very last resort and in case a prolonged civil war deepens the divide. “Libyans forever in unity. From Benghazi to Fezzan”, is the slogan on one of the opposition websites[38]. But the longer the conflict lasts, the greater the risk of lasting social rifts . If Qadhâfi remains in power, he will have lost a large part of his former realm.

The meaning of freedom

Demands made by the opposition don’t give a clear picture of what the freedom everyone hopes for would actually means. Some civil rights, such as free expression and assembly, have been brought up, but for the time being, freedom is first and foremost associated with bringing down the regime and forcing Qadhâfi to leave. The demands are fully legitimate, but who is there to suggest and implement a better alternative? There are no established political parties or even professional associations other than the quangos (quasi non-governmental organizations) set up by the regime, such as the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. There is a deep-rooted lack of national cohesion and few common references that aren’t stained by regime propaganda and could serve as inspiration for the future. Some things do give hope though. People in Benghazi have begun organizing themselves and setting up the LNC that is probably as representative as it can be given the circumstances. Moreover, no singular leader likely to monopolize power and impose himself as indispensable counterbalance to Qadhâfi has so far emerged from the opposition. If the members of the transitional government agree at some point to relinquish control and to hold elections, there is a chance for a genuine democratization process.

The day after tomorrow

The high expectations raised by the UN Security Council resolutions and the ensuing military intervention were gradually disappointed by military setbacks and the limited impact of the coalition strikes. This has certainly played in the hands of Qadhâfi and his supporters, but it hasn’t fundamentally altered the balance of power. One of the arguments against the foreign intervention was the fear of seeing Libya slip into an Iraq-like civil war with heavy losses for the intervening countries, both in terms of material and reputation. Although these fears seemed exaggerated at first, the scenario of a long-term war of attrition becomes increasingly likely as the conflict drags on. So far, the engagement of ground forces has been ruled out, but seeing the lack of a viable exit strategy, the coalition might even further trespass its initial mandate of protecting civilians.

By all appearances, Libyans are still a long way from seeing light at the end of the tunnel. The situation on the ground remains fragile, Qadhâfi and his supporters show confidence despite ongoing coalition attacks, and the balance can still tilt in favor of either of the two camps. After the initial exaltation, civilians hope for an end to the fighting and a return to normality. My guess is that many people in the regime-controlled areas hesitate whether to clearly take sides, because they are afraid of what the outcome of the crisis may be. While they may have been critical of the Jamâhîriyya, they are also skeptical of the opposition’s supposedly better alternative. Among the young there is however a clear tendency towards vocal support of the opposition. I find it slightly disturbing that people from whom I had never before heard any political statement are suddenly not only profoundly against the regime, but moreover describe the past as living hell. At times I wonder whether this change of mind is always based on true conviction or whether in some cases it is rather an attempt to adapt to the changes and disavow the past. Whatever the motivation may be, it is not for me or other foreigners to judge.

To which extent the conflict will have left its mark on society can only really be assessed once the fighting has come to an end. In a post-Jamâhîriyya state, the legacy of Qadhâfi’s reign as well as the consequences of the war – hatred, revenge, divisions and distrust – will have to be dealt with. While, in retrospect, no clear line could ever be drawn between “ordinary citizens” and “members of the regime”, some high-up members of the regime and its security apparatus could be held responsible for past crimes. But it will take any future government a long time to establish independent institutions from scratch. As post-conflict situations show, finding a balance between justice and reconciliation is extremely difficult. The experience of the “peoples’ courts” used in the 1970s to purge Libyan society of anti-revolutionary elements should be a lesson in this respect. A potential “Libyan solution” could be reverting to tribal mechanisms in order to settle disputes and agree on some sort of amnesty. Whatever the future may look like, people will have to work together to achieve reconciliation as far as possible and rebuild what will have been destroyed, materially, socially and psychologically.


Two months have passed since I wrote this article and the war is moving into its fifth month. While the situation on the ground has evolved, there have been no fundamental changes. After many weeks of combat moving back and forth, the rebel army on the eastern front still hasn’t been able to make any significant advances towards Tripoli. Other frontlines have emerged in the meantime. Rebel fighters from the western mountains (Jebel Nafûsa) have managed to push the pro-regime forces out of several small towns and are steadily moving towards the capital. A difficult terrain and tight command structures have played in their favour. While the NATO alliance states carry the greatest financial burden, the human cost of the war in Libya continues to rise. Up to 30.000 people may have died since the start of the conflict[39] while tens of thousands more are stranded in refugee camps, mainly in Tunisia. Mediation efforts by the African Union, China, Russia and Turkey, have not succeeded in getting the warring parties to the negotiation table. Considering their intransigent positions and the ongoing military intervention, a political solution is highly unlikely. Although he is increasingly isolated, with close aides “jumping off the sinking ship”, Qadhâfi appears more resolved than ever to hold on until “victory or martyrdom”. As long as they command a significant portion of the military and security forces, the remnants of the regime will be able to withstand the pressure. Everything looks as though the war will be fought until the very end and that the final battle will take place in Tripoli.

Libya’s future outlook still seems equally uncertain. The opposition is still united in confronting the regime, but once the war is over major rifts may emerge within its ranks. There now is a general consensus that any solution must entail the “leader’s” resignation. Even former regime members and people who did not clearly side with the opposition say his game is over and that he must face the fact that this war is not just a “great conspiracy” and that a significant portion of his people does not “love” him. “This should not be about killing Qadhâfi and seeking revenge”, an acquaintance said to me. “Whatever was in the past, he must now leave for the sake of his country”.  In my opinion, this sums it up.

[1] Friedman, Thomas L., “Tribes With Flags”, 22.3.2011, column in The New York Times

[2] Of course there are plenty of other tribes whose influence is more or less strong, depending on the region. I have chosen those that are allied with or hostile towards the Qadhâfi, and those that have played a role in the current crisis.

[3] Hatitah, Abdulsattar., “Libyan Tribal Map: Network of loyalties that will determine Gaddafi’s fate”, As Sharq Al Awsat, 22.2.2011

[4] On September 1st 1969, a small group of young army officers under the leadership of Mu’ammar Qadhâfi toppled King Idriss I in a bloodless coup while he was abroad for medical treatment. The coup leaders had emerged from the so-called Organization of the Free Unionist Officers, an opposition movement within the army founded in 1965 and which, by 1969, had over a hundred members. In terms of structure and ideology, the organization was modeled after the Free Officer Movement that led the 1953 coup in Egypt and Nasser became the role model of the Libyan “revolutionaries”.

[5] Ouannes, Moncef, Militaires, Elites et Modernisation dans la Libye contemporaine, L’Harmattan, Paris 2009, p. 98

[6] King Idris I was the grandson of the founder of the Sanûsiyya order.

[7] Someone’s place of origin may indicate what tribe he belongs to.  Many family names are actually derivatives of place names such as Al Misselati, Al Meghrâhi or Al Ferjâni.

[8] The state ideology was named in reference to a third way, neither communist nor capitalist. In explaining human behavior, setting up a social order and deconstructing western democratic theory and values, the TUT pretends to provide a universal solution to the world’s problems. Corresponding to Qadhâfi’s personal beliefs, the TUT combines western philosophy with socialism, Islamic law and Libyan tradition. Qadhâfi summarized his ideology in the so-called Green Book, which he published in three thin volumes between 1974 and 1978. The Green Book was a sort of theoretical blueprint for the subsequently established Jamâhiriyyan system of government.

[9] Ouannes, p. 312

[10]  Hatitah, Ash Sharq Al Awsat (ibid.)

[11] Hussein, Mohamed, Libya Crisis: What role do tribal loyalties play?, BBC Monitoring, 21.2.2011

[12] Revolutionary Committees and associated youth organizations

[13] The place where “prisoners of conscience” are usually held.

[14] After all, Benghazi had been known as the « city of the first declaration » (madînat al biyân al awwal), as it was there that Qadhafi delivered his first speech to the nation after taking power.

[15] Ouannes, p. 279

[16] Although they usually carry out tasks that few Libyans would be willing to do.

[17] In other fields, women are, however, well represented such as in administrative, teaching or managing positions.

[18] During the 1980s and 1990s, the teaching of foreign languages at school and university was limited and, on several occasions, even temporarily abolished

[19] Favoritism in Libya is often based on kinship, i.e. nepotism or cronyism. This refers to the practice of using one’s position and influence to hand out favors and jobs to relatives or friends regardless of their qualifications.

[20] One coup organized by members of the royal family in 1970; another from within the ranks of the Free Unionist Officers in 1975.

[21] One staged by members of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) in 1984; another staged by elements of the army in 1993; yet another by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in 1996.

[22] With the exception of state-sponsored civil society institutions, such as charities.

[23] Such as the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL)

[24] Whose main representatives are the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood as well as the more radical but also more influential Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

[25] YouTube has been blocked since then but people now access the page via proxies.

[26] Friedman, The New York Times, (ibid.)

[27] Green book studies are still compulsory, up to university level.

[28] Facts and numbers are difficult to verify and vary considerably depending on the source.

[29] Extracts from an online forum

[30] He moreover represents the families of prisoners who died in the Abû Slîm jail in 1996.

[31] The Daily Telegraph

[32] Friedman, The New York Times (ibid.)

[33] Although with these statements he clearly intended to manipulate peoples’ perception of the crisis.

[34] This “defection” is no coïncidence. The Warfalla have long been a rival to the Qadhadhfa and those who in 1993 attempted to kill Qadhâfi were for the most part members of this tribe.

[35] Black, Ian; “Libya’s biggest tribe joins march of reconciliation to Benghazi”, The Guardian, 23.3.2011

[36] With the “zanga, zanga” extract of the speech (“alley by alley”), Qadhâfi unintentionally exposed himself to the world’s mockery.

[37] When a friend of mine and me – by coincidence – interviewed them on February 13th. Two months later, we saw them on CNN and Arte.

[39] According to the NTC and NATO, the death toll ranges from 10.000 to 30.000.


Bibliography :


Media Reports

  • Al Mahîr, Khâled: Thalâtha Lîbîyîn yadhrabûna ’an At Ta’âm,, 30.1.2011
  • Black, Ian: Libya’s biggest tribe joins march of reconciliation to Benghazi, The Guardian, 23.3.2011
  • Friedman, Thomas L., Tribes With Flags, The New York Times, 22.3.2011
  • Hatitah, Abdulsattar: Libyan Tribal Map: Network of loyalties that will determine Gaddafi’s fate, Ash Sharq Al Awsat, 22.2.201
  • Hussein, Mohamed: Libya Crisis: What role do tribal loyalties play?, BBC Monitoring, 21.2.2011


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