Stephen Zunes on Lessons from the Libyan Revolution

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Lessons and False Lessons From Libya

by Stephen Zunes, Truthout | News Analysis

Rebels celebrate outside Col. Moammar Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli, Libya, August 29, 2011. Residents returning to their homes have found that many have been heavily damaged by gunfire after they were used as fighting positions during the rebellion. (Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
The downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime is very good news, particularly for the people of Libya. However, it is critically important that the world not learn the wrong lessons from the dictator’s overthrow.
It is certainly true that NATO played a critical role in disrupting the heavy weapons capability of the repressive Libyan regime and blocking its fuel and ammunition supplies through massive airstrikes and providing armaments and logistical support for the rebels. However, both the militaristic triumphalism of the pro-intervention hawks and the more cynical conspiracy mongering of some on the left ignore that this was indeed a popular revolution, which may have been able to succeed without NATO, particularly if the opposition had not focused primarily on the military strategy. Engaging in an armed struggle against the heavily armed despot essentially took on Qaddafi where he was strongest rather than taking greater advantage of where he was weakest – his lack of popular support.
There has been little attention paid to the fact that the reason the anti-Qaddafi rebels were able to unexpectedly march into Tripoli last weekend with so little resistance appears to have been a result of a massive and largely unarmed, civil insurrection which had erupted in neighborhoods throughout the city. Indeed, much of the city had already been liberated by the time the rebel columns entered and began mopping up the remaining pockets of pro-regime forces.
As Juan Cole noted in an August 22 interview on Democracy Now!, “the city had already overthrown the regime” by the time the rebels arrived. The University of Michigan professor observed how, “Beginning Saturday night, working-class districts rose up, in the hundreds of thousands and just threw off the regime.” Similarly, Khaled Darwish’s August 24 article in The New York Times describes how unarmed Tripolitanians rushed into the streets prior to the rebels entering the capital, blocked suspected snipers from apartment rooftops and sang and chanted over loudspeakers to mobilize the population against Qaddafi’s regime
Though NATO helped direct the final pincer movement of the rebels as they approached the Libyan capital and continued to bomb government targets, Qaddafi’s final collapse appears to have more closely resembled that of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali than that of Saddam Hussein.
It should also be noted that the initial uprising against Qaddafi in February was overwhelmingly nonviolent. In less than a week, this unarmed insurrection had resulted in pro-democracy forces taking over most of the cities in the eastern part of the country, a number of key cities in the west and even some neighborhoods in Tripoli. It was also during this period when most of the resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Qaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers took place. Thousands of soldiers defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution. It was only when the rebellion took a more violent turn, however, that the revolution’s progress was dramatically reversed and Qaddafi gave his infamous February 22 speech threatening massacres in rebel strongholds, which in turn, led to the United States and its NATO allies to enter the war.
Indeed, it was only a week or so before Qaddafi’s collapse that the armed rebels had succeeded in recapturing most of the territory that had originally been liberated by their unarmed counterparts six months earlier.
It can certainly be argued that, once the revolutionaries shifted to armed struggle, NATO air support proved critical in severely weakening Qaddafi’s ability to counterattack and that Western arms and advisers were important in enabling rebel forces to make crucial gains in the northwestern part of the country prior to the final assault on Tripoli. At the same time, there is little question that foreign intervention in a country with a history of brutal foreign conquest, domination and subversion was successfully manipulated by Qaddafi to rally far more support to his side in his final months than would have been the case had he been faced with a largely nonviolent indigenous, civil insurrection. It isn’t certain that the destruction of his military capabilities by the NATO strikes was more significant than the ways in which such Western intervention in the civil war enabled the besieged dictator to shore up what had been rapidly deteriorating support in Tripoli and other areas under government control.I could achieve an outcome I desired in an interpersonal dispute by punching someone in the nose, but that doesn’t mean that it, therefore, proved that my action was the only way to accomplish my goal. It’s no secret that overbearing military force can eventually wear down an autocratic militarized regime, but – as the ouster of oppressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, the Philippines, Poland, Chile, Serbia, and scores of other countries through mass nonviolent action in recent years has indicated – there are ways of undermining a regime’s pillars of support to the extent that it collapses under its own weight. Ultimately, a despot’s power comes not from the armed forces under his command, but the willingness of a people to recognize his authority and obey his orders.
This is not to say that the largely nonviolent struggle launched in February would have achieved a quick and easy victory had they not turned to armed struggle with foreign support. The weakness of Libyan civil society, combined with the movement’s questionable tactical decision to engage primarily in demonstrations rather than diversifying their methods of civil resistance, made them particularly vulnerable to the brutality of Qaddafi’s foreign mercenaries and other forces. In addition, unlike the well-coordinated nonviolent anti-Mubarak campaign in Egypt, the Libyan opposition’s campaign was largely spontaneous. However, insisting that the Libyan opposition “tried nonviolence and it didn’t work” because peaceful protesters were killed and it did not succeed in toppling the regime after a few days of public demonstrations makes little sense, particularly since the armed struggle took more than six months. And it does not mean there were no other alternatives but to launch a civil war.
The estimated 13,000 additional deaths since the launching of the armed struggle and the widespread destruction of key segments of the country’s infrastructure are not the only problems related to resorting to military means to oust Qaddafi.
One problem with an armed overthrow of a dictator, as opposed to a largely nonviolent overthrow of a dictator, is that you have lots of armed individuals who are now convinced that power comes from guns. The martial values and the strict military hierarchy inherent in armed struggle can become accepted as the norm, particularly if the military leaders of the rebellion become the political leaders of the nation, as is usually the case. Indeed, history has shown that countries in which dictatorships are overthrown by force of arms are far more likely to suffer from instability and/or slide into another dictatorship. By contrast, dictatorships overthrown in largely nonviolent insurrections almost always evolve into democracies within a few years.
Despite the large-scale NATO intervention in support of the anti-Qaddafi uprising, this has been a widely supported popular revolution from a broad cross section of society. Qaddafi’s brutal and arbitrary 42-year rule had alienated the overwhelming majority of the Libyan people and his overthrow is understandably a cause of celebration throughout the country. Though the breadth of the opposition makes a democratic transition more likely than in some violent overthrows of other dictatorships, the risk that an undemocratic faction may force its way into power is still a real possibility. And given that the United States, France and Britain have proved themselves quite willing to continue supporting dictatorships elsewhere in the Arab world, there is no guarantee that the NATO powers would find such a scenario objectionable as long as a new dictatorship was seen as friendly to the West.
Another problem with the way Qaddafi was overthrown is the way in which NATO so blatantly went beyond the mandate provided by the United Nations Security Council to simply protect the civilian population through the establishment of a no-fly zone. Instead, NATO became an active participant in a civil war, providing arms, intelligence, advisers and conducting over 7,500 air and missile strikes against military and government facilities. Such abuse of the UN system will create even more skepticism regarding the implementation of the responsibility to protect should there really be an incipient genocide somewhere where foreign intervention may indeed be the only realistic option.
Furthermore, while it is certainly possible that Qaddafi would have continued to refuse to step down in any case, the NATO intervention emboldened the rebels to refuse offers by the regime for a provisional cease-fire and direct negotiations, thereby eliminating even the possibility of ending the bloodshed months earlier.Indeed, there is good reason to question whether NATO’s role in Qaddafi’s removal was motivated by humanitarian concerns in the first place. For example, NATO intervention was initiated during the height of the savage repression of the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in the Western-backed kingdom of Bahrain, yet US and British support for that autocratic Arab monarchy has continued as the hope for bringing freedom to that island nation was brutally crushed. And given the overwhelming bipartisan support in the United States for Israeli military campaigns in 2006 and 2008-09 which, while only lasting a few weeks, succeeded in slaughtering more than 1,500 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, Washington’s humanitarian claims for the Libyan intervention ring particularly hollow.It’s true that some of the leftist critiques of the NATO campaign were rather specious. For example, this was not simply a war for oil. Qaddafi had long ago opened his oil fields to the West, with Occidental, BP and ENI among the biggest beneficiaries. Relations between Big Oil and the Libyan regime were doing just fine and the NATO-backed war was highly disruptive to their interests.
Similarly, Libya under Qaddafi was hardly a progressive alternative to the right-wing Arab rulers favored by the West. Despite some impressive socialist initiatives early in Qaddafi’s reign, which led Libya to impressive gains in health care, education, housing, and other needs, the past two decades had witnessed increased corruption, regional and tribal favoritism, capricious investment policies, an increasingly predatory bureaucracy and a degree of poverty and inadequate infrastructure inexcusable for a country of such vast potential wealth.
However, given the strong role of NATO in the uprising and the close ties developed with the military leaders of the revolution, it would be naïve to assume that the United States and other countries in the coalition won’t try to assert their influence in the direction of post-Qaddafi Libya. One of the problems of armed revolutionary struggle compared to unarmed revolutionary struggle is the dependence upon foreign supporters, which can then be leveraged after victory. Given the debt and ongoing dependency some of the rebel leaders have developed with NATO countries in recent months, it would similarly be naïve to think that some of them wouldn’t be willing to let this happen.
In summary, while Qaddafi’s ouster is cause for celebration, it is critical that it not be interpreted as a vindication of Western military interventionism. Not only will the military side of the victory likely leave a problematic legacy, we should not deny agency to the many thousands of Libyans across regions, tribes and ideologies, who ultimately made victory possible through their refusal to continue their cooperation with an oppressive and illegitimate regime. It is ultimately a victory of the Libyan people. And they alone should determine their country’s future.

Stephen Zunes is a contributing editor to Tikkun Magazine and professor of political science at University of San Francisco.


6 thoughts on “Stephen Zunes on Lessons from the Libyan Revolution


  2. This is all wonderful, question though still is: who are these rebels? I have been told that they are all Engineers and Students. Sounds delightful.
    Let’s see if there will be any changes?
    oil is still the overriding factor!

  3. Dear Mr. Zunes
    Thank you very much for this great Articale,and deep and professorial work,I believe that there are many lessons must be learned from Libya, revelation and what is happening in Syria now , and what had happened in Palestine during the 2000 uprising,I hope that we can work together mon some lessons from 2000 uprising , during which I was in Ghaza and I was against all kind off armid activities by Palestine at the time.

  4. The New York Times has recently published a business analysis of the situation in Libya with regard to its oil wealth. It turns out that, while Gaddafi did make contracts with BP and ENI, these contracts also included huge taxes and other demands which made the deals unprofitable for these companies. The new Libyan government is now idebted to the western powers, and will therefore be much more ‘friendly’ to the western oil business. The title of that article speaks for itself: ‘The Scramble for Access to Libya’s Oil Wealth Begins’. There has also been much talk lately about Libya’s gold reserves.

  5. i wouldn’t dare to assume i could make any judgments or conclusions what has happened in Liby. unless you were there, how could you possibly know. but i guess it’s your job to pontificate about stuff…..

  6. I’m at a loss to find any coherence in what appears to be an argument that the Gaddafi regime may have been overthrown by peaceful, non-violent means. For weeks and months last spring and into the summer, the international community, together with the NTC, tried and tried to get the Gaddafis to hand over power and retire to a country that would have them — to no avail. Pacifism is a nice, even a noble ideal, but it does not work in every situation, everywhere. Libya is one of the places where non-violence had no chance from Day 1 of the February 17th uprising in Benghazi.

    If such a chance had truly existed, the author of this article would have been able to make a much more coherent case for it.