Lessons and Signs of Hope Amidst the Carnage in Libya

The civil insurrection in Libya has been far more violent, and forces loyal to the dictator far more violent still, than the recent successful unarmed revolutions against the dictatorships in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Still, there are signs of hope and important lessons to be learned in the ongoing struggle against the 42-year regime of Muammar Gaddafi, whose days appear to be numbered.

Gaddafi’s leadership style has always been repressive, impulsive, and unpredictable. Yet his nationalism, anti-imperialism, and professed socialism led many educated Libyans who formed the backbone of the government to stay loyal despite their misgivings, in large part in reaction to what was seen as punitive and hypocritical sanctions imposed by Western nations and the constant threat of renewed U.S. air and missile strikes against the country, as took place back in the 1980s. It was only when the sanctions and the threats of war subsided back in 2004 that there began to be a dramatic increase in resignations and defections by prominent Libyans who had been members and supporters of the government. In short, the U.S.-led efforts to isolate, punish, and threaten the regime likely contributed to Gaddafi’s longevity as dictator. Once relations were normalized and the isolation and threats subsided, Gaddafi was seen less as a strong leader defending his nation against Western imperialism and more as the mercurial and brutal tyrant that he is.

As of this writing, virtually all of the cities in the eastern half of the country and a number of cities elsewhere have been liberated by pro-democracy forces, which launched their rebellion just a few weeks ago and are now clashing with security forces in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. In these liberated cities, popular democratic committees have been set up to serve as interim local governments. For example, Benghazi—a city of over a million people—is now being run by a improvised organizing committee of judges, lawyers, and other professionals who have been largely successful at restoring order to the country’s second largest city, dispatching young people to coordinate traffic at intersections and assist in other basic services.

There have been resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Gaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals, and top military officers, many of whom have actively joined the opposition. Pilots have deliberately crashed their planes, flown into exile, or otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers have defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution. This has forced Gaddafi to rely on African mercenaries, which has only further angered the population against a dictator willing to bring in foreigners to murder his own citizens.

These serious challenges to Gaddafi’s power comes despite the fact that, compared with the recent successful civil insurrections against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the challenges faced by the pro-democracy forces in Libya have been far greater. Under the recently-overthrown dictators, the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes routinely rigged elections and marginalized opposition parties, but at least there were elections and opposition parties. Not in Libya, however. Similarly, Egypt and Tunisia had trade unions, popular organizations, and active civil society groups whose activities were severely restricted and at times brutally suppressed, but at least they existed. Again, not in Libya.

Despite all this, pro-democracy forces are on the offensive, demonstrating that if enough people are willing to risk everything for their freedom, the regime has few options left but brute force—exactly what Gaddafi has been turning to. However, the use of such extraordinary violence usually ends up backfiring in favor of the opposition, which is exactly what appears to be happening in Libya.

Gaddafi joined the Libyan armed forces as a young man, not because of an interest in a military career per se, but because he wanted to become the country’s ruler. In the Middle East in those days, if you weren’t part of a royal family, the key to political power was through the military. What Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated, however—along with other successful nonviolent civil insurrections from the Philippines to Poland and from Chile to Serbia—is that political power ultimately comes from the acquiescence of the people. And if a people no longer recognize the leader’s authority and refuse to obey the leader’s orders, he will no longer be the leader. This is the kind of power the United States and other Western nations must recognize: for democracy to come to the Middle East, it must come from the people themselves.