The Libyan State and the Opposition

By Yousef K.B.

The Libyan revolt has transitioned from initially an unarmed protest movement calling for Muammar Gaddafi to step down, to a protest movement with an armed guerilla wing attempting to drag down Gaddafi. Protests began in the east of Libya in Benghazi and within days they spread across the country, reaching Tripoli. Gaddafi who was at first hesitant about the possibility of a mass movement against his country responded violently against the protesters. His son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi came out within two days of the uprising and warned that if the protests continue blood will be shed, a civil war can begin, and Libya might break apart into pieces in the East, West, and the South.

Gaddafi unleashed his military on unarmed protesters thereafter shooting at people with live rounds, heavy artillery, and at times air power. Gaddafi’s use of extensive violence as a last ditch effort to hold on to power, forced some protesters especially those in Tripoli to hide in their homes, and for others to arm themselves.  Some protesters, turned into armed rebels, attacked arms depots, police stations, and army barracks occupied them and stole their weapons.

Protesters were able to drive out Gaddafi’s forces from cities such as Benghazi and Baydha relatively quickly.  Key ministers, diplomats, and military figures resigned, and some joined the protests. Members of the security apparatus who defected, joined with other protesters who picked up arms, and this group began to organize itself as the armed wing of the protest movement. They began to defend liberated cities, as well as advance towards Tripoli.[1] In liberated Benghazi a Transitional National Council (TNC) was formed on February 27th headed by the former Justice Minister of Gaddafi Abdul Jalil. The Council claims to represent all of the rebels, and some rebels in other parts have allied themselves with the TNC. The fighting between the protesters, rebels, and Gaddafi’s forces have escalated over the past two weeks with increasing numbers of injured, fatalities, and a mounting refugee problem.


Libyans in Libya and outside, as well as human rights organizations have called for international assistance.  Whereas most of these calls have been for international humanitarian assistance, such as medical supplies, transfer of injured, and refugee relief, there have been some calls of military intervention. All indications are clear that no Libyan protesters have called for foreign ground presence, but rather a “no fly zone” option. On March 5th the Crisis Committee of the Transitional National Council called for air support, but rejected any ground support. The head of the council had earlier also rejected foreign intervention, stating “we will never accept any foreign intervention and any foreigners who try to do so will face the same fate as Gaddafi’s mercenaries.”

It is within this context that questions have been raised regarding the implications of Libya “slipping into civil war.” Who really are the opposition forces? What are they fighting against?  Before talking about civil war, military intervention, ideologies, and other important questions, I attempted to draw out the different sides of the conflict based on the information that is coming out of Libya.

The Libyan State of Gaddafi

Muammar Gaddafi’s initial moves to create a socialist government became enveloped by his own ego.  At the outset of his reign, afraid of possible revolutions and coup d’états against him, Gaddafi walked a paradoxical line. On the one hand his vision as outlined by his Green Book called for giving power to local peoples and “direct democracy.” On the other hand his fear of loosing power led him to centralize power and afraid of empowering institutions.  With the erosion of Gaddafi’s revolutionary program this paradox was resolved and the tendency to centralize power behind Gaddafi and his family became the dominant trend. By the time the 1980s arrived whatever remained of his revolutionary political and economic agenda became rhetorical tirades, rather than policies. As Vijay Prashad points out Ronald Reagan’s bombing of Tripoli gave his revolutionary persona a “lease on life,” but in effect Gadaffi had began to privatize parts of the economy and introduce land reforms benefiting large landowners across Libya.

The trend that began in the 1980s to privatize sectors of the economy and begin opening up to transnational circuits of accumulation (defined as global business interests seeking profits) increased in pace in the 1990s and the 2000s. In the 1990s different Islamist forces gained strength in neighboring Algeria, as they won the first stage of elections in December 1991, followed by the Algerian government annulling the elections that began a lengthy civil strife across the country. Gaddafi increasingly feared Islamist influence in Libya. As Prashad explains this fear of Islamism and the turn towards neo-liberal policies proved to be powerful incentives for Gaddafi to move closer to the West. 2003 saw Gaddafi’s efforts bear fruit. He resolved the major outstanding issues he had with England, the US, and shortly thereafter with Italy. He claimed responsibility for the PanAm flight bombing and paid a hefty settlement, gave up certain weapons programs, opened up his intelligence record to Western intelligence, and gave further guarantees for access to his resource rich economy.  Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice’s visits were the symbolic visits that consecrated this new phase of Gaddafi’s rule.

The opening up of the economy occurred while the state was being centralized further. As I mentioned in a previous post Gaddafi’s state did not attempt to build institutions.  Institutions were small and centralized to allow for greater control of them by Gaddafi. Political parties were crushed, and completely driven out or underground. Civil society was chocked off. Political activity was confined to the government led tightly by Gaddafi, his family, and a small cadre around him. Gaddafi even attacked the military to ensure that it did not exist as an institution outside of his close control and gave authority over parts of the military to his sons. He invested in different militias and rebel groups in neighboring countries and in Western Africa to increase his influence in the region.

the Gaddafi Family Cartel

Gaddafi’s state had exerted brutal control over its population but it was confined at the same time to Tripoli. Without complex bureaucracies, the Libyan state was housed in few key locations. February 17th rebellion made this even clearer as Gaddafi’s state quickly retreated to Bab Al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli. The Libyan state is a single fort, a single compound, located in Bab Al-Aziziya, without any other institutions or government agencies such as legislature, judiciary, military, private sector, etc. that can act as trenches to ward off opposition forces.   A similar state structure was Saddam’s government in Baghdad that was centered in the Karada District.  A centralized state, based on the power of one man and his family is prone to resort to extreme violence if it finds itself backed up against the wall. As the regime becomes increasingly isolated, those close to Gaddafi will remain loyal to him, because their chances of retaining certain power and position after Gaddafi fades away quickly. This group of Gaddafi’s family, his close cadre, and their functionaries are who are left held up in Aziziya and make frequent trips to the Green Square to stage pro-Gaddafi rallies.

Tribes and Gaddafi’s Politics

Gaddafi and his son Saif have often referred to the tribal nature of Libya, recently arguing that this can lead to the breakdown of the Libyan nation. The strength of tribal affiliation and their political ramifications are never constant and change based on the political and economic conditions in any given country. Gaddafi has expanded the role of the tribes and tribal power hierarchies as he suppressed all other functions of civic life. This enabled him to have more control over Libya through clientelism receiving obedience from tribes by bribing tribal elders, as well as controlling them by pitting them against each other. Saddam Hussein in Iraq also pursued a similar strategy where he strengthened the tribal system to oppose the potential of different urban movements in affecting social change.


One of the most troubling features of the current struggle in Libya is the use of mercenaries by Gaddafi. Media has dubbed these mercenaries “African mercenaries” since some of them come from countries in West Africa. Gaddafi invested in local militias and rebel groups, training their members in Libya and is now using some of these forces against the protesters. However there are reports of Serbian mercenaries as well. This is partially a result of the devolution of the Libyan military forces in recent years. It is also a tactic on the part of the Libyan state to create fractures within the Libyan people. Unfortunately this has had some success.

Libya is home to hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from across the world especially from sub-Saharan African countries working in different industries. Already having become victims and refugees of the global economy, these migrant workers, especially those from Sub-Saharan African countries are now facing a new racialized attack.   This also increases the conditions for a contradictory situation to arise for large segment of Black Libyan who all of a sudden find themselves in a contradictory situation of being part of the protesters in their aspirations for Gaddafi’s downfall, yet their nationality questioned at the same time.

Gaddafi can look, once again, at Saddam Hussein as someone who used and perfected this tactic. In the case of Saddam it was Egyptian and Palestinian migrant workers who he used to displace, beat down, and otherwise harass his opposition. An animosity emerged against these vulnerable populations, which turned into open hostility after Saddam’s demise. The chaotic nature of the type of rebellion we are witnessing in Libya increases the possibility where under the cloud of confusion Libyans can point at each other as well as migrant workers in their rightful quest to oust a tyrant.

The Opposition

Under Gaddafi, Libya has been cut off from the outside, despite recent moves to allow some media outlets and academic to enter Libya.   The isolation of the country has only been exacerbated by the recent clampdown on protesters and rebels. Therefore it is very difficult to make strong claims about the composition of the opposition forces.  Any attempt to do so must be viewed as speculative at best.

Having said that we can point to three different groupings that are emerging: expats and exiled parties, former government functionaries, and emergent mosque-based networks. There are potentially other groups, but these three are most visible.

This armed wing of the protests benefited from factions of the military and police defecting and joining the rebellions. They are attempting to train and lead new volunteer recruits as they defend and advance on Tripoli. Former government functionaries joined emerging alternative political bodies such as the Transitional National Council.

Army defectors training volunteers.

Mosque Based Networks

The mosques are playing an important role in the mass mobilizations seen in Libya. There are religious slogans interwoven with the political ones amongst some of the activists in Libya. This interplay between religion and politics will increase as Gaddafi’s power recedes. I anticipate Western observers and commentators will soon begin to sound alarms about this phenomenon, because with only a limited number of narrow narratives they’re unable to appreciate the complexity of the situation.

The dominance of the mosques in this and other revolts in authoritarian regimes stems from the government crackdown on civil society. Gaddafi’s suppression of all political parties destroyed them or drove them outside of Libya or underground. The same is true of any Islamist party. In this context the mosque as a gathering place played an important role for people coming together, and organic networks developed centered around the mosque as a space. To understand this, it is important to know that mosques, given the lack of a hierarchical clergy in Islam, are much more than strictly religious institution to be used only for religious rituals. Mosques tend to serve as open spaces in neighborhoods around the Muslim world, where people gather for religious services, prayers, but also to meet others, hang out, take a break from work (sometimes you’ll find people napping), etc. Mosques are unique in that they function as a public social space.   Thus it is inevitable that the mosque becomes the location of self-organization for popular movements. The religious clout of ritual practice shields emerging political collectives from state surveillance. These networks operate informally and usually without explicit political agendas. However as opportunities arise, as the state’s security apparatus retreats, and in a context where political organizations don’t exist, it is these mosque-based networks that all of a sudden become visible. Their organization is usually surprising to outsiders as they can be interpreted as spontaneous formations, but in reality that have existed within neighborhoods for some time.

An example of this phenomenon was the Sadrist movement in Iraq, where Muqtada Al-Sadr and his group surprised even Iraqi exiled groups with their following and sophisticated organization. The Sadrists prior to the US invasion operated as these mosque-based networks throughout impoverished areas in Shi’a dominated Iraq. The leaders in the movement were young men active in their local mosques. As Saddam’s state retreated, they stepped up as the most organized, vocal, and popular indigenous social movement. Of course there are many differences between the Sadrists in Iraq and what is occurring in Libya, one of which being the presence of a charismatic leader in Iraq–Muqtada Al-Sadr.  Nevertheless similar organizing trends in Libya are emerging and should be expected to continue.

These mosque-based networks begin as social networks and not as political parties with a set platform. Political demands are formed based on the specific political moment.  Because these networks begin as social networks, there is not an over-riding political ideology that informs the demands. These are not Islamist parties, but rather social networks that transform themselves into political movements at times because the specific historic moment calls for that. Thus the political ideologies or demands that arise out of these networks are varied and not easy to predict. It is not easy to label them as pro-free market, anti-imperialist, Arab nationalist, etc.

Exiled Opposition Parties

Exiled Libyan opposition parties are getting a lot of attention in the media. This is not because they have a lot of influence in Libya, but rather because they are easy to reach, they have people that can speak different languages such as English and French, and they can come to the local television or radio station to be interviewed.  These figures also have specific narrative that they can lay out. This is in contrast to Libyans inside of Libya that are hard to reach and usually are not heard well over fuzzy radio lines. The opposition in Libya is struggling to put together a cohesive organization that can project their message, and the Transitional National Council is their attempt to do this. The effectiveness of having a single organization that can speak for the entire rebellion might be debated, but the media’s attraction to them can’t be questioned. Media outlets are lazy at times and like to have single entities they can rely on for news, analysis, and responses. The opposition is also spread across multiple cities and cannot easily communicate with each other. Thus journalists have to reach people in different cities to get accurate information, rather than to communicate with an information-clearing house in a central location. The people they reach in these cities are often random people, who might not know of the total picture of what is happening, and often unable to precisely talk about the demands of the movement. Of course partially this is because the opposition itself much like Tunisia and Egypt is not run by a single party or a core organization.  But the combined effect of all of these factors is the opening for exiled opposition parties to increasingly step into the limelight in discussing what is occurring across Libya.

It is important to differentiate between expatriates and exiled groups and those on the ground. The demands and the political views and ideologies of these outside groups are distinct and could potentially be different or even in opposition to those inside of Libya. It is important not to generalize about the views of the Libyan opposition within Libya by relying on exiled Libyan groups. What happened in Iraq with the infamous Ahmed Chalabi should be a clear lesson.

However observers, especially on the left critique the Libyan opposition by focusing on the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, drawing connections between them and the National Endowment for Democracy, American policy makers and so forth. Exiled organizations tend to be supported by the United States and other western powers even if they might have a good relationship with the rulers in the home states of those parties. This support aims to better position countries such as the US to manage the crisis in the case that regimes implode or are deposed by putting themselves in a position to shape the alternative regimes that would rise to power. Nevertheless, once cannot assume that these groups have any control or say in Libya.

The level of support that exiled opposition groups enjoy in their home countries is not always certain. In the case of Libya, these parties don’t have that much power inside of Libya because they’ve been outside of the country for a long time. Thus relying on them to speak for the opposition can only lead to analytical errors, and confusion about the realities on the ground.

Ideology and Platform of the Opposition

Similar to Tunisia and Egypt, there is not a single ideology or political or economic platform for the opposition. The opposition started on the hells of the Egyptian revolt, as people protested the jailing of a prominent figure in Benghazi and it became larger. A single party does not lead it, the different forces are varied, and outside of the exiled parties they have not joined the protests with a clear ideological vision necessarily.  Economic hardships have given rise to the anger of the protesters but their main demands are around political issues such as ousting Gaddafi’s regime, the demolition of the security state, and a more open political society. The opposition does not have a clear economic demand and thus cannot be said to have a clear view towards economic development.

If the opposition is however successful, and even if their success did not depend on any outside help, they will forced to deal with Transnational interests as much of the economy, especially the oil sector has already been contracted out. I say this to suggest that the question of a post-Gaddafi regime is very murky at best. The chaos in Libya makes this question even more difficult to predict. However the difficulty to predict the outcome, should not take away from our need to steadfastly support the opposition to this tyrant!

[1] Movement between cities in Libya is dangerous because the desert terrain makes them vulnerable to air attacks.


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