The Corner

Libya: Between Civil-Society Groups and the Islamists

As in all of the other revolts rocking the Arab region, Libya is witnessing what I have called a “Race in Middle Earth.” The revolts in these countries have a common pattern: In the center you have an authoritarian regime that, with the exception of Bahrain and the constitutional monarchies, shifted camps during and after the Cold War. Below you have diverse civil-society forces — dissidents, writers, lawyers, unions, women, students, and disaffected former members of the regime — all rising against the dictator. To the sides, you have a very well organized Islamist movement, led or inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The triangular struggle has one natural outcome: the collapse, sooner or later, of the authoritarian regime, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt. But there is another possible outcome that could determine the future of the revolts and deflect the initial and stated goals of the revolution: a takeover, after the authoritarian collapse, by Islamists and an eventual transformation of the country into a jihadist state. The ongoing battle in Libya is no exception.


Moammar Gaddafi is a true dictator who would not tolerate dissent, either from democratic forces or from the Islamists. Since the coup d’état of September 1970, he has claimed to represent Arabist and Islamist ideologies in Libya as well as a popular socialism that fits Islam. He ruled Libya as a one-man show for 41 years, displaying anti-Western propaganda, buying weapons from the Soviets, the French, and whoever else would sell him top-line technologies, and selling oil to any industrial power that paid in hard currency. The state of human rights in Libya was one of the worst on the planet, and no opposition was allowed a tribune. Torture and vanishing was the norm for political prisoners. In addition, Gaddafi competed with the Wahhabis in funding extremist groups across Africa and beyond. His petrodollars backed radicals as far as the Sahel, Suriname, and Lebanon. His regime’s support to terror peaked in the 1980s with the Lockerbie attack and, allegedy, bombings targeting the French in Africa.


Gaddafi made a strategic move in 2004, after the end of Saddam’s regime, and declared that he would renounce his nuclear ambitions and cooperate with the West against al-Qaeda. However, he continued to oppress his own people, and his rhetoric against the West did not fundamentally change on an ideological level. This hybrid situation — authoritarian on the inside and anti-al-Qaeda (and anti-Iran) on the outside — brought back the financial favor of the West but triggered an escalation of the Islamist campaign against his rule. His “deal” over the Lockerbie affair shielded him from Western sanctions, allowing his regime to continue targeting its political opponents.


But with popular revolts sweeping the region, the Libyan regime couldn’t escape the dual pressures: one coming from genuine civil-society protesters, the other from the Salafist networks.#more# The free Libyan forces include a vast array of exiles in Western countries and local rights groups inside the country, as well as bloggers and elements within the bureaucracy. The Islamist forces are made of Muslim Brotherhood–inspired groups and Salafi movements inside and outside the country. The demonstrations started in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, with heavy support from the exile community. The secular/Islamist combo forming the nucleus of the uprising drew support from Western-based rights groups as well as the powerful airwaves of al Jazeera.


But Libya is no Egypt or Tunisia. Its system is closed to media, it doesn’t receive military assistance and cash from the U.S., and the ruling elites possess immense wealth, which they are determined to keep under tight control. The result has been a level of violence unparalleled so far in the Arab revolts, including snipers in action against the demonstrators and air power used against civilians. Such repression by Gaddafi against his own citizens will bring the ire of the international community. “Where is the United Nations? Qaddafi is committing crimes against humanity and there should be investigations launched immediately,” cries Mohamed Eljahmi, a Libyan-American software engineer. He says he cannot fathom why “Secretary General Ban [Ki-moon] and the Human Rights Council are not forcibly condemning the Libyan dictator’s atrocities against his own people.” Eljahmi, whom I know personally and who participated in pro-democracy activities for years in Washington, D.C., witnessed the death of his brother Fathi, a former minister who was tortured in Gaddafi’s jails.

The battle’s first dimension is about human rights and freedom, but in Libya, too, the army will decide the outcome. Reports say a military confrontation will take place at Bab al Aziziya between loyalists and military units opposed to the dictator. The rest will be in the details of who sides with whom. Brigade 32, led by Colonel Khamis Gaddafi, is at the center of the regime’s defense; minister of defense Abu Bakr Younis Jaber seems to have been sidelined; a general by the name of Mahdi al Arabi may play a role in the balance of power. Mercenaries brought from other African countries are said to be taking part in the fight.

The hours and days ahead will decide the fate of the country. The democratic forces are not going back anymore; they want Gaddafi out. But via al Jazeera, Sheikh Yusuf al Qardawi, the mentor of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, has asked armed forces to remove their supreme commander in Tripoli. The triangular equation between the dictator, the seculars, and the Islamists cannot hold for too long


Dr. Walid Phares is the author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East. He teaches Global Strategies in Washington, D.C.


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