Some Reflections on the Revolution in Libya
Charles H. Featherstone
by Charles H. Featherstone
by Charles H. Featherstone: Egypt
We live in
an interesting historical moment.
impress me about the uprising in Libya in particular. The first
was the early realization that an uprising there would not simply
oust Brother Leader Muammar Qaddafiy, and would not do so easily.
In fact, in order for Libyans to remove their brutal and corrupt
leader, they were going to have to break the state he created in
the process. And it seems they are doing just that, even as huge
elements of Qaddafiy's state defect.
risk of this was a lack of institutions or structures to govern
Libya once Qaddafiy was gone. A friend and I noted in a conversation
a decade ago that Libya was the Arab state most like Mohammad Siad
Barre's Somalia a nation-state in which the dictator had either
destroyed or co-opted all social structures and institutions with
the state. There was no alternative to Siad Barre's Somalia (so
several well-educated Somali refugees described to me) except the
clan structure, so when Somalis rose up and ousted Siad Barre, they
by necessity had to destroy his state. No alternative structures
quickly arose, and Somalia has been officially "stateless"
for the last 20 years. (For any number of reasons, which I won't
go into here.)
The risk, then,
of Libyans ousting Qaddafiy (or his dying, because we didn't see
an actual rebellion as a possibility then) was the risk that in
breaking the Libyan state, there would be nothing left except the
clan structure of Libya, and the kind of perpetual struggle for
control of the nation among the clans would arise. Libya would become
a failed state. It seemed a remote risk, however, as Qaddafiy seemed
fairly permanent. (Again, I'm often forgetting what is for me the
great lesson of 1989 no state or governing arrangement is ever
But I don't
think this likely in Libya because of the exiles, who have done
an amazing job at coordinating and probably planning much of the
uprising. They will likely prevent Libya from becoming a Somalia-style
There is a
substantial (substantial for a country of 6 million people) Libyan
exile community in the United States and the United Kingdom (and
probably Switzerland, Italy and Dubai). They may be small, but they
are economically and socially influential and, dare I say, powerful.
I've known a few. Not many, but a few. I'm guessing (and I have
no direct evidence of this) that the exiles have been central to
coordinating the rebellion in Libya. No, I'm not saying that they
were fomenting revolution Libyans were likely ready for revolution,
given the nature of their government and the success of the uprisings
against Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. But things
in Libya appeared to work very quickly. From the time Mubarak resigned
to the beginning of the Revolution of February 17 was six days.
I think this was probably the planning window, because I don't think
the Libyan uprising would have started without Mubarak's resignation
the Libyans had to have some hope that once the rebellion
started, it could oust Qaddafiy one way or the other. Anything else
would be a repeat of the failed uprising of 1996.
In was in these
few days I suspect the exiles worked connections inside the country,
polled Libya's diplomats, registered websites (www.libyafeb17.com
was registered in the UK on February 16), arranged for ways to get
cell-phone video out of the country, and printed all those flags.
There was probably some long-existent planning for an uprising,
and even some work once events in Tunisia proved successful. But
without Mubarak's resignation, I doubt very much the Benghazi uprising
would have gone off when it did and the way it did. I'm guessing
the revolution in Libya was quickly but not hastily
I think all involved in and out of Libya decided, with the inspiration
of Tunisia and Egypt, that this would be it. There would be no turning
back, and that breaking Qaddafiy's state was a necessary element
of ending Qaddafiy's rule if that's what it took to oust
will have to be careful how they proceed. It is important that while
many Libyan exiles have had lots of al-Jazeera face time, the coverage
has shown us a leaderless uprising in Libya itself. There is no
Libyan Khomeini (from a revolutionary standpoint) publicly sitting
underneath a tree in Paris and communicating his wishes via cassette
tape to the protesting masses in Tehran. While their leadership
is going to be essential in making sure Libya does not become a
failed state, the exiles will also have to be very aware that they
are not the people shedding blood and taking the real risks in the
face of Qaddafiy's violence. The exiles cannot simply assume leadership
or demand property and privilege back. That will alienate too many
Libyans who did the actual fighting.
Libya's clan structure means that exiles are still pretty well connected
to Libyans and Libya itself, and that clan structure will give their
participation in ruling the country the legitimacy it might not
otherwise have. It also helps, I think, that many of the exiles
fled during Qaddafiy's regime, and many were even part of it initially.
The next great
decision the Libyans have to deal with is the desire by some in
the West to "help." I am suspicious of American desires
to help. In part because I'm not sure how needed it is, but also
because I believe in autonomy and dignity in the end, the
only people who can truly liberate Libyans are Libyans themselves.
In rising up and ridding themselves of Qaddafiy, they will have
done the impossible, and that proves they are mighty. There is always
a whiff of elitism or Fabianism to the "humanitarianism"
of the powerful in the West, and I suspect in some quarters, there
is absolutely nothing more frightening than people freeing themselves
and ruling themselves. The whole point of Fabian socialism
and I suspect all of elite Progressivism (which uses populist Progressivism)
is to do for people so they will not do for themselves. That
Libyans would topple a dictator, even one with little (but some)
cachet in the West, is probably a serious threat to some. Intervention
would be one way, I think, to keep the Libyans in line. People power
is okay, so long as it actually doesn't threaten any real change.
If it does, it must be beaten down. Perhaps that is what Hillary
Clinton was threatening when she made her ridiculous statement about
Libya's choices being "democracy" or chaos pick
the "right" leaders, ones acceptable to us, or we'll make
sure you'll live with chaos.
I am, of course,
inalterably opposed to any unilateral action on the part of the
United States or its allies in Libya. The Libyan rebels appear to
be handling this well by saying they don't want or need Western
action right now, but they reserve the right to ask for it under
the auspices of the UN if they feel the need. That would make it
"legal," though the motives of Washington would always
be in question. Will the Libyans use or will they be used? So, I
hope and pray they don't ask for "help."
Now, on to
the lessons we can learn from the Revolution of February 17. First,
no state is safe. It turns out states are fairly brittle institutions,
and when their legitimacy rests largely on force and coercion
as opposed to widespread consent and assent then once people
screw up their courage to face the state down, it breaks fairly
I don't want
to predict where the next revolutions can or will take place, but
thinking about Libya with its exile community, a couple of examples
come to mind. This revolution is probably the uprising the Cuban
exiles would love to stage, but I suspect they can't because the
Cuban exiles likely do not have the connections or the moral legitimacy
with enough Cubans to be able to coordinate an uprising. This is
what happens when your anti-government fervor is based largely on
a demand for restored property and privilege. I would hope that
when the dust clears in Tripoli, Burmese exiles have a long sit
down with some prominent Libyans and see what they can learn from
this. I suspect Iranian exiles will be mobilized again, though like
the Cubans, I suspect many of them lack moral legitimacy inside
their former home countries. And the number of Iraqis living outside
Iraq could also, at this point, help their suffering countrymen,
who never got to liberate themselves from Saddam Hussein's rule
in the first place.
maybe this is sheer fantasy on my part, but as the number of exiles
and defectors from North Korea grows, this model presents one possibility
for outside coordination reliant largely on internal networks to
coordinate an uprising against a regime. I do not know if North
Korean exiles are well placed, and any uprising in North Korea would
likely have to start as a military mutiny.
in Libya are fairly unique, and so what has happened there over
the last two weeks will likely not be repeated anywhere else. But
we are not done with the Arab Revolutions of 2011. I do not know
who the next Arab autocrat to fall will be my early guess is
President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, but this is only a guess.
I do not know where the pressure on Gulf monarchs will go. As long
as the uprising in Bahrain is primarily a Shia-Sunni dispute, the
ruling Sunni minority have no reason to give any ground (and plenty
of support from the Saudis to hold it). But apparently, the Bahraini
Shia have suggested allowing foreigners living in Bahrain to be
part of the political arrangement. If that gets the country's Indians,
Pakistanis and Filipinos out onto the streets, that would be very
interesting. (I doubt it will, but who knows...) I can think of
a few creaking dictators outside the Middle East who need toppling
(Robert Mugabe comes to mind), but I'm not sure the "Libyan
model" is applicable there either.
Not much to
do but watch. And wonder. And be amazed by it all.
H. Featherstone [send
him mail] is
an anarchist, seminarian, songwriter, sometime essayist and Jenniferís
ever-loving husband. He blogs here
[http://thefeatherblog.blogspot.com] and here.
© 2011 Charles H. Featherstone
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