It seemed unlikely that Libya, sandwiched between regime collapse in Tunisia and regime collapse in Egypt, could be untouched by the movement. Qaddafi has had dominion over an increasingly malcontent country, and the citizens have been increasingly disgusted by the gap between his rhetoric of direct democracy and his autocratic grip on power. When I wrote about Qaddafi for The New Yorker, in 2006, the question was whether a much-advertised reform process was really underway. The ostensible champion of reform was Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam. Seif usually talks a good game, but he does so with minimal regard for the truth. I was amazed, at a meeting with Seif and some senior American diplomats, in 2008, to hear him describe as imminent the exact same plans he’d so described to me in 2005, without the slightest embarrassment that nothing he had promised then had even inched forward. The regime has always wanted credit for its beneficent decrees, without accepting blame for its failure even to try to turn them into results. Libyans are aware that this represents a higher degree of hypocrisy than is common in most of the rest of the world. For a long time, they did not much love Qaddafi, but they did not hate him, either; he was in many ways irrelevant to their lives, which chugged along according to a tribal logic that had been in place long before the regime came to power. Libyans are leery of democracy; they like a strong ruler who can keep tribal rivalries from erupting. But they do not particularly like their current strong ruler.
The Qaddafi regime has made several strategic errors since my article was published in 2006. The most obvious has been the retreat from Seif’s plans for reform. It was in Qaddafi’s interests to sustain the fierce battle between hardliners and moderates, to present his moderate spokesman to the West (hence the meeting between Seif and diplomats), and to keep his hardliner face visible to his own people. Within the government, each side had moments of believing itself in favor, but the best guarantee of Qaddafi’s continued hegemony was to keep them constantly embattled. When this became unsustainable, however, in 2008, he quashed the reformers, and Seif was generally seen as having fallen from grace. Even though most Libyans had been cynical about the reform process—which was predicated on economic reform rather than on the introduction of real democracy—it had kept hope on the horizon, had allowed them to indulge the idea that Qaddafi was really interested in what was best for the population rather than for himself and his family. To give hardliners more power, as Qaddafi did in 2008, was catastrophic.
That Seif was chosen to go on Libyan television last night to warn of “civil war” and to promise a conference on constitutional reforms is very telling. Qaddafi would not have chosen him as spokesman if he didn’t recognize the hunger for reform, and if he didn’t know that quashing Seif’s ambitions had fed the fire now consuming Tripoli. Monday morning, Qaddafi announced that Seif would be forming a committee to investigate what is happening. But Seif’s too-little-too-late performance—which Al Jazeera described as “desperate,” and which some commentators have said was aimed at his friends in the West rather than at the Libyan people—has almost certainly not helped his cause.
A second mistake has been the lack of attention to the poverty of the population. Libya is North Africa’s most prosperous country, given its tremendous oil wealth and small population. Yet most Libyans live in deplorable conditions. The state provides little by way of civil society and does not take care of even the most basic government obligations. There are police to control people who stray from supporting the Leader, but there is little else. As a housing crisis has escalated in the past few years, the regime has made no effort to provide adequate public accommodation. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very few. It would have been easy for Qaddafi to raise the standard of living for the population as a whole either by creating a sustainable non-oil economy or simply by distributing some portion of oil revenues, but he chose to do neither.
A third mistake has been to ignore the needs of the young. When a third of the population is under fifteen and a further large proportion is under twenty-five, the young become central to coherent governance. Qaddafi has stuck with his old cronies, and has not taken on board the nature of the widespread discontent. The most obvious problem here, as in much of the Middle East, is vast youth unemployment, for the amelioration of which there are no programs at all. Qaddafi has never made any attempt to reach out to disgruntled youth, and they feel that their voices are not heard and carry no weight.
It is striking that the protests began in the eastern part of Libya. The area around Benghazi has always been the one least under Qaddafi’s thumb, and most of his problems have originated there. Qaddafi’s tribe is a desert one, and the verdant east resents his authority. In the nineteen-nineties, eastern Libya was the site of an armed Islamic insurgency, based in Benghazi and the Green Mountains. It was in part Qaddafi’s fear of Benghazi that led him to champion the notion that an epidemic of HIV among children had somehow been caused by Bulgarian nurses’ deliberate acts on behalf of Mossad. Qaddafi has always been good at deflecting the anger of one enemy onto another, removing himself from the line of fire, and in the episode of the Bulgarian nurses he skillfully turned the rage in the east against the Bulgarians. But it was not possible to suppress permanently the fact of his unpopularity in Benghazi; people there have always felt freer to express disapprobation of the regime than people in the western parts of the country, and they have long waited for a moment when they could act on those expressions.
I am not a soothsayer, and cannot guess whether the regime can withstand the revolution that is underway. The response to protests has been swift and brutal, since Qaddafi had seen how ineffective more moderate responses were in Egypt and Tunisia. It is not clear, however, that brutality will work; it appears to be making more and more Libyans incensed. A Libyan diplomat said today, “The more Qaddafi kills people, the more people go into the streets.” Qaddafi’s power has for a long time relied on the docility of ordinary Libyans. As he ignored the youth of his country, though, he seems to have ignored the possibility that he is ruling a less passive population. The new generation is ready to push out the old. Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations said today that if Qaddafi does not willingly step down “the Libyan people will get rid of him.” Two members of the Libyan Air Force have defected to Malta rather than attack protesters in Benghazi. Others may well follow, and a loss of loyalty within the army would be the end of Qaddafi’s reign.
A post-Qaddafi Libya could easily be roiled in internal battles, ultimately dividing into several smaller countries, each dominated by local tribes. That could make life better for some Libyans, and it could make life worse for others; it would almost surely be problematic for Western companies with oil interests in the country. Modern Libya is an artificial construct, a remnant of colonialism. The glue holding it together is failing, and the warnings of chaos are real. The choice between chaos and oppression is always a tricky one, but this population is tired of oppression and corruption, and chaos may look more attractive to them.
Chaos tends, however, to wear thin. We all understand that there is strong opposition to Qaddafi, but it’s not clear whether there is any internal coherence to that opposition. Though the Muslim Brotherhood did not run the Egyptian revolution, they did help give people a flag under which to rally, and Libya does not have any real opposition leaders; it hardly has any internal opposition as we generally define the word. If these protests are successful, and if Qaddafi flees, as there are already rumors he has, then who will take over? Libya has another important difference from Egypt: it’s a tiny country, with a population of just over six million. Even Tunisia has a population of over ten million. All the educated and competent people in Libya know one another, and most of them have worked in one way or another with the Qaddafi regime. If Qaddafi goes, there are not enough trained bureaucrats or statesmen to construct a new Libyan government that is not an extension of the old one, and this fact alone could propel Libya back into some form of tribalism. That failing, his stooges are likely to end up playing a significant part in running the show.
Seif had aspired to improve overall communications in the country, bringing the Internet into the Sahara, but he was not successful in that mission; in this regard, at least, his father may be glad he didn’t listen to him. The government has been exercising control over communications, shutting off both Internet and phone services. One of my contacts in Libya managed to call last night just before all lines were cut. He said, “It’s awful, much worse than you think. Please get out the word to support us.”