Why Qadhafi Has Lost
THE fight is not over.
Whether or not Col Moamar Qadhafi defeats the rebels in eastern Libya, any legitimacy he once had has been extinguished.
He has weapons, tanks and planes, but he has lost the allegiance of even those elements of Libyan society that had once been willing to wait and hope for political reform.
His base of support is now only diehard allies and foreign mercenaries.
They might win on the battlefield, but they will lose in the end.
The uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt were precipitating events, but the resistance has drawn its core motivation from Libya’s brutal experience of colonialism.
What is most striking about the rhetoric of the rebellion is how the anticolonialist theme that Colonel Qadhafi once deployed has now been turned against him and is being used on Twitter and Facebook.
Even as they are assaulted by Colonel Qadhafi’s forces, the rebels have resisted calling for forceful Western intervention, though they support the imposition of a no-flight zone.
Libya’s history explains why.
From 1911 to 1943, half a million Libyans died under Italian rule, including 60,000 in concentration camps run by the fascists.
Colonel Qadhafi’s nationalist populism is rooted in the traumas of the colonial era, which were papered over during the modernising but out-of-touch monarchy that ruled from 1951 to 1969.
The regime that came into existence in a bloodless coup in 1969 was led by officers who came from lower-middleclass backgrounds, represented all three regions of Libya and had the backing of a population that was largely rural.
Although it was anticolonialist and anticommunist and advocated Arab nationalism and Islamic cultural identity, the new government did not have a clearly delineated political agenda; instead it looked for guidance from the 1952 Egyptian revolution.
To this ideological mix the Qadhafi faction, which consolidated power in 1976, added its vision of an indigenous, pastoral, socialist society supported by oil revenues and the labour of workers from abroad.
Western analysts focused on the leader’s cult of personality and eccentric style have often misinterpreted his regime as a historical aberration.
In fact, it was rooted in the hinterland of south-central Libya, with its pan- Islamic culture, kinship networks, fear of the central state and mistrust of the West.
Colonel Qadhafi transformed anticolonialism and Libyan nationalism into a revolutionary ideology, using language understood by ordinary Libyans.
He employed his charisma to mobilise Libyans and attack his opponents.
He spoke, ate and dressed like a rural tribesman.
But “tribalism,” so frequently mentioned in coverage of the revolt, is not a timeless feature of Libyan society.
It was merely one facet of Colonel Qadhafi’s divide-and-conquer style of rule.
To weaken opposition from students, intellectuals and the middle class, the regime pursued a policy of “Bedouinization,” attacking urban culture; promoting rural dress, music, festivals and rituals; and reviving institutions like tribal leadership councils.
Tripoli, the capital, lost much of its cosmopolitan character even as it grew.
In its first two decades, the revolution brought many benefits to ordinary Libyans: widespread literacy, free medical care and education, and improvements in living conditions.
Women in particular benefited, becoming ministers, ambassadors, pilots, judges and doctors.
The government got wide support from the lower and middle classes.
But starting in the 1980s, excessive centralisation, greater repression by security forces and a decline in the rule of law undermined the experiment in indigenous populism.
Institutions like courts, universities, unions and hospitals weakened.
Civic associations that had made Libyan society seem more democratic than many Persian Gulf states in the 1970s withered or were eliminated.
A hostile international climate, and fluctuations in oil revenues, added to the pressures on the regime.
It responded by transforming its rituals of hero-worship into a rhetoric of pan-African ideology.
It also turned to violence.
After repeated coup attempts, it beat, imprisoned and exiled dissidents.
It staffed security forces with reliable relatives and allies from central and southern Libya.
During the 1990s, as economic sanctions took their toll, health care and education deteriorated, unemployment soared, the economy became ever more dependent on oil and the regime grew increasingly corrupt.
But what has escaped notice since the rebellion began in mid-February is the demographic transformation that made it possible.
About 80 percent of Libyans now live in urban areas, towns and cities.
Libya today has a modern economy and a high literacy rate.
The leaders of the uprising include lawyers, judges, journalists, writers, scholars, women’s rights activists, former army officers and diplomats — a sizable urban elite that is battered and restive.
Had Colonel Qadhafi responded with openness to the calls for reform and not overreacted to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the urban elite might have been placated, and the violent rebellion avoided.
He blew it.
Once his army and police shot at protesters, the pent-up disaffection of Libyan society was unleashed, and it is too late for the regime to bottle it up.
In recent weeks the revolt has even gained support from the historically pro-Qadhafi rural populace.
No matter how much blood is shed today, the uprising will not be stopped.
(Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, a professor of political science at the University of New England, is the author of The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonisation and Resistance, 1830-1932)