The uprising in Libya that unseated Muammar Gaddafi is a vivid demonstration of the deep social, economic and political discontent in the Arab world and of the aspirations of its people—particularly the young—for democracy and equality. On 16 February 2011, Libyans staged a protest demonstration against Gaddafi’s forty-two-year rule, calling on him to step down and demanding change and freedom. Gaddafi, like other hated dictators, did not see himself as part of the problem and accused the terrorist group al-Qaeda of doping Libyan youths with hallucinogenic drugs and inciting them to destabilise the country.
The United States provides sustained military, financial and political support to pliant Arab dictators who defend its interests. It also utilises a roll-back policy against rulers who are no longer useful to its strategic objectives, replacing them with individuals who can effectively serve its needs. Gaddafi was a casualty of this latter policy. The United States condemned Libya as a pariah state sponsoring terrorism and denounced Gaddafi for waging war on his own people. It bankrolled anti-Gaddafi opposition groups who fought and eventually toppled him from power.
Society and Politics in Libya
Libya is divided into three major regions, each with its own history, culture and traditions. Tripolitania in the west includes Tripoli, the capital city of Libya; Cyrenaica in the east with Benghazi as its capital city shares cultural affinities with Egypt; and the region of Fezzan in the south is dominated by Bedouin tribes. The vast majority of Libyans are Sunni Muslims adhering to the Maliki school of Islamic law. The country’s social mosaic is made up of numerous tribal communities and the culture of tribalism remains strong. People of Arab heritage constitute the majority while people of Berber ancestry are marginal. Other ethnic groups include Tuaregs, black Libyans (descendents of sub-Saharan Africans), the Tehbu and Duwud.
Libya is rich in natural resources—oil, gas and gypsum—and has a population of only 6.5 million, most residing in two major cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. The literacy rate is high (87 per cent). Oil resources constitute 95 per cent of export earnings. With a small population and large oil revenues, Libya has one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa ($13,400 in 2009). Libya’s oil wealth in the 1980s attracted a large number of foreign labourers from Chad, Ghana and other sub-Saharan African countries. Privatisation in the 2000s, however, caused private and public institutions to lay off workers and most of these foreign labourers have since illegally migrated to Europe.
Gaddafi ruled Libya by maintaining patron–client relations with tribal communities, rewarding some with money and positions in the bureaucracy and repressing others. He relied on the support of the people of his hometown, Sirte, and on the tribes of Bani Walid and Sabha, whose members were recruited into the state apparatus, particularly the security forces and the army. Gaddafi relied exclusively on his intelligence agency—one of his more dreadful tools of repression—to quash internal dissent.
From Occupation to Independence
Libya was occupied by Italy from 1911 to 1943. Libyans opposed the Italian occupation and engaged in fierce but unsuccessful struggles to liberate their country. Italy dealt severely with those who resisted its rule, jailing and executing many. One such well-known Libyan freedom fighter was Omar al-Mukhtar of Cyrenaica. He was arrested in 1931 and later was executed by the Italians. His name has long served as a painful reminder of the brutal Italian occupation.
During the Second World War, Italy was one of the Axis powers fighting the Western Allies. The United States and Britain supported the pro-Western King Idris of Cyrenaica, who allowed them to have military bases in Libya. After the Allied forces drove the Axis powers from Libya in February 1943, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica came under British rule and Fezzan under that of France. The 1947 peace treaty with the Allies obliged Italy to withdraw its forces from Libya and two years later the United Nations endorsed a resolution that made Libya an independent state on 24 December 1951. Libya became a hereditary monarchy under King Idris.
The king remained dependent on Britain and the United States for financial and political support. He did not tolerate opposition groups and with external backing he violently suppressed them and consolidated his rule. He relied on his cronies to sustain his administration and after the discovery of oil in 1959 he further strengthened ties with the United States and western European countries, allowing international oil companies to establish production operations in Libya and receive the lion’s share of oil revenues. Libya’s ruling class exploited oil revenues largely for its own benefit, becoming wealthy in the process. As the king and his circle of close associates prospered, the majority of Libyans remained poor and were resentful of their situation.
Libya under Gaddafi
The 1960s saw growing Arab nationalism and solidarity with the Palestinians in their struggle against the state of Israel. People throughout the Arab world and the Middle East despised US‑backed rulers and their collusion with Israel. This factor, and capitalist-led development and modernisation that widened the gap between rich and poor, fuelled social discontent, providing opportunities for the spread of radical and liberal ideologies of change. Gaddafi and radical army officers who were largely under the influence of the pan-Arab ideology espoused by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser were determined to topple the pro-Western monarchy and build a new Libya. In 1969, when King Idris was in Turkey on holiday, the twenty-seven-year-old Gaddafi seized power in a coup and declared Libya a republic. Libyans, fed up with a corrupt monarchy, welcomed the change of regime. The king failed to secure British support to restore him to power, and the popularity of the new regime further convinced him to submit to exile in Egypt, where he died in 1983. The crown
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