Some Reflections on the Revolution in Libya

It has been amazing to watch the events in the Middle East and North Africa in the last ten weeks, since protestors first took to the streets in Tunisia in mid-December 2010. Stunning, in fact, as people have acted and the creaky institutions that have governed them have reacted. The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have fallen, and the regime ruling Libya is soon very likely going to be relegated to the dustbin of history. It has been awe inspiring to watch.

I once said very publicly that the protest chant really should go, “The people united, we simply do not matter!” In this instance, I happen to be wrong, and I am glad to be wrong. Though I believe it is important to note, it helps that the people within the institutions that govern the people united are themselves not terribly united. It also helps when the people united are no longer afraid of the violence those who rule them can use, and will not let that violence beat them into submission.

We live in an interesting historical moment.

Several things 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.

The greatest 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 permanent.)

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 failed state.

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 Mubrak 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 ( 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 — planned.

More importantly, 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 Qaddafiy.

The exiles 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.

I’m guessing 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) cache 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 quickly.

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.

Finally, and 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.

The conditions 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.