Five reasons why Libya’s revolt will shake the world

Even more than Tunisia and Egypt, the inspiring rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime shows that nothing is permanent.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The Arab uprisings have stepped up another gear. When even Libya, a relatively stable dictatorship, can be overrun by a democratic swarm demanding liberty and rights, there’s no telling where this political tumult will strike next. Here are five reasons why the inspiring Libyan revolt is of the utmost regional and global importance.

1) It shows that nothing is permanent

Many political leaders and observers treated Gaddafi’s domination of Libya as a fixed fact of north African life. Sweeping to power in a relatively late Arab officers’ coup against the British-backed Libyan monarchy in 1969, Gaddafi has ruled uninterrupted for 42 years, making him the longest-serving Arab dictator. His rule of Libya was treated as a natural, normal and ultimately unquestionable thing, not only by him and his cronies, but also, implicitly, by political institutions in the West. Whitehall’s invitations to Gaddafi over the past 10 years to rejoin the respectable international fold – through encouraging him publicly to renounce WMD in 2003 and through the Lockerbie prisoner-release deal of 2009 – showed that it considered his to be a permanent regime, a potential long-term ally and guarantor of regional stability.

Yet the people of Libya have shown that nothing is permanent. In the space of a few days they have exposed the utter isolation of this crumbling regime, whose rule was based on the monopolisation of force and politics, the attempted political disorientation of its own people, and on the recognition of external powers in lieu of any internal legitimacy. Thomas Paine once said that, ‘A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right’ – and so it was that international observers’ long habit of thinking that the post-Second World War strongman set-up in the Arab world was inevitable gave it the superficial appearance of being, if not right, then at least acceptable, better than the alternative, reassuringly perpetual. The Libyan revolt will have delivered a sucker punch to Western fans of stasis-over-agitation as much as it has to Gaddafi. If Libya can tremble, so can almost anywhere else in the Arab world.

2) It exposes the hollowness of the Arab regimes

The Libyan uprising reveals the key dynamic behind the current tumult in the Arab world: the utter corrosion of the postwar regimes.

Under Gaddafi, Libya’s attempts at political legitimation were even more unconvincing than Egypt’s (where the officers’ coup took place in 1952, 17 years prior to Libya’s). By the time of Gaddafi’s ascent to power in 1969, pan-Arabism was a discredited force, following Israel’s routing of the Arab armies in the Six Day War of 1967. Yet Gaddafi still sought to legitimise his rule by desperately clinging to Nasserist ideas of pan-Arabism, or by frequent references to the unresolved question of Palestinian statehood and the ‘battle of destiny’ with Israel that Libyans and all other Arabs had to prepare themselves for. (The officers’ coup that brought Gaddafi to power was called Operation Jerusalem.) Later, Gaddafi’s regime became increasingly reliant on the external recognition and support of the Soviet Union. Unable to locate the legitimacy of his rule in the Libyan demos, Gaddafi, in an extreme variant of a problem afflicting all Arab dictators, sought moral authority through the Palestinian issue or through external backing.

The recent historic demise of all these things – the crumbling of pan-Arabism in the late 1960s; the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s; the decommissioning of the Palestinian national question in the 1990s – hit Libya hard. Consequently, in the 1990s Gaddafi’s single aim, as one observer describes it, was ‘regime survival’. And once again he sought to do this through external machinations, by making amends with his former enemies in the West, most notably Britain, in an effort to shore up his authority with a new form of external support combined with continuing internal repression. The political nakedness of the Libyan dictator, the hollowness of his claims to moral authority, speaks to a process of regime exhaustion now widespread in the Arab world.

3) It highlights a crisis of succession

Politically rotten, physically decaying and utterly disconnected from the populace, the Libyan regime is now facing the same crisis that hit Egypt and Tunisia: the question of succession. In the absence of normal political life or healthy civil society, Libya appears as a collapsing Bonapartist regime with no clear idea of who might succeed Gaddafi. Like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi farcically tried to offset the issue of succession by disguising his own decay: where Mubarak and Ben Ali were addicted to hair dye, Gaddafi had hair transplants and botox injections. (He once railed against the ‘evils’ of Western shampoo, blaming it for making him go bald.) Where old emperors only needed new clothes to disguise their isolation, in our age of 24-hour rolling news cosmetic surgery becomes a key political tool for greying and decaying dictators.

Yet the crisis of succession is not simply a practical problem of choosing the right person. Rather it reveals a more profound unwillingness amongst the officer classes that have dominated much of the Arab world for the past 60 years to continue ruling. Just as Mubarak publicly declared that he was ‘fed up’ with power and struggled to groom his son for leadership, so Gaddafi has failed to transform any of his offspring into suitable successors, as evidenced by his son’s unhinged address to the nation this week. As in Egypt, even beneficiaries of Gaddafi’s regime have abandoned it, while Gaddafi’s use of foreign mercenaries to attack protesters suggests he is struggling to deploy Libya’s own police or army to maintain control; instead, he is forced effectively to outsource authority for the maintenance of his regime to foreign agents. Libya throws into sharp relief a broader crisis of elite Arab consciousness, a lack of appetite amongst the officer classes to maintain their political edifices. This, in turn, gives a green light to protesters to challenge and knock down these edifices.

4) It reveals the true meaning of the Islamist scare

The most striking thing about the Gaddafi clan’s response to the revolt is that they have played the Islamist card. They have accused Islamists of ‘sparking unrest’ with an eye for establishing an ‘Islamic Emirate’. In this, they echo, almost word for word, Tony Blair (who said Egypt should not ‘rush towards elections’ in case Islamists win power) and numerous Western observers (who claim the Arab world is not ready for democracy because it’s full of people with ‘Islamist ideas’). A reviled Arab dictator and respectable Westerners play the exact same game: they express their profound fear of mass agitation through fantasising that these rowdy Arab revolts will inevitably lead to ‘another Iran’. Arab dictators and many Western leaders share something important in common: an irrepressible instinct for control, if not a willingness to rule, so that even a much-loathed strongman – Mubarak in Egypt, now even Gaddafi in Libya – implicitly comes to be seen as preferable to people power.

5) It exposes a fear of the democratic impulse

The Western response to the fearless uprising in Libya has revealed the extent to which both our leaders and NGOs have little faith in people’s capacity to overthrow corrupt rulers and take control of their destinies. So officials in London and Washington try to dampen the whole thing by demanding that Gaddafi reach some kind of agreement with the opposition – in the process exposing their own inability to impact meaningfully on developments in the Arab world today. Meanwhile, a gaggle of human rights groups is calling on America and Europe to ‘protect Libyan civilians from government killings’ by passing a UN ruling denouncing Gaddafi’s actions as ‘crimes against humanity’. Others want Britain to reassert its moral authority in this part of northern Africa that it part-inherited from Italy after the Second World War by agreeing to stop arming Gaddafi’s regime. Moral authority? Over a country that US forces bombed in 1986 with British assistance?

Not only would these proposed gestures be worse than useless (the clash between the people and Gaddafi is taking place now and will not be put on hold while the UN holds an emergency session) – they also reveal the extent to which many activists believe it is up to the institutions of the West to rescue repressed peoples. They seem incapable of imagining that people have the capacity to liberate themselves and to run their own affairs free from the grip of dictators, the patronage of Whitehall, or the pity of NGOs. Instead of agitating for Britain to exercise some imagined moral authority by permanently ceasing to arm Gaddafi, we might better spend our time arguing that the Libyan people should arm themselves – all the better to make the Gaddafi family’s most recent stated wish come true: ‘We will all die on Libyan soil.’

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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