Will a democratic Libya fly?

Posted: March 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

This is an excerpt of a news feature I wrote for the Philippines Graphic magazine, which is now out on the newsstands.

Unrest in Libya (Man brandishing a Kalashnikov)

Libya as a nation is fairly young, barely out of its sand-swept crib. Its tribe-spangled region, sliced into three and separated by sprawling deserts, used to be a trade route for pirates and slave traders during the early Middle Ages. It was during this time when Islam reached North Africa and spread far as the eye could see, bringing with it the “Arabization” of its tribal inhabitants.

A young Muammar Gaddafi meets Imelda Marcos

It was only until the 20th century when this North African region became, as in the words of historians, “politically coherent.” In September 1969, Muammar al-Gaddafi was instated as the country’s leader in a popular coup against King Idris the First—the resistance leader who fought against Italy’s colonization of Libya. With little than 40 years following its heels, it is safe to assume that as a nation of varying tribes, Libya has yet to fully live out the notion of national consciousness.

In our attempt to understand Libya’s present-day democratic aspirations, we must first look into this nation’s formidable history as a people.

Libya has far too long lived under the shadow of various ruling governments, mostly foreign colonial regimes. Historians say that as early as the seventh century, Libya was conquered by the Arabs, which led to the introduction of Islam and the Arabization of Libya in later centuries. Even earlier than that, the empires of the Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, the Vandals, the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks had ruled parts of that region in what was considered a string of despotic empires.

Muammar (Photo by US Navy Jesse B. Awalt)

Italy, as earlier said, dipped its fingers into Libyan soil sometime in 1911, later making it its colony. A little more than three decades later, Italy relinquished its claim over Libya at the behest of the United Nations. Two years after Italy lost its hold over this North African Arab state, the UN General Assembly pronounced Libya as an independent state. It was during this era when Muammar al-Gaddafi took hold of Libya’s leadership, through a Revolutionary Command Council, ousting King Idris the First in a popular uprising against the latter.

Four decades later, Muammar al-Gaddafi faces the same upheaval in what is now turning out to be a full blown urban armed revolution against a despotic regime.


It has become apparent that Libya’s democratic aspirations may not be as “jasmine-scented” as Tunisia’s. The deaths in Libya’s streets these past few weeks have been disturbingly too much even for a people who have lived out most of their lives under Muammar al-Gaddafi’s iron-hand regime, complete with death squads and his notoriously brutal amazon bodyguards.

Looking like someone suffering from a perennial hangover, Muammar al-Gaddafi was once a sort of “hero”—with a terrorist bent—to the Libyan independence. His much touted aspirations to become a kind of Che Guevara had reached mythical proportions at a time when the country was beset by serious economic and political problems.

Unrest for oil?

He was barely out of his twenties when he took the reins of power in Libya, allowing much of worldwide terrorist groups like the Palestinian Black September (the group responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre) to take refuge in the newly-formed Arab Republic.

The republic was, however, short-lived. Somewhat of a socialist to the core, Muammar al-Gaddafi shifted to what he called jamahiriya—a sort of people’s republic which was in theory a democracy.

History, however, deemed it was not. Gaddafi had vowed to exterminate all voices against his rule, both in Libya and abroad. His death squads had been responsible for assassination attempts on Libyan dissidents who sought refuge elsewhere. It is apparent that he wasn’t called by former US president Ronald Reagan “the mad dog of the Middle East” for nothing.


The little that can be said about a democratic Middle East is worth noting. History has taught us that much of the Arab world has been ruled by despotic regimes—sultans, monarchs, self-styled revolutionaries, megalomaniacs. Centuries have skidded down the millennial road with little or no changes to this reality. And as theories go, it would probably take another round of the centuries before the general Arab states, which are now in revolt against their despots, to fully realize their democratic aspirations.

To live out such democratic ideals, of course, is another matter altogether. Islamic tribal culture has always stood in the way of coherence in this region for decades, allowing for such crimes as ethnic purging to be carried out through systematic brutality. The late dictator Saddam Hussein of Iraq had long since practiced this crime against humanity, particularly on the heads of the ethnic Kurds from the North and Northeast of Iraq.

His al-Anfal campaign in the mid-1980s, where he ordered the “slaughter of every living thing, including animals in the Kurdish North” was an act of genocide in modern times. An assassination attempt on Hussein by Shiite Muslims gave the dictator reason to massacre roughly 150 residents where the Shiites lived, including their children.

Part of this perennial problem of ethnicity in the Middle East is the question of coherence and unity among the Islamic tribes. This extends well into an era prior to Libya becoming a state. Notwithstanding a political coherence that led to the establishment of Libya as a republic during Muammar al-Gaddafi’s reign, there was—and still is—much of tribal differences, rivalries and violence to finally form a united and unbreakable front towards state-wide reforms.

Accoring to the CBS Interactive Business Network, “These rivalries are manifested among factions within the armed forces. Although these rivalries usually stay latent within the military establishment, they occasionally surface via reported clashes between different groups or coup attempts. For example, Qadhafi’s opponents within the armed forces staged a coup attempt in October 1993. The eight alleged leaders of that attempt, including colonels and majors, were executed on Jan. 2, 1997. In the period leading to the execution, in late 1996, an anti-Qadhafi alliance between the military opponents of the regime and Islamic militants was proposed by a militant shaikh. This could have been dangerous, but it did not materialise.”

The report apparently discloses the main reason for such rivalries: The hold to power. “The Warfalla tribe, which turned against Qadhafi during the coup attempt in 1993, is numerous and is closest to Jalloud’s Magariha tribe. The Al Zintan tribe backed the Warfalla as well. The coup attempt was spearheaded by Warfalla officers in the Bani Walid region, 120 km south-east of Tripoli. The main reason for the coup attempt was that, despite its size, this tribe was poorly represented in the regime and only occupied second-echelon posts in the officers’ corps.

As the state of Libya today turns from bad to worse, with Muammar al-Gaddafi’s troops firing live rounds on the protesters, it’s sad to note that much of the tribes are taking out their frustrations on one another. On the other hand, the Warfallah tribe, which boasts of about a million people, have recently supported the popular uprising in Libya. Some reports say this “legitimized” the protests as other tribal leaders are giving it a go.

Not all political analysts, however, are optimistic. Libyan tribes have been known to clash violently for reasons that range from petty differences in political opinion to who must hold power and rule in the end. Islamic believers themselves are divided into sects. Such dispassionate display of disparity and rivalry could add to the swelling political tension in this Arab state.


Democracy, it was aptly said, “is the only system that persists in asking the powers-that-be whether they are the powers that ought to be.” It does not, by any stretch of the imagination, possess an easy-going nature.

The implementation of civil rights and constitutional liberties requires as much blood and hard work as the revolutions that put them in place. Thus, a democracy is a continuum of revolution, a display of superhuman persistence so vast and firm that the moment this continuing revolution crumbles and falls apart, democracy may fall with it.

After a little over a century of freedom from Spain, and 25 years from a dictator, the Philippines has yet to grasp what “sense of nation” is all about. We are in some odd and strange sense very much like Libya with our dialectic and ethnic differences. Libya, as we were 25 years ago, is in the throes of change, from despotic rule to a democracy. It remains to be seen, alas, which of the two countries will have a clear grasp of a sense of nation first.


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