Libya unrest: Violence against protesters backfires

By Shashank Joshi
Associate fellow, Royal United Services Institute

Image caption,
Despite the difficulty obtaining information about what is going on in Libya, images and testimony are leaking out, especially via social media

It would be ironic if Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were to become the third head claimed by this Arab Spring.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan famously dubbed him the "mad dog of the Middle East" and launched air strikes against the country, killing Mr Gaddafi's daughter.

But two decades later, the Bush administration announced that it was restoring full diplomatic relations and by 2008, US state department officials were speaking of their erstwhile adversary as "a person of personality and experience".

Both of those qualities seem unlikely to save his 42-year rule.

In the 1990s, with Libya's economy facing strangulation by sanction, Mr Gaddafi made a series of concessions over his role in the Lockerbie bombing, paying compensation to victims' families and making conciliatory statements that indicated a break with his radical past.

The real breakthrough came at the end of 2003. Mr Gaddafi's son Saif - who made a delusional and meandering speech on Sunday as the regime began to crumble at the edges - finally hammered out a deal in which Libya agreed to end its nuclear weapons programme and dismantle its ballistic missiles.

Bloody struggle

This rapprochement is not without consequence for those protesting and dying in large numbers on the streets of first Benghazi, and now Tripoli.

In May 2008, the US firm General Dynamics inked a $165m (£102m) contract to equip the Libyan army's elite second brigade with sophisticated communications systems.

This force, led by Mr Gaddafi's son Khamis, was deployed to the streets of al-Bayda - a city east of Benghazi and near the border with Egypt - where it has unleashed live ammunition on protesters.

Export licences for British arms to Libya in the first nine months of 2010 were valued at over £200m, spanning military cameras and sniper rifles. Libya's final death toll, already over 300, will outstrip that of Egypt's comparatively peaceful struggle for democracy.

The level of bloodshed should not come as a surprise. In 1996, to give but one example, a prisoners' uprising at Abu Salim was crushed by the killing of more than 1,200 prisoners.

It was the regime's pre-emptive arrest of families of victims of that incident that instigated the first protests outside the courthouse of Benghazi.

As with protests in Bahrain, its demonstrations were fuelled by a vicious cycle of protest, killings, funerals, and further killings.

More broadly, Libya is amongst the most repressive countries in the region. Freedom House, a US-based democracy monitoring group, rates its political and civil liberties at the worst possible score, and freedoms of expression, assembly and belief are given short shrift.

So neither the blaze of discontent that swept into Tripoli nor the state's ruthless counterpunch were particularly puzzling.

But the pattern differs from that seen in Egypt and Tunisia. In both of those countries, the military judged that it would swing against the regime when the alternative - shooting at fellow citizens - appeared so unpalatable as to threaten the militaries' status in their respective societies and risk a disintegration of military command.

Police defecting

In Bahrain, though the quasi-mercenary security forces (many of them Sunni Muslims shipped in from places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to check predominantly Shia protesters) used brutal violence early on, they were pulled back by a regime that could see the galvanizing effect the violence was having on popular sentiment.

Image caption,
Saif Gaddafi's rambling television speech indicated the last stand of a regime bereft of alternatives to brutality

Yet in Libya, the regime's violence has been massive and indiscriminate, and mitigated by the most cursory of references to a national dialogue.

In part, this rests on the regime's assumption of loyalty from the security forces, bound tighter to the regime than their Egyptian counterparts and lacking the same prestige amongst their people that served as a check on the young officers in Tahrir Square.

Even so, reports indicate that the Libyan regime has been compelled to rely on special forces units and foreign mercenaries.

Police and army units in Benghazi have been defecting, and the military is likely fractured along tribal and other lines.

Early on, it looked as though the regime's efforts to restrict reporting would be successful, denying protesters the oxygen of publicity on which those in Cairo so depended for succour.

But it is now plain that at a critical mass of violence, imagery and testimony will leak out and be pumped through the channels of the international media.

This suggests we revisit our early inferences about revolution.

Rambling speech

It was argued that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's mistake was to offer a half-hearted mixture of fragmented concessions and sporadic repression, without settling on a co-ordinated strategy of either one, thus steadily blowing air into a focused and articulate opposition.

Bahrain, it was thought, had therefore opted for the Tiananmen model, so to speak. But its royal family have shrunk back from this, allowing a re-occupation of Manama's Pearl Square.

More importantly, outright massacres have not stemmed the tide of protest in Libya.

Saif Gaddafi's rambling television speech, including a dark invocation of a colonial threat from Europe, indicated the last stand of a regime bereft of alternatives to brutality.

The apparent failure of the mailed fist, and the over-confidence by the regime on which it was premised, will impact on calculations being made in the corridors of power in Morocco, Yemen, Algeria, and the Gulf, pushing leaders towards the model of early and substantial concessions of the sort proffered by King Abdullah in Jordan, rather than the virtual civil war let loose in Libya.

There is an observation circulating in the Arab world that if Mubarak survived five American presidents, then it is all the more remarkable that Mr Gaddafi has outlasted three Egyptian ones.

But as the departures of Mr Ben Ali and Mr Mubarak have already demonstrated, longevity is not resilience: What Libya will now reveal is the stark limits to the utility of violence.

Shashank Joshi is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence think-tank, and a doctoral student of international relations at Harvard University.

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