“Libya: What Went Wrong?”

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by Claudia Anna Gazzini, Max Weber Fellow, 2009-2011

The explosion of violence that followed the popular demonstrations in Libya in mid-February and the ensuing civil war caught everyone by surprise. All parties, with few exceptions, had predicted that the wave of popular revolt originating in Tunis and Cairo would not wash the shores of Tripoli.

The reality turned out to be very different. The regime’s violent repression of what was initially a small protest, staged by less than a hundred activists, provoked significant defections of high-ranking military and political officers within Gaddafi’s regime, triggering the immediate formation of an opposition government and, soon after, open civil war and foreign military intervention.

How did the situation escalate so rapidly and why did the protests in Libya not bring about the same results as in Tunisia and Egypt? In short, what went wrong?

Granted that neither the beginning nor the outcome of a revolution is ever predictable, it is worth highlighting three main errors that contributed to the escalation of violence both directly and indirectly.

First of all, it was a mistake to assume that the initial round of sanctions (asset freeze, arms embargo, prosecution by the International Criminal Court, and travel bans) passed by the UN Security Council in late February, would make Colonel Gaddafi desist. The proponents of such sanctions did not take into consideration that, unlike European states, most African nations (where Libyan wealth is heavily invested), would refuse to freeze their ally’s assets. These funds, coupled with Libya’s $6bln in gold reserves stashed in Tripoli, could keep the regime alive much longer than was thought. They can also fund the flow of armaments through Libya’s southern border and thus further fuel the violence.

Second, the insurgents’ decision to use arms against Gaddafi in order to topple him, rather than continuing with non-violent demonstrations as both the Tunisians and Egyptians had done, could prove to have been a tactical error. As Daniel Ritter, my MWP colleague and expert on non-violent revolution, reminded me, over the past 30 years non-violent revolutions have had a relatively higher success rate than violent revolts. This is because non-violent revolutions can count on broader popular support and the sympathy of the armed forces that are less likely to intervene against a peaceful crowd. Such revolutions also enjoy greater international appeal and are more likely to trigger widespread international condemnation of repressive regimes, putting pressure on them to retreat from the use of violence. So by taking up arms against the regime, the insurgents – unorganized and badly equipped – are less likely to succeed in achieving regime change swiftly and on their own, and cannot survive without direct foreign military intervention. This might not have been the case had they persisted in using non-violent means.

Finally, the imposition of a no-fly zone and the commencement of aerial bombardment has led Gaddafi to believe that he is facing a neo-colonial intervention, and this belief has further entrenched his intention to fight the insurgents and their foreign supporters. Italy’s occupation of Libya in 1911 also began with aerial bombardments and a naval siege of the capital. Given that for over forty years the colonel has fashioned himself as the champion of anti-colonialism, it is probable that he will refuse to reach a compromise, surrender, or accept exile. Instead it is plausible to anticipate that he will follow in the footsteps of his hero, Umar al-Mukhtar, who fought for over 20 years until he was captured and hanged by Italian colonial forces.

These are only some of the factors that should have been taken into consideration before the international community took the dangerous decision of intervening directly in the conflict.