A Libyan Fight for Democracy, or a Civil War? - NYTimes.



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March 21, 2011

A Libyan Fight for Democracy, or a Civil War?

TRIPOLI — The question has hovered over the Libyan uprising from the moment the first tank commander defected to join his cousins protesting in the streets of Benghazi: Is the battle for Libya the clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or is it fundamentally a tribal civil war? The answer could determine the course of both the Libyan uprising and the results of the Western intervention. In the West’s preferred chain of events, airstrikes enable the rebels to unite with the currently passive residents of the western region around Tripoli, under the banner of an essentially democratic revolution that topples Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. He, however, has predicted the opposite: that the revolt is a tribal war of eastern Libya against the west that ends in either his triumph or a prolonged period of chaos. “It is a very important question that is terribly near impossible to answer,” said Paul Sullivan, a political scientist at Georgetown University who has studied Libya. “It could be a very big surprise when Qaddafi leaves and we find out who we are really dealing with.” The behavior of the fledgling rebel government in Benghazi so far offers few clues to the rebels’ true nature. Their governing council is composed of secular-minded professionals — lawyers, academics, businesspeople — who talk about democracy, transparency, human rights and the rule of law. But their commitment to those principles is just now being tested as they confront the specter of potential Qaddafi spies in their midst, either with rough tribal justice or a more measured legal process. Like the Qaddafi government, the operation around the rebel council is rife with family ties. And like the chiefs of the Libyan state news media, the rebels feel no loyalty to the truth in shaping their propaganda, claiming nonexistent battlefield victories, asserting they were still fighting in a key city days after it fell to Qaddafi forces, and making vastly inflated claims of his barbaric behavior. Skeptics of the rebels’ commitment to democracy point to Libya’s short and brutal history. Until Colonel Qaddafi’s revolution in 1969, Libya could scarcely be considered a country, divided as it was under its former king into three separate provinces, each with myriad tribes of rural, semi-nomadic herders. Retaliatory tribal killings and violence were the main source of justice.

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many have volunteered — speaking on the condition of anonymity — that their demonstrations were nonviolent mainly because they could not obtain weapons fast enough. In Egypt. But the legacy of such tribal rivalries in Libya may in fact be fading. semi-nomadic population. 2 of 3 22/03/2011 16. in his idiosyncratic way — helped bring about. thanks in part to the enormous changes that Colonel Qaddafi — a modernizer. among other things ordering his revolutionary committees to shoot the “stray dogs” of the revolution and staging public hangings of his political opponents in neighborhood squares or even school gymnasiums. The eastern region around Benghazi had always been a hotbed of opposition to the colonel. Tunisia and Egypt. while he in turn favored the tribes of the central and western coast. with about 85 percent of its populations clustered around its two main urban centers — Tripoli and Benghazi. And.A Libyan Fight for Democracy. Idriss I. Colonel Qaddafi has often sought to capitalize on the bellicose culture of many tribes. Although Colonel Qaddafi worked hard to forge the provinces into a single state. Many from eastern tribes now live in western Tripoli. hospitals and other benefits for Libya’s desperately poor. simply because they had resorted to violence. Abdul Fattah Younes. In the neighborhoods of the capital that have staged major peaceful protests against Colonel Qaddafi. many of the most significant defectors — including Gen. which form the core of Colonel Qaddafi’s support. Nor did Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya ever do much more than place a veneer over the long-simmering tribal animosities. including supplying arms to Sahara tribes to fight others across the border in Chad or. they now live mixed together.html?_r=. and tens of thousands of members of the predominantly western tribes.NYTimes.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/world/africa/22tripoli. Libya became overwhelmingly urban. Even one religious leader associated with Sufism — a traditionally pacifist sect something like the Islamic equivalent of the Quakers — lamented his own tribe’s lack of guns for the fight. in part because tribes there had enjoyed the favoritism of the former king. arming the tribes of the central coast to fight against the eastern rebels. he did little to calm the culture of violence.09 . That stands in sharp contrast to Libya’s neighbors. Gradually... two young protesters said they believed they had lost. the young leaders of the revolution were so seized with an ethic of nonviolence that in the middle of winning a battle of thrown stones against a loyalist mob. now live in Benghazi and last weekend staged a major public demonstration there calling on their western cousins to join the revolt. he tapped Libya’s new wealth to provide schools. the rebel army head and a former interior minister — were members of the eastern tribes. or a Civil War? . When the uprising came. more recently. historians say. Coming to power just before the oil boom.com http://www. Though many of the people who flocked to the growing cities continued to identify closely by tribe. whom the colonel overthrew. in particular. Warfalla and Tarhuna.

uncouth.com/2011/03/22/world/africa/22tripoli. Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Benghazi. (During the revolt.” He added.A Libyan Fight for Democracy.html?_r=. “For many. The result might be called the Seif generation — a rising cohort of affluent. it is just difficult to cope with the Qaddafi regime. many people in Libya. beginning with the test of drawing new support from the West. and morally offensive.” he argued. or a Civil War? . What’s more. Although those numbers may seem small in a country of 6. “For a sophisticated person.” Whether the current rebellion will prove any different will depend in part on whether it can transcend its tribal backdrop. and he still insists that curriculums center on his eccentric Green Book — Colonel Qaddafi realized that prosperity depended in part on lessons from abroad. In the nights after the rebels first took Benghazi. “One of its characteristic is that it has always had a real contempt for form. the sound of airstrikes echoed over the capital.com http://www.09 . the Qaddafi regime is cruel. though. the allied airstrikes so far do not appear to have emboldened any of opponents to take to the streets once again.nytimes. he has sounded as determined as his father to crush the rebels. 3 of 3 22/03/2011 16.. After weeks of reprisals and propaganda.. after trying for a time to block out any outside influence — for a while he banned the teaching of English. a Cambridge University scholar who has studied Libya and its tribal politics. Zawiyah.) Libyan officials say that 12. English-speaking young Libyans educated abroad like his Anglophile son Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi. But on Monday night. so you look at these people and you realize that they have power but you don’t really respect them for it. Zawarah — rose up against Colonel Qaddafi as well.5 million. George Joffe. as the Western allies placed another bet that it truly was a democratic impulse that kindled the uprising.NYTimes.000 pay their own way to do the same. who became the public champion of a more open and democratic system.000 Libyans now receive government scholarships to study abroad each year and about another 12. argued that it is just the leading edge of a larger Westernized elite — fed on Libya’s oil money — that adds a degree of worldly sophistication lacking in other tribal countries like Somalia and Yemen. residents of the biggest cities of the west — not just Tripoli but also Misurata.

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