The Libyan regime crumbles: what next?

Rebels in their heir thousands flooded Tripoli’s Green Square in a show of power

UPDATE: In February we brought you this cheat sheet to detail just part of the picture about why the people in Libya were beginning to rebel. Well, six months have now passed and this week the rebels marched on the capital Tripoli. It was the culmination of a sustained campaign of unrest, helped by NATO bombing of key military targets which began in March to stop the Libyan troops crushing the then weaker rebels in the Eastern rebel-friendly stronghold of Bhengazi. This phase of the resistance at least appears to be over, with Colonel Gaddafi in hiding and Tripoli seized.

So, what’s the latest?

The rebels have took control of Green Square and then the capital and have surrounded several key compounds. They have captured some of Gaddafi’s sons, including Saif Al-Islam and directed them to be treated ‘fairly’ so that they can face trial. It took a while to reach this point because it took months for the rebels to organise themselves into a cohesive fighting force and to find weapons more effective than light arms and AK47s. Now they have found themselves in possession of tanks and other arms while Gaddafi’s military has been heavily crippled.

NATO has said the Libyan regime is ‘crumbling’ although Gaddafi, whose whereabouts are unknown, has urged those still loyal to him to ‘fight till the end’. But that seems unlikely now as Government forces and loyalists turn themselves in and surrender.

President Barack Obama said the tipping point had been reached and the tyrant must go.

The Libyan state-controlled television ignored the battle as it reached the capital, where their offices are based, and instead aired a program about heart disease.

Hundreds have been killed in fighting which still rages in the city and Muammar Gaddafi himself will need to be found if any real sense of justice can be achieved.

Then what needs to happen?

The rebels will need to form a Government that doesn’t make the same mistakes as Gaddafi did. Whether that can be achieved remains to be seen. They will face the same post-regime confusion as has been seen in Egypt and Tunisia.

Find the original cheat sheet below:

They fell like dominoes. Heavy, groaning, seemingly immovable dominoes. But they fell. First Tunisia. Then Egypt. And the forces that acted to topple the first regime fanned throughout the Middle East like an ideological dust storm.

The question is, why now? After decades of despotic, totalitarian and anti-democratic rule in many of the countries throughout the Middle East there is something special about now. The spark might not have gone off in the powder keg yet but the fuse appears to have been lit. In the fabulous words of clichéd journalism everywhere, something intangible – tensions – are simmering.


Right, so who is Muammar al-Gaddafi?

Gaddafi (not Michael Jackson)

Gaddafi is the longest serving ruler of Libya since 1551. It takes a special talent to take this title in the modern day when, let’s be honest, checks and balances for despotic leaders were hardly the calling card of the 16th Century. He seized power from the monarchy in a bloodless coup in 1969 – looking preposterously like a rock-star in sunglasses and safari suit.

The history is too rich to detail here but Gaddafi’s leadership has been a tale of extremes. Libya was schizophrenic in its support for various configurations of Arabic states, of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, of his own people in attempts to set up direct democracy and so on. But throughout it all there was an undertone of malice, bubbling to the surface occasionally with brutal killings, executions and suppression of revolts.

So, he’s a despot, right?

Despotism describes a form of government (or regime) where power is concentrated in one individual, or a small group of individuals. Think North Korea, Zimbabwe and Snap! Despotism is traditionally the favoured form of Government if you’re the despot and terribly inconvenient if you are everyone else. There are many of them throughout the poorer countries as this tends to mean a more widespread lack of education making people easier to subjugate. But the 21st Century has made access to information a lot easier, which might explain a few other things…

So who is rising up against whom?

protesters holding a pre-Gaddafi-era national flag inside a security forces compound in Benghazi

The Tunisian revolution was a success. The Egypt revolution overthrew Mubarak (though the army are now in power and we are yet to see what happens next). But the simple fact of the matter is that revolutions, protests and revolts in the Middle East and North Africa are starting to achieve a sort of critical mass.

The world has watched protests in the past before in individual countries but the sheer scale of these have leant each one the sense of unstoppable momentum. Let’s rattle off the list where protests have begun:

Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Iran.

Some of these protests, like in Kuwait, have been minor in comparison. Others are having impressive effects if not leading to overthrow of regimes immediately. The President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has announced he will not seek another term in office in 2013, for example.

In Oman, where the protests were minor, Sultan Qaboos hiked the minimum monthly salary up by almost $200 to $520. In other regimes prime ministers have been sacked, new governments set-up – all so that the protestors might take drip-fed change and go away.

And Libya, what’s happening in Libya?

They caught democracy fever. Protests began in the Eastern city of Benghazi where, historically at least, they’ve had to put up with a bit of, shall we say, shit from Tripoli – Libya’s capital. So they were hardly big fans of Gaddafi in the first place. Let’s not get this wrong: Gaddafi does have his supporters in the country as his peculiar style of rule vacillated between brutality and buying social peace with economic packages for the people. He’s about as predictable as a Magic 8-ball. A terrible, terrible Magic 8-ball.


More than 220 people are dead but that number is expected to grow as there is a conspicuous lack of western media in Libya (unlike Egypt) and human rights groups are having trouble confirming death tolls. Violence and protests have reached the capital and Gaddafi is now fighting tooth and nail to hang on to power. Air traffic controllers have gone on strike, limiting the capacity of the Libyan air force to do too much damage. Protestors appear to control the eastern half of the country, moving slowly into the west as their ‘rage’ grows. It’s contagious.

As the regime ordered fighter pilots to bomb the protestors in Benghazi, two of the pilots flew their planes right to Malta; to seek asylum there instead of bombing the protestors. This is inspiring stuff. Gaddafi has declared war on the protestors but cracks are appearing in the regime. Some military units in the east have sided with the people.

Gaddafi is refusing to leave saying that he would rather die a martyr.

According to ABC News reports

“Libya’s hardline leader Moamar Gaddafi has defiantly declared he will not be stepping down and has threatened to execute those he sees as enemies of the country.

Mr Gaddafi has given his first real speech since anti-government protests began sweeping across Libya last week, ordering his forces to crush the uprising that has rocked his 41-year rule.

In a rambling and at times angry address that lasted for more than an hour, the embattled leader denounced the protests as serving the devil, described the demonstrators as cockroaches, and said they were enemies of Libya who deserve to die.

Dressed in a matching light-brown robe, scarf and turban, and wearing glasses, Mr Gaddafi told the public to “capture the rats,” apparently referring to anti-regime demonstrators.

He defended his own role as a revolutionary who he said had brought glory to Libya.

Mr Gaddafi said that with no official position from which to resign, he would remain the head of the revolution until he dies.”

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Where does Gaddafi’s son figure in all of this?

Saif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi,

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is a curious case indeed. Son of the flamboyant Gaddafi but educated at the London School of Economics, his was truly a tale of two worlds. His thesis was, comically or otherwise, on installing greater democracy in global governments. His tutor during this time, Professor David Held, maintains that Saif discovered a deep commitment to liberal, democratic reform of Libya. But this is the same Saif who appeared on national television to address the protestors, on behalf of his father, warning that any uprising would be dealt with forcefully and that it could lead to civil war with the regime willing to ‘fight to the last bullet’.


His is indeed a fascinating study of a man torn between loyalty to the father (hello Hollywood scriptwriters) and an apparent desire to see his country reformed. But who really knows?

So what does the United States have to say about all of this?

Not a great deal, it would seem. Here is what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to say on the matter: “The world is watching the situation in Libya with alarm. We join the international community in strongly condemning the violence in Libya. Our thoughts and prayers are with those whose lives have been lost, and with their loved ones. The government of Libya has a responsibility to respect the universal rights of the people, including the right to free expression and assembly. Now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed. We are working urgently with friends and partners around the world to convey this message to the Libyan government.

And now we wait?

We wait. We pay attention. It may well appear that these regimes have spontaneously combusted but there has been nothing spontaneous about these revolts. A confluence of conditions have ripened in these countries. The time was right but they didn’t burst forth out of nothing. Anger at these regimes has sometimes lasted from the moment they were born. And it waited for the right moment when technology could create a tsunami of support. A difficult to break chain of communication, coupled with the spark of optimism at watching the first dominoes fall. And the eyes of the world upon them, watching with interest.

Don’t doubt for a second that this renewed confidence in the ability to reform will go away; or that the watch of the rest of us isn’t a heavy burden to bear for regimes who have largely prospered over time because we’ve been willing to look away.

Now is different. Someone called Egypt’s overthrow the Middle East’s Berlin Wall moment. Similar to the states that broke from the yoke of the Soviets in Eastern Europe.

It may well be. If Libya breaks, that makes three.

And who knows how many more?

DISCLAIMER: This is not a thesis on Middle Eastern politics, nor a complete timeline of the thousands of pages that have in themselves been written about the North African and Middle Eastern revolutions. We’ve included links here for further reading. This is a primer to get you started. Happy hunting.

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