Revolutionary Situation in Libya

After the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi fell to the protest movement on Sunday, clashes broke out in the Libyan capital of Tripoli late that afternoon, the first time that city saw substantial demonstrations. The events shook the rule of Muammar Qaddafi to the core, eliciting from one of his sons Saif al-Islam Qaddafi a haughty jeremiad about the protesters endangering the future of the country.

Because Libya is an oil state that exports 1.7 million barrels a day, its fate has more immediate implications for the international economy than unrest in non-oil states such as Tunisia. On Sunday, the eastern Zuwayya tribe threatened to halt petroleum exports in protest of the brutality of the regime in Benghazi, a city of over 600,000.

Petroleum accounts for much of Libya’s $77 bn. a year gross domestic product, the 62nd in the world, which affords Libyans a per capita income on paper of over $12,000 a year, more than that of Brazilians, Chileans or Poles and the highest in Africa. In fact, the oil income is not equitably distributed, so that a third of Libyans live below the poverty line and 30% of workers are unemployed. The regime favors the west of the country with oil money largesse, neglecting the east.



This outbreak of clashes in the capital of Tripoli is important because governments are always most vulnerable in their own capitals, and because most of the 6 million Libyans live in the west of the country, where the capital is also located. Tripoli is a city of a little over a million. About 3 million Libyans, or half the country, live in the historic region of Tripolitania, including the capital and its environs. Populations along the North African coast hug the rainfall rich areas near the Mediterranean where agriculture is possible and there is potable water.

In a highly significant development, the leadership of the large and powerful Warfala tribe announced that it was now siding with the opposition against Qaddafi. About a million Libyans belong to this extended kinship group. Since cultivating tribal loyalties was one of the ways Qaddafi had remained in power, this major tribal defection underlines his loss of authority. It was further underlined when Arab Warfala leaders managed to convince their Berber counterparts in the southern Tuareg tribe, who are 500,000 strong, to join in opposing Qaddafi.

Tens of thousands of young people had come out to rally in Benghazi on Sunday. The regime initially tried to bully and intimidate the crowds, using live fire against them and in some instances even firing rocket propelled grenades at them. Dozens were killed. The state security forces are accused of deploying African and other expatriate laborers against the Libyan crowds, angering them on nationalist grounds. At length, some military units went over to the crowd, while one stayed loyal. The two engaged in firefights with one another. Lt. Gen. Sulaiman Mahmoud, formerly commander of the eastern region (historic Cyrenaica) eventually went over to the protesters.

All of these developments– the falling of Benghazi, the split in the military there, the defection of major tribes, and the outbreak of protests and violence in the capital– point to a revolutionary situation. Central to such a situation is dual sovereignty, the development of two distinct camps with authority in the same country.

Aljazeera English has a recent overview.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Responses | Print |

14 Responses

  1. Is there any way to gauge the true support Qaddafi actual engenders among the population? Are the military and mercenaries only loyal because of payments, or is there an entrenched business structure (as in the Egyptian military and their many civilian businesses) that fosters loyalty?

  2. According to statements coming out of Benghazi hospital, the supplies cant meet the demand of the large numbers shot with things like anti craft defense. There was not enough doctors trained in these kind of life saving surgeries. civilians are volunteering to bring what ever supplies they could, so can the international community at least help in that regard? UN, red cross? i am sure medecins sans frontieres would send their doctors if they are permitted. What is the UN waiting for? 300 dead already and the injuries are pilling up in a area known for deficiency in their health care. how many times are doctors supposed to ask for help?

    • Leila,

      I don’t think anyone that you’re asking to help would hesitate to help if there’s a fairly safe way to do it. The trick is how to do so. Neither the UN nor the Red Cross can just land doctors in a war zone without someone in some sort of authority asking for it or at least acknowledging that such people would be kept safe. If Ben Ghazi is truly and securely in the hands of protesters, I’d guess there will be an influx of medical workers.

      But as long as Gaddafi doesn’t acknowledge the need for outside health workers, and he controls any military units there capable of shooting down airplanes, I wouldn’t expect much. To do so would have to be backed up by force, an act of war. Maybe intervention is justified at this point … but I just think it’s worth noting that if Gaddafi opposes what you’re asking for, then you’re essentially calling for outside intervention. It’s not as easy as “send us doctors”.

  3. Eisenhower doctrine”the U.N.couln’t condonne a change of the Status Juris

  4. The libyan leader should respect the dicision of people because libya is not a monarchy and power without control is nothing,am very sure at last he will be forced to step down “bravo libyans arise and re-own your country”

  5. Your writing is essential reading on these issues giving me insight and explanation. Thank you. It appears that old ‘truths’ are quickly unravellingin North Africa to be replaced by new and hopefully honest and sincerely democratic ones.

  6. I’m very pleased to have found your site and will be linking your useful report on Libya to our discussions at

  7. I would just like to kindly draw your attention that, according to the map printed above, Yugoslavia is a single country and parts of Croatian coast are shown as if they belong to Italy. It is probably an accidental mistake (maybe reprint from an older map) but I thought it would be important to highlight it. Best regards, D

    • Ooops, that must have been a historical map. I have changed it for another one that is up to date. Wanted something that showed Libya in the Mediterranean and didn’t pay enough attention to the European part!

  8. Dear Professor Cole,

    Thank you so much for this post. As a middle easterner, I am ashamed to say that I know very little about Libya, unlike Egypt, Bahrain, or even Tunisia.

    Specifically I know very little about their ethnic/religious divides, the makeup of opposition forces to Qaddafi, etc, etc. You wouldn’t by any chance be planning to write something of this nature? Or alternatively, could you point me to a fair, balanced guide?

  9. Great site Professor Cole.

    I’ve been reading avidly and linking to your site.

    I wonder if you have any insight (or could direct me to a site that could provide insight) into what types of groups are organizing these protests and what the possible alternate sources of power are in Libya.

    Balancing tribal interests may have kept Qaddafi in power for all these years, but that doesn’t seem like a stable base to build a new government on.

    In other words, if Qaddafi goes, what kind of system might replace him?

    • Dear sir,
      there are no any specific groups that organizing the protesters.The only reason that kaddafi is the responsible of all the massacre whats happening today.Think about a leader did not do any think for his country for 42 years.Now its time for him to get judged by the grandchilds of dear Omar Mokhtar..

  10. could you please Prof clarify on the ethnic imbalances of Libya, any where who is funding these insurrections in north Africa? please explain if able

  11. can you speculate what might be the situation in Libya if the current president looses power,i think there is some great powers behind these north African power struggles, is it not so?

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