Who Drove the Libyan Uprising?

By Alex Serafimov
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2012, Vol. 2011/2012 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |


The Libyan diaspora’s actions against the Gaddafi regime go back to the early 1980s. Operating most commonly from the US and Europe, it has launched ‘both military and media campaigns against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi’.117 One prominent exile organisation, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), had even attempted to assassinate Gaddafi in 1984 only to be foiled by security forces.118 During the civil war, the son of the NFSL’s Secretary General Ibrahim Sahad was important in helping set up the NTC’s communications early on in the conflict,119 something no doubt crucial for the body to spread its message. Alongside this, ‘wired’ Libyans abroad helped spread news about events to western media.120 Moreover, as already discussed, the NTC appointed a wealthy exile, al-Keib, as the Prime Minister of Libya. Most importantly, the ICG writes, contrary to Western media coverage that presented the anti-Gaddafi movement as being organised solely in the east of Libya, the calls for protest actually originated from Libyans living abroad, mainly in Switzerland and the UK.121 In addition, it was the violent NFSL that, in conjunction with the NTC, met with the US government to lobby for a no-fly zone,122 arguably the key factor in the Libyan militancy’s overall success. Tellingly, the NFSL will participate in elections in Libya, hoping to ‘institute a [political] model similar to the American one’ with a free market economy, but with a role for Islam.123 Indeed, the model of Islam and the free market is shared by most new political forces in Libya.124

A two-part Al Jazeera documentary further outlines some of the roles of the Libyan diaspora in the conflict. For example, it discusses a wealthy exile, Abduladim El Mayat, who funnelled aid and supplies to militants in the Western Mountains of Libya. ‘Gaddafi, he took my house, he took it by force… I want to go back to my house’, he explains.125 This telling comment comes alongside a growing property reclamation movement in Libya. Dozens of contentious claims over property expropriated by Gaddafi have been made, with it on occasion being reclaimed by militants using force.126 There has also been pressure on the NTC by a 400 member ‘property owners’ advocacy’ group to repeal the law under which properties were confiscated in the Gaddafi period, and limited Libyans to one property each.127 This group is headed by Shakr Mohamed Dakhil, son of one of Libya’s most important businessmen during the 1970s, who has said that ‘[p]roperties were confiscated overnight, and this is how they should be returned’ with their current residents evicted in some cases.128 This is very much akin to what happened in post-1989 Eastern Europe, where contentious (and ongoing) property reclamation led to increasing inequality and a high concentration of property ownership.129 Interestingly, it was Abdul Jalil, current Libyan head of state, who was charged with heading up claims to property in the late “reformist” stage of the Gaddafi regime130 showing that he is likely to be very sympathetic to this movement.

Elsewhere, the Al Jazeera documentary discusses exiled Libyans who joined in the armed conflict131 something that the NFSL also did, where it even lost some militants in battle.132 Overall, the Libyan diaspora proved ‘crucial’ for the survival of the anti-Gaddafi movement133 and all of this may suggest a dynamic of “restoration” as opposed to revolution in Libya, comprising a possible attempt to return to a lost pre-Gaddafi past.


Looking at the types of people who participated in the initial protests, the militancy, the state leadership through the NTC, and Libyan exiles, we can draw several conclusions as to “who drove the Libyan revolution”. To summarise, the early protesters were driven onto the streets by the repressiveness of the ruling regime and by socio-economic grievances, a dynamic that has coloured the movements in the region generally. The young, mostly male, and working and middle class individuals were largely united in the shared grievances at the personalised rule of Muammar Gaddafi and originally only numbered in the hundreds. Quickly turning to violence after government repression, these initial demonstrations soon gave way to an armed militancy, possibly due to the perception of having “nothing to lose”. Like the protesters, the militants were mostly composed of working, middle class and professional men, with a peripheral role for women. The militancy was largely informal, untrained and formed by area, district or street. This is demonstrated by the prominent Tripoli Military Council, Western Military Council (Zintan) and Misratan Military Council, all based around major Libyan cities. Foreign military aid was also crucial, being key in the storming of Gaddafi’s compound, the taking of Tripoli and the capture and execution of Gaddafi himself, the three critical events of the armed conflict. A key individual in the militancy is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, leader of the Tripoli Military Council, founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), now the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC), and important Islamic figure. Islam plays a major role, as Islamists and former Jihadists form large portions of the militants, who often couched their struggle in Islamic terms. Holding a tenuous moral authority in Libya is the National Transitional Council. It is characterised by its selfappointed nature and the prevalence of high-level regime defectors, businessmen and exiles who take a broadly pro-Western and free market approach. Prominent individuals include Libyan head of state Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was Minister of Justice under Gaddafi and has demonstrated conservative, pro-Western and pro-market tendencies. Others include current Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib, an academic, technocrat and businessman who hails from one of the elite families of Libya and holds largely similar views. The critiques by former members of the NTC demonstrate a palpable gulf between the largely working and middle class militancy and the elite composition of the NTC, despite its efforts to be geographically inclusive. Finally, we see the important and underreported role of Libyan exiles who proved crucial in initiating, funding and participating in the conflict.

Between these groups we see many overlapping and contested authorities. While the NTC’s authority and legitimacy is questioned by some, it dominates the official policy of state and has an important role for exiles in its ranks. Militant groups dominate in their localities and in the provision of security throughout Libya, and have shown disdain for the NTC while frequently clashing amongst themselves. Finally, protesters have also made an impact, such as forcing a high level resignation within the NTC. As for the future of Libya, several issues require further attention. The role of foreign and exile actors hints at the possibility of a “restoration” as opposed to a revolutionary dynamic in Libya, especially if we look at their links to elite Libyan families exiled by Gaddafi and reclamation of expropriated property. The widely reported existence of torture, illegal detention and human rights abuses, especially of black Libyans,134 by some militant groups and under the watch of the NTC,135 raises serious questions as to their legitimacy and the ethics of Western aid and support for these groups. Also, it seems that Libya is already taking steps towards ever closer ties with the West and the liberalisation of its economy, a process under way since the last decade of the Gaddafi regime. Finally, the return of prominent Gaddafi-era and NTC officials to the political stage in Libya under their own political parties, such as Jibril and Tarhouni,136 raises the spectre of unwelcome continuity in the “new” Libya.137


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  26. Quoted in ICG, ‘Holding Libya Together’, p. 3.
  27. Misratan brigade leader, quoted in ICG, ‘Holding Libya Together’, p. 3.
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  48. Quoted in ICG, ‘Holding Libya Together’, p. 11.
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  86. ICG, ‘Holding Libya Together’, p. 12.
  87. It does this by ‘requiring parties to field lists that alternate between men and women…’ This could lead to as many as 20% of seats being taken by women. This is after ‘a first draft [of the Electoral Law] had allocated 10 percent of the seats to women through a quota, which was then discarded amidst controversy’. Coleman, I. ‘Libya’s New Election Law: Part III’. Council on Foreign Relations (online), 10 February 2012. Available at http://blogs.cfr.org/coleman/2012/02/10/libyas-newelection- law-part-iii/ (Accessed 12 March 2012).
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  114. ICG, ‘Holding Libya Together’, p. 2.
  115. ICG, ‘Holding Libya Together’, p. ii.
  116. ICG, ‘Holding Libya Together’, p. i.
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  118. Elkin, ‘Exiles Return to Libya Contentiously’.
  119. He did this by smuggling internet servers from the US into Libya for the NTC. Elkin, ‘Exiles Return to Libya Contentiously’.
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  121. ICG, ‘Making Sense of Libya’, p. 3.
  122. Elkin, ‘Exiles Return to Libya Contentiously’.
  123. Elkin, ‘Exiles Return to Libya Contentiously’.
  124. See, for example Bugaighis, R. ‘Emerging Forces On Libya’s Political Scene’. Shabab Libya (online), 4 April 2012. Available at http://www. shabablibya.org/news/emerging-forces-on-libyas-political-scene (Accessed 4 April 2012).
  125. Al-Jazeera, ‘The Long Road to Tripoli: part one’. Al-Jazeera (online), 8 December 2011. Available at http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/ gaddafitheendgame/2011/12/201112874023937788.html (Accessed 30 February 2012).
  126. Black, I. ‘Libyans try to get back property seized by Gaddafi’. The Guardian (online), 4 November 2011. Available at http://www.guardian. co.uk/world/2011/nov/04/libya-gaddafi-property-restitution-demands (Accessed 30 February 2012).
  127. Law No: 4, see Murray, R. ‘Libyans Now Battle Over Housing’. Inter Press Service (online), 17 April 2012. Available at http://www.ips.org/ africa/2012/04/libyans-now-battle-over-housing/ (Accessed 18 April 2012).
  128. Murray, ‘Libyans Now Battle Over Housing’.
  129. For detail on previous and ongoing claims see United States Diplomatic Mission to Germany, ‘Summary of Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe’. (Berlin: United States Diplomatic Mission to Germany, 2002). (online). Available at http://germany.usembassy. gov/germany/img/assets/8497/property.pdf (Accessed 18 April 2012).
  130. Murray, ‘Libyans Now Battle Over Housing’.
  131. Al-Jazeera, ‘The Long Road to Tripoli’.
  132. Elkin, ‘Exiles Return to Libya Contentiously’.
  133. Miles, ‘Libya after Gaddafi’.
  134. Stephen, C. and Harding, L. ‘Amnesty finds widespread use of torture by Libyan militias’. The Guardian (online), 16 February 2012. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/16/amnestywidespread- torture-libyan-militias (Accessed 4 April 2012).
  135. Al Jazeera, ‘Who is really controlling Libya?’
  136. Libya Herald, ‘Ali Tarhouni launches party’.
  137. On this topic see, for example Miles, ‘Libya after Gaddafi’.

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