It was the fuzzy images that we saw through amateur mobile video clips that the Libyan popular uprising was broadcasted all over the world and broke the wall of silence and fear in a country besieged for decades by a feudal regime, that attempted for many years to wipe the Libyan identity and replace it with the image of the ‘Brother Leader’.
Libya, the nation and the people, was the birth child of decades of fighting between the major powers of the region in the early twentieth century, it became independent in 1951, with scarce means to support itself as a country let alone forge a new identity of nationhood, in an era when Pan-Arab nationalism was the major ideological and political driving force in the region.
By the late 1960’s the country, driven with a newly discovered oil wealth, was transformed on many aspects, especially on the social and political levels, a tribal rural country, began to resemble a more modern urban society, which opened up more political debates and its newly educated middle class became politically active and worked towards modernising the country and gaining more basic rights.
From Revolution to Dictatorship
The Gaddafi regime that came into power though a bloodless coup in 1969, found a nation ready for change and revolution, the same revolutionary wave that engulfed the Arab world beginning in Egypt in 1952. Many Libyans from different classes and backgrounds welcomed the revolution branded military coup, and believed they can work from within the new political structure to achieve a more modern society, democracy and human rights, as we know it today, was not a priority at that time, it was achieving more socio-economic equality and ridding the country of the remnants of the colonial era, but once those goals were moderately achieved, the calls from a new generation of Libyans towards a democratic, liberal political system became a challenge for a regime that began to use the huge amount of oil revenues to export its definition of liberation and rebellion in many countries.
Faced with new challenges to reform in Libya, the Gaddafi regime began to build its political structure, which was similar to a feudal secret system with tribal elements to rule and control a small population scattered on a large area of land that proved its resistance historically to any central government. Over the years it became apparent that the regime became similar in its structure and characteristics to organised crime groups, dependent on secrecy and close loyalties to make decisions and crush opposition.
The Gaddafi regime ruled through the power of fear and paranoia, the fear from limitless brutality in a society that was still recovering from years of horrific colonial heritage, collective punishment and public televised executions and a campaign of intimidation and persecution became the cornerstone to transform the Libyan people into functional entities, concerned by the daily question of survival and preservation, paving the way for frustration, despair and in most cases passive civil disobedience through avoiding participation in the regimes activities and political organisations.
Gaddafi used other tactics to divide and rule, by invoking a traditional tribal power structure in a country that began to resemble and more modern society, where tribal ties where becoming less apparent and also the old division between the main three Libyan provinces were fading away with people moving and building new social ties based on nationhood and mutual interests.
Facelifts and Sham Reforms
After years of international isolation a new reality dawned on the regime, especially with the introduction of the internet and new media into the country, and with a growing young population, the regime decided on a makeover and facelift to avoid alienating itself from the changing demographics in the country, as the majority of Libyans lived in cities and urban centres, all of this combined with other factors, made the reform project driven by Safi Al-islam Gaddafi a possibility to prevent any chaos or infighting in a country that lacks any constitution or civil societies.
The reform project, named Libya Al Ghad (Libya Tomorrow) attracted many young active Libyans inside and outside Libya, and also many Libyan intellectuals and academics, driven all by the possibility to rehabilitate and reform the regime from within and prevent any political vacuum and infighting in the case of Gaddafi’s demise.
After nearly five years since Saif Al-islam Gaddafi launched his reform project, it was apparent that the project was not intended to change the status quo in Libya rather giving it more legitimacy and also containing all the elements of the Libyan society that might challenge the regime’s rule over the country, and it was Saif Al-islam’s speech after few days of the Libyan uprising that made it clear that his reform stunt was dead and that the possibility of rehabilitating the regime became a laughable matter.
Libyans suffered in silence for decades, it is a matter of fact that while the Gaddafi regime tightened its iron grip around the people, they also suffered being marginalised and abandoned in some cases by their Arab neighbours and many countries in the region. For many years Libyans were associated with Gaddafi and his eccentric clownish and brutal image, Libya became a box of secrets and sand, its culture and history descending every day into oblivion, and under pressure many Libyans fled Libya and found refuge in other countries, adopting new identities and distancing themselves from the a Libya that became synonymous with a brutal mad dictator.
It is important to stress out that the Libyan popular uprising on 17th February didn’t emerge out of nothing, the opposition and dissent against the Gaddafi regime has been building into the society for generations, and although most people kept to themselves and chose passive disobedience when dealing with the regime, and while Gaddafi tried to buy loyalties, rewarding certain individuals, groups, or even tribes, the majority of Libyans exercised their passive opposition at homes and private gatherings, which grew in presence in the last few years, leading to the human explosion on the 17th February 2011, and inspired by tow influential neighbouring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Gaddafi regime planned for many decades to overcome any opposition and continue to survive in a surreal, out of time, place in the world, and ironically it was Saif Al-islam Gaddafi that summarised the regimes threats towards the Libyan people, invoking the myth of tribal divides between Libyans, and a looming civil war between east and west Libya, and lastly waving the threat of foreign invasion and intervention because of the oil and gas wealth that Libya enjoys, stressing on deeply seated cultural fears towards foreigners and foreign intervention in many Libyans, all these tactics combined with a limitless use of force and brutality were used by the Gaddafi regime since it came into power four decades ago to maintain its grip on the country.
For many years Libyans were reduced to being a reflecting image of the ‘The Guide’ and ‘The Brother Leader’, their history, culture and identity defaced and torn and replaced with new symbols of fear and terror, the Libyan popular revolution, revived their sense of who they really are, and gave them the historic chance to regain not only the symbols of revolution and freedom, but also their independence and cultural identity, and it wasn’t a surprise that a the symbol of the Libyan independence flag that was adopted by the Libyan constitution in 1951 and abolished by Gaddafi regime 1969, became the symbol of resistance and the call for freedom and opposition to his rule.
The images of a young Libyan man ripping the Gaddafi green flag in the centre of Tripoli and throwing it into the flames and cursing Gaddafi and shouting “This is not our flag, lets burn it” is a clear indication that the Gaddafi regime failed to brainwash Libyans with his false symbols of revolution, and that generations of Libyans who were deprived from any information about Libya before 1969, were not only reclaiming the meaning of revolution, which was tainted by Gaddafi’s revolutionary ideology and his notorious revolutionary committees, but also regaining Libya’s independence and cultural identity with symbols like the flag and the old Libyan anthem and clear calls of unity and nationhood.
Despite the brutality and terror inflicted on the Libyan people by the Gaddafi regime, the Libyans are living for the first time the freedom and liberation they were denied, and they know that the stakes are high not only for them as a nation, but also for the peoples of a region affected by the Gaddafi regime’s ambitions to dominate and intervene in neighbouring countries. A peaceful, free and democratic Libya in a region that is changing dramatically every day, will play a pivotal role in maintaining a stable more peaceful Middle East and Africa, a region that suffered the most, after the Libyan people, from Gaddafi’s terrorist adventures.
The wall of fear was razed to the ground and Gaddafi’s regime will try to survive as long as it can, but with its legitimacy lost completely to govern and rule inside and outside Libya, it is left only with the option of ruling over the remaining land under its control through the tactics of occupation, and Libyans will be struggling in a resistance campaign to deny the regime the delusion of normality and control its trying to invoke on its media propaganda machine.
The path to a new Libya will not be easy, many years of dictatorship and corruption won’t disappear with the magic wand of revolution, the demons of political division, counter-revolution and foreign intervention, are some of the threats Libyans face, but it is important to emphasise that all these fear, were used by the Gaddafi regime to associate stability under his rule over the limitless possibilities, yet uncertainties, of exercising freedoms and the difficulties of implementing democracy in a country that known none of its manifestations, are some of the challenges Libyans will learn to overcome by themselves and with the help and support of the international community.
Being a Libyan in the last few weeks been and continue to be an emotional and intimate experience, the Libyan uprising of re-independence and purifying the real meaning of revolution, made many Libyans regain their confidence in themselves and their ability to change their country, after years of the regime’s attempts to kill the true meaning of being a Libyan inside the hearts and minds of generations of Libyans, and never again will it be possible for a tyrannical regime to be allowed to rule over their country.
* Picture of mount Tamalult in the Nafusa mountains west Libya.