The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Libya's protests, #feb17

My gut feeling is that the most important protests now taking place in North Africa are those in Libya. I say this with no disrespect to those in Algeria, where the regime certainly deserves to be brought down, or my own native Morocco, where the palace and Makhzen need a wake-up call that the status quo (and indeed, the regression of the last few years) is not acceptable.

But Libya shares something important with Egypt and Tunisia: an aging leader (41 years in power) faces a looming succession crisis in which the leading candidates are his own sons. I simply don't think that's an acceptable outcome for any republic in the 21st century, and was a key aspect to the revolt against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia (with the rumored heir apparent being his nephew). Of course there are also differences: the Libyan regime is much more brutal, more tribalized, more totalitarian than Egypt or Tunisia. The country is split along an east-west axis, with the east kept systematically poorer and discriminated against, along with older historical grievances. That's why it's not surprise Benghazi saw the first and biggest protests, particularly since core organizers were relatives of the victims of the Abu Salim prison massacre of 1996.

The second reason that Libya's regime appears in some respects more fragile (at least in parts of the country) is that it is the worst in the Middle East — basically the region's North Korea. Except that it's not protected by China, and is situated in a region of the world that is historically globalized. Libyans may have been cut off from the rest of the world by the sanctions, but they share an Arab and Mediterranean culture with over 300 million people and know that there is better than Qaddafi out there.

Some good reporting / blogging:



I won't comment here further on the details, except to say that Libya's diaspora is playing an important leadership and communications role in this uprising. Sites like Enough Qadhafi and the Khalas movement are doing an amazing job on the web, as are many activists on Twitter.

One phenomenon we've seen in recent days is young Libyans addressing Qadhafi directly via emails, open letters and Youtube. My favorite has been this one, which was translated and published on the Enough site (which currently appears to be down.) I am republishing it below. (Note: Thawra is Arabic for revolution — in this text the "revolution" of 1969 when Qaddafi deposed King Idriss)


Raes Lbled*

I am from a generation that has been denied our due of education and our fill of milk and oil and tomatoes and eggs as a result of the Thawra…because I was born in a period in which the Thawra was worshipped, and everything else ignored.  No one was permitted to request anything of the State.  They could not even think to make half a request, for those who direct the Thawra cared to protect it more than they cared for the Libyan people and more than they cared to respond to any civil or legal requests or more than they even cared about people’s stomachs or about their need to clothe themselves and protect their dignity.  All these things were considered attacks on the Thawra.  We have been forced to spoil** this Thawra rotten, until its eternal ‘coming of age’ is complete.
Hunger itself became an accusation [against the Thawra], as did illness and poverty, except for when the afflicted remained silent and expressed complete loyalty and obedience to the Thawra and its codes of conduct.  The wisdom being that whoever had the tiniest sliver of the Thawra needed nothing else but bread and water.
Children’s programs were described as ‘Thawri’ (adjective form of Thawra)…the news was ‘Thawri’ …commercial ads ‘Thawri’…the Imam of the mosque was ‘Thawri’…the teacher was ‘Thawri’…the principal was ‘Thawri’…the sanitation worker was ‘Thawri’…the farms, ‘Thawri’…the shepherd in the pasture, ‘Thawri’…the cows and the sheep, ‘Thawri’…the bulls ‘Thawri.’  If you pronounced two words without modifying one of them with the word ‘Thawra,’ your speech was invalid.
In the year that I began attending school (1987), I did not need the Thawra as much as I needed a book bag.  In that period, the Thawra had reached the apex of its mischievousness, so I substituted a pillow case for a book bag so that I would not disturb the bliss of our great Thawra.
Those who despised the conditions brought upon by the Thawra wondered when this continuous state of upheaval would end.  After all, life is normally organized and protected by the laws of the state.  Revolt, when it occurs, is an active moment, not a postpartum state that lasts 40 nights*** or 40 years.  I still cannot believe the price that I have paid for this innocent question, and the heavy price that thousands of Libyans have paid for courageously challenging the Thawra.
Then, when the sanctions were lifted, the punishment for making demands of the State was lightened.  Instead of being lynched or liquidated in the streets, we now are merely stabbed with knives or beaten with batons in public, for all to see.  Recently, the potential has emerged to create an actual state, which must be subordinated**** to the Thawra or face the constant threat of resorting to [old] Kalashnikov-type methods to resolve conflicts.
The Thawra has been like a case of chronic diarrhea, dehydrating Libya’s organs and extremities and exhausting it to the point where if one sees Libya from the air, it appears as though you are standing over a corpse shriveled up by hunger.
We asked a minimum of the State—that it breathe some life back into what’s left of that corpse.  Many Libyans, across a range of political and ideological perspectives, have requested the establishment of a refuge [from the tempestuousness of the Thawra], for what remains of Libyans.  These demands were used to uphold the project of bequeathing the Thawra to newer leadership in what is known as the ‘Project of Reform.’
The bratty Thawra returned, destroying the Project of Reform but maintaining its program to bequeath the Thawra to a new generation.  Libyans returned to lying prostrate at its feet so that perhaps it will be pleased after all that we have exerted in giving and giving again.
The New Year saw the region abound with uprisings.  Within the first month, our Thawra sat between Tunisia’s uprising to the west and Egypt’s to the east.  Our Thawra should have cheered those peoples and have been overjoyed to see the end of its years of solitude, [as the sole revolutionary state in the region] stuck between two traditional republics.  It should have allowed its people to outwardly express the spirit of revolution—like its neighbors—instead of continuing the habit of murmuring secretly.
Instead, we were begrudgingly surprised when this entity that used to call itself ‘Thawra’ began deploying security officers throughout what is left of Libya.  ‘Thawra’ transformed from a thing to be adored and worshipped to a word that should not be uttered.  And those that used to call for the Thawra began to talk about safety, security and stability.  They borrowed words from God to make holy and to sanctify words like calm and ease.
All the above binds me, by moral duty, to direct the following to Mr. Muammar Gaddafi, the supreme and only authority in Libya.
I know that I am from a generation—which composes 75% of Libya’s population—who have grown weary of the brattiness of the Thawra, which has transformed (in reality) into something that has no resemblance to the uprisings next door.
And I know that the assurances that your security advisors give you regarding the stability of the current situation and the supplications the people make, asking God to give you long-life, resemble the same assurances and supplications that Ben Ali and Mubarak heard before they saw the people in the streets.
And I know that those who surround you swear allegiance to you and promise you that they will destroy all who dare to take to the streets.
And I know that you are surrounded by an apparatus that cheers and lauds you with all means of hypocrisy such that it blinds you from the truth.
Libya has not yet slipped into the whirlwind of its neighbors.  As one of my generation and the product of a poor neighborhood, I say to you that Libya is on its way down a similar path, and that whatever happens in Libya, foreign powers will ride its momentum to prove to the region that they are champions of freedom and democracy.
Mr. Muammar Gaddafi, I place in front of you an historic decision, to allow Libyans to exercise their rights towards the establishment of their government, to provide civil liberties, to allow them to form parties and to prepare for elections that will clear the path for an easy transition into a national representative government.
These measures will minimize the spilling of Libyan blood and will credit you with transitioning Libya into real stability and security.
It remains that I mention to the fact that my imprisonment or incarceration or murder or expulsion will not change the current situation.  It might, in fact, exasperate it.
* This title, which is an address to the ‘leader of the country,’ references the Tunisian rap song directed to the ousted Ben Ali, for which the artist El Génèral was arrested.  To listen to the song, click here.
** The author uses the image of a spoiled child to describe the Thawra, as it demanded complete attention, was unwilling to share and often broke out in fits when it did not get its way, the subtlety of the language is often difficult to relay in translation, but I have done my best here to convey the message.
*** Author is alluding to postpartum practices in Islamic societies, in which women are relieved from certain religious duties for 40 days after giving birth.
**** Author literally says ‘under the shoe of the Thawra,’ which suggests not only subjugation but also humiliation.