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Civil war versus socio-economic political protests: Libya’s zero-sum game

23rd March 2011

By: In On Africa IOA


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Since January 2011, civilian uprisings have spread like wildfire in the Arab World, culminating in the fall of authoritarian regimes and its leaders. As the shock waves of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions continue to spread throughout the Arab World and beyond, Libya has now become the third North African country that has caught the revolutionary bug. While inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprisings in Libya differ in many respects to those in neighbouring countries.

The aim of this paper is to analyse how and why the Libyan uprising is unique compared to the uprisings that have occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. It advocates the view that the current turmoil and upheaval experienced in the country has the potential to escalate into a civil war. An argument will be made to this end by taking a closer look at the central pillars of Libyan society that serve as trigger factors, potentially leading to one of the continent’s bloodiest civil wars.


Libya under the Brother Leader

Since Muammar Gaddafi came to power in a coup in 1969, he has ruled the country with a military-led administration based upon the principles of people-driven governance, as prescribed in his Green book.(2) While a reliance on brutal force cemented his highly authoritarian system in place, two other factors played a decisive role in safeguarding his position over the years. One is an intricate system of divide-and-rule that balanced families, tribes and the country’s provinces against each other. While placing relatives and loyal members of his tribe in central military and Government positions, Gaddafi skilfully marginalised supporters and rivals, thus maintaining a delicate balance of power and stability and attaining economic development in the country.(3)


Secondly, Gaddafi cloaked himself in an anti-western, anti-United States (US) mantle that resonated among many of his fellow citizens in light of a history characterised by a brutal colonial period and a monarchy that was financially and ideologically corrupt.(4) In this manner, through his “mastery of tactical manoeuvring”, Gaddafi protected the Jamahiriya against destabilisation. Moreover, the “Brother Leader” had successfully weathered several internal attempts to overthrow the regime and managed to eviscerate all secular and religious opposition groups.(5) The regime had always seemed invincible - until now.

The uprisings

Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, the Libyan revolts began as a series of protests and confrontations, requesting Gaddafi to step down. As mass demonstrations and protests continued to spread, Gaddafi has refused international calls to step down, vowing to fight till the end. The opinion among many is that Gaddafi may well turn out to be another Saddam Hussein - defiant until he dies.(6) Not only does the defiance complicate the events in Libya, but so too does Gaddafi’s “mastery of tactical manoeuvring” outlined above. Gaddafi now reaps what he has sown for over four decades - terror, nepotism, tribal politics and abuse of power. Whether he voluntarily steps down through a negotiated exit strategy or is deposed, a civil war is a very likely possibility. The following section will indicate why this paper advocates such a view.

Trigger 1: The role players

As the protests and attacks spread across all corners of Libya, the number of deaths already suggests that the Libyan revolution is bloodier, more violent and much more intense than the previous two uprisings in the Arab World. Opposition forces have established the National Transitional Council in an effort to consolidate the anti-Gaddafi forces and to coordinate resistance efforts between the different towns held in rebel control.(7) Pitched against them is the Revolutionary Committee, an army brigade and foreign mercenaries who have been brought in by Gaddafi to suppress the revolt.(8) Hence, this is not just a mere battle between the people and the dictatorship, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt. This revolution involves multiple players who are divided along regional and tribal lines, between the marginalised and the beneficiaries and the anti-Gaddafi supporters and the loyalists.

Absent in these protests is the strong involvement of the youth. This serves as another distinguishing characteristic between the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and in Libya. One can say that involvement of the youth is not as widespread as it was in Tunisia and Egypt, where they comprised the leaders of the revolution. Instead, the fight against Gaddafi is one that is being led by small group of ex-politicians, ex-bureaucrats and tribal leaders who had collaborated with Gaddafi’s oppressive regime, but have fallen out with him very recently.(9)

The damaging element of this is that these groups of anti-Gaddafi supporters do not command the same respect with the general population as the youth commanded in Egypt and Tunisia.(10) Inclusive in these protests are anti-foreigner sentiments as there is resentment over the better quality of life enjoyed by foreign workers, which further complicates the scenario in Libya. Attacks of such a nature were certainly not prevalent in the previous North African uprisings.(11)

To add more fuel to the fire, unlike Tunisia and Egypt that are effectively homogeneous societies, Libya is the complete opposite, as tribalism occupies a central role in Libyan society. Once one deciphers this notion, one can begin to understand why Libya is on the brink of a civil war. Thus far it appears that the Western and Southern regions of Libya effectively support Gaddafi, while the Eastern regions have always been a source of dissidence against the regime due to exclusion, discrimination and general deprivation of the dividends from the oil rich region.(12) To illustrate the sensitivities around tribalism and factions, the recent “Government” formed in the eastern region of Benghazi has been set up by ex-Gaddafi loyalists who have only recently turned against him.(13) As mentioned previously, these groups of anti-Gaddafi supporters do not command much respect. Unity in light of the various role players, factions and fragmentations appears to be a pipe dream at this juncture.

Trigger 2: The vacuum

The absence of a formal constitution and legal uncertainty, the possibility of a rupture in the ruling class and intense frustration of a large part of the population is a lethal combination for a political crisis waiting to unfold.(14) Beyond Gaddafi, there remains an enormous political and social vacuum in Libya as the Gaddafi regime has invested very little in social capital or civic capacity building.(15) It must be recognised that there is an absence of organised groups within Libyan society or any young leadership that can assume political duties.

Throughout his tenure, the “Brother Leader” has increasingly centralised power in his own hands by denying officials the opportunity to develop their own power base, by orchestrating rivalries and playing individuals and rivals off against each other. Thus, whether Gaddafi steps down or is deposed, a political system geared towards ensuring continued primacy, coupled with the lack of a national identity, serves as a breeding ground for civil strife.

Trigger 3: The army

Yet another element complicating this scenario is the Libyan army. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where the army played a decisive role in mediating and helping to resolve the crisis, the Libyan army is in no position to carry out this role. The Libyan army has sustained the regime and hence is not politically neutral. According to Dirk Vandewalle, Libya’s army is neither a truly national army nor a professional one. Instead, it is riddled by the “same divide and rule problems that all national institutions in Libya have suffered from.”(16)

Trigger 4: Oil

Deeply entangled in the factors outlined above is the battle for the oil resources, which account for 95% of export earnings, 75% of Government receipts and 25% of gross domestic product.(17) The oil revenues also constitute a principal source of foreign exchange. Very little of this income has reached the general public as many regions have been deprived of the dividends of the oil fields. People from the various regions that have been sidelined and deprived of their dividends are active participants in the anti-Government protests. Gauging from the tensions between rival tribes, there is no doubt that the control of the oil reserves will prove to be a decisive point of contention in the future.


The picture painted above is rather bleak as Libyan citizens are risking their lives in what has become one of the bloodiest uprisings in the region, understanding perfectly well that if they lose the battle the regime’s repercussions will be swift and bloody. For the defenders of the regime, the same logic holds - if they lose they will suffer at the hands of the Libyan citizens who are enraged by the atrocities that have already taken place. This dynamic in which neither side can afford to lose, fuels the extreme violence the world is witnessing in Libya.(18) At this point in time it seems that Gaddafi will fight till the end. If Gaddafi bows out with a negotiated exit strategy or if he is deposed, the question is what will follow his departure?

This paper predicts a chaotic political scene in which the anti-Gaddafi supporters will contend with the regime loyalists, including Gaddafi’s family and militias.(19) Coupled with the tribal rivalries, divided allegiances, the weakness and fragmentation of the military, a large political and social vacuum and the tempting availability of oil resources all serve as a breeding ground for a civil war. Whist this paper cannot ascertain the fate of Gaddafi, by factoring in all the matters raised above, it concludes that the Libyan revolution is a zero-sum game.


(1) Contact Pratiksha Chhiba through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) Country Profiles, Department of International Relations and Cooperation,
(3) Craig Whitlock, ‘Gaddafi is eccentric but the firm master of his regime’, Washington Post, 22 February 2011,
(4) Dirk Vandewalle, ’Is this Libya’s new revolution?’, CNN, 21 February 2011,
(5) Larbi Sadiki, ‘Libya’s falling tyrant’, Al Jazeera, 21 February 2011,
(6) ‘Libya is not a revolution, like Egypt’, Rediff News, 1 March 2011,
(7) ‘World raises pressure on Gaddafi’, National Post, 28 February 2011,
(8) Dirk Vandewalle, ‘Is this Libya’s new revolution’, CNN, 21 February 2011,
(9) ‘Libya is not a revolution, like Egypt’, Rediff News, 1 March 2011,
(10) Ibid.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Larbi Sadiki, ‘Libya’s falling tyrant’, Al Jazeera, 21 February 2011,
(13) ‘With no end to fighting, International pressure grows on Gaddafi’, Spiegel Online, 2 March 2011,
(14) Uri Friedman, ‘How the Libyan revolution could play out’, The Atlantic Wire, 28 February 2011,
(15) Ibid.
(16) Dirk Vandewalle, ‘Is this Libya’s new revolution?’, CNN, 21February 2011,
(17) Country Profiles, Department of International Relations and Cooperation,
(18) Dirk Vandewalle, ‘Is this Libya’s new revolution,’ CNN, 21 February 2011,
(19) Uri Friedman, ‘What comes after the revolution?’, The Atlantic Wire, 28 February 2011,

Written by Pratiksha Chhiba (1)


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