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So, What Went Wrong With the Arab Spring?

Post-Qaddafi Libya was supposed to be something other than the chaos it has become

Ann Marlowe
May 18, 2015
Fighters from the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), an alliance of Islamist-backed militias, take cover during clashes with an opposing militia in Bir al-Ghanam, approximately 30 miles from the capital, on March 19, 2015.(Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)
Fighters from the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), an alliance of Islamist-backed militias, take cover during clashes with an opposing militia in Bir al-Ghanam, approximately 30 miles from the capital, on March 19, 2015.(Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

“What went wrong with the Arab Spring?” is a stupid—and unanswerable—question.

There is no general explanation for state failure: Each troubled nation is troubled in its own way. Still less is there a general explanation for the failure of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Libyan revolutions to meet their peoples’ hopes; the three countries are as different each from the other in size, population, economy, and political culture as, say, Ukraine, Belgium, and France.

“Why did Libya’s revolution lead to chaos?” is an answerable question and probably the main reason general readers will pick up Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn’s new anthology, The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath. They will not be disappointed, although some of the essays seem to have been written before the chaos was quite so complete. Learning from the Libyan revolution, or from any other significant event, requires exactly what Cole and McQuinn’s collection of essays offers, and what is generally missing from the ever-evolving culture of online blather about the Middle East: granularity.

Libya is best understood as a collection of city-states, more like 15th-century Italy than anyplace else. And so the contributors examine in particular the cities and regions, as well as Islamists, NATO’s role and the U.N.’s role. (I happen to feel that Zwara and Sabratha are shortchanged, but they’re the Western Libyan towns I know best.) I would have welcomed an essay on the role of women in the revolution, and also a study of the way Qaddafi’s side fought. Qaddafi did not allow journalists to “embed” with his troops, so that part of the war has so far remained untold. But the contributors write clearly and have mainly taken the best from academia—the rigor—while leaving the cant. They have cast a very wide net, incorporating hundreds of political and military figures, and if they don’t add the piquant anecdotes about them that Libyans tell (perhaps due to U.K. libel laws), they manage to get across some idea of the famous Libyan sense of humor. The result is an indispensable book.

Anyone who thinks “North Africans aren’t ready for democracy” will be impressed when he or she reads of the speedy organizational efforts of the admittedly small group of Libyans who started Benghazi’s revolutionary government and followed suit in other towns, either openly or clandestinely, and then again of similar efforts by a much larger group to stabilize the country after Tripoli’s fall in August 2011. Daring, decisiveness, and the ability to work at high intensity are not lacking in Libya. So are the flipside of these virtues: impulsiveness, carelessness, and depressive stagnation. Apart from their moodiness, Libyans remind me in many ways of Americans. They are the only people I’ve been among who love freedom as much.

Dirk Vandewalle, the dean of Libya experts in the United States, writes in his contribution to this volume of “a moment of enthusiasm” lasting from the death of Qaddafi on Oct. 20, 2011, until Libya’s first elections on July 7, 2012, characterized by a “free press and vibrant civil society.” What is so extraordinarily inspiring about revolutions is the way ordinary people somehow manage to throw off their bad traits and act like heroes, if only for a short time. Such was the case with Libya. Anyone who covered the revolution as a journalist or worked in revolutionary Libya in an NGO—and all of the contributors to this volume fall into one of those categories—was inspired and amazed by the generosity, courage, and ingenuity of the Libyans they met.

And anyone who thinks that Libya was better off under Qaddafi will be promptly disabused of this illusion. There is no special pleading here, and not all that much space devoted to the Qaddafi years, but the backstories and explanations make it clear that the man was a monster. He stayed in power by buying off the population and executing those who got in his way, sometimes publicly; in his relations with Libya’s neighbors, he adopted a modified version of the same strategy. Even the obscure case of southern Libya’s dark-skinned indigenous Tebu minority makes this clear: As Rebecca Murray explains in her essay on them, Qaddafi financed Tebu living in the contested Ouzou Strip to rebel against Chad; when they lost, he threw them into jail. He played similar games with the Tuareg of Mali and the Libyan south, de-stabilizing Mali then purporting to save it.


Are there lessons here that might be applied more generally to U.S. policy in the Middle East, and elsewhere? Sure there are. One ready conclusion is that the major reason the United States ought not to support dictatorships is that they make people bad, and bad people are bad citizens and their countries cause trouble around the world. Being watched, and arbitrarily interfered with, and punished for imaginary crimes, or urged to commit real crimes, makes people useless for most of the business of life. And dictatorships grow people who internalize the persona of the dictator—the Qaddafi homunculus in this case—who is rarely a positive model. Getting rid of this internalization takes time. The Libyans aren’t there yet. They love freedom, but they are often not able to use it constructively.

Another reason not to support dictatorships is that they prevent the development of the institutions necessary for stability, everything from a well-run judicial system to education to sewers and highways to a police that is respected but not feared and an army that can defend the country’s borders. Voting, we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, is just the icing on the cake. The cake takes years to bake. As Vandewalle puts it, “The country’s institutions had neither the capacity nor mechanisms to support this new political system.” And it turned out to be difficult to turn “subjects” into “citizens.”

Then there is the way in which Qaddafi’s rule damaged Libyans’ ability to organize themselves. Qaddafi, true to the maxim about Saharan politics above, controlled men, not institutions. A Libyan friend calls Qaddafi’s system “organized chaos”: Multiple government bodies had overlapping, ill-defined lines of authority, laws were confusing and redundant, red tape was abundant. Changes in regulations were capricious and frequent. People were unable to plan their lives or understand the system. The result was a terrible lack of capability in general and one that led to the most peculiar aspect of post-revolutionary Libya: the failure of the state to emerge. Qaddafi has not been replaced, as some feared, by another dictator, but by a collection of people who seem like holograms of government ministers and politicians. There’s no there there.

The most glaring problem in post-revolutionary Libya was the familiar one of the rentier state. It’s true, as Vandewalle points out, that oil drew Libyans together. But oil also provided the seemingly limitless funds for the ever-growing collection of militias that has torn Libya apart since 2011. By November 2011, demands for payment led to Libya’s government successfully petitioning the United Nations for the release of over $100 billion in frozen state assets; most of this went to pay fighters who would eventually turn their weapons against each other. Ian Martin of the United Nations notes in his essay that at one point, 200,000 purported “revolutionaries” were on the public payroll. This is about 10 percent of the total male population and at least 10 times the number of men who actually fought Qaddafi.

Oil also led to what every foreigner notices in Libya: the often stunning incompetence and laziness of Libya’s post-revolutionary leadership, including Libya’s state bureaucracy, and the “enormous sense of entitlement” Vandewalle references. Around 75 percent of Libyans in the work force worked for the state under Qaddafi, spending a few hours a day in mostly undemanding jobs. This set up patterns hard to break.

It was clear to me when I left Libya for what proved to be the last time on Sept. 11, 2012, that it was an ill society. Some of this was manifest. Benghazi looked more decrepit than it had in April 2011. The Benghazi courthouse square, cradle of the revolution, which ought to have been hallowed ground, was desolate, with toilet seats sold where the proliferation of new newspapers and magazines had once been given out. Derna was already struggling against terrorists who were destroying its ancient shrines. Sabratha was thriving, but there were more and more men with long beards and women in face-veils. Even in Amazigh Zwara, Salafis were defacing women candidates’ campaign posters. My guitar-playing Zwara friends did not even think of performing in public.

Few Libyans struggled against the tide as it went out. It was always the next battle that they were going to fight. And so first Benghazi lost its freedom to Islamic extremists and then, in August of this year, Tripoli and the West of Libya. (Benghazi has since been mainly reclaimed from Ansar-al-Sharia by forces loyal to Gen. Heftar, recently installed as commander in chief of the Libyan National Army, but a polarizing figure.) Libya financed its own destruction because no one dared to stop the salaries to the increasingly powerful militias. And even more money poured in from Qatar and Turkey.

Turkey was the first big funder of the NTC, with $200 million in June 2011. Though this volume doesn’t cover it, Turkish companies were the biggest infrastructure contractors in Qaddafi’s Libya, and their enormous contracts—often near or more than $1 billion each—included plenty of kickbacks to the officials who issued the contracts. Qatar, often through Al Jazeera, played its role in the destruction of Libya, too. As Peter Cole recounts, an Al Jazeera cameraman embedded with LIFG emir Abdelhakim Belhadj’s small militia and put him on the air at Baab al-Aziziyya as the leader of the revolutionaries. At the time, this angered the Misratan militiamen who actually played the biggest role in the seizure of Tripoli. The unholy alliance of violent Islamists, Gulf money, and old regime bureaucrats is reminiscent of the toxic mixture that has destroyed Iraq.

It is no coincidence that today’s Libya is beset by organized chaos and violence, just not the same organized chaos and violence of the Qaddafi years. The unclear lines of authority, patchwork of areas of control, factionalism, and corruption of today’s frozen civil war are like distorted reflections of Qaddafi’s state.


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Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a writer and financial investigator in New York. She is the author of How to Stop Time. Her Twitter feed is at @annmarlowe.

Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a writer and financial investigator in New York. She is the author of How to Stop Time. Her Twitter feed is at @annmarlowe.

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