Lessons for Libya from 1911
What is the key to the success of democracy in 21st century Libya?
- Like Abdul-Hamid, the one force Qadhafi could not stand against was the rising passion for freedom and change among his own people.
- The key to the success of democracy in 21st century Libya is the recognition that it is necessary because of the very different societies and cultures of the country.
- Libya has never had an opportunity to coalesce as an integrated nation, unlike Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, Syria or even Iraq.
- Libya could certainly benefit from freedom. But what it really needs is a flexible, decentralized system of government.
A tyrant who ruled over Libya for endless decades and kept its people oppressed and depressed has finally fallen. He was driven out by a pleasing combination of popular anger and resistance and sustained, effective military support from enlightened Europe.
The future looks bright, but much depends on whether outside powers can resist the temptation of entering the country supposedly to help — but staying instead to inflict a far crueler dictatorship than the old rulers did. Will the very different and traditionally feuding tribes of the North African coast be able to work together while respecting their own differences?
Is this a description of Libya in 2011? Of course. But it also describes the condition of Libya in 1911.
With an eerie historical neatness missed by nearly all Western commentators, the six-month popular uprising that toppled longtime strongman Colonel Muammar Qadhafi this year came on the exact 100-year anniversary of the war to expel the Turkish Ottoman Empire from the country in 1911.
The parallels between the two events are even more striking.
Qadhafi cut the Libyan people off from full access to the vibrant societies of the North African Maghreb like Morocco and Tunisia, as well as from the nations of the prosperous and booming European Community (later, the European Union) to the north.
He ruled for an apparently endless 42 years, starting in 1969. He was accused by other nations of many atrocities, especially funding the 1972 Munich Massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes and the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people in 1987.
Qadhafi even financed the main supply of Semtex plastic explosives from Czechoslovakia for the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland’s civil war for many years.
A century earlier, tough, ruthless, secretive and shrewd old Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid II ruled vast dominions, including the three provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan that comprise modern Libya. He held power for 33 years, from 1876 until he was deposed in 1909. His hapless successor Mehmed V, like Qadhafi’s son and heir Saif al-Islam, was not able to maintain his predecessor’s grip on power.
Like Qadhafi, Abdul-Hamid was loathed throughout the advanced Western world. He was held responsible for the vicious massacres of the Bulgarian people in 1876 to crush a revolt among them, and for the frightful slaughter of Armenian Christians in 1895. Yet like Qadhafi, he was skilled at diplomacy and playing different major powers against each other.
Abdul-Hamid kept the protection of the British Empire throughout his reign and increasingly won the support of Imperial Germany too. They were the two leading superpowers of their day.
For his part, Qadhafi was supported, though always with a degree of distrust and caution, by the Soviet Union until the collapse of communism. He also developed surprisingly good relations with major European nations, led by Italy but also including France and Britain. He sold Libya’s abundant oil and natural gas to them. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he even skillfully wooed the George W. Bush Administration in the United States.
However, like Abdul-Hamid, the one force Qadhafi could not stand against was the rising passion for freedom and change among his own people. And just like Abdul-Hamid, his militaristic blusters proved empty when NATO airpower was deployed to support the popular rebels fighting him in 2011. Abdul-Hamid’s forces too proved no match for the modern mechanized forces of the Italian army in 1911.
However, the history of Libya after the expulsion of the Ottomans in 1911-12 offers a sober caution to the leaders of Libya’s new democratic coalition today: A golden age of peace and freedom did not dawn in Libya. Instead, it was invaded, conquered and subjected to merciless oppression and war for the next 30 years, from 1912 to 1942.
The Italians came to Libya not to liberate but to conquer. They occupied the country for nothing more than empty imperial glory. They derived no commercial benefit from it. It was more than 40 years before oil and natural gas in serious quantities were discovered there.
Yet although the country was largely worthless to the Italians, they ruled with exceptional harshness. There were repeated popular tribal revolts: The Italian army crushed all of them with a ferocity that compared to the Ottoman Turks at their worst.
After the British Commonwealth Eighth Army finally liberated Libya in 1942, the country experienced a brief British occupation. Then it won independence under King Idris in 1951. But he ruled for only 18 years before Qadhafi, then only a young, 27-year-old colonel, seized power in a military coup in 1969.
Qadhafi proved the longest-lived of the Middle East’s generation of stable but brutal, pro-Soviet military dictators. Of his main contemporaries, Saddam Hussein in Iraq was toppled by the U.S. armed forces in 2003 and hanged for some of his crimes two years later. Syria’s Hafez Assad died in power in 2000.
Qadhafi outlasted three presidents of Egypt: Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom he at first revered, died in 1970. Anwar Sadat, whom Qadhafi hated, was assassinated by extreme Islamists in 1981. Even Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt relatively successfully for 30 years, stayed too long. He was toppled by popular protests earlier this year.
Mubarak, to his credit, went relatively quietly. He did not shed the blood of thousands as Qadhafi did in a desperate bid to retain power. Mubarak is currently facing trial in a humiliating cage in Cairo on charges of murder.
Can democracy, peace and stability succeed in Libya in 2011 when they failed in 1911? The answer is: Yes, they can. But they may not be given the chance to.
The key to the success of democracy in 21st century Libya is the recognition that it is necessary because of the very different societies and cultures of the country.
Libya, as its history shows, has never had an opportunity to coalesce as an integrated nation, unlike Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, Syria or even Iraq.
King Idris ruled an independent nation for only 18 years and insofar as he succeeded, he did so precisely because he ruled lightly and left the different parts of the country to largely manage their own affairs.
Qadhafi’s coup succeeded because he was supported by a conspiracy of his own relatively small Qadhadfa desert tribe, who had a disproportionately strong influence in the old king’s army officer corps.
The last thing Libya needs today is a “perfect” American- or European-style democratic constitution of the kind that the Bush Administration imposed upon Iraq in 2003. It has ensured crippled, ineffective and despised government and politics in Iraq ever since.
Libya could certainly benefit from freedom. But what it really needs is a flexible, decentralized system of government.
This would allow different tribes and social coalitions to run the modern port city of Benghazi in the east, while allowing other regions to have more conservative local government arrangements.
Insofar as any current government structures should be the model for post-Qadhafi, democratic Libya, the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf probably comes closest.
As was the case in Bosnia and Kosovo, major European Union economic and social help would now be extremely timely. So would informal but serious NATO support against external threats.
The most likely external threat to the new Libya will come if an extreme Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwan takes power in Egypt.
In 1942, liberation for the peoples of Libya came from Egypt. In 2012, they need to guard against a new wave of conquest coming from there.
The liberation of Libya in 1911-12 from the Ottomans did not lead to an “Arab Spring” for the peoples of the Middle East. Instead it launched a new age of war and even genocide worse than the region had ever known in its modern history.
The Liberation of Libya in 2011 has also been hailed as part of an “Arab Spring,” and it still can be — but only if the lessons of Libya’s harsh fate under European colonial conquest and colonialism a century ago are learned and intelligently applied today.