The Contrasting Fates of Tunisia and Libya


Stephen Zunes – National Catholic Reporter

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, burns Sept. 11, 2012. An assault on the consulate left four people dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. (CNS/Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, burns Sept. 11, 2012. An assault on the consulate left four people dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. (CNS/Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)

The people of Libya and Tunisia both overthrew long-standing dictatorships in popular uprisings in 2011. Four years later, however, the current political situation in these two neighboring North African states could not be more different. The reason has much to do with how their authoritarian regimes were overthrown.

In January 2011, a popular unarmed insurrection in Tunisia that began the previous month ousted the long-ruling Western-backed dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Elections that October brought together a broad coalition government led by an Islamist party. During the next two years, concerns over their conservative policies and their failure to suppress occasional acts of extremist violence led to large-scale protests, resulting in the resignation of the prime minister in December 2013 and the installation of a technocratic government.

A democratic constitution ratified in January 2014 included provisions guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender equality, and protection of the country’s natural resources.

Free competitive elections in the fall of 2014 brought to power a center-left coalition led by secularists, trade unionists and liberals. Despite the horrific attack at the national museum by terrorists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State group in March, Tunisia has emerged as the most democratic and one of the most stable countries in North Africa and the Arab world.

Contrast this with Libya, where — unlike the unarmed insurrection that paved the way to democracy in Tunisia — the dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown in August 2011 by a Western-backed armed insurrection, the culmination of six months of bloody civil war.

Like Tunisia, free elections were held several months after the dictator’s ouster, though unlike Tunisia’s initial Islamist victors, Libyan voters opted for a coalition led by secular moderates. Unfortunately, the new government was unable to exert its power in the face of more than 200,000 armed militiamen, many of whom proclaimed themselves as “guardians of the revolution,” in a country with a population of barely 6 million. It was not long before these armed groups effectively controlled the country’s major cities, with increasing armed clashes between rival militias as well as widespread revenge killings and armed robberies.

Some of these armed groups have engaged in massacres and mass incarceration of alleged supporters of the old regime. In addition to Gadhafi himself, hundreds of suspected supporters of the former government have been summarily executed. Black Libyans and other black Africans living in the country have been targeted in particular, with hundreds killed and thousands driven from their homes.

A radical Islamist group attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Salafi extremists have attacked and destroyed Sufi schools, mosques and holy sites. By 2013, the Libyan Ministry of the Interior reported that the murder rate was five times what it had been prior to the uprising, and armed robberies had increased by almost as much.

Militia groups have engaged in a series of kidnappings of government officials and their family members, even the prime minister and other Cabinet officers. Heavily armed militia groups were able to surround the parliament to force the passage of legislation despite a minority of support.

While seculars and liberals did well in the June 2014 elections, the newly elected government was driven from the capital of Tripoli. Within months, the hard-line Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia had seized all or parts of several Libyan cities, declaring the establishment of an “emirate.” In August 2014, Tripoli’s international airport fell to Islamist forces following a 10-day battle.

Most foreigners have now left, and there is now virtually no foreign diplomatic presence in the country. The deteriorating security situation has led to air strikes by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, but tribal militias and Islamist extremists — including forces aligned with the Islamic State group — now control most of the country.

In certain respects, Libya’s deterioration from an authoritarian but relatively stable country to that of a failed state is not surprising.

Social scientists have observed that in nearly 90 percent of cases where dictatorships have been overthrown through armed struggle, the countries have either become new dictatorships or, like Libya, have ended up spiraling into ongoing violence and instability.

This comes in large part because armed struggle often promotes the ethos of a secret elite vanguard and a strict military hierarchy. Like any military organization, armed liberation movements are organized on an authoritarian model based upon martial values and an ability to impose their will through force. It is no accident that many guerrilla commanders, when they become civilian leaders of a new government, continue to lead in a similar autocratic manner or, even if not formally in power, seek to exert their influence through military means.

By contrast, the majority of dictatorships brought down by largely nonviolent struggles, as with the case of Tunisia, usually evolve into stable democracies within a few years. For mass nonviolent action to emerge victorious, pro-democracy activists need to develop a broad coalition from civil society. Unlike violent movements, such unarmed civil insurrections cannot succeed without the support of the majority of the population.

There has to be give and take within such a movement to mobilize the broad constituency necessary to wage a collective struggle on such a magnitude. Building that kind of support requires utilizing a pluralistic model of organization that could serve as a basis of more democratic and representative governance.

This is the major reason the Tunisians were able to establish a stable democracy on their own while the Libyans, despite military intervention on their behalf by foreign democratic nations, could not.

Many conscientious people in the United States and Europe, concerned over the violent repression by Gadhafi’s forces in 2011, backed the shift from the initial nonviolent resistance in Libya to an armed struggle and supported the NATO intervention as a legitimate application of the so-called “responsibility to protect.” However, in weighing the factors as to whether such humanitarian intervention is morally defensible, it is important to also consider the consequences of what might follow.


Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and program director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.

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