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Is this Libya's new revolution?

By Dirk Vandewalle, Special to CNN
  • Dirk Vandewalle: Observers of Libya are shocked at the open expression of opposition
  • He says Moammar Gadhafi kept iron grip on nation for more than four decades
  • Regime used brute force, anti-Western ideology, divide-and-rule to dominate, he says
  • Vandewalle: Libya has been a highly controlled, authoritarian state

Editor's note: Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor of government at Dartmouth University, is the author of "A History of Modern Libya."

(CNN) -- The thought of any sustained opposition and open dissent in Libya boggles the mind of even the most seasoned observers of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's tightly controlled country.

Since he came to power in a bloodless coup in 1969 that replaced the pro-Western Sanusi monarchy, Libya's leader has ruled with an iron-fisted hand that left almost no chance for any opposition to coalesce.

Quite contrary to what we normally perceive in the West, the way in which Gadhafi was able to cement this highly authoritarian system into place relied not only on pure, brute force -- although that has always remained the ultimate deciding factor -- but also on two other factors.

One was an intricate system of divide-and-rule that balanced families, tribes and the country's provinces against each other. The second was by cloaking himself in an anti-Western and particularly anti-U.S. mantle that, initially at least, resonated among many of his fellow citizens after disastrous national legacies that included a brutal colonial period and a monarchy that was perceived as utterly corrupt, both financially and ideologically.

That combination protected Gadhafi's Jamahiriya -- a country that in his theory is run directly by its citizens -- against destabilization and proved unassailable until last week.

For four decades, the regime withstood open confrontations with the West that included the U.S. bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in April 1986, a series of unilateral U.S. economic sanctions and multilateral diplomatic and economic sanctions that profoundly isolated the country and a disastrous war with neighboring Chad that made a mockery out of the Libyan army.

Neither side can be taken prisoner. Winning or losing is truly a matter of life or death.
--Dirk Vandewalle
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Under great financial and diplomatic strains, Libya agreed in December 2003 to end its weapons of mass destruction program, committed to pay compensation for the victims of the 1988 airline bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, and made its uneasy peace with the West.

Gadhafi also successfully weathered several internal attempts to overthrow the regime and managed to eviscerate all secular and religious opposition groups. The regime seemed invincible, impervious to whatever obstacles were thrown in its ruler's way.

Yet here we are: mass demonstrations in Benghazi and throughout the eastern Libyan region of Cyrenaica. 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 that the regime's repercussions will be swift and bloody.

Pitched against them are Libya's powerful security apparatuses, Revolutionary Committees, an army brigade, and, allegedly, foreign mercenaries. But for these defenders of the regime, the same logic holds: If they lose, they will suffer, perhaps beyond description, at the hands of Libyan citizens who are enraged by the atrocities that have already taken place.

It is in part this dynamic, in which neither side can afford to lose, that fuels the extreme violence we are now witnessing in Libya: neither side can be taken prisoner. Winning or losing is truly a matter of life or death.

What exacerbates the crisis in Libya is that effectively there are no national intermediaries, as the army was in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, that can mediate and help resolve the uprising. Libya's army is neither a truly national army nor a professional one. It is riddled by the same divide-and-rule problems that all national institutions in Libya have suffered from.

Beyond Gadhafi and a close circle of confidants, there is only an enormous political and social vacuum. There are neither organized groups within Libyan society nor any younger leadership that can assume political duties. Nor is there a sense of national identity in any meaningful manner. This anomie within Libya obviously does not augur well for its future, no matter how the uprisings turn out.

But what will that future be? Libya remains, for all of the cracks that have become visible in recent days, a tightly controlled and highly authoritarian political system. Whether the demonstrators in Benghazi have enough lasting energy to stand up to seemingly indiscriminate waves of violence by the regime's defenders is still not clear, but seasoned observers are not terribly optimistic.

If that popular energy were to spread into the western part of the country, the implications could be enormous. A demonstration in Tripoli's Green Square, the symbolic equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square and where Gadhafi annually holds his anniversary parades and just days ago made an appearance, would truly and inexorably bring this new Libyan revolution home. The odds do look not very good at this point.

Yet, in Libya, as in Tunisia and Egypt previously, there come tipping points when supporters of the regime judge that the tide has turned against them. The absence of media and broader social media in Libya makes it more difficult for people to discern when that tipping point has been reached, but in a tribal society, news travels fast.

Whatever direction the uprisings in Libya take in the next few days, the ensuing chaos will be considerable, and the level of violence and bloodshed perhaps without equal so far in the region.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dirk Vandewalle.