The Mystery of the Libyan Rebels and the Problem With Violence

One of the more distressing things about what’s happening in Libya right now is that we the public know very little about the identity and agenda of the rebel movements we’re not supporting. David Kirkpatrick has an excellent piece in the NYT that doesn’t really answer the question but does at least ask it:

“It is a very important question that is terribly near impossible to answer,” said Paul Sullivan, a political scientist at Georgetown University who has studied Libya. “It could be a very big surprise when Qaddafi leaves and we find out who we are really dealing with.” […]

The eastern region around Benghazi had always been a hotbed of opposition to the colonel, in part because tribes there had enjoyed the favoritism of the former king, Idriss I, whom the colonel overthrew, while he in turn favored the tribes of the central and western coast.

When the uprising came, many of the most significant defectors — including Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, the rebel army head and a former interior minister — were members of the eastern tribes.

Completely leaving the question of US military intervention aside, back when the Libyan Revolution first turned violent I turned pessimistic about its prospects. You can understand why people take up arms against violent repressive regimes. But the fact of the matter is that armed conflict is generally a poor basis on which to establish a liberal democratic political order. Successful political transitions to democracy generally take place through exercises of non-violent “people power” as in the American South, the Philippines, Chile, Central Europe in 1989, and the general template followed in Tunisia and Egypt. Once a conflict is settled by violence and you’re in a dynamic where political power grows from the barrel of a gun, then you’ve either laid the groundwork for further civil conflict or a new authoritarianism under new bosses.

In this particular case, the rebellion is obviously the confluence of some disparate forces. But the man leading the military aspect of it hardly appears to be a lifelong democratic reformer.