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In early 2011, a wave of civil unrest swept across many Arab countries in northern Africa and southwest Asia. Long-held tensions surfaced once Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the Tunisian revolution by burning himsel¬¬f in protest of government corruption (Abouzeid). The Tunisian revolution acted as the impetus for the Arab spring demonstrations that occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and multiple other countries. Middle East specialist Brian Whittaker predicted this as early as January 16th: “inspired by the Tunisian uprising, people are going to be more assertive about their grievances … We can expect to see many more incidents like this over the coming months in various Arab countries” (Whittaker). In Lybia, protests beginning on February 15th, 2011 grew into a full-fledged civil war between protesters and the authoritarian regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi, just like any true dictator, was the face of Libya’s government; he was involved in every aspect of Libyan life, though officially he had no role in the government. Eventually, rebels defeated Gaddafi’s forces, setting up the National Transitional Council, or NTC, and ultimately killing Gaddafi in the process. The NTC is only intended as a temporary government, however, and has proposed a constitutional democracy as the permanent government to rule in Libya (Birsel). Several aspects of the Libyan civil war, such as the violence within the revolution and the overthrow of a reigning government, resemble key characteristics of other historically significant events. Though there are some inconsistencies with the comparison, the violence within the Libyan civil war can be compared with the Marxian call for a violent overthrow of the ruling class by the proletariat, while Gaddafi’s actions parallel those of Maximilien Robespierre within the French Revolution.
Lybia’s revolution is not without historical precedent. One of the most influential political philosophers of the late nineteenth century was Karl Marx, who published The Communist Manifesto in conjunction with Friedrich Engels in 1848. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engel argue that there are two major classes in society: the bourgeoisie (consisting of the middle and upper classes) and the proletariat (consisting of the working class). Marx and Engel also argue that the bourgeoisie use their resources of production to manipulate the proletariat in their inexorable quest for profits (McKay 696). Gaddafi’s reign paralleled this exploitation and “class struggle” (Marx and Engel): many of Gaddafi’s opponents claim that he and his sons ran an essentially kleptocratic government (“Arab Spring”), which is the epitome of a class struggle. Much of Libya’s wealth – 25% of it’s GDP and 80% of government revenue – derives directly from oil production and exports. However, “little of this income flows down to the lower orders of society” (“Africa: Libya”). Instead, it is used primarily for running the government, and until Gaddafi’s recent overthrow, was probably skimmed by the Libyan autocrat for his own personal use. According to University of Exeter Professor Tim Niblock, there was “a gap of several billion dollars a year between the amount Libya makes from its oil reserves and government spending – a shortfall [that may have] contributed greatly to the wealth of Muammar Gaddafi and his nine children” (Bawden and Hooper). High unemployment rates of 30% (“Africa: Libya”) coupled with this poor distribution of wealth likely angered the majority of lower class Libyan citizens. Just like their Marxian counterparts, the proletariat, Libyan citizens rose up to reclaim their rights and fight against the ruling government because of injustices.
Injustices inspired Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engel call not simply for a revolution, but for “the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie” (Marx and Engel). Libya followed this model precisely. Protests in Libya began in Benghazi on February 15th 2011 with protesters fighting police (“Libyan Protesters Clash”). The conflict soon evolved into pitched battles by March, which included a no-flight zone enforced by NATO (Erlanger and Schmitt).Gaddafi was fully ousted from power and fled Tripoli after a large battle in August (Fahim); he was ultimately killed by rebel forces on October 20th (Fahim, Shadid and Gladstone). Libya’s civil war was brief and bloody, but its key characteristics closely resemble what Marx and Engels proposed.
Despite these similarities, there are some important differences. Libya does not have a strong industrial framework because the country’s economy revolves around exporting oil, not creating other exports or products; thus, there is no true proletariat class within the country. Marx and Engels considered the proletariat class vital for the Communist revolution. However, other proponents of Marx and Engel’s philosophy – such as Lenin – also challenged this aspect: “Lenin argued that under certain conditions a socialist revolution was possible even in a non-industrialized [nation]” (McKay 834). This quote also brings up a second key variance between Libya’s revolution and the idealized Marxian revolution: though Libya does desire a redistribution of wealth, it aspires to become a constitutional democracy (Birhels) – not a socialist nation. This contradicts much of what Marx and Engels advocated, but the comparison between two violent revolutions remains valid.
There is also a strong correlation between the reigns of Gaddafi and Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre was the leader of the Mountain faction within the Jacobins, a French political party, and gained power after his party decided to execute Louis XVI as a traitor to France in 1793 (McKay 635-636). Gaddafi rose to power after overthrowing – but not killing – King Idris of Libya in 1969 in a military coup (“Libyan Leader Vows Fight”). According to the New York Times, he “embraced a string of titles … [but] his most preferred [was] ‘the leader of the revolution’” (“Times Topics: Muammar El-Qaddafi”). Both Gaddafi’s and Robespierre’s reigns began through revolution and ended in the same fashion. The revolutions outgrew their leaders: Robespierre was executed during the Thermidorian reaction to the violence of his Reign of Terror (McKay 643), and Gaddafi was killed by Libyan freedom fighters supporting the NTC as he attempted to flee the country (Fahim, Shadid and Gladstone). Both Gaddafi’s death and Robespierre’s execution were public affairs, as well. Robespierre was beheaded on a blood-red guillotine with his closest followers before huge throngs in Paris (McKay 643); Gaddafi’s final moments before his death and images of his body shortly afterwards were captured via cell phones and shared on the Internet almost immediately (Fahim, Shadid and Gladstone). Gaddafi’s body was also publicly displayed in a refrigerated meat shop for several days after his death (Netto, Black and Harding).
Gaddafi’s ruling style also bears significant similarities to Robespierre’s. Robespierre became the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, which governed France in truth if not in name. The Committee was given “dictatorial power” (McKay 636) which was used to tightly control the economy. Robespierre then instituted the Reign of Terror, which executed approximately 40,000 French citizens (McKay 637). Robespierre argued that terror was completely justifiable:
. . . terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. . . . It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. (Robespierre)
The Reign of Terror effectively stifled all outcries against the government and abolished basic human rights such as freedom of speech. However, Robespierre still touted democracy as the official form of government within France: “not only is virtue the soul of democracy; it can exist only in that government” (Robespierre). Astonishingly, the official method of government within Libya under Gaddafi was also democracy. Gaddafi established the Jamahiriya, or a “state of the masses” (“Africa: Libya”) as a direct democracy with people’s councils. These councils were officially Libya’s “highest authority” (“Libyan Councils Delay”). However, Gaddafi retained true control of the power in Libya and suppressed human rights in his quest for wealth. Though Gaddafi’s humanitarian record within Libya is somewhat murky, his record outside of the country is clear and condemning. Douglas Farah, of the news journal Foreign Policy, reveals that Gaddafi had alliances with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, both notoriously brutal, controlling leaders; he supported FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, which produces more than half of the world’s cocaine and has borrowed money from Gaddafi for missiles to use against US combat planes. Gaddafi also created a training school for terrorists called the World Revolutionary Center, located within Libyan borders. Graduates of the WRC include Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, Idriss Déby of Chad, and Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front. Charles Taylor of Liberia was also recruited by Gaddafi, and is now standing trial “for crimes against humanity, including the abduction of children for combat, systematic rape, and mass murder.” The intimidating and uncompromising President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, received hundreds of millions in Libyan oil money (Farah).
Gaddafi also has suppressed civil liberties within Libya. Reporters Without Borders is a group that annually releases an objective report on the freedom of the press in different countries. In 2005, their Press Freedom Index rated Libya at 88.75, placing 173rd worldwide behind Cuba, China, Vietnam, and Iraq (“Press Freedom Index 2005”). By 2010, Libya had only improved to a 63.50 rating, still placing it at 160th behind governments such as Pakistan and Afghanistan (“Press Freedom Index 2010”).
Another quirk of both Gaddafi and Robespierre is that they attempted to restructure their countries’ calendars in an attempt to have greater control of all aspects of their people’s lives. Robespierre tried to create a more rational, dechristianized calendar based on ten day weeks with new month names as an extension of his rational and atheistic policies such as the cult of reason (McKay 640). Though Robespierre’s logic seems questionable, Gaddafi’s logic appears to be even less sound. A New York Times article states that Gaddafi changed the standard Muslim calendar to one starting with Muhammad’s death, then Muhammad’s birth, and renamed the months to random names such as “Hannibal” and “Lights” (MacFarquhar).
Despite numerous parallels, it also must be considered that there are multiple significant differences between Gaddafi’s reign and Robespierre’s. Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years, while Robespierre barely lasted one year in France. Though both dictators were killed by their own people, Gaddafi’s demise was also supported internationally through NATO and other forces, while Robespierre’s death was not.
Synthesizing information by drawing comparisons between separate historical events, such as between Gaddafi’s reign and the resulting Libyan civil war; the writings of Marx and Engels; and the reign of Robespierre is important because it can help show how history repeats itself. Though no two events are ever completely homogenous, there are imperative lessons to be learned from history. Pushing a people too far through removing their rights and using violence to control them will eventually lead to rebellion and violence as an end result as well. This can even lead to violent revolution, and the subsequent upset of an established government. Analyzing the Libyan civil war through the lenses of Marx and Engel’s writing and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror can also lead to the conclusion that dictatorships are unstable by their very nature. When people are too tightly controlled – the hallmark of a dictatorship or authoritarian government – and living conditions are substandard, they will eventually rebel. Any government that rules by the sword, used upon its own citizens, will fall by the sword, wielded by its own citizens. Also, it seems that leaders who identify too strongly with revolution are doomed to fall through it as well: Libya outgrew its “leader of the revolution,” and Robespierre advocated the revolution until it crushed him. Marx and Engels, however, did not propose perpetual revolution; their ultimate goal was a peaceful society of equality where workers shared profits and the means of production. Perhaps the reason no truly utopian, successful Communist government has emerged in over a century since Marx is that no society birthed in blood and dependent on a sole leader can evolve past a state of totalitarian control. Regardless, Libya now has the opportunity to decide its own destiny as the NTC prepares to relinquish control in favor of an elected government in spring 2012. Maybe the next Arab spring will be remembered for the establishment of fair, representative rulers instead of the overthrow of governments and revolution.
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