Is Libya The First 'True Arab Revolution'?

Aug 27, 2011
Originally published on August 27, 2011 6:17 pm

The Libyan rebels' takeover of Tripoli may be a landmark of the movement known as the Arab Spring, but does it qualify as a revolution?

James DeFronzo, author of the book Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements, thinks it's still too early to tell.

"You have to have some great structural, institutional change for an uprising to eventually be legitimately called a revolution," he tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan.

An uprising is only the first part of the revolution puzzle, he says. And pushing a dictator out of power isn't enough, either.

DeFronzo says the makings of a complete revolution involve an overhaul of both the economic and governmental structure of a country.

It's too soon to tell how much "real revolution" we're seeing in the Arab spring, let alone Libya, he says. To determine that, the world will just have to wait and watch.

On the other hand, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, thinks Libya's uprising does qualify as the first true Arab revolution.

"What's different about Libya is here, for the first time, it will actually be the rebels and revolutionaries who will govern their new country in the post-Gadhafi era," he tells Sullivan. "They're operating with a blank slate, they don't have to worry about the old regime structures — they can really start anew."

It doesn't matter that the rebels' victory came with help from Western countries, Hamid says.

"I'm sure, ideally, all of us would have liked the Libyans to do this totally on their own," he says, "but we don't live in that ideal world and sometimes the West can play a positive role."

Even with this victory for Libyan rebels, their country's future can go in any number of directions. They may want to take a lesson from Egypt's aftermath, Hamid says.

In Egypt, the liberals and Islamists were united in their quest to oust a dictator. Now that they have to collaborate politically, Hamid says, their conflicting agendas are becoming more apparent.

"I think that's really hindered the success of Egypt's transition thus far, because people are at each other's throats," he says.

Libyans are in a similar situation. After working together to push out Gadhafi, factions could turn on each other.

Hamid says Libya needs to allow each group a seat at the table. The danger, he notes, is leaving a section of the Libyan people feeling pushed off to the side, which could incite more violence.

"It's very important to give people incentive to be part of the political and democratic process so they feel that they can express their grievances peacefully," Hamid says.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: The Libyan rebels' takeover of Tripoli is a landmark of the movement known as the Arab Spring. But is it a revolution? James DeFronzo, who wrote the book "Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements," thinks it's still too early to tell.

JAMES DEFRONZO: You have to have some great structural, institutional change for an uprising to eventually be legitimately called a revolution in terms of its outcomes.

SULLIVAN: DeFronzo thinks Libya may get there. But Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, thinks it's more than that. He says Libya is, in fact, the first true Arab revolution, more so than Tunisia or even Egypt, because in Libya, every element of the previous regime is collapsing.

SHADI HAMID: What's different about Libya is here, for the first time, it will actually be the rebels and revolutionaries who will govern their new country in the post-Gadhafi era. And they're operating with a blank slate; they don't have to worry about the old regime structures. They can really start anew. I think there really is the potential here for something quite promising.

SULLIVAN: Because in Egypt, we see the military so largely in control, the same military that was in control before the revolution.

HAMID: Precisely. I mean, we have to remember that Egyptian military was the backbone of the Mubarak regime for three decades. And that's the same institution that is now governing Egypt.

SULLIVAN: In some ways, that could be almost a disadvantage as well. I mean, not having that backbone comes with its own problems, it seems like.

HAMID: Yes. It means that there is a lot at stake in Libya that the country can go in any number of totally different directions depending on who's in charge. So, really, it's building something from nothing. So I think there, there's a very big upside, but there's also potentially a very big downside.

SULLIVAN: Will it be hard for the Arab world to embrace Libya as a true revolution given how much military support Libyans received from the U.S., from NATO, from the West?

HAMID: First of all, it was the Libyans themselves who requested international support. It wasn't as if this was a Western imposition. But also, they did this themselves. There were no boots on the ground. They thought this themselves. And it's really remarkable if you look at what the rebel council was able to do just in the span of six months, so I think that they should be given credit for doing this largely on their own with some external help.

And I think the fact of the matter here is that sometimes when you're facing incredible levels of repression, you need external forces to help tip the balance one way or the other. That's the unfortunate reality. I'm sure ideally all of us would have liked the Libyans to do this totally on their own. But we don't live in that ideal world.

SULLIVAN: What do you think is the biggest lesson for Libya and the rebels that they should take away from Egypt?

HAMID: Liberals and Islamists were very much unified when they were fighting against Mubarak in February because they had a common enemy. But ever since then, you've seen different groups and political parties getting further and further apart. They have different visions for their country. But I think that's really hindered the success of Egypt's transition thus far because people are at each other's throats. And so I think going forward, the Libyans really have to focus on building political consensus among all the different factions and political parties. They were able to come together because they all hated Gadhafi. But now that Gadhafi's gone, they might very well turn against each other.

So the focus from the very get-go has to be how do you make sure everyone has a seat at the table and everyone's views about the future of Libya are respected? Because the danger is, if you have one group that feels like it's being pushed out, they may be tempted to keep their arms and to cause trouble. So it's very important to give people incentives to be part of the political and democratic process so they feel that they can express their grievances peacefully.

SULLIVAN: That's Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. He's been speaking with me from Qatar. Shadi, thanks so much.

HAMID: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.