Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

A protester kicks a policeman during clashes with riot police on Jan. 14, 2011, in downtown Tunis, Tunisia. (Photo: CNS/Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

The Contrasting Fates of Tunisia and Libya

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.


© 2021 National Catholic Reporter
Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'How Many More Deaths Must It Take?' Barbados Leader Rips Rich Nations in Fierce UN Speech

"How many more variants of Covid-19 must arrive, how many more, before a worldwide plan for vaccinations will be implemented?"

Jake Johnson ·


To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·


Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·


PG&E Charged With 11 Felony Counts—Including Manslaughter—Over 2020 Zogg Fire

"PG&E has a history with a repeated pattern of causing wildfires that is not getting better," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "It's only getting worse."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo