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Professor Examines Gadhafi's Violent Regime

Paul Byman


March 3, 2011 – The situation in Libya is changing daily since the Feb. 17 uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, who has led the country since a 1969 coup. Daniel Byman is a professor and former director of the Security Studies Program and the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. In this Q&A, he talks about Gadhafi’s oppressive regime, the chances of his political survival and the uprising’s effect on al-Qaida.

How is the situation in Libya different from the uprising in the bordering countries of Egypt and Tunisia?

In Egypt and Tunisia, you had peaceful protests that did lead to violence, but it was much more limited. And eventually the leaders decided to go, and they were helped by militaries that wanted to move them along. In Libya, you have a much … exponentially more violent situation. The regime is digging in. Military and security forces are split with some on one side and some on the other. And you had, we don’t know the exact figures, [but] certainly hundreds and probably thousands dead, compared to a much larger country like Egypt, which had far fewer casualties.

What are the chances that Gadhafi and his regime will survive the current turmoil?

The honest answer is that we don’t know if Gadhafi is going to survive. Right now, the odds are against him. Every day it seems more and more of the country is controlled by opposition forces. The regime has attempted several counterattacks and these have not been terribly successful. But the regime still is hanging on to Tripoli. There is unrest there, there is violence there, but it’s still the regime that’s in control. They have more weapons at its disposal, and it’s unclear how organized the opposition is. So this could be a situation where the regime claws its way back in some parts of the country, it could be a situation where we just see no one winning and continued fighting. But my instinct is that the regime is likely to go.

Libya Map

The United States has frozen upwards of $30 billion in assets and sent planes and ships to help people leave Libya. What role is the United States playing in this situation now and in the future?

This is a really tricky issue. U.S. influence and the influence of other countries are quite limited in Libya. For decades, of course, that Libya was an enemy of the United States. Only in the last 10 years or so there’s been some cooperation, on counterterrorism in particular. But it’s never been a very close relationship. And Gadhafi is someone who has shown repeatedly that he doesn’t mind the scorn of the international community. So the U.S. ability to influence things on the ground, economically or through personal ties, is going to be limited. The hope is that the international pressure may convince more military leaders, or security force leaders, or general figures within the Gadhafi regime, to jump ship. It’s probably wise [for the U.S.] to stay away from too active a role. I think in the Arab world in particular, there is not enthusiasm for yet another U.S. military intervention, and I think that’s true among most Americans.

Gadhafi has been in power for more than 40 years – do you have a sense of what a new government would look like?

We don’t know. Gadhafi, one thing he did very effectively was destroy opposition. So he tried to co-opt or kill or imprison rivals of any sort. And we’re likely to see people emerge who are not well known – certainly in the United States, but I would say even within Libya. Some of these figures may have been tied to Gadhafi in one way or another. Some of them may have strong tribal ties. And since the regime is making itself even more hated right now by its attacks on Libyan civilians, we’re likely to see people rise who are unaffiliated with the regime, and those are simply less well known.

What do you think will be the effects of a revolution in Libya on some of the other Arab nations that seem to be reaching a tipping point?

I think … it’s not that the region needs more of a push, because Egypt certainly gave it that, but it’s more the international reaction. Libya is forcing the world to really decide which side it’s on. So far at least, and I think rightly, the world is on the side of the demonstrators. So we may see regimes elsewhere that don’t want to be like Libya trying hard to appease the unrest in their own country.

What do you think the impact of these popular, nonreligious revolutions will have on al-Qaida and its message and recruitment?

My personal view is that it’s going to be a real blow. This is an organization that has said, for decades, that the only way to change these countries is through force. And it’s tried to attract young men in particular with a message of violence. And here you have dramatic change, where you have young people really leading, and that’s going to be very exciting to people that al-Qaida would otherwise try to recruit. You’re also going to see a greater role of Islam in a number of these societies. That, too, is going to hurt al-Qaida, because you’ll have people who are on the moderate end of the spectrum, who will feel that they’re empowered, and they’re likely to become much more critical of the radicals because the regimes of the past lumped them all together, and no longer will that be possible.

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