I’m a sociologist from the University of California, Berkeley doing field research on the uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring. After traveling through eastern Libya between March 15 and March 21 (Benghazi, Tubruq, Benghazi again, and Al-Marj) and then leaving Libya for a few days, I returned to Benghazi again last night (March 25). This time, I’m keeping a blog of my observations, which are based on interviews (mostly with ordinary Libyans, and occasionally with officials from the interim revolutionary government) and ethnography.
What caused the Libyan revolution of 2011? This is the “big question” that motivates my research. At one level, the answers are simple. The Qaddafi regime has been in power for four decades. Most Libyans are tired of its oppression, and of the way it channels economic resources and opportunities to Qaddafi loyalists. With Tunisia and Egypt as inspiration, young, Facebook-using Libyans organized peaceful demonstrations on February 17. After the regime responded with bullets, a revolution began.
That’s the straightforward narrative. It is, I believe, correct. But it doesn’t tell the full story. Many people around the world live under oppressive and corrupt governments, but most of them don’t launch revolutions. Moreover, it’s one thing to protest — as people are doing across the Arab world this year — but it’s quite another to mobilize an armed revolution against a government that has had an iron grip on power for 41 years, with tens of thousands putting their lives at risk.
Why has the Libyan revolution of 2011 has unfolded the way it has? Why now? What concerns do ordinary Libyans have? How do they see the world? Who are the people willing to put their lives on the line to get rid of Qaddafi? Why do some Libyans remain loyal to the Qaddafi government? And what factors might determine whether this revolt succeeds? To answer such questions, we need a textured understanding of Libyan society in 2011, and of the way revolutions happen in the age of Facebook, satellite TV, and mass media. That’s why I’m here.
My observations about Libya are informed by comparisons with the uprisings in Egypt (I was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square February 1 – 10) and Bahrain (I was in Manama’s Pearl Roundabout February 24-28) — and with the uprisings across the rest of the region. Needless to say, other revolutions throughout modern history also form a backdrop to the way I think about the Libyan revolution.
A couple of methodological notes: Any names you see in this blog (besides mine and those of foreign journalists or other public figures) have been changed. Sometimes I’ve also changed ages by a year or two, to protect my interviewees and interlocutors in the event that Qaddafi loyalists take back eastern Libya. I have also left out my interviewees’ occupations and ages entirely on many occasions — both for their future safety and because I haven’t had time to go back through all my notes and sort them out yet before updating the blog.
All comments and suggestions are welcome.