In Libya, A Conflict of Ideologies

November 8, 2011 • Blogs, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 1670

by Max Watkins:

From 1969 to 2011, Colonel Gaddafi ruled Libya as an autocrat. But with the recent overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi and his government, for the first time in decades, the Libyan people have true efficacy. Even so, Libya faces an uncertain future. Their choices are increasingly becoming dichotomized into two distinct and conflicting visions for Libya’s future: a secular, liberal, and Western-oriented Libya, and a fundamentalist Islamic and anti-Western Libya. Neither side has consolidated its power, but given the stark contrasts between the ideologies, a conflict seems inevitable.

These groups did not suddenly appear in Libya; support for these ideas has existed in the country for years. But how could such conflicting groups exist in Libya under the rule of Gaddafi, who did not tolerate dissent or any threats to his regime?

An anti-aircraft gun. (BRQ Network/Flickr Creative Commons)

Libya as a country is an artificial construct, created arbitrarily by European colonial powers in the early 20th century to facilitate easier governing of the region as the Ottoman Empire, which had been present in Libya since the 16th century, slowly died out. First ruled by Italy and then Great Britain, Libya was a complex patchwork of many tribes and regions that did not want to be mixed together in the first place. Given its diversity of peoples, histories, and cultures, it is no wonder that many different political currents run through the country. And since the Libyan people have not had a chance for self-rule in centuries, the explosion of ideas and different visions for Libya’s future is understandable following the unclenching of Colonel Gaddafi’s iron fist.

Secular, liberal, and Western-oriented factions led the recent revolution. However, they have been unable to consolidate power given the rising popularity and influence of conservative Islamic groups, principally the Muslim Brotherhood, which has seen a resurgence in many Middle Eastern countries as the Arab Spring topples old regimes. These two different forces are present in Libya for two main reasons. First, Libya has a fairly well-educated populace, explaining the existence of a group of university-educated intellectuals. Second, the vast majority of Libyans are Muslim, explaining the wide support for an Islamic government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Clearly there is a conflict in ideology, but the real conflict centers on how these differences will be bridged. Will these two conflicting ideas and groups work out their differences in a political system? Or will the political system break down under the strain? Libya needs to avoid internal conflict and come together through the National Transitional Council to bridge these ideas early on. If a precedent can be set now in which differences are resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means, Libya has a much better chance at moving forward. However, given that there are suddenly so many Gaddafi-era weapons freely available in the country, the potential for civil war still looms large.

Max Watkins ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. He is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger. Contact him at

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