This paper focuses on the Libyan experience with social networking platforms in actualising democratic change in the uprising of 17 February 2011.
The emergence of the Internet is one of the most significant leaps in the history of humanity. Information, knowledge and culture are exchanged among masses of people through interconnected information platforms.
These platforms enable our culture to be analysed and rewritten, and fundamentally opens our perceptions to a wide variety of concepts and beliefs. The connected networks of the Internet have shaped a virtual — but communicative — space where people can cross borders freely within a realm characterised by the ability to go anywhere, see anything, learn, compare and understand.
Fundamental within that realm are social networking platforms that facilitate the building of social relations among people who, for example, share interests, activities and backgrounds. These platforms enable information to be disseminated to an unlimited audience, and facilitate interactive dialogue on issues of common interest.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world use these platforms for a variety of purposes, such as getting updates on friends and relatives, tracking the latest on their favourite celebrity, or making new social connections. The capability to disseminate information and reach a large influence directions within society.
In Manufacturing Consent:
The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky recognised such capability of conventional media in favour of ‘the powerful societal interests that control and finance [it]’.
What is unique about social networking platforms — as a form of ‘social media’ — is that it is not necessary to be a powerful stakeholder in society to be able to disseminate information, influence public opinion and affect society’s directions. Even individuals have the potential to do so.
This is exactly what took place in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region in late 2010 and the beginning of 2011. During this time, the youth of the MENA countries, standing up for a common cause — to break the shackles of tyranny and oppression — used modern communications technology as a tool for democratic change and thereby earned their freedom and dignity.
The overwhelming majority of them were poor and uninfluential, but they had the opportunity to make change, and they did so through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
This chapter focuses on the Libyan experience with social networking platforms in actualising democratic change in the uprising of 17 February 2011.
After briefly outlining the political and economic situation under the regime of Colonel Mummar Ghaddafi, the chapter discusses the role that social networking platforms played during the struggle of the Libyan people for democratic change.
Finally, it points out the positive changes that resulted from the uprising and the potential role that social media might play in the ongoing democratisation and development of Libyan society.
In 1969, Colonel Mummar Ghaddafi led a group of officers in a military coup d’état against the government of King Idris Alsanusi, who had been in power since Libya’s independence on 24 December 1951.
Ghaddafi declared Libya as a Socialist Republic and promised an era of prosperity, freedom and justice. However, by the last quarter of 1970, Ghaddafi had already started to isolate his partners in that coup, either through imprisonment or political assassination.
In 1976 he established a radically unique idea, set out in his manifesto — The Green Book — which was based on Athenian Democracy, Marxist ideology and Ghaddafi’s own interpretations of Islam.
According to The Green Book, people would have the right to engage in political and economic affairs through direct democracy by means of general public conferences spread across all Libyan cities.
The ideas in Ghaddafi’s Green Book provided the theoretical framework for Libya’s highest constitutional document, the so-called ‘Declaration of People’s Authority’, adopted in 1977. However, direct democracy existed only in theory.
Martin Asser, writing for the BBC, described how Ghaddafi used the Green Book:
[A] text whose professed objective is to break the shackles imposed by the vested interests dominating political systems was used instead to subjugate an entire population.
In reality, Ghaddfi directly opposed parliamentary democracy and described it as ‘misrepresentation of the people’. Political parties were banned and those who broke the law were threatened with execution. It was common in the 1980s for Libyan television to broadcast trials and public hangings of Libyan citizens who were accused of opposing Ghaddafi.
Despite Libya possessing the seventh largest oil reserves in the world, its infrastructure was highly deficient and some 20 per cent of Libyans were unemployed, mostly as a result of corruption among the political elite of the country.
During his 41 years in power, Colonel Ghaddafi managed to skilfully rule the country with an iron fist. His regime caused an erosion of the national identity of the Libyan people by organising state institutions along tribal lines and appointing members of Ghaddafi’s own tribe to leading positions in the armed forces and high-ranking government offices.
Fundamental human rights and basic freedoms, such as free speech, freedom of religion, private property, and privacy were undermined. Students who spoke openly in the universities were subject to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. There was no official recognition of a right to assembly.
It was common among Libyans to warn each other about speaking of Ghaddfi in a critical manner in public, and there were few civil society organisations. According to Freedom House, Libya ranked among the worst in the world in terms of basic human rights and freedoms.
On a scale of 0 to 7 (with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance), Libya ranked 1.17 in civil liberties; 0.56 in accountability and public voice; 1.12 in rule of law and 0.19 in anticorruption and transparency.
The media was controlled by the state and was concerned mainly with broadcasting news or songs glorifying Ghaddafi and overstating his achievements.
Azmi Bishara, the General Director of the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, accurately describes Ghaddafi and Libya under his regime:
Ghaddafi considered himself as suprahuman condition above the concept of state. That is why he remained in pre-state condition. Under the role of Ghaddafi, there existed no state in Libya. He governed Libya with pure tribal mechanisms and considered himself above the concept of morality and that is why he practically lived without morals.
Necessity for change
Public dissatisfaction with the attitude and performance of Colonel Ghaddafi was apparent from as early as April 1976, when student protests occurred in Benghazi and Tripoli. The regime responded by persecuting and executing the protesters. Until well into the 1980s, the Ghaddafi regime designated 7 April as the national day for the elimination of opposition leaders.
Another sign of dissatisfaction was the attack on Ghaddafi’s headquarters in Tripoli in 1984 by a group of Libyans from different cities. All were killed. However, with the advent of satellites, Libyans started to have an eye on the outside world.
They began to compare their situation in terms of human rights and freedom with other nations. It was common during the 1990s and early 2000s for Libyans to cynically criticise — in closed social circles — their living standards in terms of health, education, public facilities, and income.
The spread of the internet among the youth in early 2000s added more fuel to the already tense situation. The advent of platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, which do not recognise cultural and linguistic barriers, provided Libyans with a constantly open pathway to the outside world, and all attempts by the government to minimise the impact of social media were unsuccessful.
The desire for change was present in the Libyan people from the beginning of the Ghaddafi regime, but the strength of Ghaddafi’s security services prevented change from occurring. Those who had believed in change realised that any attempt to make it a reality would be violently crushed.
Accordingly, without efficient tools for organising and delivering the message to the outside world, change from within remained a dream.
This situation continued from the 1980s until the 2000s. At the same time, having seen the negative consequences of the
American intervention in Iraq in 2003, for the overwhelming majority of Libyans foreign intervention on the ground to change the Ghaddafi regime was out of the question.
Libyan youth hold, with the rest of the world, a set of what can be called universal values that do not recognise cultural differences, religious backgrounds, space or place: freedom, dignity, independence, justice, equality and democracy.
With their eyes on the rest of the world, through the Internet and social networking platforms, Libyan youth increasingly came to understand that these values were not shared by the Ghaddafi regime.
Ghaddafi’s sons and closed circles of tribal leaders and loyal individuals oppressed people and humiliated them: property could be seized without a proper cause, the judiciary system was highly influenced by Ghaddafi’s men, and the state’s institutions were in the hands of incompetent and corrupt individuals.
With all this, Ghaddafi was publicly planning to appoint his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi as his successor. He appointed his son, Mutassim, as head of the office of national security, and another son, Khamis, to the leadership of the elite brigades of the Libyan Army.
Ezieddin Elmahjub is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Tripoli University in Libya. He has worked as a legal consultant in a leading Tripoli law firm, advising multinationals on various areas of Libyan law. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Law School at Queensland University of Technology, researching the development of Libyan intellectual property system from an Islamic cultural perspective.