This paper focuses on the Libyan experience with social networking platforms in actualising democratic change in the uprising of 17 February 2011.
The time has come
On 18 December 2010, Tunisians took to the streets in huge rallies and demonstrations to demand an end to the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had held power for 24 years. Ben Ali officially resigned on 15 January 2011.
Ten days later on 25 January 2011, millions of Egyptians marched in the streets and gathered in the famous Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) in Cairo to demand an end to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who had held power for 30 years.
On 11 February 2011, President Mubarak left office. Libyans observed their neighbours, the Tunisians and the Egyptians, with a keen eye. Facebook pages of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions witnessed compassionate interactions from Libyan fans.
Libyan youth were following through YouTube what was happening in the streets of Tunisian and Egyptian cities during the uprisings. Comments in support of both revolutions were common and practised daily by Libyan fans.
For many years Libyans had lived under an authoritarian regime that shared many of the characteristics of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes in terms of oppression and the ruthlessness of the security arms.
The Libyans might even have extra reasons such as the fact that Ghaddafi had held power for 41 years, and that in terms of natural resources Libya is richer than Egypt and Tunisia, although this was not reflected on the living standards of Libyans.
Creating the revolution
Through witnessing and interacting with developments in Egypt and Tunisia, Libyans decided to start their own struggle towards democratic change. In late January 2011, a page appeared on Facebook under the name ‘The Uprising of the 17th of February, a Day for Rage in Libya’.
This Facebook page called upon Libyans to learn from the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences. It pointed to calamities and tragedies that had occurred during Ghaddafi’s rule, such as the killing of 1,269 political prisoners in four hours in the notorious Abusalim prison in Tripoli in 1996.
It also posted photos of Ghaddafi’s sons spending money in fancy hotels and yachts in Europe as a sign of corruption of the regime. The page administrators appointed 17th February 2011 as a day for protests around Libya.
On 15 February 2011, some young Libyans responded to the Facebook invitation and took to the streets in the city of Albyeda, 1,200 kilometres east of Tr ipoli. In response, Ghaddafi’s security forces killed two of them and arrested several others.
Sensing the potential danger of the social networking platforms, Colonel Ghaddafi called famous Libyan Internet activists and bloggers for a meeting in Tripoli at the beginning of February 2011, warning them that they would be held accountable if they contributed to actions against the state.
However, Ghaddafi’s warning came too late. Within a short timespan, the Uprising of the 17th of February Facebook page had attracted 82,000 followers. By 17 February 2011, tens of thousands of Libyans took to the streets of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, to demand the change of the Ghaddafi regime.
The following days witnessed bloody clashes in the city between the demonstrators and the security forces, resulting in the killing of hundreds of civilian protestors. Meanwhile, videos and pictures — mostly taken by mobile phones — of the demonstrations and the security armed response were constantly being posted on YouTube and Facebook, and rebroadcasted by the media.
As a result, unprecedented international coverage of the situation in Libya took place, associated with condemnation from the international community for the brutality of Ghaddafi’s regime. On 21 February 2011, Ghaddafi’s security forces were driven out of the entire eastern coast of Libya.
On 19 February, in the city of Misrata, Libya’s industrial capital and the third largest city, some 50,000 citizens took to the streets, and by the 22nd it was liberated from Ghaddfi brigades. Meanwhile, on 21 February, the demonstrations moved to the stronghold of Ghaddafi, the nation’s capital, Tripoli. At that stage, Ghaddafi and his supporters decided to unleash their maximum military force.
What is unique in that phase of the Libyan revolution is the instant flow and dissemination of information. Young Internet users acted as journalists and reporters for the events on the ground.
Stories, funerals, footage of injured persons, and waves of human masses chanting freedom slogans were constantly posted on social platforms right after the specific event would unfold. These stories would have remained unheard without the power of social networking platforms.
Ghaddafi cracked down on the demonstrations in Tripoli, and it is estimated that the loss of human life was 600 on the first day alone. In addition, on 3 March 2011, the Ghaddafi regime blocked Internet networks in Tripoli and other cities in the western part of Libya.
He called on the Libyan people — via Libya’s state media — to post videos on the Internet showing support for Colonel Ghaddafi!
The pictures and videos posted online from Libya were horrifying as Ghaddafi started to use heavy weaponry such as tanks and multi-rocket launchers to regain control of cities from the demonstrators.
The United Nations (UN) Security Council issued a decision to impose a no-fly zone as a result of Ghaddafi’s use of the airforce. At the same time, demonstrators turned to freedom fighters in order to defend themselves against the assaults of Ghaddafi’s forces.
Social networking channels — mainly YouTube and Facebook — played a very important role in delivering the news to the outside world after Ghaddafi’s siege of Misrata.
This city was of particular importance to Ghaddafi as it was 200 km from his stronghold of Tripoli. As a result, Ghaddafi sent some 12,000 soldiers to take over Misrata. Those soldiers laid siege to the city and started to bombard its neighbourhoods with rockets and live ammunition.
Youth from the city had used digital cameras and mobile phones to record the resulting destruction and the plight of the residents, uploading these images through concealed Internet-satellite facilities.
Some young Libyans also managed to provide daily audio reports on the events that took place in the city during the siege and uploaded them to YouTube. The movement of conventional media was highly restricted, especially in the cities controlled by Ghaddafi.
Therefore, Internet activists who were not dependent on government networks uploaded to YouTube and Facebook footages of queues for food and fuel in Tripoli, which lacked essential supplies as a result of the international embargo imposed by the UN.
Ghaddafi’s response to the civil movement of the Libyan youth in February 2011 transformed it to an armed rebellion. This led to the overthrow of the Ghaddafi regime on 21 August 2011 when rebels overtook Tripoli and caused Ghaddafi to flee to his hometown, Sirt, where he was killed in street fighting with the rebels on 20 October 2011.
Ghaddafi’s death marked the end of one of the longest dictatorships in the history of mankind; ironically, the first reports of his death to the world and instant pictures of it were posted on Facebook.
A tool of connection and change
As alluded to in the previous pages, the desire for change existed from the early days of Ghaddafi’s rule as he revealed his authoritarian approach to governance.
This desire united Libyans from different ideological and ethnic backgrounds behind a common cause — toppling the Ghaddafi regime and forming a democratic pluralist system. However, this desire remained dormant because of the brutality and the watchful eye of Ghaddafi’s security and intelligence services.
The masses, which had long desired change in Libya, needed a tool for connection. Such a tool had to have certain features. It had to be inherently anti-authoritarian and with the ability to circumvent the intelligence agencies’ monitoring eye.
It had to provide a platform that connected people so they could safely coordinate, organise and share plans for change instead of the conventional way of coordinating and organising revolutions through secret meetings. The tool required for connection was found in social networking platforms, mainly Facebook and YouTube.
The announcement on Facebook to consider 17 February 2011 as a day of rage against the Ghaddafi regime was the catalyst of the Libyan revolution towards democratic change. Those who had long desired change needed a tool to connect them to set the date for action.
Without Facebook’s ability to spread the word across distances and borders, such a desire would have remained an unheard narrative. Accordingly, the blocking of the Internet by the Ghaddafi regime and restricting access to Facebook in the cities controlled by his regime did not change the fact that the revolution had already begun, and its flames were soon to reach his long-preserved seat of power.
Even after the Internet was blocked, social networking platforms continued to play an essential role in the Libyan revolution. For instance, Internet activists in Tripoli who had satellite-Internet access used Facebook and YouTube to disseminate information and footages to the outside world showing the wrongdoing of the Ghaddafi regime.
The distribution of these images worldwide added to the international pressure on the regime and eroded its pillars. Some commentators on the Arab spring in general refer to the social networking platforms as mere facilitators for the historical and radical changes that took place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
It is true that these tools do not have the ability to actualise change by themselves; however, at the same time, change would not have taken place without them.
It was the social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that sparked the flames of change, made them grow and led to the desired end, which was to make the dreams of democracy, dignity and freedom come true. They were the thread which had been sought for so long, to connect people so they could share their thoughts and aspirations for a better future.
They were also the mechanism required to disseminate effective plans to as many people as possible. For those who question the vital role of the social media platforms, it is sufficient to ask one question:
Why did it take the people so long to rise up against tyranny and humiliation?
And how did people miraculously rise up immediately after the flourishing of social media?
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.