The Deep Roots of Libya's Psychology of Violence

Article excerpt

For more than four decades, Libya's self-declared 'Brother Leader,' Muammar Qaddafi, has waged a brutal form of psychological warfare against his own people, analysts say. Rebel forces have also been shaped by that violent history.

The video clip ran late at night on Libya's state-run TV with a warning: not suitable for children.

It was a gruesome scene that appeared to show an antigovernment mob beating the dead body of a Col. Muammar Qaddafi loyalist in the rebel bastion of Benghazi.

Such visceral imagery has long defined political discourse in Libya. The roots of extreme violence stretch back to the colonial period under Italian rule. But from the earliest years of his reign, Colonel Qaddafi has employed violence - from assassinating dissidents abroad to killing opponents at home - to sow fear among Libyans and warn against dissent.

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For more than four decades, the self-declared "Brother Leader" has waged a form of psychological warfare against his own people, analysts say. And taking what he believes to be the lessons from the recent dictator-toppling revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Qaddafi today continues to use brutal images to undermine the rebellion, which he consider a personal affront to his near-perfect rule that must be tackled with "no mercy."

The rebel forces, shaped likewise by that violent history, know the power of persuasion achieved with propaganda gore, and spread their own version.

"Our country is different from others in the world," says a Libyan professional in Tripoli who could not to be named for security reasons. "Here [people] are welcoming. But if you touch them [aggressively] even a little bit, they will pound you in response."

The rebels hand out their own imagery of government crimes, and say one reason for their fight is because the preponderance of violence comes from a regime that has used violence as a tool of control for nearly 42 years.

IN PHOTOS: Libya conflict

The validity of that view is mounting daily in news reports of regime-inflicted violence, from eyewitness accounts of Libyan soldiers branded traitors and killed by their own side, to apparent evidence of serious abuses found in a burned-out police station west of Tripoli.

The dangers are so widely accepted that even the fear of a vengeful bloodbath by Qaddafi forces, if they routed the rebels weeks ago, was enough to prompt a US- and European-led military intervention.

Decades of brutality

At the same time, government officials distribute their own atrocity videos, of acts carried out by rebel "terrorists" who must be hunted down - in the words of Qaddafi - "alley by alley."

"Libyans have had a very rough time over the last century or so," says George Joffe, a Middle East and North Africa specialist at Cambridge University. "Under the Italian occupation they saw their numbers halved, and they just simply died off like flies in concentration camps during the Italo-Sanussi wars, and that certainly left a mark."

"And ... under the Qaddafi regime," says Mr. Joffe. "there has been an extreme intolerance of any dissidence of any kind at all, and the population has been very profoundly disciplined by the regime itself."

Add the longstanding confrontation between tribes, which provides a further reason for violence - as manifest in the execution of those involved in a 1993 coup - and "you can see where some of this viciousness comes from," notes Joffe.

True believers blame the rebels

For true believers, the government's application of force is justified and always right, and Qaddafi's use of violence is no different from any other government protecting itself from its enemies. Libya's leader has also learned, argue some, lessons from the pro-democracy revolts sweeping the Arab world.

Qaddafi "looks at Tunisia and Egypt, because what made Ben Ali and Mubarak leave? …

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