By Hugh Roberts
So Gaddafi is dead and Nato has fought a war in North Africa for
the first time since the FLN defeated France in 1962. The Arab world’s one and
only State of the Masses, the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya, has
In contrast to the BLOODLESS COUP of 1 September 1969 that
overthrew King Idris and brought Gaddafi and his colleagues to power, the
combined rebellion/civil war/ Nato bombing campaign to protect civilians has
occasioned several thousand (5000? 10,000? 25,000?) deaths, many thousands of
injured and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, as well as massive damage
What if anything has Libya got in exchange for all the death and
destruction that have been visited on it over the past seven and a half months?
The overthrow of Gaddafi & Co was far from being a
straightforward revolution against tyranny, but the West’s latest military
intervention can’t be debunked as being simply about oil. Presented by the
National Transitional Council (NTC) and cheered on by the Western media as an
integral part of the Arab Spring, and thus supposedly of a kind with the
upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan drama is rather an addition to the
list of Western or Western-backed wars against hostile, ‘defiant’,
insufficiently ‘compliant’, or ‘rogue’ regimes: Afghanistan I (v. the Communist
regime, 1979-92), Iraq I (1990-91), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (over
Kosovo, 1999), Afghanistan II (v. the Taliban regime, 2001) and Iraq II (2003),
to which we might, with qualifications, add the military interventions in
Panama (1989-90), Sierra Leone (2000) and the Ivory Coast (2011).
An older series of events
we might bear in mind includes the Bay of Pigs (1961), the intervention by
Western mercenaries in the Congo (1964), the British-assisted palace coup in
Oman in 1970 and ~ last but not least ~ three abortive plots, farmed out to
David Stirling and sundry other mercenaries under the initially benevolent eye
of Western intelligence services, to overthrow the Gaddafi regime between 1971
and 1973 in an episode known as the Hilton Assignment.
At the same time, the
story of Libya in 2011 gives rise to several different debates. The first of
these, over the pros and cons of the military intervention, has tended to
eclipse the others. But numerous states in Africa and Asia and no doubt Latin
America as well (Cuba and Venezuela spring to mind) may wish to consider why
the Jamahiriyya, despite mending its fences with Washington and London in
2003-4 and dealing reasonably with Paris and Rome, should have proved so
vulnerable to their sudden hostility.
And the Libyan war should
also prompt us to examine what the actions of the Western powers in relation to
Africa and Asia, and the Arab world in particular, are doing to democratic
principles and the idea of the rule of law.
The Afghans who rebelled
against the Communist regimes of Noor Mohammed Taraki, Hafizullah Amin and the
Soviet-backed Babrak Karmal, and in 1992 overthrew Mohammed Najibullah before
laying waste to Kabul in protracted factional warfare, called themselves mujahedin,
‘fighters for the faith’.
They were conducting a
jihad against godless Marxists and saw no need to be coy about it in view of
the enthusiastic media coverage as well as logistical support the West was
But the Libyans who took
up arms against Gaddafi’s Jamahiriyya have sedulously avoided this label, at
least when near Western microphones. Religion had little to do with the
upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt: Islamists were almost entirely absent from the
stage in Tunisia until the fall of Ben Ali; in Egypt the Muslim Brothers
weren’t instigators of the protest movement (in which Coptic Christians also
took part) and made sure their support remained discreet. And so the
irrelevance of Islamism to the popular revolt against despotic regimes was part
of the way the Arab Spring came to be read in the West. Libyan rebels and
Gaddafi loyalists alike tacitly recognized this fact.
The Western media
generally endorsed the rebels’ description of themselves as forward-looking
liberal democrats, and dismissed Gaddafi’s exaggerated claim that al-Qaida was
behind the revolt.
But it has become
impossible to ignore the fact that the rebellion has mobilized Islamists and
acquired an Islamicist tinge. On his first visit to Tripoli, Mustafa Abdul
Jalil, the chairman of the NTC, then still based in Benghazi, declared that all
legislation of the future Libyan state would be grounded in the Sharia,
pre-empting any elected body on this cardinal point.
And Abdul Hakim Belhadj
(alias Abu Abdallah al-Sadiq), whom the NTC appointed to the newly created post
of military commander of Tripoli, is a former leader of the Libyan Islamic
Fighting Group, a movement which conducted a campaign of terrorism against the
Libyan state in the 1990s and went on to provide recruits to al-Qaida.
revolutionaries in Tunisia are now concerned that the re-emergence of the
Islamist movement has diverted political debate from constitutional questions
to toxic identity issues and may derail the country’s nascent democracy; in
this light, the Islamist aspect of the Libyan rebellion should put us on our
guard. It is among several reasons to ask whether what we have been witnessing
is a revolution or a counter-revolution.
The rebels’ name has
changed several times in the Western media’s lexicon: first they were peaceful
demonstrators, democracy protesters, civilians; then (a belated admission)
rebels; and, finally, revolutionaries.
Revolutionaries ~ in
Arabic, thuwwar (singular: tha’ir) ~ has been their preferred
label at least since the fall of Tripoli. Tha’ir can simply mean
‘agitated’ or ‘excited’. The young men who spent much of the period between
April and July careering up and down the coastal highway in Toyota pick-ups
(and the whole of September running backwards and forwards around Bani Walid),
while firing as much of their ammunition into the air as at the enemy, have
certainly been excited.
But how many veterans of
revolutions elsewhere, as distinct from Western journalists, would recognize
them as their counterparts?
The events in both
Tunisia and Egypt have been revolutionary in intent, but the change that has
occurred in Egypt falls well short of a genuine revolution: the army’s return
to power means that the country’s politics has yet to transcend the logic of
the Free Officers’ state established in 1952.
But the way hundreds of thousands
stood up against Mubarak last winter was a historic event Egyptians will never
forget. The same is true of Tunisia, except that there a revolution has not
only toppled Ben Ali but also ended the monopoly of the old ruling party. The
Tunisians have entered the unknown. Whether they have the resources to cope
with the Islamist movement may be their greatest test. The recent elections
suggest they are coping pretty well.
Libya was part of the
wider ‘Arab awakening’ in two respects. The unrest began on 15 February, three
days after the fall of Mubarak: so there was a contagion effect. And clearly
many of the Libyans who took to the streets over the next few days were
animated by some of the same sentiments as their counterparts elsewhere. But
the Libyan uprising diverged from the Tunisian and Egyptian templates in two
ways: the rapidity with which it took on a violent aspect ~ the destruction of
state buildings and xenophobic attacks on Egyptians, Serbs, Koreans and, above
all, black Africans; and the extent to which, brandishing the old Libyan flag
of the 1951-69 era, the protesters identified their cause with the monarchy
Gaddafi & Co overthrew. This divergence owed a lot to external influences.
But it also owed much to the character of Gaddafi’s state and regime.
Widely ridiculed as the
bizarre creation of its eccentric if not lunatic ‘Guide’, the Socialist
People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya in fact shared many features with other Arab
states. With the massive increase in oil revenues in the early 1970s, Libya
became a ‘hydrocarbon society’ that resembled the states of the Gulf more than
its North African neighbours.
Libya’s oil revenues were
distributed very widely, the new regime laying on a welfare state from which
virtually all Libyans benefited, while also relying on oil wealth, as the Gulf
States do, to buy in whatever it lacked in terms of technology and consumer
goods, not to mention hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. For Gaddafi and
his colleagues the state’s distributive role quickly became the central element
in their strategy for governing the country.
The 1969 coup belonged to
the series of upheavals that challenged the arrangements made by Britain and
France to dominate the Arab world after the First World War and the destruction
of the Ottoman Empire. These took on a new vigour in the wake of the defeats of
the Second World War and the supersession of British by American hegemony in
the Middle East. These arrangements entailed the sponsoring, safeguarding and
manipulation of newly confected monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq,
Egypt, Libya and the Gulf statelets, and in most cases the challenges were
precipitated by catastrophic developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Just as the Free Officers
who deposed King Farouq and seized power in Egypt in 1952 were outraged at the
incompetent way Egypt’s armed forces were led in 1948, and the revolution in
Iraq in 1958 owed much to increased hostility to the pro-British monarchy after
Suez, so the Arab defeat in 1967, and crucially, frustration at Libya’s absence
from the Arab struggle, prompted Gaddafi and his colleagues to attempt their
coup against the Libyan monarchy. However, beyond closing the US base at
Wheelus Field and nationalizing the oil, they didn’t really know what to do
Unlike his Hashemite
counterparts, who came from Mecca and were foreigners in Jordan and Iraq, King
Idris was at least a Libyan. He also had legitimacy as the head of the
Sanussiyya religious order, which in the course of the 19th and early 20th
centuries had established itself the length and breadth of eastern Libya, and
had distinguished itself in the resistance to the Italian conquest from 1911
onwards. But like the Hashemites, Idris came to the throne as a protégé of the
British, who fished him out of Cairo, where he had spent more than 20 years in
exile, to make him king and thereby recast Libya as a monarchy in 1951 when the
UN finally decided what to do with the former Italian colony.
originally an Islamic revivalist order, was set up in north-eastern Libya, the
province the Italians called Cyrenaica, by an immigrant divine from western
Algeria, Sayyid Mohammed ben Ali al-Sanussi al-Idrisi, who founded his order in
Mecca in 1837 but moved it to Libya in 1843. It took root throughout the eastern
province in the interstices of Bedouin tribal society and spread south along
the trade routes that crossed the Sahara into Sudan, Chad and Niger. It had
less of a presence in western Libya: in Tripolitania in the north-west, which
had its own religious and political traditions based on the Ottoman connection,
and Fezzan in the south-west.
The two western provinces
have always been considered part of the Maghreb (the Arab west), linked
primarily to Tunisia and Algeria, while eastern Libya has always been part of
the Mashreq (the Arab east) and oriented to Egypt and the rest of the Arab
The new monarchy’s
internal social basis was thus markedly uneven and Idris was badly placed to
promote a genuine process of national integration, opting instead for a federal
constitution that left Libyan society much as he found it while, out of
deference to his Western sponsors as well as alarm at the rise of radical Arab
nationalism and Nasserism in particular, he insulated the country from the rest
of the Arab world. Gaddafi’s coup was a revolt against this state of affairs,
and the otherwise baffling flamboyance of his foreign policy was evidence of
his determination that Libya should no longer be a backwater.
The new regime’s inner
circle was drawn from a small number of tribes, above all the Gadadfa in
central Libya, the Magarha from the Fezzan in the south-west and the Warfalla
from south-eastern Tripolitania. This background did not dispose Gaddafi and
his associates to identify with the political and cultural traditions of the
Tripoli elites or those of Benghazi and the other towns of coastal Cyrenaica.
As the elites saw it, the
1969 coup had been carried out by ‘Bedouin’ ~ that is, country bumpkins. For
Gaddafi & Co, the traditions of the urban elites offered no recipe for
governing Libya: they would only perpetuate its disunity.
The Mediterranean and the
Middle East are not short of examples of lands made painfully into states
based, not on the cosmopolitan societies of the seaboards, but on the bleak and
hard regions of the interior. It was the austere society and sombre towns of
the Castilian plateau, not sophisticated Barcelona or sunny Valencia or
Granada, that brought forth the kingdom which, once joined to Aragon, united
the rest of Spain at the expense of the rich culture of Andalucia in
In the same way Ibn Saud,
ruler of the unforgiving Nejd plateau in the centre of the Arabian peninsula,
had united the Arabs under the sword while forcing the townsmen of the Hijaz,
near the Red Sea coast, who were nourished on the traditions of all four madhahib
(legal schools) of Sunni Islam and well acquainted with the various Shia
traditions, to bend the knee to Wahhabi dogmatism.
Ibn Saud had the militant
religious tradition of the muwahiddun, the disciples of the Nejdi
religious reformer Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, behind him in his drive to unify
Arabia by conquest. Even the revolutionaries of the FLN had religion going for
them, not only because they were confronting a Christian colonial power but
also as heirs to the al-Islah reform movement. But Gaddafi and his associates
had no militant religious banner and organized Islam in Libya was minded to
Pre-empted in the
religious sphere by both the Sanussiyya in the east and the pan-Islamic
tradition of the Tripolitanian ’ulama, which dated from the Ottoman era,
they were desperate to find a doctrinal source for the kind of ideological
enthusiasm they needed to stir in order to reorder Libyan society. At the
outset, they thought they had one in pan-Arabism, which, especially in its
Nasserite version, had inspired enthusiasm across North Africa from 1952
onwards, putting the champions of Islam on the back foot.
But Gaddafi & Co were
latecomers to the Arab nationalist revolutionary ball and little more than a
year after their seizure of power Nasser was dead. For some time Gaddafi
persisted with the idea of a strategic relationship with Egypt, which would have
helped to solve several of the new Libya’s problems, providing it with an ally
and shoring up the regime’s efforts to deal with refractory currents in
Cyrenaica. But Egypt under Sadat veered away from pan-Arabism and plans for an
Egyptian-Libyan union, announced in August 1972, led nowhere. In late 1973 an
anti-Egyptian campaign was launched in the Libyan press, and Libya’s embassy in
Cairo was closed.
Gaddafi now tried to
contract an alliance with his western neighbour, declaring a new ‘Arab-Islamic
Republic’ with Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba in January 1974. This too proved
stillborn. Many wondered what on earth the worldly, Francophile, secular and
moderate Bourguiba could have been thinking and Houari Boumediène, Algeria’s
president, weighed in to remind Tunis that there could be no shift in the
geopolitical balance of the Maghreb without Algeria’s agreement.
Following this logic,
Gaddafi secured an alliance with Algeria, and in 1975 Boumediène and Gaddafi
signed a treaty of mutual friendship. It appeared that Libya had at last
entered an alliance it could rely on. Two years later, after Sadat’s visit to
Tel Aviv, Libya joined Algeria, Syria, South Yemen and the PLO in the
Steadfastness Front, which was opposed to any rapprochement with Israel.
But Boumediène died
unexpectedly in late 1978. His successor, Chadli Bendjedid, emulating Sadat,
abandoned Algeria’s revolutionary commitments and the protective alliance with
Tripoli; Libya was alone again. Gaddafi’s desperation is evident in the
short-lived treaty he signed with Morocco’s King Hassan in 1984. It was his
last attempt to fit in with fellow North African and Arab states. Instead, he
looked to sub-Saharan Africa, where the Jamahiriyya could play the benevolent
All the states of North
Africa have had African policies of a kind. And all but Tunisia have strategic
hinterlands consisting of the countries to their south: for Egypt, the Sudan;
for Algeria, the Sahel states (Niger, Mali and Mauritania); for Morocco,
Mauritania, also a permanent bone of contention with Algeria. In pursuing their
African policies, the North African states often compete with one another, but
they have also been in competition with Western powers keen to preserve or, in
the case of the US, to contract patron-client relations with these states.
Gaddafi’s Libya from its North African neighbours was the extent of its
investment in this southern strategy, which became central to the regime’s
conception of Libya’s mission in the world.
The Jamahiriyya’s African
policy had a darker side. Gaddafi’s support for Idi Amin is the outstanding
example, though even that seems less grotesque when weighed against the support
of various Western governments for Mobutu Sese Seko.
There was also Libya’s
involvement in Chad’s civil war (and attempted annexation of the Aouzou Strip)
and its sustained involvement in the Tuareg question in Niger and Mali. At the
same time, it gave strong financial and practical support to the African Union,
opposed the installation of the US military’s ‘Africom’ on the soil of any
African country and funded a wide range of development projects in sub-Saharan
Gaddafi planned to
exploit the immense water reserves under Libya’s Sahara, and to provide water
to the Sahel countries, which could have transformed their economic prospects,
but this possibility has now almost certainly been killed off by Nato’s
intervention, since Western (and perhaps particularly French) water companies
are lining up alongside Western oil firms for their slice of the Libyan action.
Gaddafi’s African policy
gave Libya a firm geopolitical position and consolidated its strategic
hinterland while also benefiting Africa. That many African countries
appreciated Libya’s contribution to the continent’s affairs was made clear by
the AU’s opposition to Nato’s intervention and its sustained efforts to broker
a ceasefire and negotiations between the two sides of the civil war.
These efforts were
dismissed with scorn by Western governments and press, with African opposition
to the military intervention cynically derided as Libya’s clients doing their
duty to their patron, a self-serving judgment that was unfair to South Africa
That the Arab League,
whose support for a no-fly zone was invoked by London, Paris and Washington to
claim Arab legitimation of Nato’s intervention, had a membership almost
entirely confined to Western powers’ client states was never mentioned.
The situation was full of
irony for Libya. Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam’s contemptuous comment on the Arab
League’s resolution, ‘El-Arab? Toz fi el-Arab!’ (‘The Arabs? To hell with the
Arabs!’), expressed the family’s bitter recognition that the pan-Arabism behind
the 1969 revolution had long ago become obsolete as the majority of Arab states
subsided into shamefaced submission to the Western powers.
The problem for Gaddafi
& Co was that the African perspective they had diligently pursued as a solution
de rechange for defunct pan-Arabism consistent with their original
anti-imperialist worldview meant little to the many Libyans who wanted Libya to
approximate to Dubai, or, worse, stirred virulent resentment against the regime
and black Africans alike.
And so, in taking Libya
into Africa while tending to remove it from Arab regional affairs, the
Jamahiriyya’s foreign policy, like that of Idris’s monarchy, cut the Libyans
off from other Arabs, especially the well-heeled Gulf Arabs whose lifestyle
many middle-class Libyans aspired to. In this way, the regime’s foreign policy
made it vulnerable to a revolt inspired by events elsewhere in the Arab world.
But there was another reason for its vulnerability.
The authors of the 1969
coup initially took Nasser’s Egypt for their model, imitating its institutions
and terminology ~ Free Officers, Revolutionary Command Council ~ and equipping
themselves with a single ‘party’, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), like Nasser’s
prototype essentially a state apparatus providing a façade for the new regime.
But within two years,
Sadat’s de-Nasserisation purges were underway and he was mending fences with
the Muslim Brothers, while the beginning of infitah ~ his policy of
opening up the economy ~ announced the retreat from ‘Arab socialism’ and the
rift with Moscow presaged the turn to America.
Thus the Egyptian model
evolved rapidly into an anti-model, while the experiment with the ASU proved an
instructive failure. The idea of a single party seemed to make sense in Libya
as it had originally made sense in Egypt and also Algeria. Leaders of military
regimes needed to set up a civilian façade so that they could offer a degree of
controlled representation and bring the politically ambitious into the new
But in Egypt and Algeria
the architects of the new single party were dealing with comparatively politicized
populations. Gaddafi & Co confronted a politically inert society, with
little in the way of a state tradition, pulverized by a brutal colonial
conquest and reduced to onlookers as the country became a battleground in World
War Two, then liberated from colonial rule by external forces and finally tranquillized
by the Sanussi monarchy.
In trying to launch the
ASU, the new regime found little to work with in terms of political talent or
energy in the wider population; instead it was the old elites of Tripoli and
Benghazi who invested in the party, which not only failed to mobilize popular
enthusiasm but became a focus of resistance to the revolution Gaddafi had in
Gaddafi accordingly began
to develop an idea he voiced within weeks of seizing power in 1969: that
representative democracy was unsuited to Libya. Other leaders in North Africa
and the Middle East felt the same about their own countries. But in pretending
to allow for representation they were acknowledging their vice in tacitly
paying homage to virtue.
In his Green Book,
however, Gaddafi scandalized people by his refusal to be a hypocrite: he
elevated his rejection of representation into an explicit constitutive
principle which he called the State of the Masses.
But the real problem was
that his new course led Libya to a historic impasse.
He dispensed with the ASU
and the idea of a single ruling party, promoting instead People’s Congresses
and Revolutionary Committees as the key political institutions of the
Jamahiriyya, which was proclaimed in 1977. The former were to assume
responsibility for public administration and secure popular participation, the
latter to keep the flame of the Revolution alive.
The members of the
People’s Congresses were elected, and these elections were taken seriously, at
least at the local level and for a while. But voters were not, in theory,
electing representatives, merely deciding who among the candidates on offer
they wished to assume the mainly administrative responsibilities of the bodies
The system encouraged
political and ideological unanimity, allowing no voice for dissident opinion
except on trivial matters. It drew many ordinary Libyans into a sort of
participation in public affairs, although this was waning by the mid-1990s, but
it did not educate them in other aspects of politics, and did not work well on
its own terms either.
Gaddafi’s State of the
Masses drew on ideas developed elsewhere. The championing of direct over
representative democracy was a prominent feature of the utopian outlook of
young Western leftists in the 1960s. And the strategic decision to mobilize the
‘revolutionary’ energies of the young to outflank conservative party
apparatuses was central to Mao’s Cultural Revolution and a feature of
Boumediène’s ‘Révolution socialiste’.
Where Gaddafi went further
was in abolishing the ASU and outlawing parties altogether, but in this he
could claim a doctrinal warrant: the notion that there should be no political
parties in a Muslim country has long been advocated by some currents of Sunni
Islamism, on the grounds that ‘party’ connotes fitna, or a division of
the community of the faithful, the supreme danger.
Kuwait, Oman, Saudi
Arabia and the United Arab Emirates allow no political parties to this day.
(Gaddafi’s rule always
had a more pronounced Islamic aspect than that of the regimes in Cairo and
Algiers; his intolerance of Islamists owed a lot to the fact that he was intent
on remaining the source of radicalism and unwilling to allow rivals.) Finally,
the idea of direct popular participation in public administration could claim a
local origin in the tradition of the Bedouin tribes known as hukumat
‘arabiyya (meaning here ‘people’s government’ not ‘Arab government’), in
which every adult male can have his say.
The Jamahiriyya lasted 34
years (42 if backdated to 1969), a respectable innings. It did not work for
foreign businessmen, diplomats and journalists, who found it more exasperating
to deal with than the run of Arab and African states, and their views shaped
the country’s image abroad.
But the regime was not
designed to work for foreigners and seems to have worked fairly well for many
Libyans much of the time. It achieved more than a tripling of the total
population (6.5 million today, up from 1.8 million in 1968), high standards of
healthcare, high rates of schooling for girls as well as boys, a literacy rate
of 88 per cent, a degree of social and occupational promotion for women that
women in many other Arab countries might well envy and an annual per capita
income of $12,000, the highest in Africa.
But the point about these
indices, routinely cited, naturally enough, by critics of the West’s
intervention in reply to the propaganda that has relentlessly blackened the
Gaddafi regime, is that they are in one crucial sense beside the point.
achievements of the regime can be attributed essentially to the distributive
state: that is, the success of the hydrocarbons sector and of the mechanisms
put in place early on to distribute petrodollars. But the central institutions
of the Jamahiriyya, the tandem of People’s Congresses and Revolutionary
Committees, did not make for effective government at all, in part because they
involved a tension between two distinct notions and sources of legitimacy.
The Congresses embodied
the idea of the people as the source of legitimacy and the agent of
legitimation. But the Committees embodied the very different idea of the
Revolution as possessing a legitimacy that trumped all others. At the apex of
the Revolution was Gaddafi himself, which is why it made sense for him to
position himself outside the structure of Congresses and hence of the formal
institutions of government, neither prime minister nor president but simply
Murshid, Guide, Brother Leader.
The position enabled him
to mediate in free-wheeling fashion between the various components of the
system and broader public opinion, criticizing the government (and thereby
articulating public restiveness) or deploring the ineffectiveness and
correcting the mistakes of People’s Congresses and doing so always from the
standpoint of the Revolution. The tradition of an Arab ruler making a virtue of
siding with public opinion against his own ministers goes back to Haroun
But the way revolutionary legitimacy could override popular
legitimacy in Gaddafi’s system also resembles Khomeini’s insistence that the
interests of Iran’s revolution could override the precepts of the Sharia ~ i.e.
that political considerations could trump Islamic dogma ~ and that he was the
arbiter of when this was necessary. It is striking that Gaddafi considered that
the interest of the Revolution required the hydrocarbons sector to be spared
the ministrations of People’s Congresses and Revolutionary Committees alike.
Words such as
‘authoritarianism’, ‘tyranny’ (a favourite bugbear of the British) and
‘dictatorship’ have never really captured the particular character of this
set-up but have instead relentlessly caricatured it. Gaddafi, unlike any other
head of state, stood at the apex not of the pyramid of governing institutions
but of the informal sector of the polity, which enjoyed a degree of hegemony
over the formal sector that has no modern counterpart. It meant that the
Jamahiriyya’s formal institutions were extremely weak, and that included the
army, which Gaddafi mistrusted and marginalized.
One is tempted to say of
Gaddafi, ‘L’état, c’était lui.’ But it was the more and more mystical idea of
the Revolution, not heredity and divine right that legitimated his power. And
the intangible content of this Revolution, what Ruth First called its
elusiveness, was closely connected to the fact that the Revolution was never
A distinction between
revolutionary and constitutional government was made in 1793 by Robespierre,
when he wrote: ‘The aim of constitutional government is to preserve the
Republic; that of revolutionary government is to lay its foundation.’ The
effective historical function of the revolutionary government in Libya was to
ensure that, while the country was modernized in important respects, it did not
and could not become a republic.
The Libyan Revolution
turned out to be permanent because its objects were imprecise; its architects
had no form of law-bound, constitutional government in view as a final
destination and no conception of a political role for themselves or anyone else
after the Revolution.
The State of the Masses, al-jamahiriyya,
was presented as far superior to a mere republic ~ jumhuriyya ~ but in
fact fell far short of one. And, in contrast to states that call themselves
republics but fail to live up to the name, its pretensions signaled that there
was never an intention to establish a real republic in which government would
truly be the affair of the people. The State of the Masses was in reality
little more than a game to occupy and contain ordinary Libyans while the
grown-up business of politics was conducted behind the scenes, the affair of a
mysterious and unaccountable elite.
The mobilization of
society in the French Revolution threw up several independent-minded leaders ~
Danton, Marat, Hébert et al as well as Robespierre ~ which made it
psychologically possible for fellow Jacobins to rebel against Robespierre and
set in train the tortuous process of superseding revolutionary by
Something similar, up to
a point, can be said of Algeria (where the independence struggle threw up a
superabundance of strong-minded revolutionaries), although 49 years on, the
winding road to the democratic republic still stretches far ahead, as it did in
France. But the political inertia of Libyan society meant that its Revolution
had one and only one leader. Gaddafi’s closest colleagues no doubt had personal
influence but only one of them, Abdessalam Jalloud, had it in him to disagree
openly with Gaddafi on major issues (and he finally quit on his own terms in
And so Gaddafi’s rule can
be seen as an extreme instance of what Rosa Luxemburg called ‘substitutionism’:
the informal government that was the real government of Libya was a one-man
show. Incarnating the nebulous Revolution, the imprecise interest of the nation
and the inarticulate will of the people at the same time, Gaddafi clearly
believed he needed to make the show interesting.
His flamboyance had a
political purpose. But how long can colourfulness command consent, let alone
loyalty? A Pied Piper leading Libyans ~ mostly well fed, housed and schooled,
but maintained in perpetual political infancy ~ to no destination in
particular. The wonder of it is that the show had such a long run.
Gaddafi seems to have realized
years ago what he had done ~ the quasi-utopian dead end he had got Libya and
himself into ~ and tried to escape its implications. As early as 1987 he was
experimenting with liberalization: allowing private trading, reining in the
Revolutionary Committees and reducing their powers, allowing Libyans to travel
to neighbouring countries, returning confiscated passports, releasing hundreds
of political prisoners, inviting exiles to return with assurances that they
would not be persecuted, and even meeting opposition leaders to explore the
possibility of reconciliation while acknowledging that serious abuses had
occurred and that Libya lacked the rule of law.
These reforms implied a
shift towards constitutional government, the most notable elements being
Gaddafi’s proposals for the codification of citizens’ rights and punishable
crimes, which were meant to put an end to arbitrary arrests. This line of
development was cut short by the imposition of international sanctions in 1992
in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing: a national emergency that reinforced the
regime’s conservative wing and ruled out risky reform for more than a decade.
It was only in 2003-4,
after Tripoli had paid a massive sum in compensation to the bereaved families
in 2002 (having already surrendered Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and Al Amin
Khalifa Fhima for trial in 1999), that sanctions were lifted, at which point a
new reforming current headed by Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam emerged within the
It was the fashion some
years ago in circles close to the Blair government ~ in the media, principally,
and among academics ~ to talk up Saif al-Islam’s commitment to reform and it is
the fashion now to heap opprobrium on him as his awful father’s son.
Neither judgment is
accurate, both are self-serving. Saif al-Islam had begun to play a significant
and constructive role in Libyan affairs of state, persuading the Libyan Islamic
Fighting Group to end its terrorist campaign in return for the release of LIFG
prisoners in 2008, promoting a range of practical reforms and broaching the
idea that the regime should formally recognize the country’s Berbers.
While it was always
unrealistic to suppose that he could have remade Libya into a liberal democracy
had he succeeded his father, he certainly recognized the problems of the
Jamahiriyya and the need for substantial reform. The prospect of a reformist
path under Saif was ruled out by this spring’s events. Is there a parallel with
the way international sanctions in the wake of Lockerbie put paid to the
earlier reform initiative?
Since February, it has
been relentlessly asserted that the Libyan government was responsible both for
the bombing of a Berlin disco on 5 April 1986 and the Lockerbie bombing on 21
December 1988. News of Gaddafi’s violent end was greeted with satisfaction by
the families of the American victims of Lockerbie, understandably full of
bitterness towards the man they have been assured by the US government and the
press ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103.
But many informed
observers have long wondered about these two stories, especially Lockerbie. Jim
Swire, the spokesman of UK Families Flight 103, whose daughter was killed in
the bombing, has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the official
version. Hans Köchler, an Austrian jurist appointed by the UN as an independent
observer at the trial, expressed concern about the way it was conducted
(notably about the role of two US Justice Department officials who sat next to
the Scottish prosecuting counsel throughout and appeared to be giving them
al-Megrahi’s conviction as ‘a spectacular miscarriage of justice’. Swire, who
also sat through the trial, subsequently launched the Justice for Megrahi
campaign. In a résumé of Gaddafi’s career shown on BBC World Service Television
on the night of 20 October, John Simpson stopped well short of endorsing either
charge, noting of the Berlin bombing that ‘it may or may not have been Colonel
Gaddafi’s work,’ an honest formula that acknowledged the room for doubt. Of
Lockerbie he remarked cautiously that Libya subsequently ‘got the full blame’,
a statement that is quite true.
It is often claimed by
British and American government personnel and the Western press that Libya
admitted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2003-4. This is untrue. As part of the
deal with Washington and London, which included Libya paying $2.7 billion to
the 270 victims’ families, the Libyan government in a letter to the president
of the UN Security Council stated that Libya ‘has facilitated the bringing to
justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103, and accepts
responsibility for the actions of its officials’.
That this formula was
agreed in negotiations between the Libyan and British (if not also American)
governments was made clear when it was echoed word for word by Jack Straw in
the House of Commons.
The formula allowed the
government to give the public the impression that Libya was indeed guilty,
while also allowing Tripoli to say that it had admitted nothing of the kind.
The statement does not even mention al-Megrahi by name, much less acknowledge
his guilt or that of the Libyan government, and any self-respecting government
would sign up to the general principle that it is responsible for the actions
of its officials.
Tripoli’s position was
spelled out by the prime minister, Shukri Ghanem, on 24 February 2004 on the Today
programme: he made it clear that the payment of compensation did not imply an
admission of guilt and explained that the Libyan government had ‘bought peace’.
The standards of proof
underpinning Western judgments of Gaddafi’s Libya have not been high. The doubt
over the Lockerbie trial verdict has encouraged rival theories about who really
ordered the bombing, which have predictably been dubbed ‘conspiracy theories’.
But the prosecution case in the Lockerbie trial was itself a conspiracy theory.
And the meagre evidence adduced would have warranted acquittal on grounds of
reasonable doubt, or, at most, the ‘not proven’ verdict that Scottish law
allows for, rather than the unequivocally ‘guilty’ verdict brought in, oddly,
on one defendant but not the other.
I do not claim to know
the truth of the Lockerbie affair, but the British are slow to forgive the
authors of atrocities committed against them and their friends. So I find it
hard to believe that a British government would have fallen over itself as it
did in 2003-5 to welcome Libya back into the fold had it really held Gaddafi
responsible. And in view of the number of Scottish victims of the bombing, it
is equally hard to believe that SNP politicians would have countenanced
al-Megrahi’s release if they believed the guilty verdict had been sound.
The hypothesis that Libya
and Gaddafi and al-Megrahi were framed is to be taken very seriously indeed.
And if it were the case,
it would follow that the greatly diminished prospect of reform from 1989
onwards as the regime battened down the hatches to weather international
sanctions, the material suffering of the Libyan people during this period, and
the aggravation of internal conflict (notably the Islamist terrorist campaign
waged by the LIFG between 1995 and 1998) can all in some measure be laid at the
Wherever the blame lies,
the Jamahiriyya survived up to 2011 fundamentally unchanged in its key
political features: the absence of political parties, the absence of
independent associations, newspapers and publishing houses and the
corresponding weakness of civil society, the dysfunctional character of the
formal institutions of government, the weakness of the armed forces and the
indispensability of Gaddafi himself as the originator of the Revolution that
constituted the state.
After 42 years of
Gaddafi’s rule, the people of Libya were, politically speaking, not much
further forward than they were on 31 August 1969. And so the Jamahiriyya was
vulnerable to internal challenge the moment Arab mass movements making an issue
of human dignity and citizens’ rights got going.
The tragic irony is that
the features of the Jamahiriyya that made it vulnerable to the Arab Spring
also, in their combination, completely ruled out any emulation of the Tunisian
and Egyptian scenarios.
The factors that enabled
a fundamentally positive evolution to occur in both these countries once the
mass protest movement started were absent from Libya. In both Tunisia and
Egypt, the population’s greater experience of political action gave the
protests a degree of sophistication, coherence and organizational flair.
The fact that neither
president had been a founding figure allowed for a distinction to be made
between a protest against the president and his cronies and a rebellion against
the state: the patriotism of the protesters was never put in question. And in
both cases the role of the armed forces was crucial: being loyal to the state
and the nation rather than to a particular leader, they were disposed to act as
arbiters and facilitate a resolution without the existence of the state being
put in jeopardy.
None of this applied to
Libya. Gaddafi was the founder of the Jamahiriyya and the guarantor of its
continued existence. The armed forces were incapable of playing an independent
political role. The absence of any tradition of non-violent opposition and
independent organization ensured that the revolt at the popular level was a raw
affair, incapable of formulating any demands that the regime might be able to
negotiate. On the contrary, the revolt was a challenge to Gaddafi and to the
Jamahiriyya as a whole (and thus to what existed in the way of a state).
The situation that
developed over the weekend following the initial unrest on 15 February
suggested three possible scenarios:
a rapid collapse of the
regime as the popular uprising spread;
the crushing of the
revolt as the regime got its act together;
or ~ in the absence of an
early resolution ~ the onset of civil war.
Had the revolt been
crushed straightaway, the implications for the Arab Spring would have been
serious, but not necessarily more damaging than events in Bahrain, Yemen or
Syria; Arab public opinion, long used to the idea that Libya was a place apart,
was insulated against the exemplary effect of events there.
Had the revolt rapidly
brought about the collapse of the regime, Libya might have tumbled into
anarchy. An oil-rich Somalistan on the Mediterranean would have had destabilizing
repercussions for all its neighbours and prejudiced the prospects for
democratic development in Tunisia in particular.
A long civil war, while
costly in terms of human life, might have given the rebellion time to cohere as
a rival centre of state formation and thus prepared it for the task of
establishing a functional Libyan state in the event of victory. And, even if
defeated, such a rebellion would have undermined the premises of the
Jamahiriyya and ensured its demise.
None of these scenarios
took place. A military intervention by the Western powers under the cloak of
Nato and the authority of the United Nations happened instead.
How should we evaluate
this fourth scenario in terms of the democratic principles that have been
invoked to justify the military intervention?
There is no doubt that
many Libyans consider Nato their saviour and that some of them genuinely aspire
to a democratic future for their country.
Even so I felt great
alarm when intervention started to be suggested and remain opposed to it even
now despite its apparent triumph, because I considered that the balance of
democratic argument favoured an entirely different course of action.
The claim that the
‘international community’ had no choice but to intervene militarily and that
the alternative was to do nothing is false.
An active, practical,
non-violent alternative was proposed, and deliberately rejected. The argument
for a no-fly zone and then for a military intervention employing ‘all necessary
measures’ was that only this could stop the regime’s repression and protect civilians.
Yet many argued that the way to protect civilians was not to intensify the
conflict by intervening on one side or the other, but to end it by securing a
ceasefire followed by political negotiations.
A number of proposals
were put forward. The International Crisis Group, for instance, where I worked
at the time, published a statement on 10 March arguing for a two-point
formation of a contact group or committee drawn from Libya’s North African
neighbours and other African states with a mandate to broker an immediate
between the protagonists to be initiated by the contact group and aimed at
replacing the current regime with a more accountable, representative and
This proposal was echoed
by the African Union and was consistent with the views of many major
non-African states ~ Russia, China, Brazil and India, not to mention Germany
It was restated by the
ICG in more detail (adding provision for the deployment under a UN mandate of
an international peacekeeping force to secure the ceasefire) in an open letter
to the UN Security Council on 16 March, the eve of the debate which concluded
with the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1973.
In short, before the Security
Council voted to approve the military intervention, a worked-out proposal had
been put forward which addressed the need to protect civilians by seeking a
rapid end to the fighting, and set out the main elements of an orderly
transition to a more legitimate form of government, one that would avoid the
danger of an abrupt collapse into anarchy, with all it might mean for Tunisia’s
revolution, the security of Libya’s other neighbours and the wider region.
The imposition of a
no-fly zone would be an act of war: as the US defense secretary, Robert Gates,
told Congress on 2 March, it required the disabling of Libya’s air defenses as
an indispensable preliminary. In authorizing this and ‘all necessary measures’,
the Security Council was choosing war when no other policy had even been tried.
Many critics of Nato’s
intervention have complained that it departed from the terms of Resolution 1973
and was for that reason illegal; that the resolution authorized neither regime
change nor the introduction of troops on the ground. This is a misreading.
Article 4 ruled out the introduction of an occupying force. But Article 42 of
the 1907 Hague Regulations states that ‘territory is considered occupied when
it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army,’ a definition
conserved by the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
What Resolution 1973
ruled out was the introduction of a force intended to take full political and
legal responsibility for the place, but that was never the intention; ground
forces were indeed eventually introduced, but they have at no point accepted
political or legal responsibility for anything and so fall short of the
conventional definition of an occupying force. It may be that this misreading
of the resolution was connived at by the governments that drafted it in order
to secure the best (or least bad) tally of votes in favour on 17 March; this
would of course be only one instance of the sophistry to which the metteurs
en scène of intervention have resorted.
And regime change was
tacitly covered by the phrase ‘all necessary measures’. That this was the right
way to read the resolution had already been made clear by the stentorian
rhetoric of Cameron and Hague, Sarkozy and Juppé, and Obama and Clinton in
advance of the Security Council vote.
Since the issue was
defined from the outset as protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s murderous
onslaught ‘on his own people’, it followed that effective protection required
the elimination of the threat, which was Gaddafi himself for as long as he was
in power (subsequently revised to ‘for as long as he is in Libya’ before
finally becoming ‘for as long as he is alive’).
From the attitudes struck
by the Western powers in the run-up to the Security Council debate, it was
evident that the cleverly drafted resolution tacitly authorized a war to effect
Those who subsequently
said that they did not know that regime change had been authorized either did
not understand the logic of events or were pretending to misunderstand in order
to excuse their failure to oppose it. By inserting ‘all necessary measures’
into the resolution, London, Paris and Washington licensed themselves, with
Nato as their proxy, to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted in the
full knowledge that they would never be held to account, since as permanent
veto-holding members of the Security Council they are above all laws.
In two respects the
conduct of the Western powers and Nato did indeed appear explicitly to violate
the terms of Security Council resolutions.
The first instance was
the repeated supply of arms to the rebellion by France, Qatar, Egypt (according
to the Wall Street Journal) and no doubt various other members of the
‘coalition of the willing’ in what seemed a clear breach of the arms embargo
imposed by the Security Council in Articles 9, 10 and 11 of Resolution 1970
passed on 26 February and reiterated in Articles 13, 14 and 15 of Resolution
It was later explained
that Resolution 1973 superseded 1970 in this respect and that the magic phrase
‘all necessary measures’ licensed the violation of the arms embargo; thus
Article 4 of Resolution 1973 trumped Articles 13 to 15 of the same resolution.
In this way it was
arranged that any state might supply arms to the rebels while none might do so
to the Libyan government, which by that time had been decreed illegitimate by
London, Paris and Washington. Scarcely anyone has drawn attention to the second
The efforts of the ICG
and others seeking an alternative to war did not go entirely unnoticed.
Apparently their proposals made some impression on the less gung-ho members of
the Security Council, and so a left-handed homage was paid them by the drafters
of Resolution 1973. In the final version ~ unlike any earlier ones ~ the idea
of a peaceful solution was incorporated in the first two articles, which read:
[The Security Council …]
the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and
all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;
the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds
to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people and notes the decisions of the
secretary-general to send his special envoy to Libya and of the Peace and
Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High Level Committee
to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms
necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution.
In this way Resolution
1973 seemed to be actively envisaging a peaceful alternative as its first
preference, while authorizing military intervention as a fallback if a
ceasefire was refused. In reality, nothing could have been further from the
Resolution 1973 was
passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi,
whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a
ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in
line with Article 2.
What the Security Council
demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was
immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa
Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments.
‘We will judge him by his
actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was
expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order
his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely
despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate.
Cameron’s comment also
took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course
place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. No sooner had Cameron
covered for the NTC’s unmistakable violation of Resolution 1973 than Obama
weighed in, insisting that for Gaddafi’s ceasefire to count for anything he
would (in addition to sustaining it indefinitely, single-handed, irrespective
of the NTC) have to withdraw his forces not only from Benghazi but also from
Misrata and from the most important towns his troops had retaken from the
rebellion, Ajdabiya in the east and Zawiya in the west ~ in other words, he had
to accept strategic defeat in advance.
These conditions, which
were impossible for Gaddafi to accept, were absent from Article 1.
Cameron and Obama had
made clear that the last thing they wanted was a ceasefire, that the NTC could
violate Article 1 of the resolution with impunity and that in doing so it would
be acting with the agreement of its Security Council sponsors.
Gaddafi’s first ceasefire
offer came to nothing, as did his second offer of 20 March.
A week later, Turkey,
which had been working within the Nato framework to help organize the provision
of humanitarian aid to Benghazi, announced that it had been talking to both
sides and offered to broker a ceasefire. The offer was given what Ernest Bevin
would have called ‘a complete ignoral’ and nothing came of it either, as
nothing came of a later initiative, seeking a ceasefire and negotiations (to
which Gaddafi explicitly agreed), undertaken by the African Union in April.
It too was rejected out
of hand by the NTC, which demanded Gaddafi’s resignation as a condition of any
ceasefire. This demand went beyond even Obama’s earlier list of conditions,
none of which had figured in Resolution 1973. More to the point, it was a
demand that made a ceasefire impossible, since securing a ceasefire requires
commanders with decisive authority over their armies, and removing Gaddafi
would have meant that no one any longer had overall authority over the regime’s
By incorporating the
alternative non-violent policy proposals in its text, the Western war party had
been pulling a confidence trick, stringing along a few undecided states to get
them to vote for the resolution on 17 March: a war to the finish, violent
regime change and the end of Gaddafi had been the policy from the outset. All
subsequent offers of a ceasefire by Gaddafi ~ on 30 April, 26 May and 9 June ~
were treated with the same contempt.
Those who believe in
‘international law’ and are happy with wars they consider ‘legal’ may wish to
make something of this. But the crucial point here has to do with the logic of
events and the policy choices associated with them. In incorporating the ICG’s ~
or, more generally, the peace party’s ~ suggestions into the revised text of
Resolution 1973, London, Paris and Washington deftly headed off a real debate
in the Security Council, one that would have considered alternatives, at the
price of making their own resolution incoherent.
London, Paris and
Washington could not allow a ceasefire because it would have involved
negotiations, first about peace lines, peacekeepers and so forth, and then
about fundamental political differences. And all this would have subverted the
possibility of the kind of regime change that interested the Western powers.
The sight of
representatives of the rebellion sitting down to talks with representatives of
Gaddafi’s regime, Libyans talking to Libyans, would have called the demonization
of Gaddafi into question. The moment he became once more someone people talked
to and negotiated with, he would in effect have been rehabilitated. And that
would have ruled out violent ~ revolutionary? ~ regime change and so denied the
Western powers their chance of a major intervention in North Africa’s Spring,
and the whole interventionist scheme would have flopped.
The logic of the demonization
of Gaddafi in late February, crowned by the referral of his alleged crimes
against humani http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n22/hugh-roberts/who-said-gaddafi-had-to-go/printty to the
International Criminal Court by Resolution 1970 and then by France’s decision
on 10 March to recognize the NTC as the sole legitimate representative of the
Libyan people, meant that Gaddafi was banished for ever from the realm of
international political discourse, never to be negotiated with, not even about
the surrender of Tripoli when in August he offered to talk terms to spare the
city further destruction, an offer once more dismissed with contempt.
And this logic was
preserved from start to finish, as the death toll of civilians in Tripoli and
above all Sirte proves. The mission was always regime change, a truth obscured
by the hullabaloo over the supposedly imminent massacre at Benghazi.
The official version is
that it was the prospect of a ‘second Srebrenica’ or even ‘another Rwanda’ in
Benghazi were Gaddafi allowed to retake the city that forced the ‘international
community’ (minus Russia, China, India, Brazil, Germany, Turkey et al) to act.
What grounds were there for supposing that, once Gaddafi’s forces had retaken
Benghazi, they would be ordered to embark on a general massacre?
Gaddafi dealt with many
revolts over the years. He invariably quashed them by force and usually
executed the ringleaders. The NTC and other rebel leaders had good reason to
fear that once Benghazi had fallen to government troops they would be rounded
up and made to pay the price. So it was natural that they should try to
convince the ‘international community’ that it was not only their lives that
were at stake, but those of thousands of ordinary civilians.
But in retaking the towns
that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s
forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and
bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at
Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda.
The only known massacre
carried out during Gaddafi’s rule was the killing of some 1200 Islamist
prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996. This was a very dark affair, and whether
or not Gaddafi ordered it, it is fair to hold him responsible for it. It was
therefore reasonable to be concerned about what the regime might do and how its
forces would behave in Benghazi once they had retaken it, and to deter Gaddafi
from ordering or allowing any excesses. But that is not what was decided.
What was decided was to
declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenseless civilians and
instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way
of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit,
and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend
There was no question of
anything that could properly be described as ethnic cleansing or genocide in
the Libyan context. All Libyans are Muslims, the majority of Arab-Berber
descent, and while the small Berber-speaking minority had a grievance
concerning recognition of its language and identity (its members are Ibadi, not
Sunni, Muslims), this was not what the conflict was about.
The conflict was not
ethnic or racial but political, between defenders and opponents of the Gaddafi
regime; whichever side won could be expected to deal roughly with its
adversaries, but the premises for a large-scale massacre of civilians on
grounds of their ethnic or racial identity were absent. All the talk about
another Srebrenica or Rwanda was extreme hyperbole clearly intended to panic
various governments into supporting the war party’s project of a military
intervention in order to save the rebellion from imminent defeat.
Why did the panic factor
work so well with international, or at any rate Western, public opinion and
It is reliably reported
that Obama’s fear of being accused of allowing another Srebrenica tipped the
scales in Washington when not only Robert Gates but also, initially, Hillary
Clinton had resisted US involvement. I believe the answer is that Gaddafi had
already been so thoroughly demonized that the wildest accusations about his
likely (or, as many claimed, certain) future conduct would be believed whatever
his actual behaviour. This demonization took place on 21 February, the day all
the important cards were dealt.
On 21 February the world
was shocked by the news that the Gaddafi regime was using its air force to
slaughter peaceful demonstrators in Tripoli and other cities. The main purveyor
of this story was al-Jazeera, but the story was quickly taken up by the Sky
network, CNN, the BBC, ITN et al.
Before the day was over
the idea of imposing a no-fly zone on Libya was widely accepted, as was the
idea of a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions and an arms embargo,
freezing Libya’s assets and referring Gaddafi and his associates to the ICC on
charges of crimes against humanity. Resolution 1970 was duly passed five days
later and the no-fly zone proposal monopolized international discussion of the
Libyan crisis from then on.
Many other things
happened on 21 February. Zawiya was reported to be in chaos. The minister of
justice, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, resigned. Fifty Serbian workers were attacked by
looters. Canada condemned ‘the violent crackdowns on innocent demonstrators’.
Two airforce pilots flew their fighters to Malta claiming they did so to avoid
carrying out an order to bomb and strafe demonstrators. By late afternoon
regime troops and snipers were reliably reported to be firing on crowds in
Tripoli. Eighteen Korean workers were wounded when their place of work was
attacked by a hundred armed men.
The European Union
condemned the repression, followed by Ban Ki-moon, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio
Berlusconi. Ten Egyptians were reported to have been killed by armed men in
Tobruk. William Hague, who had condemned the repression the previous day (as
had Hillary Clinton), announced at a press conference that he had information
that Gaddafi had fled Libya and was en route to Venezuela.
The Libyan ambassador to
Poland stated that defections from the armed forces as well as the government
could not be stopped and Gaddafi’s days were numbered. Numerous media outlets
carried the story that Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfalla, had joined the
rebellion. Libya’s ambassadors to Washington, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia
all resigned, and its deputy ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, rounded
off the day by calling a news conference at Libya’s mission in New York and
claimed that Gaddafi had ‘already started the genocide against the Libyan
people’ and was flying in African mercenaries. It was Dabbashi more than anyone
else who, having primed his audience in this way, launched the idea that the UN
should impose a no-fly zone and the ICC should investigate Gaddafi’s ‘crimes
against humanity and crimes of war’.
At this point the total
death toll since 15 February was 233, according to Human Rights Watch. The
Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme suggested between 300 and 400
(but it also announced the same day that Sirte had fallen to the rebels). We
can compare these figures with the total death toll in Tunisia (300) and Egypt
(at least 846). We can also compare both HRW’s and FIDH’s figures with the
death toll, plausibly estimated at between 500 and 600, of the seven days of
rioting in Algeria in October 1988, when the French government rigorously
refrained from making any comment on events. But the figures were beside the point
on 21 February; it was impressions that counted. The impression made by the
story that Gaddafi’s airforce was slaughtering peaceful protesters was huge,
and it was natural to take the resignations of Abdul Jalil and the ambassadors,
the flight of the two pilots, and especially Dabbashi’s dramatic declaration
about genocide as corroborating al-Jazeera’s story.
Goodies and baddies (to
use Tony Blair’s categories) had been clearly identified, the Western media’s
outraged attention totally engaged, the Security Council urgently seized of the
matter, the ICC primed to stand by, and a fundamental shift towards
intervention had been made – all in a matter of hours. And quite right too,
many may say. Except that the al-Jazeera story was untrue, just as the story of
the Warfalla’s siding with the rebellion was untrue and Hague’s story that
Gaddafi was fleeing to Caracas was untrue. And, of course, Dabbashi’s
‘genocide’ claim was histrionic rubbish which none of the organizations with an
interest in the use of the term was moved to challenge.
raise awkward questions. If the reason cited by these ambassadors and other
regime personnel for defecting on 21 February was false, what really prompted
them to defect and make the declarations they did? What was al-Jazeera up to?
And what was Hague up to? A serious history of this affair when more evidence
comes to light will seek answers to these questions. But I don’t find it hard
to understand that Gaddafi and his son should suddenly have resorted to such
They clearly believed
that, far from confronting merely ‘innocent demonstrators’ as the Canadians had
it; they were being destabilized by forces acting to a plan with international
ramifications. It is possible that they were mistaken and that everything was
spontaneous and accidental and a chaotic muddle; I do not pretend to know for
sure. But there had been plans to destabilize their regime before, and they had
grounds for thinking that they were being destabilized again.
The slanted coverage in
the British media in particular, notably the insistence that the regime was
faced only by peaceful demonstrators when, in addition to ordinary Libyans
trying to make their voices heard non-violently, it was facing politically
motivated as well as random violence (e.g. the lynching of 50 alleged
mercenaries in al-Baida on 19 February), was consistent with the destabilization
theory. And on the evidence I have since been able to collect, I am inclined to
think that destabilization is exactly what was happening.
In the days that followed
I made efforts to check the al-Jazeera story for myself. One source I consulted
was the well-regarded blog Informed Comment, maintained and updated every day
by Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. This
carried a post on 21 February entitled ‘Qaddafi’s bombardments recall
Mussolini’s’, which made the point that ‘in 1933-40, Italo Balbo championed
aerial warfare as the best means to deal with uppity colonial populations.’
The post began: ‘The strafing
and bombardment in Tripoli of civilian demonstrators by Muammar
Gaddafi’s fighter jets on Monday …’ with the underlined words linking to an
article by Sarah El Deeb and Maggie Michael for Associated Press published at 9
p.m. on 21 February. This article provided no corroboration of Cole’s claim
that Gaddafi’s fighter jets (or any other aircraft) had strafed or bombed
anyone in Tripoli or anywhere else. The same is true of every source indicated
in the other items on Libya relaying the aerial onslaught story which Cole
posted that same day.
I was in Egypt for most
of the time, but since many journalists visiting Libya were transiting through
Cairo, I made a point of asking those I could get hold of what they had picked
up in the field. None of them had found any corroboration of the story.
I especially remember on
18 March asking the British North Africa expert Jon Marks, just back from an
extended tour of Cyrenaica (taking in Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Brega, Derna and Ras
Lanuf), what he had heard about the story. He told me that no one he had spoken
to had mentioned it. Four days later, on 22 March, USA Today carried a
striking article by Alan Kuperman, the author of The Limits of Humanitarian
Intervention and coeditor of Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention.
The article, ‘Five Things
the US Should Consider in Libya’, provided a powerful critique of the Nato
intervention as violating the conditions that needed to be observed for a
humanitarian intervention to be justified or successful.
But what interested me
most was his statement that ‘despite ubiquitous cell phone cameras, there are
no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.’
So, four weeks on, I was
not alone in finding no evidence for the aerial slaughter story. I subsequently
discovered that the issue had come up more than a fortnight earlier, on 2
March, in hearings in the US Congress when Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were testifying. They told Congress that
they had no confirmation of reports of aircraft controlled by Gaddafi firing on
The story was untrue,
just as the story that went round the world in August 1990 that Iraqi troops
were slaughtering Kuwaiti babies by turning off their incubators was untrue and
the claims in the sexed-up dossier on Saddam’s WMD were untrue.
But as Mohammed Khider,
one of the founders of the FLN, once remarked, ‘when everyone takes up a
falsehood, it becomes a reality.’ The rush to regime change by war was on and
could not be stopped.
tarnished every one of the principles the war party invoked to justify it. It
occasioned the deaths of thousands of civilians, debased the idea of democracy,
debased the idea of law and passed off a counterfeit revolution as the real
thing. Two assertions that were endlessly reiterated ~ they were fundamental to
the Western powers’ case for war ~ were that Gaddafi was engaged in ‘killing
his own people’ and that he had ‘lost all legitimacy’, the latter presented as
the corollary of the former. Both assertions involved mystifications.
‘Killing his own people’
is a hand-me-down line from the previous regime change war against Saddam
Hussein. In both cases it suggested two things: that the despot was a monster
and that he represented nothing in the society he ruled.
It is tendentious and
dishonest to say simply that Gaddafi was ‘killing his own people’; he was
killing those of his people who were rebelling. He was doing in this respect
what every government in history has done when faced with a rebellion.
We are all free to prefer
the rebels to the government in any given case. But the relative merits of the
two sides aren’t the issue in such situations: the issue is the right of a
state to defend itself against violent subversion. That right, once taken for
granted as the corollary of sovereignty, is now compromised. Theoretically, it
is qualified by certain rules.
But, as we have seen, the
invocation of rules (e.g. no genocide) can go together with a cynical
exaggeration and distortion of the facts by other states. There are in fact no
reliable rules. A state may repress a revolt if the permanent veto-holding
powers on the Security Council allow it to (e.g. Bahrain, but also Sri Lanka)
and not otherwise. And if a state thinks it can take this informal authorization
to defend itself as read because it is on good terms with London, Paris and
Washington and is honouring all its agreements with them, as Libya was, it had
better beware. Terms can change without warning from one day to the next. The
matter is now arbitrary, and arbitrariness is the opposite of law.
The idea that Gaddafi
represented nothing in Libyan society, that he was taking on his entire people
and his people were all against him was another distortion of the facts. As we
now know from the length of the war, the huge pro-Gaddafi demonstration in
Tripoli on 1 July, the fierce resistance Gaddafi’s forces put up, the month it
took the rebels to get anywhere at all at Bani Walid and the further month at
Sirte, Gaddafi’s regime enjoyed a substantial measure of support, as the NTC
Libyan society was
divided and political division was in itself a hopeful development since it
signified the end of the old political unanimity enjoined and maintained by the
Jamahiriyya. In this light, the Western governments’ portrayal of ‘the Libyan
people’ as uniformly ranged against Gaddafi had a sinister implication,
precisely because it insinuated a new Western-sponsored unanimity back into
undemocratic idea followed naturally from the equally undemocratic idea that,
in the absence of electoral consultation or even an opinion poll to ascertain
the Libyans’ actual views, the British, French and American governments had the
right and authority to determine who was part of the Libyan people and who
No one supporting the
Gaddafi regime counted. Because they were not part of ‘the Libyan people’ they
could not be among the civilians to be protected, even if they were civilians
as a matter of mere fact. And they were not protected; they were killed by Nato
air strikes as well as by uncontrolled rebel units.
The number of such
civilian victims on the wrong side of the war must be many times the total
death toll as of 21 February. But they don’t count, any more than the thousands
of young men in Gaddafi’s army who innocently imagined that they too were part
of ‘the Libyan people’ and were only doing their duty to the state counted when
they were incinerated by Nato’s planes or extra-judicially executed en masse
after capture, as in Sirte.
The same contempt for
democratic principle characterized the repeated declarations in the West that
Gaddafi had ‘lost all legitimacy’. Every state needs international recognition
and to that extent depends on external sources of legitimating. But the
democratic idea gives priority to national over international legitimacy. With
their claim of lost legitimacy the Western powers were not only pre-empting an
eventual election in Libya which would ascertain the true balance of public
opinion, they were mimicking the Gaddafi regime: in the Jamahiriyya the people
were liable to be trumped by the Revolution as a source of superior legitimacy.
‘If you break it, you own
it,’ Colin Powell famously remarked, in order to alert the Beltway to the risks
of a renewed war against Iraq. The lesson of the mess in Iraq has been learned;
at least to the extent that the Western powers and Nato have repeatedly
insisted that the Libyan people ~ the NTC and the revolutionary militias ~ own
So, not owning Libya
after the fall of Gaddafi, Nato and London and Paris and Washington cannot be
accused of breaking it or be held responsible for the debris. The result is a
shadow play. The NTC occupies centre stage in Libya, but since February every
key decision has been made in the Western capitals in consultation with the
other, especially Arab, members of the ‘contact group’ meeting in London or
Paris or Doha.
It is unlikely that the
structure of power and the system of decision-making which have guided the
‘revolution’ since March are going to change radically. And so unless something
happens to upset the calculations that have brought Nato and the NTC this far,
what will probably emerge is a system of dual power in some ways analogous to
that of the Jamahiriyya itself, and similarly inimical to democratic
That is, a system of
formal decision-making about secondary matters acting as a façade for a
separate and independent, because offshore, system of decision-making about
everything that really counts (oil, gas, water, finance, trade, security,
geopolitics) behind the scenes.
Libya’s formal government
will be a junior partner of the new Libya’s Western sponsors. This will be more
of a return to the old ways of the monarchy than to those of the Jamahiriyya.
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