Libya at the crossroads

Issue: 133

Simon Assaf

The revolutions in the Middle East burst like thunder across a region long considered beyond change and are being undertaken by people long considered incapable of acting in their own interests. The idea that revolutions are the stuff of history has now been firmly put to rest. The actions of the young people, and the bravery of their protests, have torn apart regimes built on decades of rhetoric and oppression. These “youth revolutions” united the whole region with common demands: jobs, dignity, freedom, democracy and an end to repression and corruption. They have shaken the giant of the Arab working class out of its sleep.

The longevity of the Arab regimes rested on three pillars. The regimes made a social contract with their populations that promised development and provided a certain level of economic security. This social contract was undermined and weakened by neoliberal reforms. The second pillar of the regimes, both royal and republican, was that in return for peace with imperialism there would be a two-state solution for Palestine. But this promise proved to be empty. With economic chaos and political failure, the regimes could only rest on the third pillar—their repressive powers. What is beyond doubt is that all three have become hollowed out by deep social and ideological changes over past decade.

The dramatic breakthrough in Egypt and Tunisia proved that a combination of insurrectionary mass demonstrations and mass strikes could split the regimes and force rulers out. This process was present in Libya, but the nature of the regime, and the lack of any organised opposition, failed to decisively defeat the security apparatus. The revolution in Libya rose under difficult circumstances. Unlike Tunisia, where trade unions, which could operate within the bounds of the regime, became a focus for discontent, or Egypt, where opposition coalesced around the political movements and a powerful working class, Libya had no organised domestic opposition. Libya’s revolution had to start with the most rudimentary form of organisation. The lack of any opposition also diminished the regime’s capacity to compromise with offers of dialogue and reform. There are no linear measurements to describe the unevenness in the development of the forces of revolution across the region. This unevenness—success in Tunisia and Egypt, failure in Bahrain and Libya—opened a giant chasm between the aspirations of the revolution and its immediate tasks. These questions are posed in life or death moments where failure may become defeat for a generation.

The aims of the uprising that began in Benghazi on 17 February 2011 were not to hand the country over to Western imperialism. But for the left, especially those genuinely opposed to imperialism, the Libyan Revolution posed a set of complex questions. Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen were firmly in the sphere of imperialism; those revolutions could be seen as part of the liberation from the clutches of the West. But what attitude should revolutionaries take towards the uprisings in Libya and Syria, whose regimes, despite being harsh dictatorships, represented some opposition to imperialism?

The Libyan Revolution posed a second problem. Although there was widespread sympathy and support for the uprising, once imperialism took sides, some on the left threw their support behind Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, while others downplayed the intentions of imperialism, opting for a revamped dogma of “humanitarian intervention”. Many supporters of the revolution, including myself, argued that the revolution was forced into an unnecessary compromise with imperialism, and it had been panicked into its call for Western military intervention. We argued at the time that despite its difficulties Libya’s revolution had to turn to support from its neighbours. This argument is for all purposes now abstract: there was an intervention, and the West did derail the revolution. But following Gaddafi’s death and the end of his regime, the question of the direction of the revolution has resurfaced.

Revolution is a process. It is an expression of the direct clash between the old order and a growing desire for change. Revolutions herald in a new era, with new social relations. By its very nature a revolution is a series of crises that explode into open challenge for control over the streets, the factory, office and school, over the economy and resources. In the process of revolution millions are thrown into activity that shapes and changes the world around them, and in so doing raises their consciousness. This process was in play in the early days of the Libyan uprising, and reappeared with the second uprising in Tripoli that marked the end of the civil war. But along the way the revolution was forced into major compromises that will hamper its ability to develop in the same way as its neighbours.

This article is not a definitive history of Libya, or of the uprising and civil war. What I hope to show is that Gaddafi’s regime rose out of a mass movement that developed during the post-colonial era. His coup put an end to this revolutionary wave, and despite the rhetoric, the state he built crushed any opposition to policies designed to create a new ruling class. During Libya’s confrontation with the West in the 1980s revolutionary socialists opposed imperialism’s designs on the country, but Gaddafi’s anti-imperialism was a block on the development of genuine movements in Palestine and Lebanon, and despite the rhetoric, he always sought to maintain oil deals with the West. Similarly, his conversion to Pan-Africanism had a darker purpose, the conquest of northern Chad. Following George Bush’s declaration of the “war on terror”, Gaddafi made his peace with France, Britain and the US. By the time of the first stirrings of discontent Gaddafi and his family were regular visitors in Western capitals, and his regime was at peace with imperialism.

The Italian occupation: the “Fourth Shore”

The territory that is now Libya was the creation of Western colonial powers at the turn of the 20th century. Modern Libya has three distinct regions: Tripolitania in the west, with its capital Tripoli; the eastern region of Cyrenaica, with its capital Benghazi; and the vast deserts of the Fazzan to the south. These territories, with distinct cultural and ethnic histories, were part of the forgotten fringes of the Ottoman Empire. As this empire crumbled colonial powers stepped in. Vast and poor (only 1 percent of the region was suitable for farming),1 the regions that are now modern Libya at first provided little attraction to colonial powers, and were the last to be claimed in the scramble for Africa.

Italy, late on the scene in colonial conquest, seized on the chance to annex the territories in 1911 as part of its strategy of empire building known as the “Fourth Shore”. Some 70,000 Italian colonists settled in Tripolitania, the majority of them in Tripoli, while a further 40,000 settled in the east.2 Colonial rule sparked a rebellion among the eastern tribes, led by Omar al-Mukhtar, a follower of the Sanussi Muslim movement similar to Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.3 Mukhtar commanded his guerrillas in an eight-year war against the colonialists before he was captured and hanged in front of 20,000 of his supporters in 1931.4 Italy’s war on Libya reached bloody highs during the rule of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. In one particularly savage period of repression Italian fascists executed some 12,000 Cyrenaicans.5 Between 1912 and 1943 some 300,000 Libyans, out of an estimated population of one million, are believed to have been killed by Italian troops.

Italian colonial rule ended with the allied invasion of North Africa during the Second World War. A United Kingdom of Libya was declared by the United Nations in 1951 under the rule of King Idris. The king, one of the descendants of the founders of the Sanussi movement, inherited a country impoverished by half a century of colonialism and devastated by world war (Benghazi endured over 1,000 bombing raids during the war in North Africa). On independence the average income in the country was £16 a year, while over 95 percent of the population was illiterate.6 The national income depended on the rent paid by Britain and the US for their military basses along Libya’s Mediterranean coast. In 1952 oil was discovered in the Sirte basin, transforming Libya into the world’s fourth most prolific producer of oil.7 The king opened the country to Western oil companies. The cheap, high-quality oil they discovered transformed the economy, but the new wealth was distributed through a network of patronage surrounding the monarch. By the 1960s the country was in full flow of the first oil boom, and the first stirrings of discontent. Student demonstrations and riots in the early 1960s heralded an era of opposition to the king. This movement was heavily influenced by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution in Egypt.

After seizing power in 1952, Nasser nationalised large sections of the Egyptian economy, including the strategic Suez Canal. His model of the national development, and confrontation with French and British imperialism, found an echo among Libyans, who demanded that the newfound wealth become the motor for the development of their country. In 1969 mass demonstrations triggered a national oil strike. As the movement developed into an open confrontation with security forces the king’s authority crumbled and his troops deserted him. On 1 September 1969 Gaddafi and a group of army captains known as the Free Officers (officially the Revolutionary Command Council) deposed the king. The coup leaders declared that Libya would become part of the Arab front opposed to imperialism and Israel. The officers immediately demanded the withdrawal of US and British troops and the closure of military bases.

The myth of the Jamahiriya

The coup was greeted with mass celebrations, and the people expected Libya to follow in the footsteps of Egypt. But the coup cut short the developing revolutionary movement. The young officers around Gaddafi aspired to create an independent nation state that could tap its resources, above all its oil wealth, to build a modern society. Libya was still an overwhelmingly tribal society made up of nomadic or agricultural communities. The coup leaders set out a programme of nationalisations, beginning with Italian assets, insurance companies and banks, then encompassed the major Western oil operations.

Libya’s revolution was part of a pattern of regime change sweeping developing countries at the time. A feature of these anti-colonial struggles was that the often tiny working class was incapable of taking power, while the old order was no longer capable of maintaining its power. This opened the path for another force, drawn from the new middle class, to put itself at the head of the struggle. The Free Officers revolution did not involve the mass of people; rather it was centred on a small group drawn from Libya’s military. According to Dirk Vanderwalle, “these Free Officers…had all attended the Military Academy, largely because under restrictive policies of the monarchy they had not been able to qualify for university education, which required a special certificate”.8

The Free Officers sought to co-opt the revolution that brought them to power into the Arab Socialist Union (ASU)—a one-party state modelled on Nasser’s party in Egypt. The ASU was declared the only official party, and in 1972 it outlawed the right to strike, banned independent unions and declared any organised opposition a capital offence.9 Many of those who took part in the coup, including some of the Free Officers, saw the actions of the ASU as a betrayal of the popular revolution. Growing disquiet created tensions inside the Revolutionary Command Council that triggered
an unsuccessful coup attempt.10 Fearful of growing discontent, Gaddafi sought to undermine any further opposition by remodelling the regime as a “popular stateless government”. He dissolved the ASU and set out his new doctrine in pronouncements in his Green Book on “socialism”, “democracy” and “Islam”. He established “popular committees” (later named the Revolutionary Committees) that took over functions of the state.

These unelected committees formed the backbone of the new regime modelled on the “Jamahiriya”—a system based on the myth of popular democratic control. The committees seized all newspapers and TV stations, and took over the management of factories, schools and offices. But the oil industry—which represented some 99 percent of state revenues—would remain under the tight control of the small circle around the new ruling clique. Behind the rhetoric of Revolutionary Committees, and the Green Book philosophy, was the creation of a regime of patronage loyal to Gaddafi. Having declared himself “brother leader” he used oil revenues to create a base of support outside the traditional tribal structures, and free from any real popular democratic control.

By the mid-1970s a new opposition would grow among students in the universities. An attempt by Revolutionary Committees to impose an official students’ union in 1975 triggered the first organised mass opposition to Gaddafi’s rule. Waves of demonstrations by students broke out in Benghazi and Tripoli. The students formed their own independent union with an elected head. The committees crushed the movement, and similar protests by students a year later. In 1977 the regime marked the anniversary of the protests with public hangings on campus.11 Among the victims were teachers accused of fomenting discontent. Gaddafi denounced the protesters as “stray dogs” and vowed to crush any further opposition. In the 1980s he undertook another massive reorganisation of the state. Fearful of potential rivals, he relocated most of the key state institutions to his hometown of Sirte. The regime’s military power was reorganised into in a few well-armed and trained forces stationed away from major population centres. Hired guns and the state security network supplemented these forces.12 The national army was relegated to patrolling the border and guarding the oil infrastructure.13

The limits of development

The 1970s oil boom opened the sluices for a massive flow of cash into Libya, and funded programmes for development, as well as a new round of nationalisation. Oil dollars allowed the regime to cement its rule among certain sections of the population. In his programme of domestic nationalisation, under the banner of “popular control”, Gaddafi ordered all property deeds for Tripoli burned, sequestered prime real estate and distributed it to his coterie. He would regularly share oil cash with his supporters for them to go on massive shopping sprees in neighbouring Tunisia (the Tunisians nicknamed this “the invasion of the Green locusts”).14 But far from quiescence, the Libyan people adopted a form of militant abstentionism. “Green rallies” to celebrate the achievements of the revolution were poorly attended. Big shows of public support grew in size only when it became mandatory. This mood of defiant silence was the only answer to Gaddafi’s often eccentric pronouncements.

The Libyan economy did grow, along with the development of a sophisticated oil infrastructure, and there were improvements in education and other social measures. But as the economy depended heavily on oil revenues, the sudden spikes and drops in the oil price buffeted the country. Despite years of accumulated wealth the lives of the vast majority of Libyans remained hard, with high youth unemployment and low wages.15

Anti-imperialism, Pan-Arabism and Pan-Africanism

When Nasser died in 1970 Gaddafi declared himself as his political heir. This title seemed to fit a leader who aspired to become the guiding light of the Arab resistance. Gaddafi’s self-declared role as “brother leader” was strengthened when Egypt’s new ruler, Anwar Sadat, struck a deal with the US and turned his back on Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union. In response Gaddafi concluded a number of arms deals with Warsaw Pact countries, but despite the rhetorical flurry about “socialism”, he continued to supply oil to Europe through the network of small Western oil companies first contracted by the king.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Gaddafi used the rhetoric of Arab nationalism to bolster Libya’s reputation as a bastion of anti-Western resistance. In truth Libya’s meddling inside genuine resistance movements in the region were unwelcome. His agents earned a reputation as assassins and car bombers. Libya supplied the Palestinians with arms and cash in their confrontations
with Israel, but he channelled much of this aid through client groups that remained unaccountable to the broader Palestinian movement. Libya was the only Arab country Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused to visit.16 These organisations would eventually be used to launch attacks on Western targets, as well as Palestinians and Lebanese who opposed his policies.

This interference reached its climax with the murder of the popular (and now revered) reformist Lebanese Shia Muslim cleric Musa al-Sadr. Sadr and several companions were invited to Tripoli for talks in 1978 and disappeared shortly after (some believe they were shot in Gaddafi’s office). Their fate still remains unknown, but the imam’s disappearance opened a deep wound in the Lebanese resistance. Sadr was head of the Amal movement, a majority Lebanese Shia Muslim organisation that would create Hizbollah. In a twist of fate, Hizbollah’s influence over the Lebanese cabinet was at its height when Lebanon took its turn on the Security Council in January 2011. The Lebanese delegation to the UN became instrumental in smoothing the diplomatic path for the no-fly zone imposed on Libya.17

Gaddafi’s meddling in the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance proved disastrous, and as other Arab regimes made peace with imperialism, his influence in the Arab world slumped. In the 1980s he turned his attention to Africa with a newfound conversion to Pan-Africanism. But again this rhetoric hid a cruder ambition—control over northern Chad and its rich reserves of minerals, including uranium deposits. Libya’s war in Chad pitted Libyan proxy armies (and Libyan troops) against French proxies. These wars were a disaster for the regime, with French-backed forces eventually overrunning Gaddafi’s bases inside Chad.18 It was a humiliating defeat. The collapse of the African adventure ushered in another brief wave of dissent and opposition, met by a new wave of repression. Libya’s confrontation with imperialism led to gradual international isolation.

A series of sanctions initiated by the US closed down new investments, starving the Libyan oil industry of spare parts. In 1986 US president Ronald Reagan ordered air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Gaddafi. The attack marked an important milestone in the US government’s attempt to overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome”.19 In response the Libyan regime is said to have ordered the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988.20 The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait changed the nature of imperialism’s confrontation with Libya. The confrontation with Iraq shifted the priorities of imperialism, and following a deal with Gaddafi to hand over Lockerbie suspects, tensions with Western powers eased. Gaddafi’s regime eventually settled its accounts over its operations on Western targets with generous payouts to its victims. Throughout the 1990s he set the country on a new path. The new policy, known as Infitah (Opening), was modelled on Sadat’s neoliberal policies in Egypt during the 1970s.21

The Islamist opposition

It was the outbreak of Islamist-inspired rebellion in the east of the country during the 1990s that would eventually open the door to full reconciliation with the West. The modern Islamist current emerged out of a group of Libyans who fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s. On their return they formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Despite its roots inside the Afghan insurgency, the LIFG eschewed the call for a “global jihad”, stating clearly that it saw its role as overthrowing the Gaddafi dictatorship.22 The Islamists staged spectacular attacks on the regime forces, nearly assassinating Gaddafi twice. This insurgency reached a peak in the mid-1990s with an attempted uprising in the east of the country, but the regime was able to arrest and kill several of its key leaders. Eventually the movement was driven out of its strongholds. Many of the militants fled to Sudan and others joined the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq. Some of the Islamists were eventually released as part of a rehabilitation deal brokered by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and influential Muslim cleric Sheikh Ali Sallabi, now one of the leaders of the revolution and instrumental to galvanising Qatari support for the uprising.23

Following 9/11 the US classified LIFG as part of the Al Qaida network24—a charge the organisation strenuously denied.25 The “war on terror” would provide Gaddafi with a chance to make his final peace with the West, sealed in the infamous 2004 “meeting in the desert” with Tony Blair. For Western powers, Gaddafi’s regime was one that was prepared to make a deal as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to go wrong. The meeting in the desert was offered up as proof of the success of the invasion of Iraq. Gaddafi’s regime now cooperated in the war on terror.26 According to the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor:

Just weeks after the [9/11] attacks, a CIA team flew to London to meet face to face with the man believed to have planned the 1988 Lockerbie bombing—Musa Kusa, the head of Libyan intelligence. Kusa provided the CIA (and also Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service) with the names of LIFG operatives and other Libyan Islamists who trained in Afghanistan, as well as dossiers on LIFG leaders living in the UK. In light of the central role of Libyan Afghans in al-Qaida, this was a major intelligence windfall for the Bush administration. The American government, for its part, officially designated LIFG as a terrorist organisation.27

The CIA and Britain’s MI6 kidnapped and handed over to the Libyan regime key members of the LIFG—among them the present rebel military commander of Tripoli, Abdel Hakim Belhaj. Benghazi and the eastern city of Derma remain the heartlands of Islamist movements and continue to raise deep concerns among Western intelligence agencies, especially after they looted the arms depots during the uprising.28

Hollow reforms

Following the end of UN sanctions in 2004, Gaddafi offered the promise of future reform under the patronage of his son, Saif al-Islam. Saif’s vision of gradual democratisation raised the prospect that as Libya opened up to the West, it could use some of the vast oil revenues to put real changes in place. The regime relaxed some of its repression, engaging many of its opponents in open-ended, but insubstantial, talks on change. Real power remained the preserve of a tight circle around Gaddafi. Privatisation and neoliberal reforms were rich rewards for regime loyalists, many of them buying up the prime real estate nationalised in the 1970s. Gaddafi described the programme of neoliberal reforms as “an extension of popular control”, to remain consistent with official Green Book ideology.

The Financial Times noted, “The capricious leader’s dramatic turnround has arguably benefited him more than his new Western friends. Since his handover for trial of the two agents wanted for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and his 2003 renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, US and European oil companies have been flocking to Tripoli for contracts. Western financial institutions reeling from the global crisis also discovered in Libya’s newly founded sovereign wealth fund a rich and willing client”.29 Once the UN sanctions were lifted the major oil companies engaged in a frenzy of new oil contracts, refinery upgrades and exploration deals worth hundreds of billions of pounds.30 The arms companies were not far behind. In 2009 alone French, Italian, German and British firms supplied the regime with some £300 million in weapons, including jet fighters, ammunition, electronic equipment used to jam mobile phones and tear gas.

According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, on 17 February 2011 (the official date of the start of the revolution), “the UK government had approved the export of goods including tear gas and crowd control ammunition and sniper rifles to Bahrain and Libya, as well as a wide range of other military equipment to authoritarian regimes in the region”. The British government saw Libya as a “priority market” where “high-level political interventions” smoothed the path for UK weapons firms.31 This cooperation rested on the Libyan regime remaining the border policeman of Europe’s southern shores. The bilateral agreements with Italy ensured that sub-Saharan African migrants to Italy were promptly “returned to Libya”.32 These were made in the knowledge that in 2000 the regime unleashed a murderous pogrom on black African migrants.33

The 17 February popular uprising

The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia provided the detonator for decades of pent-up anger and frustration. The origins of the Libyan Revolution lie with a loose network of young activists who joined notables, among them judges and respected lawyers, calling for peaceful protest on 17 February outside the courthouse in Benghazi. These protests, despite their modest demands, turned into the first public displays of opposition to the regime in a generation. Protesters attempted to set up tents in the city square, anticipating that riot police would, at some point, move them on. Instead regime thugs appeared and fired into the protesters, killing scores of peaceful activists. The next morning large crowds turned out for the funerals of the young people. As the procession passed security buildings regime loyalists opened fire again. And the cycle of killings, funerals and more killings began. On the first Friday the protests turned into a day of rage. Huge funerals became mass angry demonstrations that swept through Benghazi disarming security forces and setting alight state security buildings. Similar scenes were repeated across the country; in the city of Zawiya near Tripoli angry crowds torched one of Gaddafi’s palaces.

Over the next week these demonstrations spread to the capital, Tripoli, and the strategic industrial city of Misrata in north western Libya. Demonstrations of millions were closing in on the regime. Libyan diplomats defected, groups of army officers released statements commanding troops to disobey orders, towns and villages declared for the revolution, and workers in the oil industry declared a strike. The process that had delivered stunning victories in Tunisia and Egypt was at work again—small protests that turned into mass demonstrations, security forces driven off the streets, units of the army coming over, and the decisive wave of mass strikes that sealed the regime’s fate. Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam appeared on state TV to deliver a rambling and incoherent speech blaming “drugs, coffee-drinking Arabs, immigrants and other foreigners” for the violence.34 After he finished the crowds stormed the TV station in Tripoli. Amid wild rumours that Gaddafi had fled, a jubilant march closed in on Green Square in the centre of the city. But they were ambushed.35 Gaddafi flooded the capital with his forces and armed his supporters. The uprising in Tripoli failed.36

The emergence of the NTC

The National Transitional Council (NTC) was formed in Benghazi, birthplace of the revolution. The council was originally composed of the leaders of the uprising, trusted notables and judges, commanders of rebel army units and representatives of the rebellious tribes.37 This council grew out of the immediate needs of insurrection in the eastern city. Following the collapse of regime forces it placed under popular control all the functions of the state, including prisons, armed forces, the police, courts and border crossings into Egypt. The council organised the distribution of food and money, and tended to the welfare of the thousands of destitute migrant workers abandoned by their employers. It launched a TV station and a radio station and issued its first revolutionary newspaper. Committees of workers and managers took over key installations, such as electricity stations, the port and airport. Many observers, including Western journalists, noted the efficiency and energy of the councils and the relaxed air of “freedom” in the city. In Benghazi, despite food shortages, the poorest citizens told of how they are eating better now than before the revolution.

The NTC linked up with similar bodies emerging in other liberated areas, including the cities in the east, as well as Misrata, the Western Mountains, and the string of cities west of Tripoli. On one day alone eight towns set up these committees and declared for the revolution. The formation of the NTC opened up the possibility of deepening the revolution by drawing the whole country under popular control. But the NTC faced an immediate challenge. The former justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who resigned from the government in the first days of the uprising, appeared in Benghazi to declare himself the head of a “Provisional Government”. He rallied behind him former diplomats and others seeking to cut a deal with the US and Europe to support the uprising.

His declaration prompted the fury of the NTC, which immediately announced that the provisional government had no legitimacy. The council rejected all foreign military intervention beyond measures to freeze regime assets and halt “mercenary flights”. It feared that the West, under the guise of helping isolate the remnants of the old regime, would attempt to make a deal behind the backs of the people who made the revolution. The NTC in Benghazi made it clear on 28 February that it did not want any foreign intervention in the country.38 The military strategy of the revolutionaries had not been to call for foreign troops or Western air power, but to convince those sent to crush them to change sides. This strategy did, in most cases, succeed in winning over army conscripts, but the real military power rested with the well-armed battalions under the command of Gaddafi’s sons.

Gaddafi’s counter-revolution

Despite the scale of the uprising, Gaddafi’s regime still had a strong base of support. He was able to mobilise his supporters, distribute weapons and purge the army and security forces. Hundreds of soldiers and officers, as well as key members of the civilian administration, were executed. Thousands of civilians were arrested or murdered. Gaddafi’s counter-revolution marked a point at which it seemed that his regime could survive by brute force. The ferocity of this offensive pushed the peaceful movement into an armed uprising. It was an unequal battle. The scale of the counter-offensive shortened the time the revolution needed to accomplish even the most rudimentary military organisation.

Some 15 days into the uprising the revolution was fighting for survival. The first priority for the revolutionaries was an attempt to link up liberated areas in the east with towns and cities in the west that were under siege. Time was crucial. The youth from the east, now armed and fired by belief born out of the near impossible victory over regime forces in the early days of the uprising, stormed westwards. Poorly armed, and with little military training, they drove into an ambush outside Gaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte. The revolution was now in danger, not only in the west of the country, but in the liberated east. The regime took control of key highways, and could move its relatively small but well-armed forces from city to city. The long retreat towards Benghazi began. As Gaddafi’s troops closed in on the rebel city, he declared, “We will show no mercy and no pity to them”.39 In the Western Mountains and Misrata the rebels managed to repel the first regime offensive, but at a high cost. The main target of the regime remained Benghazi. Gaddafi gambled that the fall of the city would mark a divisive defeat for the uprising.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt now lagged behind events in Libya. For the Libyan Revolution to survive it needed immediate practical support from its neighbours. Some supplies, and a few weapons, did come from the Egypt and Tunisia, but the revolutionaries there had little capability of delivering enough real material aid. This shortfall opened the door to Western intervention. Convinced that the revolution would succeed, Western leaders manoeuvred to back the revolt. Beleaguered, the revolutionaries felt they had little option but to throw themselves on the mercy of the West. Despite the NTC’s position that there should be no foreign interference, it was forced to call for international sanctions, a no-fly zone, and then air strikes, in an attempt to halt Gaddafi’s offensive.40 The military setbacks forced the NTC to mortgage the revolution to Western interests. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil was now made head of the NTC and the character of the original committee began to change.

Hijacked revolution

Many Libyans have praised the role of the West in safeguarding their victory. Yet there was little generosity in the actions of the US, France and Britain. These same powers had made it impossible for the revolution to succeed on its own terms. In the first days of the uprising the NTC made a series of simple demands. The rebels asked for international recognition, and access to the billions in sequestrated regime funds in order to buy weapons and other supplies. The West declared that they did not recognise “governments”, only countries, that they refused to block the so-called “mercenary flights” bringing in regime reinforcements, and objected to any supply of weapons, as they feared that these could fall into the hands of “terrorists”.41 Finally they refused to release sequestrated funds on “legal grounds”.42

Instead Western powers put a number of conditions on the NTC. They demanded that any future Libyan government would abide by all contracts signed by the Gaddafi regime.43 Ahmed Jehani, the head of the NTC reconstruction effort, reiterated this promise in August 2011. He told a news conference that “the contracts in the oil fields are absolutely sacrosanct… There’s no question of revoking any contract”.44 Any new Libyan government had to respect all “international agreements”, among them the bilateral deal with Italy that stopped sub-Saharan migration to southern Europe. The council also released a statement reiterating its commitment to “anti-terrorism”.45 The new Libya would be like the old Libya, only without Gaddafi and senior members of his regime. It was an offer the NTC could not refuse.

Civil war and the second uprising

The effect of the NATO air campaign should not be overestimated. Warplanes did pulverise regime forces, but it was the war on the ground that proved decisive. The bulk of the fighting was left to the armed civilians, and the focus of the war shifted to Misrata and the Western Mountains after the rebel offensive in the east stalled outside the Brega oil terminal. The Western Mountains are home to the Amazigh (Berber) minority long oppressed under Gaddafi. A breakthrough came in the summer when Amazigh rebels in the Western Mountains seized the border with Tunisia. Thousands of Libyans who fled the crackdown in Tripoli and other western cities poured across to join the fight. With foreign help, including large numbers of advisers and special forces from Qatar, the rebels became more organised and effective.

The bloodiest battles raged over the control of Misrata. The industrial city lay on the strategic coastal road between the capital and the regime stronghold of Sirte. Unlike Benghazi, Misrata had a large industrial working class based round a modern steel mill. Misrata’s defenders adapted the factories to produce armoured vehicles, while a vital sea route from the east brought in weapons and other supplies, often having to dodge the blockade by the Libyan navy and NATO warships imposing the arms embargo.46 The defenders eventually surrounded and defeated regime forces on the eve of NATO air strikes.

Victory gave the leadership in Misrata huge influence among rebels and it was critical of the NTC in Benghazi. It denounced the Western-backed NTC leaders and demanded that it purge its ranks of former regime figures. The city refused to take direct orders from Benghazi and, following the fall of Gaddafi, declared it would maintain a semi-independence from the new government in Tripoli.47 Despite its role in the civil war Misrata forces still relied on NATO air power to open the path in its offensive on regime forces. After the fall of the capital Misrata earned a darker reputation by targeting black Africans it accused of being supporters of the regime.48

On 20 August Tripoli again rose in rebellion. This time rebel fighters poured into the city. According to Reuters news agency foreign special forces played a key role in the battle for the city:

The rebels were not alone. British operatives infiltrated Tripoli and planted radio equipment to help target air strikes and avoid killing civilians, according to US and allied sources. The French supplied training and transport for new weapons. Washington helped at a critical late point by adding two extra Predator drones to the skies over Tripoli, improving NATO’s ability to strike. Also vital, say Western and rebel officials, was the covert support of Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Doha gave weapons, military training and money to the rebels.49

But it was the role of the masses that was key in the final battle. One NTC official explained that the date for the final offensive was set by the resistance in the capital: “There was a public plan in Tripoli that they would rise up on that day, by calling from the mosques. It was not a military plan, not an official plan; it was a people’s plan. The people inside Tripoli, they did this in coordination with us”.50 The reappearance of the masses in the final battle for the capital was decisive, as there were still only a few hundred rebels heading towards it. Crowds converged on Green Square, set up barricades in the neighbourhoods and disarmed the now demoralised regime forces. It was only a matter of time before the final elements of the regime would be defeated. On 20 October Gaddafi and key members of his regime were captured and executed. His death marked the final collapse of his forces.

Humanitarian war and “soft military power”

Western intervention in Libya had an important goal, the rehabilitation of “humanitarian intervention” and its more modern versions of “soft military power” and “muscular liberalism”. This doctrine was originally developed to justify Western intervention in the 1990s Balkan Wars, and followed the failure to stop the terrible massacre in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica. But it became the ideological justification for the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The thrust of humanitarian intervention is that Western interests can align with liberal humanitarian values. This idea, popular among sections of the left, supplants the actions of the masses with Western troops. But while the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the fallacy of humanitarian war, the outbreak of the Libyan Revolution was an opportunity for its revival. This intervention, it was argued, differed from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the cry for help came from the rebels themselves, with backing of the Arab League and tacit approval of anti-imperialist movements such as Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Daneil Serwer was quick to make this case. He wrote in the influential US magazine the Atlantic, “A coalition of the willing attacks an Arab country; French warplanes strike armoured vehicles; American cruise missiles take down air defences. It all sounds to some too much like Iraq redux. But it’s not. The proper analogy is Srebrenica. This is the international community acting under international law to prevent mass murder”.51 Serwer put into words the prevailing feeling over the intervention at the time. But it was a risk. Stratfor, the US strategic journal, noted with some irony:

In Europe, the doctrine of “soft power” has become a central doctrine. In the case of Libya, finding a path to soft power was difficult. Sanctions and lectures would probably not stop Gaddafi, but military action ran counter to soft power. What emerged was a doctrine of soft military power. Instituting a no-fly zone was a way to engage in military action without actually hurting anyone, except those Libyan pilots who took off. It satisfied the need to distinguish Libya from Iraq by not invading and occupying Libya but still putting crushing pressure on Gaddafi.

Of course, a no-fly zone proved ineffective and irrelevant, and the French began bombing Gaddafi’s forces the same day. Libyans on the ground were dying, but not British, French or American soldiers. While the no-fly zone was officially announced, this segue to an air campaign sort of emerged over time without a clear decision point. For human-rights activists, this kept them from addressing the concern that airstrikes always cause unintended deaths because they are never as accurate as one might like. For the governments, it allowed them to be seen as embarking upon what I have called an “immaculate intervention”.52

The arguments for and against military intervention divided right wing commentators nervous at the prospect of another war in a Muslim country. But this debate also surfaced inside the left who feared that if Gaddafi succeeded in crushing the uprising it would send a signal to the other dictators facing their own revolutions. It was a popular and powerful argument, but one that downplayed the intentions of imperialism. Gilbert Achcar, a consistent opponent of imperialism, argued that the left had no choice but to support intervention. In an influential piece he wrote for Znet, Achcar argued:

Can anyone claiming to belong to the left just ignore a popular movement’s plea for protection, even by means of imperialist bandit-cops, when the type of protection requested is not one through which control over their country could be exerted? Certainly not, by my understanding of the left. No real progressive could just ignore the uprising’s request for protection.53

Supporters of intervention argued that Benghazi was in danger of becoming the new Srebrenica, and as the West failed to halt that massacre it would be culpable in the threat posed to Libya’s revolutionary capital. Put in these terms only the most callous person would reject such an intervention. But this is only half the story. The humanitarian intervention that grew out of the bloody Balkan Wars became the justification for a far bloodier invasion of Iraq, with over one million killed. In these terms, the moral debate becomes one of counting the numbers of deaths. Instead we have to understand how imperial powers seize on these opportunities to justify a series of other wars using the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention.

There is a more fundamental reason to oppose Western intervention. Stung by the outbreak of revolution in two key Arab states, Western powers saw an opportunity to implant themselves back in North Africa. Libya was a tempting prize, not only to secure the oil, but also to create a new pro-Western regime in between the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. This gamble seems to have paid off. The US Foreign Affairs magazine was in no doubt that this was an important victory for the US, but it also contained a warning:

The fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi is a significant foreign policy triumph for US President Barack Obama. By setting overall strategy while allowing others to shoulder the burden of implementing it, the Obama administration achieved its short-term objective of stopping Gaddafi’s atrocities and its long-term one of removing him from power. This was all done at a modest financial cost, with no US troops on the ground, and zero US casualties. Meanwhile, as the first unambiguous military enforcement of the [UN] Responsibility to Protect norm, Gaddafi’s utter defeat seemingly put new wind in the sails of humanitarian intervention. One must be careful, however, not to overdraw lessons from the Libyan experience. It was a unique case and is unlikely to be repeated.54

The “soft military power” on display in Libya has ramifications for the movements in the rest of the region. The victory of the rebels in Libya raised the prospect of a similar intervention in Syria, with elements of the Syrian opposition now demanding a “no-fly zone”55 and modelling themselves on the NTC.56 This debate over intervention is being reproduced inside the Syrian movement, yet the conditions and risks involved in Syria make it less appealing to Western powers. It is Turkey that is stepping in to back up the Syrian rebels, and expressing its growing regional weight. The Syrian uprising shows the limits of Western imperialism’s newfound confidence, while NATO’s military success has to be tempered by the emergence of new tensions in post-Gaddafi Libya.

Libya’s new red lines

There is now a struggle for the direction of the new Libya. After the fall of Gaddafi’s regime the Western-backed leaders of the NTC turned on their former allies, warning that the ranks of the rebels are full of Islamists “funded by Qatar”. These shrill warnings of imminent Islamist takeover, and the “Talibanisation” of Libya, skate over the contradictory nature of Islamist movements. The Islamists can express a rage at autocratic regimes, and the Western powers that prop them up, but they also seek to build stable capitalist economies. The Islamists want to contain and channel this revolution away from fundamental social changes and turn Libya into a state modelled on Turkey.57 The “terrorist” strategy of the LIFG in the 1990s was shaped by the nature of the regime it was confronting at the time. Once the popular uprising broke out the Islamists, especially in the east, threw themselves into the battle alongside people who did not share their ideology.58

For the NTC the new Libya will be like the old Libya, only with the removal of a small circle around Gaddafi, and the promise of elections at some point in the future. As the second uprising broke out in Tripoli, the NTC was at pains to ensure that the old regime functionaries would remain in their posts.59 In turn key Islamist leaders such as Sheikh Sallabi denounced NTC leaders for “stealing the revolution” after the Western-backed leaders attempted to carve out many rebel factions from posts in the new government, including representatives of the Amazigh. Clearly for many of the rebels the alliance with the West was one of convenience. The language of “secular against Islamist” has replaced that of “loyalist and rebel” as Western powers attempt to shape the make-up of the new government.60

Western intervention had two aims in the war. The first was to accelerate the fall of the regime and secure for itself a central role in North Africa. The second was to rehabilitate the doctrine of humanitarian intervention following the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is clear that they have achieved both aims to a certain degree. Yet their foothold in Libya is far from secure. The revolution has unleashed forces, in the form of heavily armed civilians, which the NTC is finding difficult to control. As the West has no “boots on the ground” it has to rely on its allies in the NTC to secure its victory. This is proving a harder task than dropping bombs. The NTC’s Western backers do not share the popular expectations that emerged out of the uprising.

It is difficult to gauge what reaction there will be to a programme of neoliberal reforms proposed by the NTC government, or that of the campaign to disarm the militias who played a central role in the civil war. But that these will be unpopular is in no doubt. The revolution in Libya is far from over, the second uprising in Tripoli brought the masses back on the streets, and following the fall of the regime, Libyan oil workers went on strike to demand the removal of regime-era management—much like the strikes that have engulfed Egypt following the fall of Mubarak. The revolutions in the Arab world are still in the first tentative stages, but they have unleashed forces of change that will be difficult to control.

The path taken by the Libyan Revolution is different from those taken in Tunisia and Egypt, but there are some notable similarities. In all the revolutions the results have fallen far short of expectations. Egyptians have found that the new military rulers are determined to keep in place the structures of the old regime, and are keen to keep in place many of the policies—including the hated emergency laws and neoliberalism. Although in Egypt there is a tangible deepening of the revolution, there are signs of similar sentiments in Libya (the oil workers’ strike is one example of this). It is Egypt, and the development of this revolution, that provides the key to the future of that in Libya. The tensions between the NTC and the armed civilians inside Libya form part of this dilemma, the broader aims of imperialism another. As the reality of post-Gaddafi Libya emerges, the question will re-emerge of who this revolution was for.


1: Vanderwalle, 2006, p51.

2: Vanderwalle, 2006, p34.

3: Wahhabism is a religious movement founded by Muslim theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) in Najd, Saudi Arabia. Ibn Al-Wahhab advocated purging Islam of what he considered to be impurities and a return to the piety of the early followers of Islam.

4: Vanderwalle, 2006, p32.

5: Vanderwalle, 2006, p31.

6: Vanderwalle, 2006, p42.

7: Vanderwalle, 2006, p54.

8: Vanderwalle, 2006, p79.

9: Vanderwalle, 2006, p83.

10: Vanderwalle, 2006, p99.

11: Sijil, 2011.

12: Gaddafi created the Pan-African Legion, the Islamic Arab Legion, and the
45,000-strong People’s Militia. Many of these militias included soldiers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world. The Pan-African Legion is the source of “Gaddafi’s black mercenaries” allegations by the rebels.

13: Vanderwalle, 2006, p147.

14: Vanderwalle, 2006, p143.

15: Schwettmann, 2011.

16: Otman and Karlberg, 2007, p36.

17: Glass, 2011.

18: Vanderwalle, 2006, pp194-196.

19: The Vietnam Syndrome, also known as the “Vietnam paralysis”, is the term used to describe strong domestic opposition to US military intervention following its defeat in the Vietnam War.

20: Basketter, 2009.

21: Vanderwalle, 2006, p63.

22: Al-Hayat, 20 October 1995.

23: Oman Tribune, 2011.

24: National Counterterrorism Center, 2011.

25: Oman Tribune, 2011.

26: New Yorker, 2011.

27: Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, 2005.

28: Stratfor Global Intelligence, 2011a.

29: Financial Times, 2011.

30: Gulf News, 2007.

31: O’Huiginn, 2011.

32: Noll and Giuffré, 2011.

33: According to the Economist, the pogroms served a wider purpose: “In their rampage on migrant workers, the Libyan mob spared Arabs, including the 750,000 Egyptians. Now that the UN’s sanctions have gone, the African states who dared break the air boycott have served their purpose. The more lily-livered Arab states, who shunned Libya, can now perhaps be forgiven, under the latest banner, Arab-African unity”-Economist, 2000.

34: Al-Jazeera, 2011a.

35: Almost all those sending news out of beleaguered Tripoli during this period knew of the deaths among friends and relatives. Messages out of Tripoli spoke of vast numbers of youth killed in the street or chased into homes and alleys. Witnesses put the figure at over 1,000 dead in what was described as “beyond a massacre”. Many of those wounded were treated in homes as the hospitals were teeming with “mercenaries”.

36: New York Times, 2011a.

37: Al-Jazeera, 2011c.

38: Al-Jazeera, 2011b.

39: Al-Arabiya, 2011.

40: Huffington Post, 2011.

41: Asian Tribune, 2011.

42: Wall Street Journal, 2011.

43: This is the NTC statement on foreign contracts: “The Council also notes that it will honour and respect all international and regional agreements signed by the former Libyan government, emphasising its aspirations in seeing Libya play a significant role in establishing international peace and security.”

44: Reuters, 2011a.

45: National Transitional Council, 2011.

46: Daily Telegraph, 2011a.

47: Guardian, 2011.

48: Human Rights Investigations, 2011.

49: Reuters, 2011b.

50: Reuters, 2011b.

51: Atlantic, 2011.

52: Stratfor Global Intelligence, 2011b.

53: Achcar, 2011.

54: Stewart, 2011.

55: Los Angels Times, 2011b.

56: BBC, 2011.

57: Daily Telegraph, 2011b.

58: New York Times, 2011b.

59: Reuters, 2011b.

60: Los Angeles Times, 2011a.


Achcar, Gilbert, 2011, “Libya: a legitimate and necessary debate from an anti-imperialist perspective”, Znet (25 March),

AlArabiya, 2011, “Gaddafi tells Benghazi his army is coming tonight” (17 March),

Al-Jazeera, 2011a, “Gaddafi’s son talks of conspiracy” (20 February),

Al-Jazeera, 2011b, “Libya opposition launches council” (27 February),

Al-Jazeera, 2011c, “Defiant Gaddafi confined to Tripoli” (27 February),

Asian Tribune, 2011, “Libyan rebellion has radical Islamist fervor: Benghazi link to Islamic militancy: US Military Document Reveals” (17 March),

Atlantic, 2011, “The Strikes on Libya: Humanitarian Intervention, Not Imperial Aggression” (19 March),

Basketter , Simon, 2009, “Lockerbie: Cynicism, Hypocrisy and Deceit”, Socialist Review, (September),

BBC, 2011, “Q&A: Syrian opposition alliance” (16 November),

Daily Telegraph, 2009, “Extremist group announces split from al-Qaeda” (9 July),

Daily Telegraph, 2011a, “Libya: perilous voyage to help besieged rebels in Misurata” (11 April),

Daily Telegraph, 2011b, “Libyan cleric announces new party on lines of ‘moderate’ Islamic democracy” (10 November),

Economist, 2000, “Libya and Africa, Pogrom” (12 October),

Financial Times, 2011, “West’s Policy Exposed as ‘Mad Dog’ Finds Bite” (21 February),

Glass, Charles, 2011, “Hizbullah’s Part in Gaddafi’s Downfall”, The London Review of Books
(24 October),

Guardian, 2011, “Misrata rebels defy Libya’s new regime” (29 August),

Gulf News, 2007, “Libya Reaches Out to Multinationals” (2 June),

Huffington Post, 2011, “Libyan Rebels Plead For No-Fly Zone” (12 March),

Human Rights Investigations, 2011, “Libyan rebel ethnic cleansing and lynching of black people” (7 July),

Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, 2005, “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)”, volume 3, issue 6,

Los Angeles Times, 2011a, “Islamists take aim at Libya rebels’ secular leaders” (13 September),

Los Angeles Times, 2011b, “Syria protesters reportedly demand ‘no fly’ zone” (28 October),

National Counterterrorism Center, 2011, “Current List of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations”,

National Transitional Council, 2011, “Statement of the Transitional National Council on Counter-Terrorism” (30 March),

New York Times, 2011a, “Terror Quiets Libyan Capital as Rebels Battle in the East” (3 March),

New York Times, 2011b, “Diverse character in city Qaddafi calls Islamist” (7 March),

New Yorker, 2011, “Eighty-Nine Questions: What did Libya do for The CIA?” (3 September),

Noll, Gregor, and Mariagiulia Giuffré, 2011, “EU Migration Control: Made by Gaddafi?”, Open Democracy (25 February),é/eu-migration-control-made-by-gaddafi

O’Huiginn, Dan, 2011, “EU arms sales to Libya: fleshing out the figures” (25 February),

Oman Tribune, 2011, “Jibril ‘Stealing Revolution’: Sallabi” (9 November),

Otman, Waniss A, and Erling Karlberg, 2007, The Libyan Economy: Economic Diversification and International Repositioning (Springer).

Reuters, 2011a, “Libya to honour all legal oil deals” (24 August),

Reuters, 2011b, “Special report: The secret plan to take Tripoli” (6 September),

Schwettmann, Jürgen, 2011, Youth Employment and Social Dialogue in the Maghreb Region (International Labour Organisation),

Sijill, 2011, “April Victims of The Gaddafi Regime”,

Stratfor Global Intelligence, 2011a, “Jihadist Opportunities in Libya” (24 February),

Stratfor Global Intelligence, 2011b, “Libya: A Premature Victory Celebration” (30 August),

Stewart, Patrick, 2011, “Libya and the future of humanitarian intervention” Foreign Affairs
(26 August),

Vanderwalle, Dirk, 2006, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge University Press).

Wall Street Journal, 2011, “Rebels Fight US for Funds It Seized”, (9 April),