Libya: The West’s new client? | by Simon Assaf

by Oct 15, 2011Africa

The uprising in Libya was inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. But the intervention of Nato forces changed the situation dramatically. Simon Assaf asks if Libya is now destined to become a client state of Western powers or whether its revolution could revive.

The revolution itself appears to have stopped, becoming instead a Western-backed revolt. While in Egypt young revolutionaries are storming the Israeli embassy, in Libya Western leaders are greeted as heroes. French, US and British flags fly over the centre of Benghazi. In Cairo these flags are being torn down. The revolution did not begin with the intention of turning Libya into a Western client state. And despite the crowing of Western leaders about their role in the fall of the regime, and the revival of “humanitarian intervention”, they are faced with a serious problem in the new Libya.
The revolt that broke out in the cities and towns across Libya was directly inspired by the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali. Small groups of activists launched demonstrations and hoped to emulate the other revolutions by turning the central squares into Libya’s “Tahrirs” – peaceful yet determined protests. But the scale and brutality of the regime put an end to such innocence. This brutal counter-revolution triggered an armed uprising. In this process the original aims and aspirations of the young revolutionaries were put aside – including the rejection of any foreign interference.

Gunned down
Many of these young people died in their thousands in the first weeks of the revolution, either gunned down in the streets or murdered after the round-ups. Others fell in the first offensive on the eastern oil terminals of Brega and Ras Lanuff. The defeat of the 17 February “shebaab”, or youth, marked the revolution as different from those in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. The second turn occurred with the appearance of defecting regime officials who on arrival in Benghazi, the centre of the revolution, declared themselves the “interim government” over the heads of the newly launched Transitional National Council (TNC). The chaos often cited in the city at the time was the consequence of this successful struggle to oust the original leaders of the insurrection.

The current leaders of the TNC owe their position to the West, and have become representatives of the Western interests in Libya. Their influence grew during the counter -offensive, as their alliance with the West brought international backing, as well as the no-fly zone and political, financial and military muscle. The young revolutionaries had little else to offer.

These defeats deflected the revolution. The aspiration for total transformation of Libyan society was replaced by the drive for a simple change at the top – the removal of Muammar Gaddafi, his sons and a few others around the ruling circle. The faltering revolution presented imperialism with an opportunity to place itself between the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, always the opportunist, moved like a demon to implant imperialism back into North Africa.

The Libya war wiped the slate clean over humanitarian intervention. The doctrine developed to justify intervention in the 1990s Balkans war became a pretext for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The thrust of this doctrine 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, while safeguarding Western interests.

But 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 is argued, is different from the one used in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cry for help came from the rebels themselves, with support from the Arab League and tacit approval of anti-imperialist movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

They argued that if Gaddafi succeeded in crushing the uprising it would send the wrong signal to the other dictators. It was a popular and powerful argument, but one that downplayed the intentions of imperialism. As Gaddafi was preparing to send in the tanks, Saudi forces (as well of those of Qatar and the UAE) were pouring into Bahrain to crush the revolution there. The massacre at Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout was dismissed as a minor event.

Language of intervention
To overcome the legacy of Iraq the language of intervention changed. Softer terms such as “defence of civilians” replaced “shock and awe”. Stratfor, the US strategic journal, noted with some irony, “‘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… It satisfied the need to distinguish Libya from Iraq.”

The intervention redefined Nato’s role. The Western military alliance was no longer to be seen as a blunt instrument of Western rule, but a part of the Arab Spring. To justify this, Western intentions in Libya were downplayed. Sarkozy and David Cameron were now to be seen as champions of the Arab street, and Western leaders could comfort themselves that they had washed away the sins of the past – the revelations that in the months before the uprising Britain was selling sniper rifles to Libya; Spain was supplying high explosive shells; the US firm General Dynamics was finalising plans to rearm the regime’s notorious Khamis Brigade; as well as the secret renditions and cooperation in the “war on terror”.

Far from a limited intervention to protect civilians, hundreds of French and British soldiers helped to coordinate and plan the war. Thousand of rebel fighters were flown out of the country to receive training in Nato bases. In effect Nato acted as the rebel airforce, with warplanes clearing the path for the rebel advance, while pulverising regime armour, barracks and ammunition stores.

This war was not primarily about oil. Gaddafi was not shy in offering generous oil deals. The war was about repositioning imperialism back in North Africa following the humiliation of France in Tunisia and the US in Egypt. But as Cameron and Sarkozy were on their victory lap round Benghazi, US newspapers were beginning to give voice to new fears. The language began to change and with it came a new narrative of “secular vs Islamist”. Behind the new rhetoric lay a fundamental problem in post-Gaddafi Libya.

In an interview with the Economist, Nato secretary Anders Rasmussen expressed his concern that “Islamic extremists” would “try to exploit” the victory. The magazine noted, “One senior official said Nato air patrols and a no-fly zone would certainly have to remain in place as a deterrent to fighting between different factions or tribes.” Nato wants “an open-ended, low-intensity no-fly zone”, the official said, adding, “Now we own it.” Certainly the new Libya is up for grabs, as Western companies, many with ties to the former regime, scramble for new reconstruction contracts and oil concessions.

Nevertheless, the West does not “own it”. It can count on a layer of leaders inside the TNC, but it does not have control over the streets. And the alignment of interests that threw the revolutionaries into the arms of imperialism has shifted now that the regime has fallen.

A struggle has started for the direction of the new Libya. Behind all the talk of “secular, Islamist, faction and tribe” lies the new frontline in Libya politics. Those ministers and officials closely associated with the former regime are now warning that the ranks of the rebels are full of Islamists “funded by Qatar”.

The Islamists, especially in the east, formed an important component of the rebel forces, providing it with some organisational cohesion. The pro-Western leaders in the TNC were prepared to downplay this division during the uprising, but this alliance is now falling apart. Nato has control of the air, and through the TNC over the new government, but it is armed civilians who control the streets, and they have chosen as their leaders figures who until recently were being hunted down in the “war on terror”.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of the Arab revolutions on the Islamists. Many were inspired by the sacrifice of the youth in their determination to topple the dictators. The tactics of terrorism adopted by many of those influenced by Islamist ideas were born out of decades of repression. Many of the militants believed that any popular uprising was futile. Tunisia and Egypt changed all of that. The Islamists in Libya threw themselves into battle alongside young activists who often did not share their ideas.

Despite the defining intervention by Nato the Islamists are widely seen as playing a key role in shaping and organising the rebel army. The rag tag militias and bands of armed civilians, who did much to liberate the cities and towns, looked to the Islamists for leadership, some of whom had military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these commanders were drawn from the ranks of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – falsely classified as an Al Qaida affiliate.

The movement launched an ill-fated uprising against the regime in the 1990s. Ironically the most senior figure among the Islamists today, Sheikh Ali Sallabi, cooperated with Saif Gaddafi to “rehabilitate” the militants in the later 1990s. Sallabi has close ties to Qatar, and was instrumental in winning the backing of the Gulf oil state to the rebellion.

The scale of the problem is now coming to light. The present military commander of Tripoli, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, was “rendered” by Britain to Libya as part of the “war on terror”. Belhaj, the “emir” of the LIFG, was tortured by the British secret service and the Libyan regime. His counterpart in Benghazi is another former LIFG commander. Sallabi recently denounced TNC leaders for attempting to revive cronyism by placing close relatives in key positions, including the oil ministry. Ominously he accused Mahmud Jibril, the TNC number two, of “stealing the revolution” after he carved out the Islamists and the Misrata committee from posts in the new cabinet.

Behind the nervous headlines and predictions that Libya will become the new Afghanistan lies a more simple reality. Islamist movements are contradictory. They can express rage at autocratic regimes and the Western powers that prop them up, but they also seek to build “stable economies” and seek compromise with imperialism (as opposed to subjugation by imperialism). The Islamists also seek to contain and channel this anger away from fundamental social changes. The Libyan Islamists’ model is Islamic Turkey, not a Taliban-style regime.

In contrast the Western-backed officials inside the TNC hope for a managed transition that will keep in place many components of the old order, and a return to their old posts. Under the TNC Libya would become a Western client state. Under the Islamists it would have a more arm’s-length relationship to the West.

Tensions over Islamist influence came to light in one of the defining events of the rebellion, the assassination of Abdel Fattah Younis, commander of rebel military forces and former Gaddafi regime interior minister.

Younis played a pivotal role early in the rebellion when troops under his command rushed to the relief of Benghazi and his call on the army to side with the revolution was an important moment for the uprising. Younis was widely considered to be Gaddafi’s key ally and number two in the regime.

But his role in rebel leadership proved murky. According to the Journal of Foreign Affairs, “Younis was gunned down by his own Islamically-oriented contingent of troops in retaliation for allegedly conspiring with Nato to attack them covertly.” Others claimed that he had secret contacts with his old boss, or that it was revenge for his role in suppressing the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.

How much substance there is to these charges is impossible to verify, such is the nature of war. But that he was believed to have been conspiring with the West to purge rebel ranks illustrates the uneasy alliance that emerged in the uprising. Many are already beginning to ask what ordinary Libyans have gained for their sacrifice – beyond the still vague promise of elections.

The rebellion in Misrata followed a different course to the eastern cities. In contrast to the chaos of Benghazi, this relatively new industrial city became more organised, trapping and then destroying the troops sent in to crush it. But as with the other rebel areas, the fighters then relied on Nato air power to open their advance on Tripoli.

The Misrata brigades quickly earned a reputation for ferocity in battle, and were a key component of the final assault on Tripoli (with the aid of French warships). The city raised the first objections at what it saw as old regime elements slipping into the new government. Misrata’s committees were suspicious of the TNC leaders and often refused to take their orders.

Yet Misrata’s victory was soured by the turn it took following the collapse of the regime. Misrata fighters became renowned for the “racial cleansing” of black Africans and dark-skinned Libyans they say supported the regime. Misratans drove out black Africans (many of whom who played no part in the war) from their neighbourhoods and the nearby town of Tawergha. In contrast the inhabitants of the Arab town of Zlitan, which also failed to rise against the regime, have been encouraged to return home.

This racial cleansing has spread to the Western Mountains. The Arab and Berber villages that fought an effective guerrilla war have now turned on the Tuareg tribes, some of whom fought for the regime. These purges are a grim parallel with Gaddafi’s notorious racist pogroms of some 300 black Africans in 2000. The fall of the regime, seen as an act of liberation, has become for many a reaffirmation of old repression and racism.

Is the revolution over?
The mass demonstrations that marked the beginning of the revolt gave way to armed encounters involving thousands of people, rather than tens of thousands. But the scale and breadth of the movement proved that the majority of Libyans want to emulate the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Revolutions herald a new era, with new social relations. By its very nature a revolution is a series of crises that explode into an open challenge for control over the streets, the factory, office and school, over the economy and resources. In the course of revolution millions are thrown into activity that shapes and changes the world around them, and in so doing transforms their consciousness. This process was cruelly halted in Libya.

In rejecting the offer of foreign troops in the first days of the uprising, the rebels argued that as their forces closed in on major cities the populations would rise up. Nato, and many others, discounted this possibility, arguing that cities such as Tripoli were a stronghold of the regime. The original plan to storm the capital did not factor in a popular uprising, but as the population became aware of the plan they turned out in their thousands to converge on Green Square. These masses played a crucial role in the final battle for Tripoli.

The re-emergence of the masses in the revolt points to the possibility that there is still life in the revolution. The conditions that gave rise to the 17 February revolution remain, but how much this will shape the coming struggle is difficult to assess. Clearly for many of the rebels the alliance with the West was one of convenience. The war is over and it is time for the West to leave. Western powers, however, do not see it that way.

October 2011 Socialist Review

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