Libya: popular uprising, civilian war or military attack?
- 16 Mar 2011
Over the last three weeks there have been confrontations between troops loyal to Colonel Gaddafi and opposition forces based in the east of the country. After Ben Ali and Mubarak, will Gaddafi be the next dictator to fall? Can what is happening in Libya be compared to the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt? What can be made of the antics and u-turns we have seen from the Colonel? Why is NATO preparing for war? How do you tell the difference between a good Arab and a bad Arab? In this latest chapter of our series ‘Understanding the Muslim world’, Mohammed Hassan replies to questions put by Investig’Action.
This interview took place before the imperialist invasion of Libya, but it provides a requisite background to understanding why did this invasion take place.
After Tunisia and Egypt, has the Arab revolution reached Libya?
What is happening at the moment in Libya is different. In Tunisia and Egypt, the lack of freedom was flagrant.However, it was the appalling social conditions which really drove young people to rebel.The Tunisians and Egyptians had no hope for the future.
In Libya, Muammar Gadaffi’s regime is corrupt, monopolises a large part of the country’s wealth and has always severely repressed any opposition. But the social conditions of Libyan people are better than in neighbouring countries. Life expectancy in Libya is higher than in the rest of Africa.The health and education systems are good.Libya, moreover, is one of the first African countries to have eradicated malaria.While there are major inequalities in the distribution of wealth, GDP per inhabitant is about $11,000 – one of the highest in the Arab world.You will not therefore find in Libya the same objective conditions that led to the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
How then do you explain what is happening in Libya?
In order to understand current events properly, we should place them in their historic context. Libya was formerly an Ottoman province. In 1835 France took over Algeria. Meanwhile Mohamed Ali, the Egyptian governor under the Ottoman Empire, was implementing ever more independent policies. With the French installed in Algeria on the one hand, and Mohamed Ali in Egypt on the other hand, the Ottomans were fearful of losing control of the region. They sent their troops to Libya.
At the time the Senoussis Brotherhood was highly influential in the country. It had been founded by Sayid Mohammed Ibn Ali as Senoussi, an Algerian who, after studying in his own country and in Morocco, went to preach his version of Islam in Tunisia and Libya. At the start of the 19th century, Senoussie began to attract numerous followers, but he was not much appreciated by certain of the Ottoman religious authorities who criticised him in their sermons.After spending some time in Egypt and in Mecca, Sennoussi decided to exile himself permanently in Cyrenaica, in the east of Libya.
His Brotherhood grew there and organised life in the región, levying taxes, resolving disputes between tribes, etc. It even had its own army and offered its services escorting merchants’ caravans passing through the area. Finally his Senoussis Brotherhood became the de facto government of Cyrenaica, expanding its influence even as far as northern Chad. But then the European colonial powers installed themselves in Africa, dividing the sub-Saharan part of the continent. That had a negative impact on the Senoussis.Libya’s invasion by Italy also seriously undermined the Brotherhood’s regional hegemony.
In 2008 Italy paid compensation to Libya for the crimes of the colonialists.Was colonisation as terrible as all that?Or did Berlusconi want to be seen in a good light in order to be able to conclude commercial contracts with Gaddafi?
The colonisation of Libya was dreadful. At the beginning of the 20th century, a fascist government began spreading propaganda claiming that Italy, which had been defeated by the Ethiopian army at the battle of Adoua in 1896, needed to re-establish the supremacy of the white man over the black continent. It was necessary to cleanse the great civilised nation of the affront inflicted on it by the barbarians. This propaganda claimed that Libya was a country of savages, inhabited by a few backward nomads and it would be good for Italians to install themselves in this pleasant region with its picture postcard beauty.
The invasion of Libya arose out of the Italian-Turkish war of 1911 – a particularly bloody conflict which ended in victory for Italy a year later. Nevertheless, the European power only gained control of the Tripoli region and met with fierce resistance in the rest of the country, especially in Cyrenaica.The Sennousi clan supported Omar al-Mokhtar who led a remarkable guerrilla struggle in the forests, caves and mountains. He inflicted serious losses on the Italian army, although the latter was much better equipped and numerically superior.
Finally, at the beginning of the 1930s, Mussolini took radical measures to wipe out the resistance.Repression became extremely brutal and one of the main butchers, General Rodolfo Graziani, worte:“Italian soldiers were convinced that hey had been entrusted with a noble and civilising mission … They owed it to themselves to fulfil this humane duty at whatever cost … If the Libyans cannot be convinced of the fundamental benefits of what has been proposed to them, then Italians must wage a continual struggle against them and can destroy the entire Libyan population in order to bring peace, the peace of the cemetery …”
In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi paid compensation to Libya for these colonial crimes. Of course it was based on ulterior motives. Berlusconi wanted to get himself into Gaddafi’s good books in order to facilitate economic partnerships. Nevertheless, one can say that the Libyan people suffered terribly under colonialism. It would be no exaggeration to speak in terms of genocide.
How did Libya win its Independence?
While the Italian colonists were suppressing the resistance in Cyrenaica, the Senoussis leader, Idriss, exiled himself in Egypt in order to negotiate with the British.After the Second World War, the European colonial empire was gradually dismantled and Libya became independent in 1951.Supported by Britain, Idriss took power. However, part of the Libyan bourgeoisie, under the influence of Arab nationalism that was developing in Cairo, wanted Libya to become part of Egypt. But the imperialists did not want to see a great Arab nation formed.They therefore supported the independence of Libya by putting their puppet, Idriss into power.
Did King Idriss go along with all this?
Absolutely. At independence, the three regions that made up Libya – Tripolitana, Fezzan and Cyrenaica – found themselves united in a federal system. But it should be borne in mind that Libya is three times larger than France.Because of a lack of infrastructure, the borders of this territory could not be clearly defined until after the aeroplane had been invented.And in 1951, the country only had 1 million inhabitants. Furthermore, the three regions that had just been united had a very different culture and history. Finally, the country lacked roads linking the regions to facilitate communication. Libya was in fact at a very backward stage, and it was not a true nation.
Can you explain this concept?
The nation state is a concept linked to the appearance of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism. In Europe in the middle ages, the capitalist bourgeoisie desired to spread its business interests on as wide a scale as possible, but was impeded in by all the constraints of the feudal system.Territories were divided up into numerous tiny entities which imposed on merchants a large number of taxes if they wanted to transport merchandise from one place to another. And this is without taking into account the various obligations they had to perform for the feudal lords.All these obstacles were removed by the capitalist bourgeois revolutions which allowed them to create nation-states, and big national markets, without obstacles.
But the Libyan nation was created at a time when it was still at a pre-capitalist stage. It lacked the infrastructure; a large part of the population was nomadic and impossible to control; divisions within society were very strong; slavery was still practised. Furthermore King Idriss had no plan for developing the country. He was entirely dependent on US and British aid.
Why did he receive the support of the US and Britain? Was it to do with oil?
In 1951 Libyan oil had not yet been discovered. But the Anglo-Saxons had military bases in the country because it occupies a strategic position from the point of view of control of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
It was only in 1954 that a rich Texan, Nelson Bunker Hunt, discovered Libyan oil. At the time Arab oil was being sold at around 90c a barrel. But Libyan oil was bought for 30c because the country was so backward. It was perhaps the poorest in Africa.
But money was nevertheless coming in thanks to oil.What was it used for?
King Idriss and his Senoussis clan enriched themselves personally. They also distributed part of the oil revenues to the heads of other tribes in order to pacify tensions. A small élite developed thanks to the oil trade and some infrastructure was built, principally along the Mediterranean coast, the area of greatest importance for external trade.But the rural areas in the heart of the country remained very poor and large numbers of the poor began to flood into slums around the cities.This continued until 1969 when three officers overthrew the king, one of whom was Gaddafi.
How come the revolution was carried out by army officers?
In a country deeply rent by tribal divisions, the army was in fact the only national institution. Libya as such did not exist except through its army. Alongside this, King Idriss’s Senoussis had their own militia. But in the national army, Libyans from the different regions could get to know each other.
Gaddafi had at first developed as part of a Nasserite group, but then came to understand that this organisation would not be able to overthrow the monarchy, so he joined the army. The three officers who overthrew King Idriss were very much influenced by Nasser. Gamal Abdel Nasser was himself an officer in the Egyptian army that overthrew King Farouk. Inspired by socialism, Nasser was opposed to the interference of foreign neo-colonialism and preached the unity of the Arab world.Moreover he nationalised the Suez Canal, which had until then been managed by France and the UK, which attracted the hostility of the West and bombing in 1956.
The revolutionary pan-Arabism of Nasser was a major influence in Libya, especially in the army and over Gaddafi.The Libyan officers who carried out the coup d’état in 1969 were following the same agenda as Nasser.
What were the effects of the revolution on Libya?
Gaddafi had two options. Either he could leave Libyan oil in the hands of western companies, as King Idriss had done – with Libya becoming like one of the oil monarchies of the Gulf where slavery is still practised, women have no rights and European architects can indulge themselves in building all kinds of bizarre constructions with astronomical budgets supplied at the end of the day from the wealth of the Arab peoples. Or he could follow the road of independence from the neo-colonial powers. Gaddafi chose the second option. He nationalised Libyan oil, greatly angering the imperialists.
In the 1950s a joke went round the White House at the time of the Eisenhower administration, which under Reagan was turned into an actual political theory. How do you tell good Arabs from bad Arabs? A good Arab does was the US tells him. In return he gets aeroplanes, is permitted to deposit his money in Switzerland, is invited to Washington, etc. These are the people Eisenhower and Reagan called good Arabs – the Kinds of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the Sheikhs and Emirs of Kuwait and the Gulf, the Shah of Iran, the King of Morocco and, of course, King Idris of Libya. The bad Arabs? Those were the ones who did not obey Washington: Nasser, Gaddafi and later Saddam …
All the same, Gadaffi is not very …
Gaddafi is not a bad Arab because he ordered the crowd to be fired on.The same thing was done in Saudi Arabia or in Bahrain and the leaders of those countries still receive all the honours the West can confer. Gaddafi is a bad Arab because he nationalised Libyan oil, which the western companies believed – until the 1969 revolution, to be their own. By doing this, Gaddafi brought about positive changes in Libya in what concerns infrastructure, education, health, the position of women, etc.
Well, Gaddafi overthrew the monarchy, nationalised oil, opposed the imperial powers and brought about positive changes in Libya. Nevertheless, 40 years later, he is a corrupt dictator which suppresses all opposition and who is once again opening his country to western companies. How do you explain that change?
From the start, Gaddafi was opposed to the great colonial powers and generously supported various liberation movements throughout the world. I think he was very good for that reason. But to give the full picture, it is also necessary to mention that the Colonel was an anti-communist. In 1971, for example, he sent back to Sudan an aeroplane which was carrying Sudanese communist dissidents who were immediately executed by President Nimeiri.
The truth is that Gaddafi has never been a great visionary. His revolution was a bourgeois national revolution and what he established in Libya was state capitalism. To understand how his regime lost its way, we must analyse the context – which has gone against it – and also the personal mistakes made by Gaddafi.
First of all, we have seen that Gaddafi had to start from scratch in Libya. The country was very backward.There were no educated people at his disposal or strong working class to support the revolution. Most of the people who had received education were members of the élite who had bartered Libya’s wealth to the neo-colonial powers. Obviously these people weren’t going to support the revolution and most of them left the country in order to organise opposition from abroad.
Besides, the Libyan officers who overthrew King Idriss were much influenced by Nasser. Egypt and Libya sought to tie up a strategic partnership. But when Nasser died in 1970, this project was dead in the water and Egypt became a counter-revolutionary country aligned with the West. The new Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, allied himself with the US, progressively liberalised the country’s economy and entered into an alliance with Israel. A brief conflict even broke out with Libya in 1977. Imagine the situation in which Gaddafi found himself: the country which had inspired him and with which he had been hoping to set up an important alliance had suddenly become an enemy!
Another element of the situation worked against the Libyan revolution: the major fall in oil revenues during the 1980s. In 1973, at the time of the Israeli-Arab war, the oil-producing countries decided to impose an embargo that caused the price of a barrel of oil to shoot up. This embargo brought about the first great transfer of wealth from the North in the direction of the South. But during the 1980s there also took place what one could call an oil counter-revolution orchestrated by Reagan and the Saudis. Saudi Arabia increased its production considerably and flooded the market, causing a massive drop in prices. The barrel went down from $35 to $8.
Wasn’t Saudi Arabia shooting itself in the foot?
Of course this had a negative impact on the Saudi economy. But oil is not the most important thing for Saudi Arabia. Its relationship with the US matters most, because it is the support of Washington that allows the Saudi dynasty to stay in power.
This tidal wave affecting the oil price proved catastrophic for several petrol-producing countries who fell into debt. All this happened only 10 years after Gaddafi came to power. The Libyan leader, who came from nothing, was seeing the only means he had to build anything disappear like molten snow as the oil money dwindled.
It should also be borne in mind that this oil counter revolution also accelerated the collapse of the USSR which at the time was bogged down in Afghanistan. With the disappearance of the Soviet bloc, Libya lost its major source of political support and found itself isolated on the international scene, and moreover featured on the Reagan administration’s list of terrorist states and was subjected to a whole series of sanctions.
What were Gaddafi’s mistakes?
As I have said, he wasn’t a great visionary.The theory developed in connection with his Green Book is a mix of anti-imperialism, Islamism, nationalism, state capitalism and other things. Besides his lack of political vision, Gaddafi made a serious mistake in attacking Chad in the 1970s. Chad is Africa’s 5th largest country and the Colonel, no doubt feeling Libya was too small to accommodate his megalomanic ambitions, annexed the Aozou Strip. It is true that historically the Senoussis Brotherhood had exercised its influence on this region. And in 1945 the French Foreign Minister, Pierre Laval, wanted to buy off Mussolini by offering him the Aozou Strip.1 But in the end Mussolini drew close to Hitler and the deal remained a dead letter.
Gaddafi nevertheless wanted to annex this territory and engaged in a struggle against Paris for influence over this former French colony. In the end, the US, France, Egypt, Sudan and other reactionary forces in the region supported the Chadian army which defeated the Libyan troops. Thousands of soldiers and large quantities of arms were captured. The President of Chad, Hissène Habré, sold these soldiers on to the Reagan administration; and the CIA used them as mercenaries in Kenya and Latin America.
But the Libyan revolution’s biggest mistake was to have bet too heavily on its oil. It is human resources that are a country’s greatest wealth. You cannot succeed in a revolution if you do not develop national harmony, social justice and a fair distribution of wealth.
However, the Colonel never eliminated the discriminatory practices that had long been a tradition in Libya. How can you mobilise the population if you do not prove to the Libyans that whatever their ethnic or tribal backgrounds, all are equal and can work together for the good of the nation? The majority of the Libyan population is Arab, speaks the same language and shares the same religion. Ethnic diversity is not very important. It would have been possible to abolish all discrimination in order to mobilise the population.
Gadaffi was also incapable of educating the Libyan people in revolutionary matters. He did not raise the level of political consciousness of citizens and did not build a party to support the revolution.
Nevertheless, in accordance with his 1975 Green Book, he did set up people’s committees, a kind of direct democracy.
This attempt at direct democracy was influenced by Marxist-Leninist concepts. But these people’s committees in Libya were not based on any political analysis, or any clear ideology.They failed. Neither did Gaddafi build a political party to support his revolution. In the end, he cut himself off from the people. The Libyan revolution became a one-man project. Everything revolved around this charismatic leader divorced from reality.And while a gulf opened up between the leader and his people, force and repression step in to fill the void. Excess began to follow excess, corruption expanded and tribal differences crystallised.
Today these divisions have come to the forefront in the Libyan crisis. There is of course a part of Libyan youth that is tired of the dictatorship and has been influenced by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But these popular sentiments are being taken advantage of by the opposition in the east of the country which is after its share of the cake, the distribution of wealth having been very unequal under the Gaddafi regime. It will not belong before the real contradictions see the light of day.
Moreover we don’t know a great deal about this opposition movement.Who are they? What is their programme? If they really wanted to wage a democratic revolution, why have they resorted to he flags of King Idriss, symbols of the time when Cyrenaica was the country’s dominant province? If you are part of a country’s opposition, and as a patriot you want to overthrow your government, you must try to do this correctly. You do not cause a civil war in your own country and you do not put it at risk of balkanisation.
In your view, it is no longer just a question of a civil war resulting from contradictions between different Libyan clans?
It’s worse, I think.There have already been inter-tribal contradictions but they have never been so widespread. Here the US is fanning the flames of these tensions in order to be able to intervene militarily in Libya. From the very first days of the insurrection, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was suggesting arming the opposition. From early on the opposition organised by the National Council refused all foreign interference on the part of foreign powers because they knew that any such interference would discredit their movement.But today some of the opposition are calling for armed intervention.
Since this conflict broke out, President Obama has called for all possible options to be considered and the US Senate is calling on the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libyan territory, which would be a real act of war. Moreover the nuclear aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, which was stationed in the Gulf of Aden to counter piracy, has travelled up to the Libyan coast. Two amphibian ships, USS Kearsage and USS Ponce, with several thousands of marines and fleets of combat helicopters aboard, have also been stationed in the Mediterranean.
Last week, Louis Michel, former EU Development and Humanitarian Aid commissioner, forcefully raised the question in a TV studio as to which government would have courage to make the case to its parliament for the necessity of military intervention in Libya. But Louis Michel never demanded any such intervention in Egypt or Bahrain.Why was that?
Is the repression not more violent in Libya?
The repression was very violent in Egypt but NATO never sent warships to the Egyptian coast to threaten Mubarak. There was merely an appeal to find a democratic solution.
In the case of Libya, it is necessary to be very careful with the information that reaches us. One day there is talk of 2,000 deaths, and the next day the count is revised to 300. It was also being said from the very start of the crisis that Gaddafi was bombing his own people, but the Russian army, which is observing the situation by satellite, has officially given lie to that information. If NATO is preparing to intervene militarily in Libya, we can be sure that the dominant information media are going to spread their usual war propaganda.
In fact the same thing happened in Romania with Ceausescu. On Christmas Eve, 1989, the Belgian prime minister, Wilfred Martiens, made a speech on television.He claimed that Ceaucescu’s security forces had just killed 12,000 people.It was untrue.The images of the famous Timosoara massacre also did the rounds all over the world.They were aimed at proving the mindless violence of the Romanian president.But it was proved later on that it was all staged. Bodies had been pulled out of morgues and placed in trenches in order to impress journalists. It was also said that the communists had poisoned the water, that Syrian and Palestinian mercenaries were present in Romania, or even that Ceaucescu had trained orphans as killing machines.It was all pure propaganda aimed at destabilising the regime.
In the end Ceaucescu and his wife were killed after a kangaroo court trial lasting 55 minutes. Of course, the Romanian president, like Gaddafi, was no choir boy. But what has happened since? Romania has become a European semi-colony. Its cheap labour power is exploited. Numerous services have been privatised for the benefit of western companies, and they are financially out of reach for a large part of the population. And now every year there is no shortage of Romanians who go to weep on Ceaucescu’s tomb. The dictatorship was a terrible thing, but after the country was destroyed economically, it’s even worse.
Why did the US want to overthrow Gaddafi? For the last ten years or so, the Colonel has been quite amenable to the West and privatised a large party of the Libyan economy, benefitting western companies in the process.
One must analyse all these events in the light of the new balance of forces in the world. The imperialist powers are in decline, while other forces are on the rise. Recently China offered to buy the Portuguese debt! In Greece, the population is more and more hostile to this European Union that it perceives as a cover for German imperialism. Similar feelings are growing in the countries of the East. Furthermore, the US attacked Iraq in order to get control of its oil, but in the end only one US company is benefiting; the rest of the oil is being exploited by Malaysian and Chinese companies.In short, imperialism is in crisis.
In addition, the Tunisian revolution really took the West by surprise. The fall of Mubarak even more so. Washington is attempting to regain its influence over these popular movements but its control is slipping away. In Tunisia, prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a straightforward product of the Ben Ali dictatorship, was meant to control the transition, creating the illusion of change. But the people’s determination forced him to resign. In Egypt, the US was relying on the army to keep an acceptable system in place. But I have received information confirming that in very many military barracks around the country, young officers are organising themselves in revolutionary committees in support of the Egyptian people. They have even arrested certain officers associated with the Mubarak regime.
The region could well escape US control. Intervention in Libya would allow Washington to smash this revolutionary movement and stop it spreading to the rest of the Arab world and to Africa. Since last week, the young have been rising in Burkina Faso but the media are quiet about this. As they are about the demonstrations taking place in Iraq.
Another danger for the US is the possible emergence of anti-imperialist governments in Tunisia and Egypt. Should this happen, Gaddafi would no longer be isolated and could renege on the agreements concluded with the West. Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia could unite to form an anti-imperialist bloc. With all the resources they have at their disposal, especially Gaddafi’s large foreign reserves, the three of them could become a major regional power – probably more important than Turkey.
Yet Gaddafi supported Ben Ali when the Tunisian people rebelled.
That goes to show to what extent he is weak, isolated and out of touch with reality. But the changing balance of forces in the region could change matters. Gaddafi could shift his rifle to the other shoulder – it wouldn’t be for the first time.
How could the situation in Libya pan out?
The western powers and the so-called opposition movement have rejected Chavez’s offer of mediation. This means that they are not interested in a peaceful solution to the conflict. But the effects of a NATO intervention would be disastrous.We have seen what that did to Kosovo or Afghanistan.
Moreover, military aggression could encourage Islamic groups to enter Libya who might be able to seize major arms caches there. Al Qaeda could infiltrate and turn Libya into a second Iraq. Besides, there are already armed groups in Niger that nobody has been able to control. Their influence could extend to Libya, Chad, Mali and Algeria.By preparing for military intervention, imperialism is in the process of opening the gates of Hell.
To conclude, the Libyan people deserve better than this opposition movement that is plunging the country into chaos. They need a real democratic movement to replace the Gaddafi regime and bring about social justice. In any case, the Libyans do not deserve military aggression. The retreating imperialist forces seem nevertheless to be preparing a counter-revolutionary offensive in the Arab World. Attacking Libya is their emergency solution. But they will be shooting themselves in the feet.