Who said Gaddafi had to go?
2011-11-24, Issue 559
So Gaddafi is dead and Nato has fought a war in North Africa for the first time since the FLN defeated France in 1962. The Arab world’s one and only State of the Masses, the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya, has ended badly. In contrast to the bloodless coup of 1 September 1969 that overthrew King Idris and brought Gaddafi and his colleagues to power, the combined rebellion/civil war/ Nato bombing campaign to protect civilians has occasioned several thousand (5000? 10,000? 25,000?) deaths, many thousands of injured and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, as well as massive damage to infrastructure. What if anything has Libya got in exchange for all the death and destruction that have been visited on it over the past seven and a half months?
The overthrow of Gaddafi & Co was far from being a straightforward revolution against tyranny, but the West’s latest military intervention can’t be debunked as being simply about oil. Presented by the National Transitional Council (NTC) and cheered on by the Western media as an integral part of the Arab Spring, and thus supposedly of a kind with the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan drama is rather an addition to the list of Western or Western-backed wars against hostile, ‘defiant’, insufficiently ‘compliant’, or ‘rogue’ regimes: Afghanistan I (v. the Communist regime, 1979-92), Iraq I (1990-91), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (over Kosovo, 1999), Afghanistan II (v. the Taliban regime, 2001) and Iraq II (2003), to which we might, with qualifications, add the military interventions in Panama (1989-90), Sierra Leone (2000) and the Ivory Coast (2011). An older series of events we might bear in mind includes the Bay of Pigs (1961), the intervention by Western mercenaries in the Congo (1964), the British-assisted palace coup in Oman in 1970 and – last but not least – three abortive plots, farmed out to David Stirling and sundry other mercenaries under the initially benevolent eye of Western intelligence services, to overthrow the Gaddafi regime between 1971 and 1973 in an episode known as the Hilton Assignment.
At the same time, the story of Libya in 2011 gives rise to several different debates. The first of these, over the pros and cons of the military intervention, has tended to eclipse the others. But numerous states in Africa and Asia and no doubt Latin America as well (Cuba and Venezuela spring to mind) may wish to consider why the Jamahiriyya, despite mending its fences with Washington and London in 2003-4 and dealing reasonably with Paris and Rome, should have proved so vulnerable to their sudden hostility. And the Libyan war should also prompt us to examine what the actions of the Western powers in relation to Africa and Asia, and the Arab world in particular, are doing to democratic principles and the idea of the rule of law.
The Afghans who rebelled against the Communist regimes of Noor Mohammed Taraki, Hafizullah Amin and the Soviet-backed Babrak Karmal, and in 1992 overthrew Mohammed Najibullah before laying waste to Kabul in protracted factional warfare, called themselvesmujahedin, ‘fighters for the faith’. They were conducting a jihad against godless Marxists and saw no need to be coy about it in view of the enthusiastic media coverage as well as logistical support the West was giving them. But the Libyans who took up arms against Gaddafi’s Jamahiriyya have sedulously avoided this label, at least when near Western microphones. Religion had little to do with the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt: Islamists were almost entirely absent from the stage in Tunisia until the fall of Ben Ali; in Egypt the Muslim Brothers weren’t instigators of the protest movement (in which Coptic Christians also took part) and made sure their support remained discreet. And so the irrelevance of Islamism to the popular revolt against despotic regimes was part of the way the Arab Spring came to be read in the West. Libyan rebels and Gaddafi loyalists alike tacitly recognised this fact.
The Western media generally endorsed the rebels’ description of themselves as forward-looking liberal democrats, and dismissed Gaddafi’s exaggerated claim that al-Qaida was behind the revolt. But it has become impossible to ignore the fact that the rebellion has mobilised Islamists and acquired an Islamicist tinge. On his first visit to Tripoli, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the NTC, then still based in Benghazi, declared that all legislation of the future Libyan state would be grounded in the Sharia, pre-empting any elected body on this cardinal point. And Abdul Hakim Belhadj (alias Abu Abdallah al-Sadiq), whom the NTC appointed to the newly created post of military commander of Tripoli, is a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a movement which conducted a campaign of terrorism against the Libyan state in the 1990s and went on to provide recruits to al-Qaida. The democratic revolutionaries in Tunisia are now concerned that the re-emergence of the Islamist movement has diverted political debate from constitutional questions to toxic identity issues and may derail the country’s nascent democracy; in this light, the Islamist aspect of the Libyan rebellion should put us on our guard. It is among several reasons to ask whether what we have been witnessing is a revolution or a counter-revolution.
The rebels’ name has changed several times in the Western media’s lexicon: first they were peaceful demonstrators, democracy protesters, civilians; then (a belated admission) rebels; and, finally, revolutionaries. Revolutionaries – in Arabic, thuwwar (singular: tha’ir) – has been their preferred label at least since the fall of Tripoli. Tha’ir can simply mean ‘agitated’ or ‘excited’. The young men who spent much of the period between April and July careering up and down the coastal highway in Toyota pick-ups (and the whole of September running backwards and forwards around Bani Walid), while firing as much of their ammunition into the air as at the enemy, have certainly been excited. But how many veterans of revolutions elsewhere, as distinct from Western journalists, would recognise them as their counterparts?
The events in both Tunisia and Egypt have been revolutionary in intent, but the change that has occurred in Egypt falls well short of a genuine revolution: the army’s return to power means that the country’s politics has yet to transcend the logic of the Free Officers’ state established in 1952. But the way hundreds of thousands stood up against Mubarak last winter was a historic event Egyptians will never forget. The same is true of Tunisia, except that there a revolution has not only toppled Ben Ali but also ended the monopoly of the old ruling party. The Tunisians have entered the unknown. Whether they have the resources to cope with the Islamist movement may be their greatest test. The recent elections suggest they are coping pretty well.
Libya was part of the wider ‘Arab awakening’ in two respects. The unrest began on 15 February, three days after the fall of Mubarak: so there was a contagion effect. And clearly many of the Libyans who took to the streets over the next few days were animated by some of the same sentiments as their counterparts elsewhere. But the Libyan uprising diverged from the Tunisian and Egyptian templates in two ways: the rapidity with which it took on a violent aspect – the destruction of state buildings and xenophobic attacks on Egyptians, Serbs, Koreans and, above all, black Africans; and the extent to which, brandishing the old Libyan flag of the 1951-69 era, the protesters identified their cause with the monarchy Gaddafi & Co overthrew. This divergence owed a lot to external influences. But it also owed much to the character of Gaddafi’s state and regime.
Widely ridiculed as the bizarre creation of its eccentric if not lunatic ‘Guide’, the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya in fact shared many features with other Arab states. With the massive increase in oil revenues in the early 1970s, Libya became a ‘hydrocarbon society’ that resembled the states of the Gulf more than its North African neighbours. Libya’s oil revenues were distributed very widely, the new regime laying on a welfare state from which virtually all Libyans benefited, while also relying on oil wealth, as the Gulf States do, to buy in whatever it lacked in terms of technology and consumer goods, not to mention hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. For Gaddafi and his colleagues the state’s distributive role quickly became the central element in their strategy for governing the country.
The 1969 coup belonged to the series of upheavals that challenged the arrangements made by Britain and France to dominate the Arab world after the First World War and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. These took on a new vigour in the wake of the defeats of the Second World War and the supersession of British by American hegemony in the Middle East. These arrangements entailed the sponsoring, safeguarding and manipulation of newly confected monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and the Gulf statelets, and in most cases the challenges were precipitated by catastrophic developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Just as the Free Officers who deposed King Farouq and seized power in Egypt in 1952 were outraged at the incompetent way Egypt’s armed forces were led in 1948, and the revolution in Iraq in 1958 owed much to increased hostility to the pro-British monarchy after Suez, so the Arab defeat in 1967, and crucially, frustration at Libya’s absence from the Arab struggle, prompted Gaddafi and his colleagues to attempt their coup against the Libyan monarchy. However, beyond closing the US base at Wheelus Field and nationalising the oil, they didn’t really know what to do next.
Unlike his Hashemite counterparts, who came from Mecca and were foreigners in Jordan and Iraq, King Idris was at least a Libyan. He also had legitimacy as the head of the Sanussiyya religious order, which in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries had established itself the length and breadth of eastern Libya, and had distinguished itself in the resistance to the Italian conquest from 1911 onwards. But like the Hashemites Idris came to the throne as a protégé of the British, who fished him out of Cairo, where he had spent more than 20 years in exile, to make him king and thereby recast Libya as a monarchy in 1951 when the UN finally decided what to do with the former Italian colony.
The Sanussiyya, originally an Islamic revivalist order, was set up in north-eastern Libya, the province the Italians called Cyrenaica, by an immigrant divine from western Algeria, Sayyid Mohammed ben Ali al-Sanussi al-Idrisi, who founded his order in Mecca in 1837 but moved it to Libya in 1843. It took root throughout the eastern province in the interstices of Bedouin tribal society and spread south along the trade routes that crossed the Sahara into Sudan, Chad and Niger. It had less of a presence in western Libya: in Tripolitania in the north-west, which had its own religious and political traditions based on the Ottoman connection, and Fezzan in the south-west. The two western provinces have always been considered part of the Maghreb (the Arab west), linked primarily to Tunisia and Algeria, while eastern Libya has always been part of the Mashreq (the Arab east) and oriented to Egypt and the rest of the Arab Levant.
The new monarchy’s internal social basis was thus markedly uneven and Idris was badly placed to promote a genuine process of national integration, opting instead for a federal constitution that left Libyan society much as he found it while, out of deference to his Western sponsors as well as alarm at the rise of radical Arab nationalism and Nasserism in particular, he insulated the country from the rest of the Arab world. Gaddafi’s coup was a revolt against this state of affairs, and the otherwise baffling flamboyance of his foreign policy was evidence of his determination that Libya should no longer be a backwater.
The new regime’s inner circle was drawn from a small number of tribes, above all the Gadadfa in central Libya, the Magarha from the Fezzan in the south-west and the Warfalla from south-eastern Tripolitania. This background did not dispose Gaddafi and his associates to identify with the political and cultural traditions of the Tripoli elites or those of Benghazi and the other towns of coastal Cyrenaica. As the elites saw it, the 1969 coup had been carried out by ‘Bedouin’ – that is, country bumpkins. For Gaddafi & Co, the traditions of the urban elites offered no recipe for governing Libya: they would only perpetuate its disunity.
The Mediterranean and the Middle East are not short of examples of lands made painfully into states based, not on the cosmopolitan societies of the seaboards, but on the bleak and hard regions of the interior. It was the austere society and sombre towns of the Castilian plateau, not sophisticated Barcelona or sunny Valencia or Granada, that brought forth the kingdom which, once joined to Aragon, united the rest of Spain at the expense of the rich culture of Andalucia in particular. In the same way Ibn Saud, ruler of the unforgiving Nejd plateau in the centre of the Arabian peninsula, had united the Arabs under the sword while forcing the townsmen of the Hijaz, near the Red Sea coast, who were nourished on the traditions of all four madhahib (legal schools) of Sunni Islam and well acquainted with the various Shia traditions, to bend the knee to Wahhabi dogmatism. Ibn Saud had the militant religious tradition of the muwahiddun, the disciples of the Nejdi religious reformer Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, behind him in his drive to unify Arabia by conquest. Even the revolutionaries of the FLN had religion going for them, not only because they were confronting a Christian colonial power but also as heirs to the al-Islah reform movement. But Gaddafi and his associates had no militant religious banner and organised Islam in Libya was minded to resist them.
Pre-empted in the religious sphere by both the Sanussiyya in the east and the pan-Islamic tradition of the Tripolitanian ’ulama, which dated from the Ottoman era, they were desperate to find a doctrinal source for the kind of ideological enthusiasm they needed to stir in order to reorder Libyan society. At the outset, they thought they had one in pan-Arabism, which, especially in its Nasserite version, had inspired enthusiasm across North Africa from 1952 onwards, putting the champions of Islam on the back foot. But Gaddafi & Co were latecomers to the Arab nationalist revolutionary ball and little more than a year after their seizure of power Nasser was dead. For some time Gaddafi persisted with the idea of a strategic relationship with Egypt, which would have helped to solve several of the new Libya’s problems, providing it with an ally and shoring up the regime’s efforts to deal with refractory currents in Cyrenaica. But Egypt under Sadat veered away from pan-Arabism and plans for an Egyptian-Libyan union, announced in August 1972, led nowhere. In late 1973 an anti-Egyptian campaign was launched in the Libyan press, and Libya’s embassy in Cairo was closed.
Gaddafi now tried to contract an alliance with his western neighbour, declaring a new ‘Arab-Islamic Republic’ with Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba in January 1974. This too proved stillborn. Many wondered what on earth the worldly, Francophile, secular and moderate Bourguiba could have been thinking and Houari Boumediène, Algeria’s president, weighed in to remind Tunis that there could be no shift in the geopolitical balance of the Maghreb without Algeria’s agreement. Following this logic, Gaddafi secured an alliance with Algeria, and in 1975 Boumediène and Gaddafi signed a treaty of mutual friendship. It appeared that Libya had at last entered an alliance it could rely on. Two years later, after Sadat’s visit to Tel Aviv, Libya joined Algeria, Syria, South Yemen and the PLO in the Steadfastness Front, which was opposed to any rapprochement with Israel. But Boumediène died unexpectedly in late 1978. His successor, Chadli Bendjedid, emulating Sadat, abandoned Algeria’s revolutionary commitments and the protective alliance with Tripoli; Libya was alone again. Gaddafi’s desperation is evident in the short-lived treaty he signed with Morocco’s King Hassan in 1984. It was his last attempt to fit in with fellow North African and Arab states. Instead, he looked to sub-Saharan Africa, where the Jamahiriyya could play the benevolent patron.
All the states of North Africa have had African policies of a kind. And all but Tunisia have strategic hinterlands consisting of the countries to their south: for Egypt, the Sudan; for Algeria, the Sahel states (Niger, Mali and Mauritania); for Morocco, Mauritania, also a permanent bone of contention with Algeria. In pursuing their African policies, the North African states often compete with one another, but they have also been in competition with Western powers keen to preserve or, in the case of the US, to contract patron-client relations with these states. What distinguished Gaddafi’s Libya from its North African neighbours was the extent of its investment in this southern strategy, which became central to the regime’s conception of Libya’s mission in the world.
The Jamahiriyya’s African policy had a darker side. Gaddafi’s support for Idi Amin is the outstanding example, though even that seems less grotesque when weighed against the support of various Western governments for Mobutu Sese Seko. There was also Libya’s involvement in Chad’s civil war (and attempted annexation of the Aouzou Strip) and its sustained involvement in the Tuareg question in Niger and Mali. At the same time, it gave strong financial and practical support to the African Union, opposed the installation of the US military’s ‘Africom’ on the soil of any African country and funded a wide range of development projects in sub-Saharan countries. Gaddafi planned to exploit the immense water reserves under Libya’s Sahara, and to provide water to the Sahel countries, which could have transformed their economic prospects, but this possibility has now almost certainly been killed off by Nato’s intervention, since Western (and perhaps particularly French) water companies are lining up alongside Western oil firms for their slice of the Libyan action.
Gaddafi’s African policy gave Libya a firm geopolitical position and consolidated its strategic hinterland while also benefiting Africa. That many African countries appreciated Libya’s contribution to the continent’s affairs was made clear by the AU’s opposition to Nato’s intervention and its sustained efforts to broker a ceasefire and negotiations between the two sides of the civil war. These efforts were dismissed with scorn by Western governments and press, with African opposition to the military intervention cynically derided as Libya’s clients doing their duty to their patron, a self-serving judgment that was unfair to South Africa in particular. That the Arab League, whose support for a no-fly zone was invoked by London, Paris and Washington to claim Arab legitimation of Nato’s intervention, had a membership almost entirely confined to Western powers’ client states was never mentioned.
The situation was full of irony for Libya. Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam’s contemptuous comment on the Arab League’s resolution, ‘El-Arab? Toz fi el-Arab!’ (‘The Arabs? To hell with the Arabs!’), expressed the family’s bitter recognition that the pan-Arabism behind the 1969 revolution had long ago become obsolete as the majority of Arab states subsided into shamefaced submission to the Western powers. The problem for Gaddafi & Co was that the African perspective they had diligently pursued as a solution de rechange for defunct pan-Arabism consistent with their original anti-imperialist worldview meant little to the many Libyans who wanted Libya to approximate to Dubai, or, worse, stirred virulent resentment against the regime and black Africans alike. And so, in taking Libya into Africa while tending to remove it from Arab regional affairs, the Jamahiriyya’s foreign policy, like that of Idris’s monarchy, cut the Libyans off from other Arabs, especially the well-heeled Gulf Arabs whose lifestyle many middle-class Libyans aspired to. In this way, the regime’s foreign policy made it vulnerable to a revolt inspired by events elsewhere in the Arab world. But there was another reason for its vulnerability.
The authors of the 1969 coup initially took Nasser’s Egypt for their model, imitating its institutions and terminology – Free Officers, Revolutionary Command Council – and equipping themselves with a single ‘party’, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), like Nasser’s prototype essentially a state apparatus providing a façade for the new regime. But within two years, Sadat’s de-Nasserisation purges were underway and he was mending fences with the Muslim Brothers, while the beginning of infitah – his policy of opening up the economy – announced the retreat from ‘Arab socialism’ and the rift with Moscow presaged the turn to America. Thus the Egyptian model evolved rapidly into an anti-model, while the experiment with the ASU proved an instructive failure. The idea of a single party seemed to make sense in Libya as it had originally made sense in Egypt and also Algeria. Leaders of military regimes needed to set up a civilian façade so that they could offer a degree of controlled representation and bring the politically ambitious into the new dispensation. But in Egypt and Algeria the architects of the new single party were dealing with comparatively politicised populations. Gaddafi & Co confronted a politically inert society, with little in the way of a state tradition, pulverised by a brutal colonial conquest and reduced to onlookers as the country became a battleground in World War Two, then liberated from colonial rule by external forces and finally tranquillised by the Sanussi monarchy. In trying to launch the ASU, the new regime found little to work with in terms of political talent or energy in the wider population; instead it was the old elites of Tripoli and Benghazi who invested in the party, which not only failed to mobilise popular enthusiasm but became a focus of resistance to the revolution Gaddafi had in mind.
Gaddafi accordingly began to develop an idea he voiced within weeks of seizing power in 1969: that representative democracy was unsuited to Libya. Other leaders in North Africa and the Middle East felt the same about their own countries. But in pretending to allow for representation they were acknowledging their vice in tacitly paying homage to virtue. In hisGreen Book, however, Gaddafi scandalised people by his refusal to be a hypocrite: he elevated his rejection of representation into an explicit constitutive principle which he called the State of the Masses. But the real problem was that his new course led Libya to a historic impasse.
He dispensed with the ASU and the idea of a single ruling party, promoting instead People’s Congresses and Revolutionary Committees as the key political institutions of the Jamahiriyya, which was proclaimed in 1977. The former were to assume responsibility for public administration and secure popular participation, the latter to keep the flame of the Revolution alive. The members of the People’s Congresses were elected, and these elections were taken seriously, at least at the local level and for a while. But voters were not, in theory, electing representatives, merely deciding who among the candidates on offer they wished to assume the mainly administrative responsibilities of the bodies in question. The system encouraged political and ideological unanimity, allowing no voice for dissident opinion except on trivial matters. It drew many ordinary Libyans into a sort of participation in public affairs, although this was waning by the mid-1990s, but it did not educate them in other aspects of politics, and did not work well on its own terms either.
Gaddafi’s State of the Masses drew on ideas developed elsewhere. The championing of direct over representative democracy was a prominent feature of the utopian outlook of young Western leftists in the 1960s. And the strategic decision to mobilise the ‘revolutionary’ energies of the young to outflank conservative party apparatuses was central to Mao’s Cultural Revolution and a feature of Boumediène’s ‘Révolution socialiste’. Where Gaddafi went further was in abolishing the ASU and outlawing parties altogether, but in this he could claim a doctrinal warrant: the notion that there should be no political parties in a Muslim country has long been advocated by some currents of Sunni Islamism, on the grounds that ‘party’ connotes fitna, or a division of the community of the faithful, the supreme danger. Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates allow no political parties to this day. (Gaddafi’s rule always had a more pronounced Islamic aspect than that of the regimes in Cairo and Algiers; his intolerance of Islamists owed a lot to the fact that he was intent on remaining the source of radicalism and unwilling to allow rivals.) Finally, the idea of direct popular participation in public administration could claim a local origin in the tradition of the Bedouin tribes known as hukumat ‘arabiyya (meaning here ‘people’s government’ not ‘Arab government’), in which every adult male can have his say.
The Jamahiriyya lasted 34 years (42 if backdated to 1969), a respectable innings. It did not work for foreign businessmen, diplomats and journalists, who found it more exasperating to deal with than the run of Arab and African states, and their views shaped the country’s image abroad. But the regime was not designed to work for foreigners and seems to have worked fairly well for many Libyans much of the time. It achieved more than a tripling of the total population (6.5 million today, up from 1.8 million in 1968), high standards of healthcare, high rates of schooling for girls as well as boys, a literacy rate of 88 per cent, a degree of social and occupational promotion for women that women in many other Arab countries might well envy and an annual per capita income of $12,000, the highest in Africa. But the point about these indices, routinely cited, naturally enough, by critics of the West’s intervention in reply to the propaganda that has relentlessly blackened the Gaddafi regime, is that they are in one crucial sense beside the point.
The socio-economic achievements of the regime can be attributed essentially to the distributive state: that is, the success of the hydrocarbons sector and of the mechanisms put in place early on to distribute petrodollars. But the central institutions of the Jamahiriyya, the tandem of People’s Congresses and Revolutionary Committees, did not make for effective government at all, in part because they involved a tension between two distinct notions and sources of legitimacy. The Congresses embodied the idea of the people as the source of legitimacy and the agent of legitimation. But the Committees embodied the very different idea of the Revolution as possessing a legitimacy that trumped all others. At the apex of the Revolution was Gaddafi himself, which is why it made sense for him to position himself outside the structure of Congresses and hence of the formal institutions of government, neither prime minister nor president but simply Murshid, Guide, Brother Leader. The position enabled him to mediate in free-wheeling fashion between the various components of the system and broader public opinion, criticising the government (and thereby articulating public restiveness) or deploring the ineffectiveness and correcting the mistakes of People’s Congresses and doing so always from the standpoint of the Revolution. The tradition of an Arab ruler making a virtue of siding with public opinion against his own ministers goes back to Haroun al-Rashid. But the way revolutionary legitimacy could override popular legitimacy in Gaddafi’s system also resembles Khomeini’s insistence that the interests of Iran’s revolution could override the precepts of the Sharia – i.e. that political considerations could trump Islamic dogma – and that he was the arbiter of when this was necessary. It is striking that Gaddafi considered that the interest of the Revolution required the hydrocarbons sector to be spared the ministrations of People’s Congresses and Revolutionary Committees alike.
Words such as ‘authoritarianism’, ‘tyranny’ (a favourite bugbear of the British) and ‘dictatorship’ have never really captured the particular character of this set-up but have instead relentlessly caricatured it. Gaddafi, unlike any other head of state, stood at the apex not of the pyramid of governing institutions but of the informal sector of the polity, which enjoyed a degree of hegemony over the formal sector that has no modern counterpart. It meant that the Jamahiriyya’s formal institutions were extremely weak, and that included the army, which Gaddafi mistrusted and marginalised.
One is tempted to say of Gaddafi, ‘L’état, c’était lui.’ But it was the more and more mystical idea of the Revolution, not heredity and divine right, that legitimated his power. And the intangible content of this Revolution, what Ruth First called its elusiveness, was closely connected to the fact that the Revolution was never over.
A distinction between revolutionary and constitutional government was made in 1793 by Robespierre, when he wrote: ‘The aim of constitutional government is to preserve the Republic; that of revolutionary government is to lay its foundation.’ The effective historical function of the revolutionary government in Libya was to ensure that, while the country was modernised in important respects, it did not and could not become a republic. The Libyan Revolution turned out to be permanent because its objects were imprecise, its architects had no form of law-bound, constitutional government in view as a final destination and no conception of a political role for themselves or anyone else after the Revolution. The State of the Masses, al-jamahiriyya, was presented as far superior to a mere republic – jumhuriyya – but in fact fell far short of one. And, in contrast to states that call themselves republics but fail to live up to the name, its pretensions signalled that there was never an intention to establish a real republic in which government would truly be the affair of the people. The State of the Masses was in reality little more than a game to occupy and contain ordinary Libyans while the grown-up business of politics was conducted behind the scenes, the affair of a mysterious and unaccountable elite.
The mobilisation of society in the French Revolution threw up several independent-minded leaders – Danton, Marat, Hébert et al as well as Robespierre – which made it psychologically possible for fellow Jacobins to rebel against Robespierre and set in train the tortuous process of superseding revolutionary by constitutional government. Something similar, up to a point, can be said of Algeria (where the independence struggle threw up a superabundance of strong-minded revolutionaries), although 49 years on, the winding road to the democratic republic still stretches far ahead, as it did in France. But the political inertia of Libyan society meant that its Revolution had one and only one leader. Gaddafi’s closest colleagues no doubt had personal influence but only one of them, Abdessalam Jalloud, had it in him to disagree openly with Gaddafi on major issues (and he finally quit on his own terms in 1995). And so Gaddafi’s rule can be seen as an extreme instance of what Rosa Luxemburg called ‘substitutionism’: the informal government that was the real government of Libya was a one-man show. Incarnating the nebulous Revolution, the imprecise interest of the nation and the inarticulate will of the people at the same time, Gaddafi clearly believed he needed to make the show interesting. His flamboyance had a political purpose. But how long can colourfulness command consent, let alone loyalty? A Pied Piper leading Libyans – mostly well fed, housed and schooled, but maintained in perpetual political infancy – to no destination in particular. The wonder of it is that the show had such a long run.
Gaddafi seems to have realised years ago what he had done – the quasi-utopian dead end he had got Libya and himself into – and tried to escape its implications. As early as 1987 he was experimenting with liberalisation: allowing private trading, reining in the Revolutionary Committees and reducing their powers, allowing Libyans to travel to neighbouring countries, returning confiscated passports, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, inviting exiles to return with assurances that they would not be persecuted, and even meeting opposition leaders to explore the possibility of reconciliation while acknowledging that serious abuses had occurred and that Libya lacked the rule of law. These reforms implied a shift towards constitutional government, the most notable elements being Gaddafi’s proposals for the codification of citizens’ rights and punishable crimes, which were meant to put an end to arbitrary arrests. This line of development was cut short by the imposition of international sanctions in 1992 in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing: a national emergency that reinforced the regime’s conservative wing and ruled out risky reform for more than a decade. It was only in 2003-4, after Tripoli had paid a massive sum in compensation to the bereaved families in 2002 (having already surrendered Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhima for trial in 1999), that sanctions were lifted, at which point a new reforming current headed by Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam emerged within the regime.
It was the fashion some years ago in circles close to the Blair government – in the media, principally, and among academics – to talk up Saif al-Islam’s commitment to reform and it is the fashion now to heap opprobrium on him as his awful father’s son. Neither judgment is accurate, both are self-serving. Saif al-Islam had begun to play a significant and constructive role in Libyan affairs of state, persuading the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to end its terrorist campaign in return for the release of LIFG prisoners in 2008, promoting a range of practical reforms and broaching the idea that the regime should formally recognise the country’s Berbers. While it was always unrealistic to suppose that he could have remade Libya into a liberal democracy had he succeeded his father, he certainly recognised the problems of the Jamahiriyya and the need for substantial reform. The prospect of a reformist path under Saif was ruled out by this spring’s events. Is there a parallel with the way international sanctions in the wake of Lockerbie put paid to the earlier reform initiative?
Since February, it has been relentlessly asserted that the Libyan government was responsible both for the bombing of a Berlin disco on 5 April 1986 and the Lockerbie bombing on 21 December 1988. News of Gaddafi’s violent end was greeted with satisfaction by the families of the American victims of Lockerbie, understandably full of bitterness towards the man they have been assured by the US government and the press ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103. But many informed observers have long wondered about these two stories, especially Lockerbie. Jim Swire, the spokesman of UK Families Flight 103, whose daughter was killed in the bombing, has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the official version. Hans Köchler, an Austrian jurist appointed by the UN as an independent observer at the trial, expressed concern about the way it was conducted (notably about the role of two US Justice Department officials who sat next to the Scottish prosecuting counsel throughout and appeared to be giving them instructions). Köchler described al-Megrahi’s conviction as ‘a spectacular miscarriage of justice’. Swire, who also sat through the trial, subsequently launched the Justice for Megrahi campaign. In a resumé of Gaddafi’s career shown on BBC World Service Television on the night of 20 October, John Simpson stopped well short of endorsing either charge, noting of the Berlin bombing that ‘it may or may not have been Colonel Gaddafi’s work,’ an honest formula that acknowledged the room for doubt. Of Lockerbie he remarked cautiously that Libya subsequently ‘got the full blame’, a statement that is quite true.
It is often claimed by British and American government personnel and the Western press that Libya admitted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2003-4. This is untrue. As part of the deal with Washington and London, which included Libya paying $2.7 billion to the 270 victims’ families, the Libyan government in a letter to the president of the UN Security Council stated that Libya ‘has facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103, and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials’. That this formula was agreed in negotiations between the Libyan and British (if not also American) governments was made clear when it was echoed word for word by Jack Straw in the House of Commons. The formula allowed the government to give the public the impression that Libya was indeed guilty, while also allowing Tripoli to say that it had admitted nothing of the kind. The statement does not even mention al-Megrahi by name, much less acknowledge his guilt or that of the Libyan government, and any self-respecting government would sign up to the general principle that it is responsible for the actions of its officials. Tripoli’s position was spelled out by the prime minister, Shukri Ghanem, on 24 February 2004 on the Todayprogramme: he made it clear that the payment of compensation did not imply an admission of guilt and explained that the Libyan government had ‘bought peace’.
The standards of proof underpinning Western judgments of Gaddafi’s Libya have not been high. The doubt over the Lockerbie trial verdict has encouraged rival theories about who really ordered the bombing, which have predictably been dubbed ‘conspiracy theories’. But the prosecution case in the Lockerbie trial was itself a conspiracy theory. And the meagre evidence adduced would have warranted acquittal on grounds of reasonable doubt, or, at most, the ‘not proven’ verdict that Scottish law allows for, rather than the unequivocally ‘guilty’ verdict brought in, oddly, on one defendant but not the other. I do not claim to know the truth of the Lockerbie affair, but the British are slow to forgive the authors of atrocities committed against them and their friends. So I find it hard to believe that a British government would have fallen over itself as it did in 2003-5 to welcome Libya back into the fold had it really held Gaddafi responsible. And in view of the number of Scottish victims of the bombing, it is equally hard to believe that SNP politicians would have countenanced al-Megrahi’s release if they believed the guilty verdict had been sound. The hypothesis that Libya and Gaddafi and al-Megrahi were framed is to be taken very seriously indeed. And if it were the case, it would follow that the greatly diminished prospect of reform from 1989 onwards as the regime battened down the hatches to weather international sanctions, the material suffering of the Libyan people during this period, and the aggravation of internal conflict (notably the Islamist terrorist campaign waged by the LIFG between 1995 and 1998) can all in some measure be laid at the West’s door.
Wherever the blame lies, the Jamahiriyya survived up to 2011 fundamentally unchanged in its key political features: the absence of political parties, the absence of independent associations, newspapers and publishing houses and the corresponding weakness of civil society, the dysfunctional character of the formal institutions of government, the weakness of the armed forces and the indispensability of Gaddafi himself as the originator of the Revolution that constituted the state. After 42 years of Gaddafi’s rule, the people of Libya were, politically speaking, not much further forward than they were on 31 August 1969. And so the Jamahiriyya was vulnerable to internal challenge the moment Arab mass movements making an issue of human dignity and citizens’ rights got going. The tragic irony is that the features of the Jamahiriyya that made it vulnerable to the Arab Spring also, in their combination, completely ruled out any emulation of the Tunisian and Egyptian scenarios. The factors that enabled a fundamentally positive evolution to occur in both these countries once the mass protest movement started were absent from Libya. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the population’s greater experience of political action gave the protests a degree of sophistication, coherence and organisational flair. The fact that neither president had been a founding figure allowed for a distinction to be made between a protest against the president and his cronies and a rebellion against the state: the patriotism of the protesters was never put in question. And in both cases the role of the armed forces was crucial: being loyal to the state and the nation rather than to a particular leader, they were disposed to act as arbiters and facilitate a resolution without the existence of the state being put in jeopardy.
None of this applied to Libya. Gaddafi was the founder of the Jamahiriyya and the guarantor of its continued existence. The armed forces were incapable of playing an independent political role. The absence of any tradition of non-violent opposition and independent organisation ensured that the revolt at the popular level was a raw affair, incapable of formulating any demands that the regime might be able to negotiate. On the contrary, the revolt was a challenge to Gaddafi and to the Jamahiriyya as a whole (and thus to what existed in the way of a state).
The situation that developed over the weekend following the initial unrest on 15 February suggested three possible scenarios: a rapid collapse of the regime as the popular uprising spread; the crushing of the revolt as the regime got its act together; or – in the absence of an early resolution – the onset of civil war. Had the revolt been crushed straightaway, the implications for the Arab Spring would have been serious, but not necessarily more damaging than events in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria; Arab public opinion, long used to the idea that Libya was a place apart, was insulated against the exemplary effect of events there. Had the revolt rapidly brought about the collapse of the regime, Libya might have tumbled into anarchy. An oil-rich Somalistan on the Mediterranean would have had destabilising repercussions for all its neighbours and prejudiced the prospects for democratic development in Tunisia in particular. A long civil war, while costly in terms of human life, might have given the rebellion time to cohere as a rival centre of state formation and thus prepared it for the task of establishing a functional Libyan state in the event of victory. And, even if defeated, such a rebellion would have undermined the premises of the Jamahiriyya and ensured its demise. None of these scenarios took place. A military intervention by the Western powers under the cloak of Nato and the authority of the United Nations happened instead.
How should we evaluate this fourth scenario in terms of the democratic principles that have been invoked to justify the military intervention? There is no doubt that many Libyans consider Nato their saviour and that some of them genuinely aspire to a democratic future for their country. Even so I felt great alarm when intervention started to be suggested and remain opposed to it even now despite its apparent triumph, because I considered that the balance of democratic argument favoured an entirely different course of action.
The claim that the ‘international community’ had no choice but to intervene militarily and that the alternative was to do nothing is false. An active, practical, non-violent alternative was proposed, and deliberately rejected. The argument for a no-fly zone and then for a military intervention employing ‘all necessary measures’ was that only this could stop the regime’s repression and protect civilians. Yet many argued that the way to protect civilians was not to intensify the conflict by intervening on one side or the other, but to end it by securing a ceasefire followed by political negotiations. A number of proposals were put forward. The International Crisis Group, for instance, where I worked at the time, published a statement on 10 March arguing for a two-point initiative: (i) the formation of a contact group or committee drawn from Libya’s North African neighbours and other African states with a mandate to broker an immediate ceasefire; (ii) negotiations between the protagonists to be initiated by the contact group and aimed at replacing the current regime with a more accountable, representative and law-abiding government. This proposal was echoed by the African Union and was consistent with the views of many major non-African states – Russia, China, Brazil and India, not to mention Germany and Turkey. It was restated by the ICG in more detail (adding provision for the deployment under a UN mandate of an international peacekeeping force to secure the ceasefire) in an open letter to the UN Security Council on 16 March, the eve of the debate which concluded with the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1973. In short, before the Security Council voted to approve the military intervention, a worked-out proposal had been put forward which addressed the need to protect civilians by seeking a rapid end to the fighting, and set out the main elements of an orderly transition to a more legitimate form of government, one that would avoid the danger of an abrupt collapse into anarchy, with all it might mean for Tunisia’s revolution, the security of Libya’s other neighbours and the wider region. The imposition of a no-fly zone would be an act of war: as the US defense secretary, Robert Gates, told Congress on 2 March, it required the disabling of Libya’s air defences as an indispensable preliminary. In authorising this and ‘all necessary measures’, the Security Council was choosing war when no other policy had even been tried. Why?
Many critics of Nato’s intervention have complained that it departed from the terms of Resolution 1973 and was for that reason illegal; that the resolution authorised neither regime change nor the introduction of troops on the ground. This is a misreading. Article 4 ruled out the introduction of an occupying force. But Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations states that ‘territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army,’ a definition conserved by the 1949 Geneva Conventions. What Resolution 1973 ruled out was the introduction of a force intended to take full political and legal responsibility for the place, but that was never the intention; ground forces were indeed eventually introduced, but they have at no point accepted political or legal responsibility for anything and so fall short of the conventional definition of an occupying force. It may be that this misreading of the resolution was connived at by the governments that drafted it in order to secure the best (or least bad) tally of votes in favour on 17 March; this would of course be only one instance of the sophistry to which the metteurs en scène of intervention have resorted. And regime change was tacitly covered by the phrase ‘all necessary measures’. That this was the right way to read the resolution had already been made clear by the stentorian rhetoric of Cameron and Hague, Sarkozy and Juppé, and Obama and Clinton in advance of the Security Council vote. Since the issue was defined from the outset as protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s murderous onslaught ‘on his own people’, it followed that effective protection required the elimination of the threat, which was Gaddafi himself for as long as he was in power (subsequently revised to ‘for as long as he is in Libya’ before finally becoming ‘for as long as he is alive’). From the attitudes struck by the Western powers in the run-up to the Security Council debate, it was evident that the cleverly drafted resolution tacitly authorised a war to effect regime change. Those who subsequently said that they did not know that regime change had been authorised either did not understand the logic of events or were pretending to misunderstand in order to excuse their failure to oppose it. By inserting ‘all necessary measures’ into the resolution, London, Paris and Washington licensed themselves, with Nato as their proxy, to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted in the full knowledge that they would never be held to account, since as permanent veto-holding members of the Security Council they are above all laws.
In two respects the conduct of the Western powers and Nato did indeed appear explicitly to violate the terms of Security Council resolutions. The first instance was the repeated supply of arms to the rebellion by France, Qatar, Egypt (according to the Wall Street Journal) and no doubt various other members of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in what seemed a clear breach of the arms embargo imposed by the Security Council in Articles 9, 10 and 11 of Resolution 1970 passed on 26 February and reiterated in Articles 13, 14 and 15 of Resolution 1973. It was later explained that Resolution 1973 superseded 1970 in this respect and that the magic phrase ‘all necessary measures’ licensed the violation of the arms embargo; thus Article 4 of Resolution 1973 trumped Articles 13 to 15 of the same resolution. In this way it was arranged that any state might supply arms to the rebels while none might do so to the Libyan government, which by that time had been decreed illegitimate by London, Paris and Washington. Scarcely anyone has drawn attention to the second violation.
The efforts of the ICG and others seeking an alternative to war did not go entirely unnoticed. Apparently their proposals made some impression on the less gung-ho members of the Security Council, and so a left-handed homage was paid them by the drafters of Resolution 1973. In the final version – unlike any earlier ones – the idea of a peaceful solution was incorporated in the first two articles, which read:
[The Security Council …]
(1) Demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians; (2) Stresses the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people and notes the decisions of the secretary-general to send his special envoy to Libya and of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution.
In this way Resolution 1973 seemed to be actively envisaging a peaceful alternative as its first preference, while authorising military intervention as a fallback if a ceasefire was refused. In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Resolution 1973 was passed in New York late in the evening of 17 March. The next day, Gaddafi, whose forces were camped on the southern edge of Benghazi, announced a ceasefire in conformity with Article 1 and proposed a political dialogue in line with Article 2. What the Security Council demanded and suggested, he provided in a matter of hours. His ceasefire was immediately rejected on behalf of the NTC by a senior rebel commander, Khalifa Haftar, and dismissed by Western governments. ‘We will judge him by his actions not his words,’ David Cameron declared, implying that Gaddafi was expected to deliver a complete ceasefire by himself: that is, not only order his troops to cease fire but ensure this ceasefire was maintained indefinitely despite the fact that the NTC was refusing to reciprocate. Cameron’s comment also took no account of the fact that Article 1 of Resolution 1973 did not of course place the burden of a ceasefire exclusively on Gaddafi. No sooner had Cameron covered for the NTC’s unmistakable violation of Resolution 1973 than Obama weighed in, insisting that for Gaddafi’s ceasefire to count for anything he would (in addition to sustaining it indefinitely, single-handed, irrespective of the NTC) have to withdraw his forces not only from Benghazi but also from Misrata and from the most important towns his troops had retaken from the rebellion, Ajdabiya in the east and Zawiya in the west – in other words, he had to accept strategic defeat in advance. These conditions, which were impossible for Gaddafi to accept, were absent from Article 1.
Cameron and Obama had made clear that the last thing they wanted was a ceasefire, that the NTC could violate Article 1 of the resolution with impunity and that in doing so it would be acting with the agreement of its Security Council sponsors. Gaddafi’s first ceasefire offer came to nothing, as did his second offer of 20 March. A week later, Turkey, which had been working within the Nato framework to help organise the provision of humanitarian aid to Benghazi, announced that it had been talking to both sides and offered to broker a ceasefire. The offer was given what Ernest Bevin would have called ‘a complete ignoral’ and nothing came of it either, as nothing came of a later initiative, seeking a ceasefire and negotiations (to which Gaddafi explicitly agreed), undertaken by the African Union in April. It too was rejected out of hand by the NTC, which demanded Gaddafi’s resignation as a condition of any ceasefire. This demand went beyond even Obama’s earlier list of conditions, none of which had figured in Resolution 1973. More to the point, it was a demand that made a ceasefire impossible, since securing a ceasefire requires commanders with decisive authority over their armies, and removing Gaddafi would have meant that no one any longer had overall authority over the regime’s forces.
By incorporating the alternative non-violent policy proposals in its text, the Western war party had been pulling a confidence trick, stringing along a few undecided states to get them to vote for the resolution on 17 March: a war to the finish, violent regime change and the end of Gaddafi had been the policy from the outset. All subsequent offers of a ceasefire by Gaddafi – on 30 April, 26 May and 9 June – were treated with the same contempt.
Those who believe in ‘international law’ and are happy with wars they consider ‘legal’ may wish to make something of this. But the crucial point here has to do with the logic of events and the policy choices associated with them. In incorporating the ICG’s – or, more generally, the peace party’s – suggestions into the revised text of Resolution 1973, London, Paris and Washington deftly headed off a real debate in the Security Council, one that would have considered alternatives, at the price of making their own resolution incoherent.
London, Paris and Washington could not allow a ceasefire because it would have involved negotiations, first about peace lines, peacekeepers and so forth, and then about fundamental political differences. And all this would have subverted the possibility of the kind of regime change that interested the Western powers. The sight of representatives of the rebellion sitting down to talks with representatives of Gaddafi’s regime, Libyans talking to Libyans, would have called the demonisation of Gaddafi into question. The moment he became once more someone people talked to and negotiated with, he would in effect have been rehabilitated. And that would have ruled out violent – revolutionary? – regime change and so denied the Western powers their chance of a major intervention in North Africa’s Spring, and the whole interventionist scheme would have flopped. The logic of the demonisation of Gaddafi in late February, crowned by the referral of his alleged crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court by Resolution 1970 and then by France’s decision on 10 March to recognise the NTC as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people, meant that Gaddafi was banished for ever from the realm of international political discourse, never to be negotiated with, not even about the surrender of Tripoli when in August he offered to talk terms to spare the city further destruction, an offer once more dismissed with contempt. And this logic was preserved from start to finish, as the death toll of civilians in Tripoli and above all Sirte proves. The mission was always regime change, a truth obscured by the hullabaloo over the supposedly imminent massacre at Benghazi.
The official version is that it was the prospect of a ‘second Srebrenica’ or even ‘another Rwanda’ in Benghazi were Gaddafi allowed to retake the city that forced the ‘international community’ (minus Russia, China, India, Brazil, Germany, Turkey et al) to act. What grounds were there for supposing that, once Gaddafi’s forces had retaken Benghazi, they would be ordered to embark on a general massacre?
Gaddafi dealt with many revolts over the years. He invariably quashed them by force and usually executed the ringleaders. The NTC and other rebel leaders had good reason to fear that once Benghazi had fallen to government troops they would be rounded up and made to pay the price. So it was natural that they should try to convince the ‘international community’ that it was not only their lives that were at stake, but those of thousands of ordinary civilians. But in retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda. The only known massacre carried out during Gaddafi’s rule was the killing of some 1200 Islamist prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996. This was a very dark affair, and whether or not Gaddafi ordered it, it is fair to hold him responsible for it. It was therefore reasonable to be concerned about what the regime might do and how its forces would behave in Benghazi once they had retaken it, and to deter Gaddafi from ordering or allowing any excesses. But that is not what was decided. What was decided was to declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenceless civilians and instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit, and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend military action.
There was no question of anything that could properly be described as ethnic cleansing or genocide in the Libyan context. All Libyans are Muslims, the majority of Arab-Berber descent, and while the small Berber-speaking minority had a grievance concerning recognition of its language and identity (its members are Ibadi, not Sunni, Muslims), this was not what the conflict was about. The conflict was not ethnic or racial but political, between defenders and opponents of the Gaddafi regime; whichever side won could be expected to deal roughly with its adversaries, but the premises for a large-scale massacre of civilians on grounds of their ethnic or racial identity were absent. All the talk about another Srebrenica or Rwanda was extreme hyperbole clearly intended to panic various governments into supporting the war party’s project of a military intervention in order to save the rebellion from imminent defeat.
Why did the panic factor work so well with international, or at any rate Western, public opinion and especially governments? It is reliably reported that Obama’s fear of being accused of allowing another Srebrenica tipped the scales in Washington when not only Robert Gates but also, initially, Hillary Clinton had resisted US involvement. I believe the answer is that Gaddafi had already been so thoroughly demonised that the wildest accusations about his likely (or, as many claimed, certain) future conduct would be believed whatever his actual behaviour. This demonisation took place on 21 February, the day all the important cards were dealt.
On 21 February the world was shocked by the news that the Gaddafi regime was using its airforce to slaughter peaceful demonstrators in Tripoli and other cities. The main purveyor of this story was al-Jazeera, but the story was quickly taken up by the Sky network, CNN, the BBC, ITN et al. Before the day was over the idea of imposing a no-fly zone on Libya was widely accepted, as was the idea of a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions and an arms embargo, freezing Libya’s assets and referring Gaddafi and his associates to the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity. Resolution 1970 was duly passed five days later and the no-fly zone proposal monopolised international discussion of the Libyan crisis from then on.
Many other things happened on 21 February. Zawiya was reported to be in chaos. The minister of justice, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, resigned. Fifty Serbian workers were attacked by looters. Canada condemned ‘the violent crackdowns on innocent demonstrators’. Two airforce pilots flew their fighters to Malta claiming they did so to avoid carrying out an order to bomb and strafe demonstrators. By late afternoon regime troops and snipers were reliably reported to be firing on crowds in Tripoli. Eighteen Korean workers were wounded when their place of work was attacked by a hundred armed men. The European Union condemned the repression, followed by Ban Ki-moon, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi. Ten Egyptians were reported to have been killed by armed men in Tobruk. William Hague, who had condemned the repression the previous day (as had Hillary Clinton), announced at a press conference that he had information that Gaddafi had fled Libya and was en route to Venezuela. The Libyan ambassador to Poland stated that defections from the armed forces as well as the government could not be stopped and Gaddafi’s days were numbered. Numerous media outlets carried the story that Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfalla, had joined the rebellion. Libya’s ambassadors to Washington, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia all resigned, and its deputy ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, rounded off the day by calling a news conference at Libya’s mission in New York and claimed that Gaddafi had ‘already started the genocide against the Libyan people’ and was flying in African mercenaries. It was Dabbashi more than anyone else who, having primed his audience in this way, launched the idea that the UN should impose a no-fly zone and the ICC should investigate Gaddafi’s ‘crimes against humanity and crimes of war’.
At this point the total death toll since 15 February was 233, according to Human Rights Watch. The Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme suggested between 300 and 400 (but it also announced the same day that Sirte had fallen to the rebels). We can compare these figures with the total death toll in Tunisia (300) and Egypt (at least 846). We can also compare both HRW’s and FIDH’s figures with the death toll, plausibly estimated at between 500 and 600, of the seven days of rioting in Algeria in October 1988, when the French government rigorously refrained from making any comment on events. But the figures were beside the point on 21 February; it was impressions that counted. The impression made by the story that Gaddafi’s airforce was slaughtering peaceful protesters was huge, and it was natural to take the resignations of Abdul Jalil and the ambassadors, the flight of the two pilots, and especially Dabbashi’s dramatic declaration about genocide as corroborating al-Jazeera’s story.
Goodies and baddies (to use Tony Blair’s categories) had been clearly identified, the Western media’s outraged attention totally engaged, the Security Council urgently seized of the matter, the ICC primed to stand by, and a fundamental shift towards intervention had been made – all in a matter of hours. And quite right too, many may say. Except that the al-Jazeera story was untrue, just as the story of the Warfalla’s siding with the rebellion was untrue and Hague’s story that Gaddafi was fleeing to Caracas was untrue. And, of course, Dabbashi’s ‘genocide’ claim was histrionic rubbish which none of the organisations with an interest in the use of the term was moved to challenge.
These considerations raise awkward questions. If the reason cited by these ambassadors and other regime personnel for defecting on 21 February was false, what really prompted them to defect and make the declarations they did? What was al-Jazeera up to? And what was Hague up to? A serious history of this affair when more evidence comes to light will seek answers to these questions. But I don’t find it hard to understand that Gaddafi and his son should suddenly have resorted to such fierce rhetoric. They clearly believed that, far from confronting merely ‘innocent demonstrators’ as the Canadians had it, they were being destabilised by forces acting to a plan with international ramifications. It is possible that they were mistaken and that everything was spontaneous and accidental and a chaotic muddle; I do not pretend to know for sure. But there had been plans to destabilise their regime before, and they had grounds for thinking that they were being destabilised again. The slanted coverage in the British media in particular, notably the insistence that the regime was faced only by peaceful demonstrators when, in addition to ordinary Libyans trying to make their voices heard non-violently, it was facing politically motivated as well as random violence (e.g. the lynching of 50 alleged mercenaries in al-Baida on 19 February), was consistent with the destabilisation theory. And on the evidence I have since been able to collect, I am inclined to think that destabilisation is exactly what was happening.
In the days that followed I made efforts to check the al-Jazeera story for myself. One source I consulted was the well-regarded blog Informed Comment, maintained and updated every day by Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. This carried a post on 21 February entitled ‘Qaddafi’s bombardments recall Mussolini’s’, which made the point that ‘in 1933-40, Italo Balbo championed aerial warfare as the best means to deal with uppity colonial populations.’ The post began: ‘The strafing and bombardment in Tripoli of civilian demonstrators by Muammar Gaddafi’s fighter jets on Monday …’, with the underlined words linking to an article by Sarah El Deeb and Maggie Michael for Associated Press published at 9 p.m. on 21 February. This article provided no corroboration of Cole’s claim that Gaddafi’s fighter jets (or any other aircraft) had strafed or bombed anyone in Tripoli or anywhere else. The same is true of every source indicated in the other items on Libya relaying the aerial onslaught story which Cole posted that same day.
I was in Egypt for most of the time, but since many journalists visiting Libya were transiting through Cairo, I made a point of asking those I could get hold of what they had picked up in the field. None of them had found any corroboration of the story. I especially remember on 18 March asking the British North Africa expert Jon Marks, just back from an extended tour of Cyrenaica (taking in Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Brega, Derna and Ras Lanuf), what he had heard about the story. He told me that no one he had spoken to had mentioned it. Four days later, on 22 March, USA Today carried a striking article by Alan Kuperman, the author of The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention and coeditor of Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention. The article, ‘Five Things the US Should Consider in Libya’, provided a powerful critique of the Nato intervention as violating the conditions that needed to be observed for a humanitarian intervention to be justified or successful. But what interested me most was his statement that ‘despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.’ So, four weeks on, I was not alone in finding no evidence for the aerial slaughter story. I subsequently discovered that the issue had come up more than a fortnight earlier, on 2 March, in hearings in the US Congress when Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were testifying. They told Congress that they had no confirmation of reports of aircraft controlled by Gaddafi firing on citizens.
The story was untrue, just as the story that went round the world in August 1990 that Iraqi troops were slaughtering Kuwaiti babies by turning off their incubators was untrue and the claims in the sexed-up dossier on Saddam’s WMD were untrue. But as Mohammed Khider, one of the founders of the FLN, once remarked, ‘when everyone takes up a falsehood, it becomes a reality.’ The rush to regime change by war was on and could not be stopped.
The intervention tarnished every one of the principles the war party invoked to justify it. It occasioned the deaths of thousands of civilians, debased the idea of democracy, debased the idea of law and passed off a counterfeit revolution as the real thing. Two assertions that were endlessly reiterated – they were fundamental to the Western powers’ case for war – were that Gaddafi was engaged in ‘killing his own people’ and that he had ‘lost all legitimacy’, the latter presented as the corollary of the former. Both assertions involved mystifications.
‘Killing his own people’ is a hand-me-down line from the previous regime change war against Saddam Hussein. In both cases it suggested two things: that the despot was a monster and that he represented nothing in the society he ruled. It is tendentious and dishonest to say simply that Gaddafi was ‘killing his own people’; he was killing those of his people who were rebelling. He was doing in this respect what every government in history has done when faced with a rebellion. We are all free to prefer the rebels to the government in any given case. But the relative merits of the two sides aren’t the issue in such situations: the issue is the right of a state to defend itself against violent subversion. That right, once taken for granted as the corollary of sovereignty, is now compromised. Theoretically, it is qualified by certain rules. But, as we have seen, the invocation of rules (e.g. no genocide) can go together with a cynical exaggeration and distortion of the facts by other states. There are in fact no reliable rules. A state may repress a revolt if the permanent veto-holding powers on the Security Council allow it to (e.g. Bahrain, but also Sri Lanka) and not otherwise. And if a state thinks it can take this informal authorisation to defend itself as read because it is on good terms with London, Paris and Washington and is honouring all its agreements with them, as Libya was, it had better beware. Terms can change without warning from one day to the next. The matter is now arbitrary, and arbitrariness is the opposite of law.
The idea that Gaddafi represented nothing in Libyan society, that he was taking on his entire people and his people were all against him was another distortion of the facts. As we now know from the length of the war, the huge pro-Gaddafi demonstration in Tripoli on 1 July, the fierce resistance Gaddafi’s forces put up, the month it took the rebels to get anywhere at all at Bani Walid and the further month at Sirte, Gaddafi’s regime enjoyed a substantial measure of support, as the NTC did. Libyan society was divided and political division was in itself a hopeful development since it signified the end of the old political unanimity enjoined and maintained by the Jamahiriyya. In this light, the Western governments’ portrayal of ‘the Libyan people’ as uniformly ranged against Gaddafi had a sinister implication, precisely because it insinuated a new Western-sponsored unanimity back into Libyan life. This profoundly undemocratic idea followed naturally from the equally undemocratic idea that, in the absence of electoral consultation or even an opinion poll to ascertain the Libyans’ actual views, the British, French and American governments had the right and authority to determine who was part of the Libyan people and who wasn’t. No one supporting the Gaddafi regime counted. Because they were not part of ‘the Libyan people’ they could not be among the civilians to be protected, even if they were civilians as a matter of mere fact. And they were not protected; they were killed by Nato air strikes as well as by uncontrolled rebel units. The number of such civilian victims on the wrong side of the war must be many times the total death toll as of 21 February. But they don’t count, any more than the thousands of young men in Gaddafi’s army who innocently imagined that they too were part of ‘the Libyan people’ and were only doing their duty to the state counted when they were incinerated by Nato’s planes or extra-judicially executed en masse after capture, as in Sirte.
The same contempt for democratic principle characterised the repeated declarations in the West that Gaddafi had ‘lost all legitimacy’. Every state needs international recognition and to that extent depends on external sources of legitimation. But the democratic idea gives priority to national over international legitimacy. With their claim of lost legitimacy the Western powers were not only pre-empting an eventual election in Libya which would ascertain the true balance of public opinion, they were mimicking the Gaddafi regime: in the Jamahiriyya the people were liable to be trumped by the Revolution as a source of superior legitimacy.
‘If you break it, you own it,’ Colin Powell famously remarked, in order to alert the Beltway to the risks of a renewed war against Iraq. The lesson of the mess in Iraq has been learned, at least to the extent that the Western powers and Nato have repeatedly insisted that the Libyan people – the NTC and the revolutionary militias – own their revolution. So, not owning Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, Nato and London and Paris and Washington cannot be accused of breaking it or be held responsible for the debris. The result is a shadow play. The NTC occupies centre stage in Libya, but since February every key decision has been made in the Western capitals in consultation with the other, especially Arab, members of the ‘contact group’ meeting in London or Paris or Doha. It is unlikely that the structure of power and the system of decision-making which have guided the ‘revolution’ since March are going to change radically. And so unless something happens to upset the calculations that have brought Nato and the NTC this far, what will probably emerge is a system of dual power in some ways analogous to that of the Jamahiriyya itself, and similarly inimical to democratic accountability. That is, a system of formal decision-making about secondary matters acting as a façade for a separate and independent, because offshore, system of decision-making about everything that really counts (oil, gas, water, finance, trade, security, geopolitics) behind the scenes. Libya’s formal government will be a junior partner of the new Libya’s Western sponsors. This will be more of a return to the old ways of the monarchy than to those of the Jamahiriyya.
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* © London Review of Books
* This article first appeared in the London Review of Books (Vol. 33 No. 22 · 17 November 2011).
* Hugh Roberts was the director of the International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project from 2002 to 2007 and from February to July 2011. He is about to take up the post of Edward Keller Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History at Tufts University.
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