Libya: a premature revolution facing ferocious regime

Professor Bichara Khader


Quite clearly, the wind blowing across the Arab Word is shaking all the countries of the region. Be it a Republic or a Kingdom, poor or rich, small or big, all the Arab states are confronted to an angered people calling for liberty, dignity and employment. The wave appears unstoppable: these states are totally exposed, unprotected: neither the noble genealogy of the Prophet’s descendants, the protection of the Holy Sites of Islam, the defence of Sunni Islam, the “divine right” to which the Commanders of believers parent to, the hollow discourse of those pretending to be the defenders of the Arab cause (notably, the Palestinian cause), nor the oil rent, can prove a sufficiently strong barrier to stem the protests and quiet the calls for liberty.

The evils suffered by Arab societies are both structural and common: authoritarian systems, predator regimes, drifting legacies, a hypertrophy of security services, cosmetic democracies, fixed elections and dysfunctional economies. In this sense, no Arab state can rely on any form of exception which could leave it untouched. The fact remains that many differences exist between states linked to historic routes, the distribution of the population throughout the country, rates of urbanization and education, the status of women, the role of the army, the homogeneity of society or, conversely, the existence of linguistic, ethnic, religious, regional or tribal fault lines. These differences shape different forms of revolution, giving each and one of them a unique character and determine the response of each system, the role of the army and the security forces, the nature, pace and intensity of change.

If we take the case of Tunisia as a « paradigm » of peaceful revolution led by an educated and connected youth through a supra-partisan mass movement and based on the brotherhood of a national army, then we must recognize that Libya offers the counter-example of this paradigm.

Let us broadly recall what Libya is all about. First, it is a vast geography: with over 1,700,000 km2, it is 3 times larger than France, of which 90% are deserts. Libya’s population just about reaches 6.7 million people (one tenth of the French population), but two thirds of the population is concentrated along the Mediterranean coastline that stretches over 1,350 kilometres with two major cities: Benghazi to the East and Tripoli to the West, respectively the main cities of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. These are two of the three main regions of Libya, the third region being Fezzan in the centre of the country,.

We are therefore in a country where regional identities are marked and coupled with traditional tribal structures. The fact that Benghazi is the stronghold of the « rebellion » in Libya is no coincidence, since the Libyan East has already been the scene of major rebellions put down by wanton violence and which has never ceased to suffer the pangs the Gaddafi regime’s repression, based mainly on the loyalty of Tripolitanian tribes  and primarily of his own tribe. In addition to this territorial inscription of the revolt, there are also old rivalries between the tribes of eastern Libya, especially the Senussi and the Warfala, and those of the West, including Gaddafi’s own tribe: the Gaddafa. The tribes of the East and Fezzan have always felt aggrieved by an unequal distribution of oil profits and generally by the strong grasp of the Gaddafi and other western tribes into the workings of the « Libyan Jamahiriya », thus providing the leading officials of ministries and public sectors and building the bulk of the « elite troops » of the regime’s army.

To these distinctive features (large country, small population, urban concentration along the coast, regional polarization, tribal structures and marked inequality in the distribution of oil rent), one can add a turbulent political history marked, after 1945, by the occupation by Great Britain  of the regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and the occupation of Fezzan by French troops. After heated debates at the United Nations, Libya became independent on 24 December 1951 and Idriss el Senoussi is proclaimed king. The British and French armies withdrew, but Britain and the United States imposed upon the King the conservation of foreign military bases (Treaties of 1953 and 1954) and Libya thus openly entered the Western anti-Nasser camp.

The discovery of oil in 1959 increased the country’s financial resources and, in turn, its geopolitical importance for the West during the Cold War. On 1 September 1969, Gaddafi, then a young colonel, overthrew the Senoussi monarchy and moved to the head of the country. He quickly ordered the evacuation of foreign bases, nationalized banks, and expropriated the Italian colonists settled in the country between 1912 and1939. In the nationalist ferment of the time, Gaddafi was considered a revolutionary leader and was welcomed by the Arabs as the heir of Nasser who had passed away in 1970.

But the Libyan leader quickly appeared unpredictable, showing signs of megalomania. Hence, he carved himself a role fit for his ambitions: to become the Theoretician-Guide of the Third World. In 1975, he published the first volume of his « Green Book: solving the problem of democracy« . In 1976, he created the « popular committees« , a form of « direct democracy » and proclaimed, in 1977, the People’s Socialist Jamahiriya of Libya (republic of the masses) of which he became not the President, but « the Guide ».

Installed at the helm, the ebullient Gaddafi felt rapidly cramped  in a country certainly rich but sparsely populated (2 million in 1970, 4 million in 1990 and 6.7 million in 2010). He intensified the number of ephemeral unions with Egypt (1972-1973), with Tunisia (1974), Morocco (1984). He engaged in military adventures in Africa (occupation of the Strip of Aouzou in 1973 and intervenes directly in Chad in 1980). Accused of supporting international terrorism, his residence in Tripoli was bombed by the Americans in 1986: one of Gaddafi’s adopted daughters was killed. In December 1988, an attack attributed to Gaddafi  ​​killed 259 workers in Lockerbie and another against an Air France plane over the Ténéré in September 1989 resulted in 170 dead. The sequence of events leaves no doubt as to the liability of Jamahiriya.

But Libya is a useful country, which the West does not want to alienate. The case of « attacks » was resolved at once through billions of dollars in compensation to the families of the victims. The Libyan regime sought to loosen the stranglehold that was beginning to choke it. The shift was dramatic: it took place after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and especially the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. The calculation made by Gaddafi was rational: with the end of the Cold War and in a world dominated by the American superpower, it was useless, even suicidal, to swim against the tide and incur the wrath of America. In doing so, he thus applied to the letter the Arab proverb:  « the hand that you cannot cut, kiss it« .

This shift reinforced America’s policy towards Libya: President Bush quoted Gaddafi as an example of serious leadership who voluntarily gave up the idea of weapons of mass destruction, kept his distance in relation to terrorism and even formed a part of the anti-terrorist strategy. The Europeans were also full of praise. Not only did it open the Libyan market to their investments, but Gaddafi signed with France and other European states a number of juicy armaments contracts and committed, moreover, to lock its borders to stem illegal migration flows, thus playing to « the distant policeman » for the EU.

The reward was not long in coming: first considered a “rogue” state, Libya raised to the rank of “friendly” state, and even helpful friend. Once reviled as a terrorist leader, Gaddafi thus made his debut on the international stage, garnering numerous successes in Africa, where he became president of the African Union (2009) and even began to dream of becoming the King of the United States of Africa. In the West, he was being welcomed with open arms.

With a production of 1,600,000 barrels of oil per day, Libya is not an important producer (only 2% of world production), but its oil has a double bonus: quality (low sulphur) and proximity (Libya is very close to the Italian and European markets). This has enabled the regime to reap huge revenues that some feeds a sovereign fund present on all continents and another part which is held by Gaddafi, his family and his clan.

All this does not alter the internal workings of an atypical Libyan political system, in many ways reminiscent of North Korea, with its own oil. Indeed, power is dominated by the figure of the « Guide », reigning unchallenged on a « Jamahiriya » marked by an astonishing political anomie, not recognizing professional organizations, independent unions, political parties, or parliament. Instead of all this, there are « popular committees« , excellently indoctrinated but bad managers. No wonder that this country, which had the resources to become the North African « tiger », remained more of a « flag planted on an oil well » that a successful economy, innovative and creator of quality jobs .

In addition to its dependence on oil exports, Libya is also characterised by an organized system of family and clan predation, turning the country into a form of private enterprise, almost a « family heritage », paving the way for a dynastic drift:  Gaddafi’s children thus sometimes ensure the close protection of their father and his regime, act as official spokesmen or can even hold the status of « crown prince ». The egomaniac and fond-of-greatness father has seemingly rubbed off on his children who display an arrogance and complacency out of the ordinary. We see them shake, in turn, the regime’s scarecrows, revive Al-Qaeda, open the migration  valve which then floods across Europe, crush the rebellion in bloody ways, flush out « traitors » and impose a « exemplary punishment » or even destabilize the entire Mediterranean.

It is against this regime, dominated by a clan and capped at its head by a whimsical and fanciful leader, that Libyans are rising against today. The fact that the Libyan revolt has occurred in March 2011 is no coincidence. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions acted as spurs. If young Tunisians and Egyptians were able to defy the crackdown and unbolt two schemes praised across Europe for their strength, why should the Libyans stick to what they have and why the quest for freedom should stop at the border of Egypt and Tunisia?

Except that Libya is not Tunisia. The Libyan « rebels » knew they were exposing themselves to a terrible punishment, in line with the nature of the regime that dominates them. Nevertheless, it seems that there was a total lack of preparation. To confront the repression of Gaddafi’s forces, the « democratic uprising » has turned into an « armed insurrection without arms ». Benghazi quickly became the stronghold of the rebellion and its launch-pad. The eastern tribes sided with the « rebels ». But tribes in the West and centre of the country did the same. The army, crossed by the same regional and tribal fault lines, was soon cut in two: dissidents against the faithful. But the military arsenals and heavy weapons remained under regime control. The face-to-face is uneven:  insurgents without command, without means of communication and without adequate weapons, facing elite troops and mercenaries recruited and trained in a hurry.

The confrontation thus turned into a massacre: Gaddafi’s army did not hesitate to throw tanks against urban centres. This created a flow of international reaction: first, the Gulf Cooperation Council, then the League of Arab States called upon the UN to take responsibility and impose a no-fly zone and protect civilians. Once Arab support was guaranteed, Resolution 1973 of the UN Security Council on Libya was agreed despite five abstentions, by the BRIC states (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and, surprisingly, Germany.

No one will know for sure, but one can assume that Germany did not appreciate the French political hue and slide and the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy recognised the « legitimacy of the Libyan Transition Council » on the eve of an extraordinary European Council meeting. One can also speculate that Germany will have felt humiliated by the « tandem-Sarkozy-Cameron », which straddled a position without prior consultation with its European peers.

Many reasons can be put forth to try and explain the sudden proactive burst of the French. And some will not fail to point out that Sarkozy is currently more preoccupied with his re-election in 2012 and the breakthrough of Marie Le Pen, than the actual protection of the Libyan people. Others will expound on the date of the first French strikes, one day before the start of local elections on 20 March. Such suspicions would raise suspicion over the “cynicism” of the French position.

I consider to be more relevant the arguments that recall that the West has no business interfering in Arab affairs, that if Libya did not have oil the West would not have demonstrated the same willingness to intervene, that democracy is not exportable with missiles, that it may have been wiser to provide the Libyans with the means to defend  themselves, that it is for the Libyan people, with the help of their Arab brothers, « to make its revolution » and to face all the risks; as the Arab proverb says:  « who wants honey is exposed to bee stings”.

These arguments are valid and I admit that I am, myself, assailed by doubts. I fear that this latest Western intervention on Arab land (after Somalia and Iraq) appears in the collective unconscious as intolerable interference – under the label of humanitarian intervention – while Palestine continues to suffer the pangs of colonization and other Arab oil states – not very democratic – continue to enjoy the American umbrella.

The only difference in case of Libya is that this is not a simple bee sting, but a massacre announced by a blood-thirsty despot who will seek to save his regime by any means available.

Now that operation « Dawn of the Odyssey » is in full action with a symbolic Arabic support, but under an explicit UN Security Council mandate, , it has some pitfalls to avoid: being bogged down in a protracted conflict; becoming intoxicated by the « fireworks of missiles » that have rained on Libya; seeking to install in Libya a “pro-Western” government; replacing Gaddafi by a Libyan « Karzai »; transforming the name of the coalition from “international coalition” to « western coalition »; intervening on the ground; or offering the world the sad spectacle of discord between coalition countries. This, however, does not exclude the possibility of arming and advising the rebels, provided that they undertake not to use these weapons against « civilians » on the opposition’s side and that the rebels are not infiltrated by jihadist militants.

Caution is thus called for. Libya is not Iraq and the right to intervene should not become a preventive war. For now, the Security Council mandate of a no-fly zone must be respected by all. But everyone agrees to recognize the legitimacy of the Libyan people’s claims. At the same time, a key demand has been the removal of Gaddafi, or his trial. This is all very ambiguous. The Security Council does not call for a regime change, but its support popular Libyan demands goes in this direction.

For my part, I believe it would be impossible to withdraw from Libya without Gaddafi’s departure. Any negotiations with him must focus on the conditions of his departure, not on those of a compromised outcome leaving him in power. The latter is not only inconceivable, it is also inappropriate. It would be an insult to the revolted Libyan people, a disavowal of the international community, and a bad message to other Arab peoples.

We knew what the Tunisian and Egyptian people wanted: their slogans were explicit and modern. We know roughly what the Libyan people want: to get rid of an uninspired « guide ». But what is the program of « National Transition Council », what is its composition, what is its vision for Libya, how will it reconcile the Libyan people, avoid fragmentation of the country and establish a state worthy of this name with transparent institutions, economic governance, democracy that transcends the primordial  solidarity of regional or tribal type?

On all these issues, we remain in the dark. This has led some observers to talk of a « premature revolution » as the young rebels have become « insurgents and rebels »; the “face-to-face” between the people and the regime has turned into a civil war. And, worsed of all, the ultimate objective is not guaranteed because, in the words of Raymond Aron: « It is men who make history, but they do not know the history they do » (quoted by Alain Franchon, Strategic Review Strategy, Le Monde 2011).