Colonel Gaddafi is brown breid – what next for Libya?
He lived his life like a candle in the wind. A mad candle, ranting that people on ecstasy were trying to overthrow his regime and replace it with Al Qaeda but a candle nonetheless. With the news that Colonel Gaddafi has died in his hometown of Sirte, who now will fill the shoes of craziest head of state? Whose going to design the uncrashable cars? Call for the abolition of Switzerland? Accuse the H1N1 virus of being an imperialist plot?
Colonel Gaddafi’s death comes as a massive relief to the Libyan rebel National Transitional Council. While it was impossible Gaddafi would ever be able to rule Libya again his continued survival could have provided inspiration and encouragement to Libyan’s opposed to the new council. Only a few days ago a gun battle erupted in Tripoli between the NTC and Gaddafi loyalists. And despite Tripoli falling months ago, Sirte and Bani Walid managed to hold out until today, against both the NTC and NATO bombardment. This suggests Gaddafi has – or at least had – a section of the population still willing to fight for him even when his rule was clearly finished. Neutralising that potential insurgency is probably the top priority of the NTC, especially given that the rebel council itself is not homogeneous and has former Gaddafi ministers and Islamists sitting around the same table.
For NATO the bombing campaign of Libya has been a success – especially when you consider the long weeks of apparent stalemate, and the fact that the bombing campaign was the most unpopular war fought by the United States in recent memory. The push for NATO involvement in Libya was led by the UK and France, who are showing that despite planned defence cuts, they can still wield a big stick to maintain their sphere of influence in North Africa – and at a cost of £1 Billion, can still find the money to do it in a time of austerity. The reality is that despite the language of human rights and democracy, NATO’s involvement in Libya has been motivated by far less noble and more complex factors.
The root cause of NATO intervention in Libya lies with the rebellion itself in early 2011. Following on from the wave of revolution that toppled Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Mubarak and Egypt Gaddafi’s regime was the next to face a popular uprising. This began in the eastern city of Benghazi – a stronghold of the opposition to the Colonel, and a Libya’s second largest city – where Libyan’s took to the streets to protest the pre-emptive arrests of human rights campaigners. What happened next is disputed – Gaddafi’s loyalists claim the rebels stormed the barracks and staged an armed uprising without provocation, while the protesters claim they were fired upon by soldiers first. This uprising therefore started in quite a different way from that of Tunisia or Egypt – instead of demonstrators occupying a square and demanding the resignation of a despot, this was more an armed insurrection with attacks on barracks and police stations to secure guns in cities and towns across the country.
The Libyan uprising took this form because the regime in the country is very different from that of Tunisia or Egypt. In Tunisia and Egypt the two strongmen dictators, Ben Ali and Mubarak, were dependent on their power from many other forces in their societies – that of the army, the business class, western imperialism etc. Ben Ali and Mubarak were the public faces of the regimes – but they were disposable once they became a liability to those forces. Hence why the Egyptian military was unwilling to risk it’s stake in Egyptian society (as a massive business empire) by shooting demonstrators in a Tienanmen Square-style massacre of the demonstrators to keep Mubarak in power. In these countries when the protest movement became unstoppable, the forces in control of Egyptian and Tunisian society had a quiet word with the strongmen leaders and told them to resign – so that the business interests of those countries could be preserved, and stability for western imperialism be consolidated.
Libya – or to give it it’s proper title under Gaddafi, “The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” – was a bit different from those countries as the official name might suggest. If you’ve not heard of the word “Jamahiriya” before it might be because it is a word Colonel Gaddafi made up that means “state of the masses”. Obviously what a country calls itself doesn’t reveal everything about how it is run – but the fact that the official name of the country was invented by Gaddafi himself suggests he had a much bigger role to play in that regime than Mubarak or Ben Ali did. You might also have noticed the different flags the rebels and Gaddafi supporters have used – the rebels use the Libyan independence flag, flown under the monarchy which is red, green and black with a crescent moon, while Gaddafi’s supporters use the official Libyan Jamahiriya flag, which is solid green. The flag was picked by Gaddafi to tie in with his book of mad things he wrote – “The Green Book”.
So when you have a society that’s official organs and symbols are named around the eccentricities of it’s mad ruler, you see how difficult it could be in trying to remove him peacefully. Gaddafi intentionally kept different parts of Libyan society – most importantly the military – weak so that they could not be used to remove him in a coup, or force him to stand down the way the Egyptian army did with Mubarak when his time was up. Instead, Gaddafi was able to use armed forces loyal to himself and the Libyan “Jamahiriya” he created to suppress the rebellion with lethal force.
Gaddafi was also able to stay in power thanks to an additional factor that Mubarak and Ben Ali did not have – a section of support amongst the population. Gaddafi took power in Libya in a bloodless military coup in 1969, with the same program as other Arab nationalist movements like Nasser in Egypt. Under Gaddafi’s rule the oil was nationalised and used to develop the country’s infrastructure, building roads, schools, hospitals – even a massive irrigation project called the Great Man-Made River – which transformed Libya from the poorest country in the world to the richest country in Africa, with a Human Development Index comparable to that of Eastern Europe and Portugal. Gaddafi’s success in these social projects shouldn’t be used to whitewash his regime as a socialist paradise – the unemployment rate in Libya in 2009 was over 20%, and hundreds of thousands still lived in poverty. But the fact that Libya did develop infrastructure and social programs better than most of Africa under Gaddafi allowed him to secure a base for his regime, particularly in the western part of Libya where the rebellion was weaker.
Gaddafi was able to pursue these social policies because despite being no socialist, he took a path independent of western capitalism for most of his reign, able to use oil funds that would have been privatised in other western puppet states to develop the country. While Gaddafi reached an accommodation with the West since dismantling his WMD program and handing over the alleged Lockerbie bomber – notably culimnating in getting off with Tony Blair in a tent in the desert – he still maintained policies independent of western imperialism. Jack Ferguson, formerly an SSY columnist here before he got too old outlines a few of these policies in his excellent blog post here.
Gaddafi maintained an independent state-controlled banking system, with the power to issue it’s own money – different from the other neo-colonies in Africa whose currencies are guaranteed by western powers like France. This meant that the Libyan economy – unlike so many other African countries – did not have massive levels of debt to western powers. As Libya was a country independent of western financial control, it was able to use it’s economic power to assist African development in the construction of telecommunication satellites and even more dangerously for western banks, propose an African currency guaranteed with Libya’s gold reserves. The use of a currency not in hoc to the western powers would undermine the financial enslavement of Africa by the European powers. The last person to try something similar was Saddam Hussein, who started selling oil in Euros instead of dollars before he was toppled by the United States. One of the first thing the rebels did was set up a new central bank, which raises questions about what kind of economic program they want to install in Libya now Gaddafi has been toppled.
Gaddafi also repeatedly used racist attitudes in Europe regarding immigration to his favour, warning western leaders that Europe would “turn black” unless he received the aid he demanded. Gaddafi played a cynical game with the lives of thousands of immigrants to Europe, selectively detaining them or letting them emigrate to Europe depending on what suited his interests. Gaddafi has also historically had a lot of influence in Africa – one of the reasons why the African Union vociferously opposed NATO’s program of regime change in Libya. The nationalized oil wealth has been used in a combination of military assistance and aid packages to bolster the African regimes the Colonel supported.
Libya's influence throughout Africa.
All of these policies – independent currency for Africa, state control of banks, refusal to play ball on immigration, regional power status in the African continent – made working with Gaddafi a grudging necessity for western powers. Despite their rapprochement with him, Gaddafi was never a western puppet in the same way Mubarak or Ben Ali was. This doesn’t make Gaddafi a hero – in fact his response to protests was more brutal than Mubarak or Ali, and his refusal to stand down has brought NATO bombing and civil war to his country – but it does explain why the West intervened in Libya but will not intervene in a variety of other African conflicts or assist other pro-democracy movements in the Arab world. Gaddafi was bombed by NATO because he pursued a path independent of the west to some degree, and because he refused to step down when his time was up. His refusal to resign like Mubarak made Libya an unstable country, unacceptable to the European countries who purchase Libyan oil.
Gaddafi’s already paid the personal price for his rule – his firing on demonstrators, repression of students, prison massacres – with grisly photos of his corpse circulating the internet. But there’s a potentially darker side to the fall of Sirte than just the death of this despot, that may go unreported – the fate of thousands of Black Libyan African men. In the opening days of the uprising in Benghazi there was footage circulated, alongside rumours, that Gaddafi was using foreign African mercenaries to crush the protesters. Whatever Gaddafi did during the opening days of the uprising, human rights organisations have investigated the claim of mercenaries and can find no evidence to support it. Unfortunately these rumours were circulated by tv stations like Al Jazeera and now as the rebels have taken control of most of Libya, Black Libyans are effectively being lynched by racist forces within the uprising.
The siege on the city of Misurata was widely reported, with a spotlight on Gaddafi’s forces shelling the civilian population. Whats not been reported as widely is the fate of a neighbouring town – Tawergha, which was accused by the rebels of being pro-Gaddafi and assisting the siege. When the siege of Misrata was lifted, the rebels advanced on Tawergha and to all intents and purposes cleansed it. As one rebel commander said “Tawergha no longer exists, only Misrata”. A city of 10,000 Black Africans has effectively been ethnically cleansed, with racist graffiti declaring the rebels are “the brigade for purging slaves, black skin” being daubed across the city. The rebels themselves say the Tawergha will return to their city “over their dead bodies”. Many of these refugees fled to Sirte, a city that may face a similar fate as Tawergha.
The ghost town of Tawergha, ethnically cleansed by the rebels.
This is not the only human rights abuse the rebels have committed. As the western media entered Tripoli after the fall of Gaddafi, they found corpses with their hands bound behind their back and bullets in their heads in Gaddafi’s Bab Al Azziya compound. Naturally the suspicion fell on a massacre committed by Gaddafi. But many of these victims were Black Africans with foreign passports – suggesting they were migrant workers who had been summarily executed by the rebels. These crimes against Black Libyans have been committed across the country as the Libyan civil war became a war not just between the East and West, but between African and Arab.
Racist lynching of Black Africans conducted by the rebels in Libya
Not all rebels are motivated by racism – the Libyan Youth Movement for example has been key in supporting the uprising and is inspired by the youth movements in the wider Arab world. Unfortunately, many of those opposing Gaddafi are not so clean cut. The chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil was Colonel Gaddafi’s former Justice Minister. Jalil was happy to act as one of Gaddafi’s lackeys when it suited him – including the torture and rigged trial of Bulgarian nurses accused of giving Libyans HIV. Alongside Jibril are many other former diplomatic and military staff who happily served under Gaddafi. The highest ranking defector was Abdel Fattah Younis, a Major General in the Libyan army. Despite being described as a defector, privately Younis was captured by the rebels when he tried to crush the uprising in Benghazi. Unsurprisingly many of the rebels were not to keen on receiving military commands from someone who was so pivotal in Gaddafi’s regime – particularly those who fought a long guerilla war against him.
The uprising in Libya was not a CIA/Al Qaeda plot to remove an anti-imperialist, before anyone suggests that – it was a genuine popular social movement, taking it’s roots in the poorest cities and towns in Libya, and led by young revolutionaries inspired by the toppling of Arab dictators (that Gaddafi had supported). Who will come out on top is by no means certain. But what is certain is that NATO involvement means that the West now has a massive sway over Libya’s revolution, that they clearly do not have in Egypt or Tunisia, and they are already trying to put their own people in charge. Gaddafi might be dead, but as Iraq shows there is absolutely no guarantee that things will get better when a despot is removed. In fact, they can always get much, much worse.