Mis-analysing Libya

Libyan women waving the new Libyan flag and the flag of the Amazigh people – often called Berbers – during an Amazigh festival in Tripoli, 27 September 2011

By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis

It’s over a year now since the capture and killing of Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi.

In the intervening period Libya has been struggling to come to terms with his disastrous legacy, notably the lack of political, civil society or any other institutions, and the emergence of a small but vociferous and forceful coterie of Islamists that have moved to fill in the politically barren landscape he has bequeathed. Above all, there is the problem of the multitude of militias, some of which participated in the revolution that toppled Gaddafi while others have been created since his demise – altogether some 1,700 armed groups.

In other words, the story of Libya has moved on. Therefore, it came as a surprise to see that the question of the propriety of the UN-authorized NATO action to protect Libyan civilians has resurfaced and is being questioned. The trigger for reopening this is the plight of a Libyan women’s rights activist, Magdulien Abaida.

She had played an important part in promoting the image of the Libyan revolution among Europeans when it first started in February 2011, and she had also helped to arrange material aid for the anti-Gaddafi forces. However, when she travelled to the country’s second city and the cradle of the revolution, Benghazi, this summer to attend a conference on the status of women in the new Libya, she was abducted by Islamist gunmen who beat her up before letting her go. She subsequently fled to the UK, where she was given political asylum.

NATO’s intervention revisited

Ms Abaida’s story highlights the chaos into which Libya has descended – a problem that we have written about more than once (see “Libya on the edge of a precipice” and “The Arab Spring: was it worth it?”). But what it does not do is demonstrate that, just because Western intelligence agencies had information at the time of the NATO intervention that post-Gaddafi Libya was likely to go through a chaotic phase and that minority Islamist groups would try to take advantage of this chaos, the decision to intervene to protect Libyan civilians had been wrong.

It is an established fact that the US, in common with the UK and many other governments, is highly selective in the intelligence it chooses to act upon. We have seen this time and again, especially in respect of Israel and the Palestinians, and the countries where it chooses to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses – in the Arab world (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iraq, for example) and historically in Central and South America.

However, to go from there to the conclusion that NATO should not have intervened in Libya makes no moral sense. We do not doubt, and have never doubted, that the US and its NATO allies had ulterior motives when they intervened in Libya, but there is no question that they should have intervened (see “The West is doing the right thing in Libya”, written on the first day of the intervention, 21 March 2011).

As a Libyan (and a former supporter of Gaddafi) with relatives, friends and acquaintances in Benghazi, I am quite clear what the fate of the people of Libya’s second city would have been had NATO not intervened. Indeed, on the morning of the first NATO (French) air strike against Gaddafi’s forces, his armed thugs had reached the western outskirts of the city, approximately 15 kilometres from the city centre. In one street alone they began snatching and murdering passers-by at random, and in the spate of just 10 minutes, while they were making their way towards the centre, they had butchered more than 20 people. The assailants belonged to Gaddafi’s “Revolutionary” Committees and they were accompanied by T-72 tanks and other armoured vehicles. Gaddafi had promised to turn Benghazi into a bloodbath (he did so in a TV address which I listened to myself) and I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he would have done so had it not been for the NATO intervention.

Misreading Libya

People who have never lived in Libya and do not understand the problems underlying the chaos that has become visible to Western eyes only after the demise of the Gaddafi regime often fall back on stereotypes and cliches in lieu of a well-informed reading of the situation.

One of these is the old chestnut of “tribalism”, a problem afflicting many Arab countries but which in Libya is by no means the biggest one. Rather than serving as a “centre of gravity” that “kept the centrifugal tribal forces in check” as some claim, the Gaddafi dictatorship in actual fact promoted tribalism to divide and rule the people and neutralize the armed forces and thus foreclose the possibility of a coup d’état. (For the best assessment of tribalism in Libya, see “Libya crisis: what role do tribal loyalties play?” – written in the early days of the Libyan uprising but relevant today.)

Nor is Islamism Libya’s chief ailment, as evidenced by the fact that, in their first free election for over 45 years, Libyans bucked the post-Arab Spring trend and gave their vote to relatively liberal coalitions, and by last September’s mass demonstrations in Benghazi against the Islamist militias.

Rather, our problem in Libya is sheer backwardness, and for that we have to thank Gaddafi. As I have said in my article “The Arab Spring: was it worth it?

In contrast to Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia, Islamist parties had never put down roots in Libyan society either before or clandestinely during the Gaddafi era. The Muslim Brotherhood is, and always has been, very small and is seen by many people as a holier-than-thou cult rather than a credible political movement. The other Islamist organizations, such as Abdelhakim Belhaj’s Watan party, Muhammad Ali Sallabi’s National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development, and the armed thugs of Ansar Shari’ah, are alien forces rooted more in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where their leaders had spent time in exile, than in Libya…

Rather than Islamism, Libya’s problems are far more basic. Compared to Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is politically barren. It was neglected under the Ottomans and the Italian colonialists, who banned education for Libyans aged more than 10 years. During the monarchy that came after independence in 1951, political parties were permitted and an elected parliament existed, but with a largely illiterate population and no political culture, these acted more as vehicles for patronage and other forms of corruption than as bodies that reflected the popular will. Then came the military coup that brought Gaddafi to power in 1969, and on that date the country’s political, intellectual and cultural life was placed in a deep freeze that was to last for the 42 years of the Gaddafi family’s reign. That is, four decades of complete intolerance of any political ideas that did not emanate from Gaddafi, no freedom of speech or expression, no freedom to organize (e.g. a political party or trade union – or even a debating society), and no institutions other than the armed thugs and snitches of the “Revolutionary” Committees and the pillars of Gaddafi’s system of institutionalized chaos, the People’s Committees. In other words, no civil society whatsoever

That is where Libya has been since liberation in October 2011. Society is thawing out but, having been frozen in backwardness for decades, it will take many years before Libyans experience a real spring. In the meantime, Libyans will have to get accustomed to using their critical faculties. They will have to learn the art of persuasion, as opposed to violence and emotion, and each Libyan will have to accept that his or her opinion is not the only opinion worth listening to and that nobody, whether Islamist or liberal, holds a monopoly over the truth. Above all, Libyans will have to start thinking and behaving as responsible members of a wider society, and this will be the hardest task of all because society and community are precisely what Gaddafi had done most to destroy.

Flawed logic

We don’t have to look too far back to remember the shameful days in 1994 when the world sat back and watched as the Rwandan government incited Hutu thugs to murder their Tutsi compatriots, resulting in some 800,000 deaths. To be sure, the Tutsi leader, Paul Kagame, who is now the president of Rwanda, has turned out to be a sectarian killer in his own right, wreaking death and misery on neighbouring war-torn DR Congo. If we were to use the logic of “NATO knew post-Gaddafi Libya would descend into chaos and therefore should have let Gaddafi mass-murder his people”, then are we to conclude that the West’s failure to intervene in Rwanda back in 1994 was right, because in retrospect the side they would have in effect supported had they intervened was led by someone we now know is bad?

To most people, the answer would be “of course not”. But to some on the “left” and in the “anti-imperialist” camp who subscribe to the realpolitik logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, the answer is probably a resounding “yes”.

Glimmer of hope

To conclude, let us end on a cheerful note. The plight of women’s rights campaigner Magdulien Abaida is distressing but it is neither typical nor an indicator of what is happening to women’s rights generally in the new Libya. As the same BBC report that brought us Ms Abaida’s story says, other Libyan women’s rights campaigners, including London-based activist Sara Maziq, from Women 4 Libya, think women are achieving far more now than they ever did under Gaddafi:

“There are 33 women in congress [the Libyan parliament], there are now two ministers in the cabinet,” she says. “In a conservative society like Libya, as far as I’m concerned the overall picture is a miracle.”

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