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.
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.
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.”
By Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery argues that opponents of military intervention in Libya are motivated more by hatred of the USA and NATO than by any concern for the people of Libya.
Though the Bible tells us “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth” (Proverbs 24:17), I could not help myself. I was happy.
Muammar Gaddafi was the enemy of every decent person in the world. He was one of the worst tyrants in recent memory.
This fact was hidden behind a façade of clownishness. He liked to present himself as a philosopher (the Green Book), a visionary statesman (Israelis and Palestinians must unite in the “State of Isratine”), even as an immature teenager (his innumerable uniforms and costumes). But basically he was a ruthless dictator, surrounded by corrupt relatives and cronies, squandering the great wealth of Libya.
This was obvious to anyone who wanted to see. Unfortunately, there were quite a few who chose to close their eyes.
When I expressed my support for the international intervention, I was expecting to be attacked by some well-meaning people. I was not disappointed.
How could I? How could I support the American imperialists and the abominable NATO? Didn’t I realize that it was all about the oil?
I was not surprised. I have been through this before. When NATO started to bomb Serbian territory in order to put an end to Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes in Kosovo, many of my political friends turned against me.
Didn’t I realize that it was all an imperialist plot? That the devious Americans wanted to tear Yugoslavia (or Serbia) apart? That NATO was an evil organization? That Milosevic, though he may have some faults, was representing progressive humanity?
This was said when the evidence of the gruesome mass-murder in Bosnia was there for everyone to see, when Milosevic was already exposed as the cold-blooded monster he was. Ariel Sharon admired him.
My enemy’s enemy is my friend – even if he’s a psychopath
I was bombarded with messages from well-meaning people who lauded Gaddafi for all his good deeds. One might get the impression that he was a second Nelson Mandela, if not a second Mahatma Gandhi.
So how could decent, well-meaning leftists, people of an unblemished humanist record, embrace such a person? My only explanation was that their hatred of the USA and of NATO was so strong, so fervent, that anyone attacked by them must surely be a benefactor of humanity, and all accusations against them pure fabrications. The same happened with Pol Pot.
Now it has happened again. I was bombarded with messages from well-meaning people who lauded Gaddafi for all his good deeds. One might get the impression that he was a second Nelson Mandela, if not a second Mahatma Gandhi.
While the rebels were already fighting their way into his huge personal compound, the socialist leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was praising him as a true model of upright humanity, a man who dared to stand up to the American aggressors.
Well, sorry, count me out. I have this irrational abhorrence of bloody dictators, of genocidal mass-murderers, of leaders who wage war on their own people. And at my advanced age, it is difficult for me to change.
I am ready to support even the devil, if that is necessary to put an end to this kind of atrocities. I won’t even ask about his precise motives. Whatever one may think about the USA and/or NATO – if they disarm a Milosevic or a Gaddafi, they have my blessing.
”A Libyan victory, not a British or a French one”
How large a role did NATO play in the defeat of the Libyan dictator?
The “Libyan rebels, disorganized and poorly armed as they were, have won a remarkable victory. This would not have happened without real revolutionary fervour, without bravery and determination. It is a Libyan victory, not a British or a French one.”
The rebels would not have reached Tripoli, and certainly not by now, if they had not enjoyed NATO’s sustained air support. Libya is one big desert. The offensive had to rely on one long road. Without mastery of the skies, the rebels would have been massacred. Anyone who was alive during World War II and followed the campaigns of Rommel and Montgomery knows this.
I assume that the rebels also received arms and advice to facilitate their advance.
But I object to the patronizing assertion that it was all a NATO victory. It is the old colonialist attitude in a new guise. Of course, these poor, primitive Arabs could not do anything without the White Man shouldering his burden and rushing to the rescue.
But wars are not won by weapons, they are won by people. “Boots on the ground”, as the Americans call it. Even with all the help they got, the Libyan rebels, disorganized and poorly armed as they were, have won a remarkable victory. This would not have happened without real revolutionary fervor, without bravery and determination. It is a Libyan victory, not a British or a French one.
This has been underplayed by the international media. I have not seen any genuine combat coverage (and I know what that looks like). Journalists did not acquit themselves with glory. They displayed exemplary cowardice, staying at a safe distance from the front, even during the fall of Tripoli. On TV they looked ridiculous with their conspicuous helmets when they were surrounded by bareheaded fighters.
What came over was endless jubilations over victories that had seemingly fallen from heaven. But these were feats achieved by people – yes, by Arab people.
This is especially galling to our Israeli “military correspondents” and “Arab affairs experts”. Used to despising or hating “the Arabs”, they are ascribing the victory to NATO. It seems that the people of Libya played a minor role, if any.
Now they blabber endlessly about the “tribes”, which will make democracy and orderly governance in Libya impossible. Libya is not really a country, it was never a unified state before becoming an Italian colony, there is no such thing as a Libyan people. (Remember the French saying this about Algeria, and Golda Meir about Palestine?)
Well, for a people that does not exist, the Libyans fought very well. And as for the “tribes” – why do tribes exist only in Africa and Asia, never among Europeans? Why not a Welsh tribe or a Bavarian tribe?
(When I visited Jordan in 1986, well before the peace treaty, I was entertained by a very civilized, high-ranking Jordanian official. After an interesting conversation over dinner, he surprised me by mentioning that he belongs to a certain tribe. Next day, while I was riding on a horse to Petra, the rider next to me asked in a low voice whether I belonged “to the tribe”. It took me some time to understand that he was asking me if I was a Jew. It seems that American Jews refer to themselves in this way.)
The “tribes” of Libya would be called in Europe “ethnic groups” and in Israel “communities”. The term “tribe” has a patronizing connotation. Let’s drop it.
All those who decry NATO’s intervention must answer a simple question: who else would have done the job?
All those who decry NATO’s intervention must answer a simple question: who else would have done the job? Humanity in the 21st century humanity cannot tolerate acts of genocide and mass-murder, wherever they occur.
Humanity in the 21st century humanity cannot tolerate acts of genocide and mass-murder, wherever they occur. It cannot look on while dictators butcher their own peoples. The doctrine of “non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states” belongs to the past. We Jews, who have accused mankind of standing idly by while millions of Jews, including German citizens, were exterminated by the legitimate German government, certainly owe the world an answer.
I have mentioned in the past that I advocate some form of effective world governance and expect it to be in place by the end of this century. This would include a democratically elected world executive that would have military forces at its disposal and that could intervene, if a world parliament so decides.
For this to happen, the United Nations must be revamped entirely. The veto power must be abolished. It is intolerable that the US can veto the acceptance of Palestine as a member state, or that Russia and China can veto intervention in Syria.
Certainly, great powers like the US and China should have a louder voice than, say, Luxemburg and the Fiji Islands, but a two thirds majority in the General Assembly should have the power to override Washington, Moscow or Beijing.
That may be the music of the future, or, some may say, a pipe dream. As for now, we live in a very imperfect world and must make do with the instruments we have. NATO, alas, is one of them. The European Union is another, though in this case poor, eternally conscience-stricken Germany, has paralyzed it. If Russia or China were to join, that would be fine.
This is not some remote problem. Gaddafi is finished, but Bashar al-Assad is not. He is butchering his people even while you read this, and the world is looking on helplessly.
Any volunteers for intervention?
By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis
A few moments ago France, the United States, Britain and other NATO countries launched air and cruise missile strikes against Libyan dictator Mu’ammar Gaddafi’s military installations, in implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
The resolution, passed on 17 March, called for a ceasefire and all necessary measures to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s murderous thugs, including the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya.
As a Libyan who has witnessed at first hand how the Gaddafi regime evolved into its present murderous self, I can only welcome the start of this military action. My only regret is that it did not take place earlier and thereby spare the lives of thousands of innocent civilians murdered by Gaddafi’s hired hands.
I say this as an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, progressive pan-Arab nationalist. And it is from this vantage point that I witness with dismay our friends and natural allies, from the anti-war movement and George Galloway in the UK to Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega in Latin America, condemn the military action against Gaddafi as an imperialist plot whose aim is to seize Libyan oil.
Regrettably, it would seem that our friends have lost the plot on this occasion.
This is not about oil or money
First, oil has nothing to do with what is currently happening in Libya. Under the Gaddafi regime Western oil companies already controlled the country’s oil, and most of this oil was exported to Western countries anyway. So why would the US and its allies want to seize something they already controlled?
Nor is this about the US paving the way for its financial interests to control or buy up Libya. Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent, Saif al-Islam – a close friend of Israel’s far-right settler foreign minister, the fascist Avigdor Lieberman – enjoyed excellent relations with international billionaires such as Nathaniel Rothschild, crooks such as Bernie Madoff and dodgy Russians such as Oleg Deripaska, and would in time have opened up Libya to them and others like them. Therefore, if the motive behind the present NATO-led attack were financial, then surely NATO would have intervened to prop up the Gaddafi regime, not the reverse?
The wrong record
Friends on the left and in the anti-war movement, the particular record you are currently playing is inappropriate for the occasion. Please change it.
The plain fact is that France, the US, Britain and others are attacking Gaddafi’s thugs because they have no choice but to do so.
Although since his rehabilitation by the West Gaddafi has been a good friend to Washington, London and Paris, to the extent of participating in George W. Bush’s extraordinary rendition programme and turning Libya into one of the US’s torture sub-contractors in Africa, his unrestrained brutality against the protests that began peacefully in mid-February – brutality that has included the use of battlefield weapons against unarmed civilians – has embarrassed Paris, London and Washington beyond the point of tolerance. They had no choice but to act or else face another Rwanda or Cambodia.
Right suspicion, wrong opposition
Some of our friends accuse the United States, France and Britain of hypocrisy and double standards, arguing that these same countries shrugged their shoulders or tacitly supported similar or worse crimes committed by Israel, notably in Gaza, and are only willing to offer weasel word in the case of gross human rights violations committed by the regimes in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, among others.
That is very true. The United States and its allies in Britain, France and elsewhere are hypocrites who decry crimes against humanity in one place while simultaneously ignoring or supporting them in another. But that does not mean that we should denounce them when they actually do the right thing just because they are not doing the right thing across the board.
We have every right to be suspicious of the ulterior motives that may lie behind Barack Obama’s, Nicolas Sarkozy’s and David Cameron’s sudden dash for the moral high ground in Libya.
But it does not follow that our suspicion should automatically translate into opposition even when these leaders do the right thing to fulfill an urgent need, in this case protecting the Libyan people from a brutal, amoral, traitor who only a few days ago, on Thursday 17 March, promised to occupy Benghazi – a city of one million people – within hours and drown its inhabitants in blood.
Look to the future
The concern of our friends on the left and in the anti-war movement should be redirected away from opposition to the current NATO military action against Gaddafi’s thugs and towards what comes after Gaddafi.
If we really do care about justice and progress in Libya, then we should make sure that after Gaddafi the Libyan people are left alone to rebuild their state and create their own government, without Washington, Paris or London abusing whatever credit they accrue in the meantime to plant their own stooge.
Libya’s wealth and wellbeing can be safeguarded only by having a democratic, accountable government that is answerable to its own people, and its own people alone. That is something which only the Libyan people can do.
After their dreadful experience with the Gaddafi family, I have no doubt that they are up to the challenge.