Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

After the Libyan Revolution

Peter Cole & Brian McQuinn, eds., The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp416

After the Libyan Revolution
After the Libyan Revolution
Al-Ahram Weekly

Many questions still hang over the 17 February Revolution that overthrew the regime of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Could it have succeeded without foreign military intervention? Could it have been better managed, perhaps avoiding the current chaos and fragmentation? Given the divisions revealed by the Revolution and subsequent transition, what are the prospects for the future of a united Libya?
    Such questions and many more are raised by The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, a collection of articles by NGO workers, journalists and academics who either worked in Libya during the revolutionary period or who have studied the country over a longer time span. The conflicting accounts now coming out of Libya and the murkiness still surrounding aspects of the Revolution mean that the collection helps fill an enormous gap. It is perhaps the first work in English to help readers better understand what happened during the revolutionary period in Libya and what the future for the country may hold.
The outlines of the Revolution can be swiftly summarised. The first protests against the Gaddafi regime broke out in February 2011 in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, closely following the examples set by the uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt at the same time. A leadership structure for the escalating protests was set up in March in the shape of the National Transitional Council (NTC), and after a good deal of uncertainty marked by temporary rebel gains and just as temporary regime successes the Libyan capital Tripoli fell to rebel forces in September.
In the meantime, UN Security Council Resolution 1970, adopted on 26 February, imposed an arms embargo, referred the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and froze Libyan assets abroad. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, adopted on 17 March, then authorised member states “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” A no-fly zone was imposed on Libya to be enforced by UN member states, and the arms embargo was strengthened.
The second UN Resolution sanctioned the foreign military intervention in Libya, begun by France on 19 March, which destroyed the military capabilities of the Gaddafi regime and helped lead to the success of the Revolution. The intervention was taken over by NATO on 31 March, and some 26,000 sorties were flown across the country in subsequent months, including 9,634 strikes. A final strike, carried out on a convoy near the town of Sirte on 20 October, hit vehicles carrying Gaddafi himself, who was killed by Libyan rebel forces. This hastened the end of the NATO involvement, but it by no means marked the end of the Revolution or the work of rebuilding the Libyan state.
US specialist on Libyan history Dirk Vandewalle opens the present collection by staking out the territory. The Libyan case was unique among the Arab Spring Revolutions, he says, since there was little by way of a functioning state apparatus that could be taken over by the post-revolutionary regime. The tabula rasa left by Gaddafi meant that institutions had to be built from scratch and, with them, a new conception of Libya as a functioning and unified state. The challenge was how to turn “the subjects of a former dictator, in an oil state where hand-outs substituted for policy, into citizens with a sense of political responsibilities, duties and obligations towards the state,” he says.
The Libyan jamahiriyya – the “state of the masses” – “had always appeared so immobile, held in check by the late dictator’s security services, that meaningful political opposition movements no longer existed when the Revolution started.” But with the collapse of the regime such movements would have to be found if the country was not to descend into “individuals or groups pursuing their own interests at the nation’s expense.” Social, economic, political, tribal, regional and ethnic problems “had been held in abeyance, or declared no longer existent, for over four decades” during the Gaddafi regime. Now there was a danger that these problems could suddenly resurface, potentially plunging Libya into years of instability and stymying the construction of a new and functioning state.
Revolutionary events: Such issues haunt the subsequent contributions to this book, even those simply designed to try to reconstruct what actually happened during the revolutionary conflict in Libya. The essays by Peter Bartu, Peter Cole and Umar Khan, and Frederic Wehry are particularly useful in this regard, since the Libyan Revolution, like all revolutions, was “chaotic, with no one fully in charge.”
The handful of demonstrators who met in Benghazi in mid-February 2011 could not have known that just eight months later Gaddafi would die in the fall-out from a NATO airstrike or that the regime he had led for over 40 years would be consigned to the dustbin of history. But their meeting set an apparently irresistible process in motion, raising questions about the contributions made to it by the demonstrators, the rebel leadership, the foreign military intervention, the different sections of the Libyan people and the Libyan regime itself.
Bartu, a US academic, thinks that “sheer luck” had something to do with the success of the Revolution. “Qadhafi [sic] and Saif al-Islam’s [Gaddafi] public responses to the uprising,” giving the impression of refusing to negotiate with it, “the influence of neighbouring transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the unprecedented regional and international response in mid-March by the Arab League, the UN Security Council and NATO’s no-fly zone” all “perhaps saved it from annihilation,” he says.
The early international recognition of the NTC, founded on 5 March and recognised by France as Libya’s legitimate government five days later, the arrangement, made by Qatar on 29 March, to facilitate the sale of Libyan oil and feed the proceeds to the NTC, and the first major cash injection by Turkey in June, opening the way towards the transfer of Libyan assets to the NTC in August, are also mentioned as important factors.
All these actions, isolating and further delegitimising the regime, contributed to the success of the Revolution. But so did the provision of arms to the rebels, possibly in contravention of UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973. Much of the value of Peter Cole and Umar Khan’s essays on the “Fall of Tripoli” lies in the authors’ blow-by-blow account of events in the Libyan capital between February and September 2011. However, they also give details of the ways in which the foreign intervention in Libya was not limited to NATO actions. Qatar, with French involvement, “smuggled a shipment of Milan anti-tank and foldable Zodiac weapons” to the rebels on 24 March. It then “directly flew in 20,000 tons of weapons over 18 separate flights,” they say.
Of the NATO intervention itself, Frederic Wehry, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that without it “the ability of the Libyan uprisings to successfully topple Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi [sic] was in serious doubt,” adding that its “civilian protection mandate,” authorised by Resolution 1973, “was the subject of ambiguity, haziness, and frustration among anti-Qadhafi forces.” It was not only anti-Gaddafi forces that were unhappy with the NATO mandate. Anyone who remembers the reporting of the NATO airstrikes at the time will also remember allegations that the organisation was going beyond its mandate to protect civilians. Was there not a kind of “mission creep” at work in NATO’s actions against the regime and in support of the rebel forces?
Wehry says the problem was that “the United Nations never defined Unified Protector’s [the name of the NATO campaign] end state – the point by which all threats to civilians were deemed neutralized.” As a result, the air-strikes continued for as long as the NATO members involved wanted them to, which meant up to and including 20 October. Moreover, the NATO campaign cooperated closely with the rebel forces and explicitly assisted them in their battles. “The actual relationship between the NATO coalition and the anti-Qadhafi forces was essential to cement the diverse views and concerns of the coalition and retain ‘top cover’ from the United Nations,” Wehry says. Had this relationship been made clear from the beginning, it is unlikely that Resolution 1973 would have been agreed to by the Chinese and the Russians, who abstained when it was voted on in the Security Council.
Further controversy comes from the distinction between “the forces and capabilities that belonged to NATO,” which in line with Resolution 1973 “did not set foot on Libyan soil, and those of its member states, who did.” This meant that “ground advisers” were deployed with the rebel forces in Libya by several states to assist in targeting the NATO airstrikes and having “a transformative effect” on the conflict.
Tribal and ethnic groups: The second part of the book is made up of essays on the ways in which the Revolution affected different parts of Libya and different tribal and ethnic groups.
While the first part is highly valuable, looking at the larger issues and trying to reconstruct the course of the conflict, the second is perhaps unique since it aims to analyse the grass-roots impact of the Revolution, asking how different groups and constituencies reacted as events unfolded and how they experienced the conflict.
Libya is a large country, one of the largest in Africa, but only eight per cent of it is arable land, the rest being mostly desert. The vast majority of its six-million strong population lives along the Mediterranean coast, and 80 per cent of the population lives in cities. While Libya is homogeneous in religious terms, with 97 per cent of the population being Sunni Muslim, it is geographically and ethnically divided. Western Libya, containing the capital Tripoli, is distinct from eastern Libya, centred on Benghazi, and the desert south of the country makes up a further distinct unit characterised by a resurgent Saharan identity.
These divisions have a complex history, either denied or manipulated by the Gaddafi regime, and in the wake of the Revolution they have begun to press upon Libyan politics. According to Sean Kane, who has worked in Libya for the United States Institute of International Peace, eastern pressures for autonomy may give rise to a federal system in the country, reproducing the older Ottoman arrangement of the three regions of Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic) in the east, and Fezzan in the south. Should this take place, difficult questions may arise about the division of resources, especially oil revenues, since two-thirds of these are concentrated in the east.
“Should these resources be seen as ‘eastern’ rather than ‘Libyan,’ the consequences for Libya’s political and financial stability would be grave,” Kane writes. “The viability of the new Libya could be undermined if eastern alienation becomes a permanent feature of the political landscape.” He thinks the Sa’da tribes in eastern Libya “cannot realistically expect to regain the status they held under the Sanusi monarchy” that ruled the country up until the Gaddafi-led military coup in 1969, and nor can Benghazi expect to hold onto the status it had as the seat of power during the Revolution. “What is clear is that maintaining a stable Libya will be difficult if its politically hyperactive eastern region does not buy into the new order,” Kane says.
Since Cyrenaica has already declared its autonomy, the question is whether this will now become a permanent feature of the new Libya or whether a compromise solution can be found. But ethnic and regional buy-in is also an issue in the south, where the Tebu, Tuareg and other peoples may well now want to assert their right to live free of the domination of the north now that the dictatorship has been removed. According to the contribution to this book on the Tebu (Toubou) people by Rebecca Murray, a journalist who has lived among the southern Libyan tribes, these semi-nomadic, non-Arab people suffered discrimination under the Gaddafi regime and leapt at the chance to remove it when the Revolution came. However, their fortunes have not improved under the post-revolutionary system.
Much the same might be said of the Libyan Tuareg and Berbers, looked at here in chapters by Yvan Guichaoua and Wolfram Larcher and Ahmed Labnouj. Under Gaddafi, the Tuareg, discriminated against in neighbouring Mali and Niger, developed “a trans-Saharan identity” in southern Libya, Guichaoua, a UK researcher, says. “Itinerant young men,” ishumar in Arabic from the French word chômeur (unemployed), “moved from one economic opportunity to the next… began to question traditional tribal order, developed an ethos of solidarity and autonomy, and all the while tightened the social and economic connections in the towns between which they travelled.” It is not known how they will fare under the post-revolutionary regime.
Libya’s Berbers, discussed by Larcher and Labnouj, researchers based in Germany and Libya, respectively, in their stronghold of the western Nafusa Mountains, had little reason to love the Gaddafi regime, which had banned the Amazigh (Berber) language and imprisoned or exiled Berber activists. However, when the Revolution came there was caution about joining a movement hundreds of miles away in the east of the country. In the post-revolutionary period, Larcher and Labnouj say, Libya’s Berbers have opted for “localism” and “identity politics,” wanting to secure their interests before throwing in their lot with a new regime that may, for them, be little different from the old.

Reviewed by David Tresilian

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