Libya's Liberation Struggle
by Stephen Schwartz
The regional revolutionary wave in the Arab and Muslim countries – the weakest links in the global system of economic and social relations – has slowed down with the emergence of its first armed struggle, against the Libyan dictator Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhāfi. Events in that long-oppressed country are changing by the hour, and prognostications about the fate of al-Qadhdhāfi and his regime are risky. The Libyan convulsion has assumed the characteristics of a civil war, with the army divided and whole regions declaring their defiance of the ruler.
On the evening of 26 February (US time), al-Qadhdhāfi still held on to authority, with his supporters and mercenaries (about the latter more will be said here) protecting him in the capital, Tripoli. Libyan diplomats and other high officials, in addition to military elements, have deserted him as most of the eastern half of the country, bordering on Egypt, has reportedly fallen to rebel forces. The city of Benghazi has become the capital of the insurrection.
Media propaganda by the tyrant and his son Seif al-Islam al-Qadhdhāfi epitomized the aberrant habits of the country's ruler in his four decades of power: incoherent posturing, extreme insults and threats, and, at the same time, a pathetic attempt to solicit aid from the West by presenting Libya as now combatting the menace of radical Islam.
Al-Qadhdhāfi's long career of megalomania included publication of the so-called "Green Book" in which he sought incompetently to develop his own political theory. He proclaimed the adoption of Islamic shariah as the sole legal standard for his people, but his views on this and other aspects of Muslim faith and practice have been eccentric and have not gained him support from Muslim authorities.
Still, al-Qadhdhāfi has a talent for terrorism. His regime stands condemned for its murders of Libyan dissidents living abroad, sponsorship of the 1986 bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin, and the 1988 destruction of Pan American Air flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, among numerous other atrocities. His adventurism led him to support extremists including tiny British leftist groups and the Irish Republican Army, and to fantasies of unifying the global Islamic community and dominating the African continent – all under his tutelage.
The Libyan autocrat is also manifestly paranoid. Doubtful of the loyalty of those surrounding him, he recruited foreign mercenaries to guard him against his subjects. Media claim that hired gunmen from several Black African states have attacked opponents of the dictatorship. The London Independent notes that Serbian and other military sources indicate the participation of Serbian combatants, including aerial bombing crews, in defending al-Qadhdhāfi, and adds that Russians are likewise involved in his security efforts. The Serbian connection is an old one: Libya opposed the US-led intervention against Belgrade butcher Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. Libya under al-Qadhdhāfi had been close to the Tito regime in former Yugoslavia and has consistently backed Serbia in seeking to block Kosovo independence. Other friends of the Libyan lunatic include Cuba's Castro and the bumptious Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The sympathy al-Qadhdhāfi gained from Western governments by his pledge to give up development of weapons of mass destruction and to align against al-Qaida, in the global war against terror, has vanished. His current allegations that the Libyan people are protesting at the command of al-Qaida are believed by nobody.
Most significantly, Al-Qadhdhāfi's brutality in reaction to the crumbling of his misrule has encountered a more volatile response in the Libyan masses than has yet been seen in any of the countries affected by the new Arab and Islamic revolt. While Libya has been out of the mainstream of world opinion – except with regard to terrorism – for more than 40 years, its history should have served as a caution that once the dictator's capacity to instill fear had begun to dissipate, the people's revenge would be harsh. Italy ruled over Libya from 1911 to 1943, but consolidated its administration with difficulty, thanks to fierce resistance from the colonized population. The Libyan war against foreign domination included a notable role for the Senussi Sufi order, an example of a jihadist Sufi movement, combining mystical teachings with armed combat against a foreign invader. The Senussis lost thousands of their adherents in the struggle against the Italians, and their leader, Idris al-Senussi, reigned as king of Libya from 1951 to al-Qadhdhāfi's coup in 1969.
The Senussis still account for a large share of the Libyan population, but their association with the former monarchy made them targets of suppression by the "revolutionary" dictator. Dedication to their movement has made many of them resolute enemies of the regime. More recent grievances have festered for too long. Libya's indigenous Berbers have been victims of forced Arabization. Libya is a leading oil exporter but its population is underemployed, undereducated, and viewed with suspicion by Europe. Oil prices have fluctuated alarmingly with shutdown of Libyan exports by such foreign entities as the Italian ENI, Spanish Repsol YPF, and German and Austrian oil companies.
Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhāfi might have fallen more quickly, given his narrow social base, but his craziness – there really is no other adequate term for it – has encouraged him to believe he may remain in control, in his own dreadful phrase, "to the last bullet," employing any means, any mercenaries, and any massacres.
The prolonged Libyan crisis has diminished the prestige of the US administration of President Barack Obama, which has dithered about measures to be taken to prevent wholesale bloodshed. Kosovo, in which al-Qadhdhāfi backed the Serbs, has returned to haunt him, as American commentators have begun drawing parallels between the horrors for which the Libyan ruler has been responsible and the slow reaction of the West to halt genocidal intentions in the Balkans. Finally, NATO had to act in Kosovo if only to avoid a massive flow of Albanian newcomers to Greece and Italy; NATO may act in Libya against a similar impact on Italy, which cannot afford to house refugees and is the most anxious about visions of their sudden arrival on its coasts.
The battle for the future of Libya may reduce somewhat the enthusiasm of those who have seen in the new Arab protest movements a triumph of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The stalemate of the Iranian uprising against dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009-10 showed, unfortunately, that social media could not replace political organization in a confrontation with the armed and disciplined guardians of a fanatical absolutism. The absence of political tendencies and the failure to create structures of anti-dictatorial power undermined the Iranian movement for democracy and have left Egypt in a void; social media protests may prove too decentralized and anonymous to gain victories over oppression. An unidentified Syrian human rights activist was quoted in the London Financial Times of 18 February, warning that a movementagainst that country's military dictatorship "won't come from people calling from behind the scenes on Facebook." The observation is correct; successful political change requires public advocacy by personalities acting through new institutions.
At the same time, in Bahrain, following mass protests demanding political change and violent repression by the state, the reform movement continues. The rulers of Bahrain have also had recourse to hired guns in their quest to retain their dominance. Sharing the shame of Libya, which called on the architects of attempted genocide against the Balkan Muslims for their defense, military minions from Pakistan participated in the murderous assault on sleeping demonstrators in Manama, the Bahrain capital, last week.
Reports of dissent in Morocco, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia are muffled and indistinct. The new Arab and Muslim revolt, notwithstanding the bluster of al-Qadhdhāfi and the intrigues of the Muslim Brotherhood, has so far had little to do with Islam and much to do with economics. For now, as the upsurge of Arab and Muslim discontent with despotism continues, its path seems less promising than it appeared a week ago, its destiny still uncertain. The world is dizzy with unexpected misfortunes, and expels its toxins, including both terrorist Islamism and simple, bloodthirsty tyranny.