When the chaotic videos and images of Muammar Gaddafi’s last moments were broadcast, it generated mass celebrations—and deep misgivings.
Here was a revolution that owed its victory to Western forces, yet this revolution was not launched to hand the country over to the West.
We shed no tears for Gaddafi. We would have liked him to stand trial, and he has taken many secrets to his grave—among them the details of his many dirty dealings with the West.
But for many, his death marked the end of a war that had consumed tens of thousands of lives. He died at the hands of the people he persecuted. Such should be the fate of all dictators.
Gaddafi sealed his fate the moment his forces opened fire on a peaceful protest in Libya on 15 February 2011.
This protest was organised by young people inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
They set up their version of Tahrir Square outside the courthouse in the second city, Benghazi. They were protesting against the arrest of a lawyer campaigning for families of prisoners killed in a prison riot in 1996.
The following day, security forces gunned down mourners at the young protesters’ funeral.
The city rose in rebellion, overwhelmed the security forces, and won over the troops sent to crush them. The success in Benghazi triggered an uprising across the country.
The industrial city of Misrata rose in rebellion, as did Zawiya, to the west of the capital, and the long oppressed Berber peoples of the Western Mountains. In the capital, Tripoli, thousands of young people answered the call from Benghazi and took to the streets.
But despite the bravery, the youth could not overcome the heavily armed regime loyalists.
Their uprising had failed. Thousands fled to Tunisia, others went underground.
Gaddafi’s regime still had a base of support. It was able to mobilise its supporters, distribute weapons and purge the army.
Hundreds of soldiers and officers, as well as key members of the civilian administration, were executed. Thousands of civilians were arrested. Many of these people were subsequently murdered. Thousands are still missing.
Gaddafi’s counter-revolution marked a point at which it seemed that the Arab regimes would be able to survive by brute force. The ferocity of this offensive pushed the peaceful movement into an armed uprising.
It was an unequal battle. The defenders of Zawiya on the western outskirts of Tripoli had only four tanks and a few weapons. The regime sent in 50 tanks and hundreds of heavily armed fighters.
In the east, the revolutionaries rushed to the rescue of Misrata and Tripoli. Poorly armed, and with little military training, they drove into an ambush outside Gaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte.
Defecting soldiers revealed that an attempted uprising in Sirte had been crushed. The long retreat towards Benghazi began.
As Gaddafi’s troops closed in on the rebel city, he declared, “We will show no mercy and no pity to them.”
The revolution seemed doomed. The original aspirations of the young revolutionaries were put aside—including the demand that rejected any foreign interference.
Then came the West. Nato warplanes halted Gaddafi’s offensive. The die was cast—Western powers would now hijack the revolution.
This process began with the arrival of senior defectors from the old regime. The rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC), set up by the original leaders of the insurrection, now fell under their control.
The new leadership could count on the backing of Western powers, and the promise of military, financial and political support. But the price was high.
The NTC mortgaged the country to unlock Western sanctions on arms and oil.
The people who made the uprising felt they had no choice but to promise everything to the West. It was blackmail.
On the eve of Nato’s airstrikes, the young revolutionaries in Benghazi were still demanding no Western interference. They were forced into a compromise. They were prepared to accept Nato warplanes, and all the conditions that came with them. But they drew a red line at “boots on the ground”—foreign troops. It was to be their one small, but important, victory.
Western military officers did, however pour in. So did Qatari special forces and others.
The effect of the Nato air campaign should not be underestimated. Warplanes pulverised regime forces. But it was the war on the ground that proved decisive. Most of the fighting was left to armed civilians.
The focus of the war shifted to Misrata and the Western Mountains south of Tripoli. Many thought that the country was heading towards partition.
This changed over the summer when rebels in the Western Mountains seized the border with Tunisia. Thousands of Libyans who had fled the crackdown in Tripoli and other western cities now poured back across to join the fight.
On 20 August, Tripoli again rose in rebellion. This time rebel fighters poured into the city.
The role of the masses was decisive in the final battle, and the mass demonstrations that marked the beginning of the revolt would have the last word.
It was only a matter of time before the final elements of the regime would be defeated.
But this victory hides deep problems for Libya and the new Western-backed government. The terms of the agreement mean the new regime will keep many parts of the old order in place.
This includes the oil contracts, guarantees to control the Islamists, and “securing” Europe’s southern borders from sub-Saharan migration.
The Western powers have declared that there will be no “de‑Baathification” of Libya—that unlike in Iraq, former members of the old regime will remain in their posts.
However, the Misrata military council is already refusing to accept any diktat from the interim government in Tripoli.
Attempts to create a sanitised version of the old regime have also been denounced by the Islamists—among them key rebel military commanders.
Many of the forces that took part in the revolt are now turning on the NTC, accusing them of hand-picking a new government.
This victory is full of contradictions. The doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” has been revived—now called “soft military power”. And there is goodwill towards the West in Libya, especially for France and Britain. This is not Iraq.
The fall of Gaddafi was welcomed across the Arab revolutions, with celebrations in Yemen, Egypt and Syria.
The rebel flag is flown on demonstrations across the Arab world, and the Libyan revolution is still seen as part of the Arab Spring.
Revolution is more than a slogan. It is the process where millions of people take a direct active role in shaping a common destiny and creating a new social order.
The constraints imposed on Libya during the war will chafe against the aspirations of those who sacrificed everything for its success.
Libya’s revolt was marked by all the features of revolution. But the country is exhausted by the civil war. The missing factor in the new Libyan politics are the young activists who drove the early successes of the revolution.
How they will react to the new order in Libya is unknown. But it is clear that the Arab revolutions are far from over.
Making the Revolution in the Middle East:
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