When revolution broke out in the Arab world, few expected it to reach Libya, a country under the iron grip of Muammar Gaddafi.
But within a few days of the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, small demonstrations broke out in eastern Libya. They quickly escalated into a national popular uprising that, at one point, reached the gates of Gaddafi’s compound in the capital, Tripoli.
Sections of the army joined the revolt and key ministers backed the “youth revolution”. Senior military figures defected from the regime. Mass demonstrations spread to the industrial city of Misrata and a city-wide strike paralysed the oil industry.
But Gaddafi’s regime launched a bloody counter-offensive.
A key centre of the revolt in the west, the oil terminal town of Zawiya, was the first to fall to Gaddafi. His forces then swept through the working class neighbourhoods of Tripoli.
The speed and ferocity of his offensive left the revolution vulnerable.
The revolution in the west, now focused on Misrata and Berber mountain villages, was fighting for its life. Those areas held out. But in the east, hope of the revolution succeeding was lost—not because people weren’t willing to fight, but because the West hijacked the revolution.
Those who feared that a victory for Gaddafi would boost other regimes welcomed intervention. But intervention allowed Gaddafi to present himself as a bulwark against imperialism.
Defections from his regime ended and cities held by his supporters rallied to him.
Many hoped the rebellion could still succeed. But the West transformed an uprising for deep social and economic change into one for changes in government.
The structure of Gaddafi’s regime would remain—with the gloss of democracy.
The West demanded that a new government must guarantee contracts signed by the former regime, including oil deals, police migration to Europe, seal the border with Egypt and disarm Islamists who had joined the insurrection.
It created an interim government with former members of Gaddafi’s regime and stripped power from leaders who arose from the insurrection.
The revolution lost its independence. US neocons and advocates of “humanitarian intervention” began to speak on behalf of it, even announcing that Libya would recognise Israel.
Western military officers flooded into the east, disarming anti-aircraft defence systems and rebuilding police and security forces. They offered financial support—but only a trickle of money found its way into rebel areas.
The east has run out of money. The rebel government can’t pay the salaries of officials or school teachers. Economic sanctions on areas under regime control led to the collapse of the economy, with shortages of fuel and food.
Intervention fractured the unity of the revolution. Rebels in Misrata refused orders issued from the Western-backed government in Benghazi.
Frustration fed factional rivalries, resulting in the murder by Islamists of rebel military chief, and Gaddafi’s former minister of interior, Abdel Fattah Younes.
This revolution has become a series of bloody battles involving a few hundred men, with neither side capable of making a breakthrough.
Libya faces cantonisation—with western areas under the control of the old regime and fractured rebel areas beholden to imperialist powers.
If Nato is successful, it will be emboldened to intervene in other revolutions. But so far Nato’s war has failed. It is hard to accept that this is a lost revolution. But there can be no illusions during revolutions or war.
Libyans are trapped between the old regime and a Western-backed puppet state. But this is not the end of all hope. The revolutions across the Arab world are constantly throwing up surprises.
Any chance of reigniting Libya’s revolt lies with the continuing revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
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Historian John Newsinger writes