By Simon Assaf
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Libya: at the crossroads

This article is over 12 years, 8 months old
Libya's revolution faces stark choices. Simon Assaf looks at the roots of Gaddafi's regime and the danger posed by Western intervention
Issue 357

As we go to press, Libya’s revolution is at a crossroads. The uprising that erupted on 17 February faces two dangers – the possibility that an offensive by the regime of Muammar Gaddafi could crush the revolt, and that the West could intervene and undermine the revolution. This crisis is not of the revolution’s making, but is nonetheless one that throws into sharp relief two possible options – to make an alliance of dependency with Western powers, or to draw on the forces that have been pushing for change across the region.

The revolution in Libya rose under difficult circumstances. Unlike Tunisia, where trade unions could operate within the bounds of the regime and become a focus for discontent, or Egypt, where opposition could coalesce around the political movements and a powerful working class, Libya had no organised domestic opposition, such was the brutality and control of the regime. This meant that Libya’s revolution had to start with the most rudimentary basis of organisation. Similarly the lack of any organised opposition diminished the regime’s capacity to make compromise with offers of dialogue and reform.

The revolution has been forced to make a series of compromises to guarantee its survival. These compromises are in danger of allowing Western imperialism to hijack and derail the revolution. The demand for a “no-fly zone”, and calls for deeper Western military intervention such as airstrikes, are genuine calls for help from those confronting Gaddafi’s battalions. Yet what is expected from and what will be delivered by Western powers are very different. Imperialism’s interest in Libya is oil. It is prepared, ultimately, to do what it takes to guarantee this supply, including the partition of the country.

The call for Western intervention opens up a second danger – allowing Gaddafi’s regime to present itself as an opponent of imperialism. This could isolate the revolution from the wider movement for change across the region and harden those elements inside the regime that are still wavering. The history of resistance inside the Middle East draws its legitimacy from the struggle against colonialism and imperialism – to make an alliance with imperialism will result in a loss of credibility and independence.

Gaddafi’s regime

The army officers who seized power in Libya in 1969 were part of a wave of anti-colonial revolts in the 1950s and 1960s that were inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution in Egypt. Libya had been subject to brutal colonial rule under Italy from 1911 onwards and then came under British influence, which continued despite the declaration of formal independence in 1951.

The young officers around Gaddafi aspired to create an independent nation-state that could tap its resources, above all its oil wealth, in order to build a modern society. Libya was then an overwhelmingly tribal society made up of nomadic or agricultural communities. However, Gaddafi’s revolution did not involve the mass of people; rather it was centred on a small group of officers drawn from the middle class.

The end of colonialism did not mean the end of capitalism, whatever Gaddafi’s rhetoric. His state had every bit as much interest in continuing the exploitation of the mass of the population, however much of a step forward it was from colonial rule, formal or informal.

In the 1970s Gaddafi undertook a massive reorganisation of the state. The regime, dominated by a small circle around him, created “revolutionary committees” in an attempt to supplant the tribal structures. These committees did not reflect the needs of the population, but served as a new source of patronage by the state.

Fearful of discontent and potential rivals, Gaddafi used the new state structures to guarantee his rule. He relocated most of the key state institutions to his hometown of Sirte, distributed jobs and services in order to cement his rule over the country, and imprisoned or murdered his opponents – even for the most modest criticism.

The regime’s military power was concentrated in a few well-armed and trained forces stationed away from major population centres. These forces were supplemented by hired guns and the state security network. Elements of the tribal relations remained in the national army, but this army was relegated to border patrols or protecting the oil infrastructure.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Gaddafi used the rhetoric of Arab nationalism while he tightened his grip over all aspects of Libyan society. His opposition to Western imperialism earned Libya a reputation as a bastion of anti-Western resistance. In truth, Libya’s meddling inside genuine resistance movements in the region was unwelcome. His agents earned a reputation as assassins and car bombers. Gaddafi’s regime dealt harshly with those who criticised his meddling, even kidnapping and murdering Musa Sadr, an influential and popular reformer in Lebanon.

For many in the Middle East, Libya remained a place enveloped in darkness, whose people lived under a tyrannical and unhinged ruler. For Western powers, Gaddafi’s regime was one that was prepared to make a bargain. In return for oil deals Gaddafi’s past was forgotten – including attacks on Western targets.

Over the past decade Libya has changed in another fundamental way. Urbanisation has weakened old tribal allegiances, with the majority of the population now employed in the state bureaucracy, offices or factories. Tribal loyalties still maintain some standing and respected elders are able to wield some moral authority, but they have become much weaker.


These social changes created a crisis for the regime. Gaddafi’s national ideology – an incoherent fusion of “Arab nationalist” rhetoric, “pan-Africanism”, “Islamic thought” and “socialism” as expressed in his Green Book – could not maintain a real bond between the regime and the people. Gaddafi turned instead to offer the promise of future reform under the patronage of his son, Saif al-Islam. Saif’s “vision” of gradual democratisation offered hope for the younger generation.

The idea of “reform” raised the prospect that as Libya opened up to the West it could use some of the vast oil revenues to put in place real changes. The regime relaxed some of its repression, engaging many of its historical opponents in open-ended, but insubstantial, talks on change. Real power remained the preserve of a tight circle around Gaddafi. As with the Green Book ideology before it, Saif’s reforms proved to be hollow.

Inspired by the events in Egypt and Tunisia, a loose network of young activists joined by notables, among them judges and respected lawyers, called for peaceful protests on

17 February. These protests, despite the modest demands, turned into the first public displays of opposition to the regime.

The response of the regime, spooked by the revolutions engulfing Libya’s neighbours, was to open fire on the protests. The cycle of killings, funerals and more killings exploded into a national uprising. The process that had delivered victories in Tunisia and Egypt seemed at work again – small protests that turned into mass demonstrations, security forces driven off the streets, crisis inside the army, a decisive wave of mass strikes, the regimes ditching the dictators.

Crowds destroyed state security buildings, burned down police stations and torched one of Gaddafi’s palaces. Demonstrations of millions were closing in on the regime, and sections of the national army dissolved or joined the revolt. Amid rumours that Gaddafi had fled, a march closed in on Green Square in Tripoli. Then the regime unleashed its supporters, regime thugs and loyal troops in an attempt to crush the movement. The scale and brutality of the crackdown accelerated the collapse of sections of the regime. Libyan diplomats joined the revolt, groups of army officers released statements commanding troops to disobey orders, and towns and villages declared for the revolution.


Significant parts of the state, however, remained intact. Those loyal to Gaddafi consolidated themselves and tore through the civil and military institutions, executing those who spoke out against the terror or refused orders to open fire. The nature and extent of the cleansing of the regime are still unknown. But many hundreds are believed to have been executed, among them close Gaddafi family members and former regime stalwarts.

This was a mass popular uprising involving millions of people. Areas liberated from the regime put under popular control all the functions of the state, including prisons, the police and courts. Councils organised the distribution of food according to need, opened TV and radio stations, and issued revolutionary newspapers. Popular committees took over key installations such as electricity stations, the ports and other utilities. All the major liberated cities and towns are run by these revolutionary councils. Observers, including Western journalists, speak of the efficiency and energy of the councils and the relaxed air of “freedom” in rebel areas.

The popular councils formed a national organisation, the Transitional National Council (TNC), to act as the leadership of the revolution. There are, however, two forces inside the TNC. There is the popular revolutionary leadership – drawn from the key leaders of the uprising, and the former high-ranking defectors of the old regime who want to set up an interim government with the backing of the West. The formation of the TNC represented a compromise between these two wings – but it had to offer a guarantee to the West that it would abide by the oil contracts signed by the Gaddafi regime.

The speed of the regime’s counter-offensive condensed the time needed to accomplish even the most rudimentary reorganisation by the revolution. Some 15 days into the uprising the TNC was fighting for survival. The first priority was an attempt to link up liberated areas in the east with rebellious towns and cities in the west that were under siege. Time was crucial.

Revolution in danger

The youth from the east, now armed and fired up by belief born out of the near impossible victory over regime forces in the early days of the uprising, stormed westwards in a doomed attempt to link up rebel areas. The revolution was now in danger, not only in the west of the country, but in the liberated east.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt now lagged behind Libya in one crucial sense. Those revolutions still face state machines that remain significantly intact, and as yet have little capability of delivering real material aid to Libya. This imbalance opened the door to Western interference. Convinced that the revolution would succeed, Western leaders manoeuvred to back the TNC. Beleaguered, the TNC now felt it had little option but to throw itself on Western mercy.

The TNC’s position is that there should be no foreign troops on Libyan soil, yet it was forced to call for a no-fly zone and airstrikes in an attempt to halt the regime’s counter-offensive. These military setbacks forced the TNC into deeper compromises. Despite the possibility of short-term support, it was in danger of mortgaging the independence of the revolution to Western interests.

The demand for Western intervention is at first sight simple to understand: The regime is launching air raids on rebel forces. The US with all its military power has the resources capable of destroying Gaddafi’s warplanes and tipping the military balance in favour of the rebels. This is, however, a mistaken and dangerous simplification of the role of imperialism, whose interests are not those of the revolution. Western governments have been prepared to make deals with the regime before, and are willing to do so again, including the de facto partition of the country – leaving the revolution abandoned in the west and the east reduced to a Western pawn.

There are many who agree that Western interference is not ideal, but make the case that even a revolution heavily indebted to the West is preferable to a regime victory. But this is not the first time resistance movements in the Middle East have faced overwhelming odds. Both the Palestinian movement and the resistance in Lebanon are confronted by a military power far more powerful than Gaddafi’s. Their ability to survive and, significantly, Lebanon’s victory over Israel in the 2006 war, were based on popular support and leadership that sought above all else to represent the interests of the resistance, not an external power.

The Libyan revolution has deep support among people in the region who are engaged in historic struggles for change. Their interests are those of the ordinary Libyans. By seeking an alliance with the West, the Libyan revolution is in danger of cutting itself adrift from these forces. The uprisings sweeping across the Middle East are confronting established regimes that are prepared to unleash unbelievable cruelty. For the revolutions to be successful they have to look to the forces that have, against all odds, already shaken the region.

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