Enemies of the People: a Study of the Libyan Conflict

Foreign intervention is a domino. Behind which are aligned hundreds of dominos, often not of the development and prosperity they promise, but of more foreign intervention. Libya is a perfect example. The recent Berlin Conference on Libya, which gathered world leaders to ‘decide’ the fate of Libya, is an irony in itself. It is an* intervention to cure an intervention*.

To understand Libya (and arguably to understand anything), there is a need to historicise and contextualise the current situation. The conflict didn’t start in 2011 or 2014 but has much deeper roots in Libya’s history. For this reason, we can study the Libyan conflict in two stages:

Libya before 2011

For much of its history, Libya was not a single unified land. Its three territories:Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan were separated for much longer than they were united. Libya has continuously faced occupation by almost every power in history including the Greeks, the Romans and the Turks. It was only after the Italian occupation in 1911 that the three territories were unified.

Owing to their brutal treatment, the colonisers were inevitably faced with the discontent of their subjects. This gave rise to a Sufi movement, known as the Senussi order, which led the resistance. During the Second World War, Italy lost Libya to Britain and France and during this switch of colonisers, the Senussi order gained ground. In 1951, Libya was the first country to be granted independence by the United Nations. King Idris became the first Libyan monarch to rule the country.

However, in 1959, everything changed. As rich oil reserves were found, Libya witnessed the transformative powers of oil. The West strategically increased its sphere of influence in the country.

Taking a bird’s eye view of this part of the world at the time, Arab countries were experiencing a wave of what came to be known as ‘Nasserism’. The word itself is based on the former Egyptian President Nasser, and represents an anti-imperialist and pan-Arab nationalist movement. Therefore, in the 1960’s, the Arab world was hit by a wave of Nasserist coups aimed at changing regimes that were reactionary and pro-West.

Libyan students began to agitate against the monarchy and on September 1, 1969, the revolution deposed King Idris. This revolution was led by a man whose name would define Libya for years to come, the 27-year-old General Muammar Gaddafi.

After the coup, 12 Free Officers proclaimed themselves the Revolutionary Command Council, the government of the new republic, and Gaddafi was the de-facto head. Gaddafi was a man of the people, and his regime was extremely popular. He undertook large-scale nationalisation and rested his policy on three pillars, “Freedom, Socialism and Unity”. As a disciple of Nasser, he set out to tackle the unfair legacy of Western economic interference. By dismantling the influence of foreign companies and seizing complete control of the National Oil Corporation in 1970, he made Libya the first developing country to secure a majority share of the revenues from its own oil production.

Gaddafi used the income from oil to fund social welfare. While using the sharia law as a basis for social reform, he worked extensively for women’s empowerment, healthcare, education and house-building programs. He also used the money to fund revolutionary movements against injustice and colonialism all across the world. From helping those fighting apartheid to Marxist Palestinian liberation groups, the Irish Revolutionary Army as well as left-wing groups across Europe and Latin America, Gaddafi extended his hand of support.

A turning point in his rule came in April, 1973 with his “5 points” at a conference at Zuwarah. He proclaimed the beginning of a ‘Popular Revolution’. People’s committees were set up and he gave up his position only to remain as what he called the ‘Brother Leader’ to guide them through. The bureaucracy was to be removed and all opponents to the revolution were to be removed. This rang similar to the Great Cultural Revolution in China. Libya was renamed the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, meaning a “state of the masses”, as conceptualised by Gaddafi.

Similar to Mao’s Red Book Gaddafi formulated a Third Universal Theory in his Green Book. He saw both the USA and USSR as imperialist and set out to create a theory that took an Islamic Socialist standpoint. This revolution quickly became a witch hunt, either you were a revolutionary or a counter-revolutionary. Gaddafi was the centre of everything: all roads of power led to him.

As Egypt’s new President Anwar Sadat began to fall in line with the Western powers in the 1970’s, Gaddafi’s pan-Arab ideal seemed further away. His staunch anti-American stance, as well as his undying support for revolutions against imperialism, labelled him “a supporter of worldwide terror”; Ronald Reagan called him the “Mad Dog of the Middle East”, to which Gaddafi retorted that America was the real terrorist. The USA bombed the Libyan capital in a clear attempt to kill Gaddafi but ended up killing civilians. After all, it was typical of the ‘leader of the free world’ to assassinate someone just because they didn’t like him. Further, severe sanctions were imposed on Libya after Gaddafi was alleged to be involved in an aeroplane crash in Scotland and the Berlin discotheque bombing (despite the lack of conclusive evidence). The Abu Salim prison massacre also drew flak from the international community.

Another turning point for Gaddafi came after the US invasion of Iraq and the death of Saddam Hussein. It was allegedly the fear of meeting a similar fate, and fear for the safety of his family, that brought a shift in Gaddafi’s attitudes. Libya began to pander to Western powers, like many nations who were earlier forced to do so. Reform programs were conducted, political prisoners were released and eventually, sanctions were lifted. Libya was officially invited back to the international fold, gaining levels of legitimacy that Gaddafi had never experienced in the past.

This, however, alienated him from the Arab world. Parrying with the powers who were supporting the Arab enemy, Israel, was not acceptable. In this situation, still wanting to be a part of a larger territory-based movement, Gaddafi moved from pan-Arabism to pan-Africanism. He became Chairman of the African Union in 2009. It also began to show that his alliance with the West did not align with his personal beliefs. This was seen clearly in 2009 when Gaddafi went to the UN for the first time and called the UN Security Council a “terror council”. American media said that he had shown his “true colours”.

Libya after 2011

In 2011, Arab Spring uprisings across North African and Central Asian Arab states began to surface.

Gaddafi’s stronghold was in the West of Libya and the East always felt wronged by him. The families of those killed in the Abu Salim massacre were planning a ‘day of rage’ on February 17 in Benghazi, a city in the East. However, the leader of the movement was arrested two days before the protests and his supporters clashed with security forces.

These protests quickly turned into protests against Gaddafi and his repressive regime. It moved on to other cities and attracted a growing number of militias, who were fighting against state power. The protests turned to armed rebellion, but Gaddafi decided not to use force, which is why the revolution grew without restraint and could not be suppressed once he decided to respond. The protests then reached his stronghold in Tripoli, the capital of Libya.

In February 2011, a group of military officials and ministers defected and set up a National Transitional Council (NTC). Working with the Arab League, they urged the UN to intervene in Libya. Many accusations of mass rapes, bombing and extrajudicial killings were put on Gaddafi forces. However, these were never proven. In fact, even many Western human rights NGOs visited Libya and found no proof of these allegations.

There was a push for NATO action, and world leaders saw this as an opportunity for fulfilling personal vendetta. A no-fly zone was established over Libya and NATO declared that they would undertake “all necessary measures to protect civilians”. Under this guideline, NATO countries trained rebels and flooded them with weapons from the West despite the weapons embargo. Rebels divided by region and objectives joined hands against Gaddafi. Posters of freedom fighter Omar Mukhtar and flags of independent Libya flew again.

In August of 2011, the rebels took Tripoli without the fierce resistance that people had anticipated. The National Transitional Council took over control and Gaddafi went back to his hometown in Sirte. On October 20, with the help of NATO, the rebels found Gaddafi. What ensued was televised torture and murder, with the rebels showing no mercy and videotaping the entire scene. Gaddafi’s last words caught on camera were broken: “What did I do to you?”.

Those who fought for Gaddafi were killed or tortured and paraded around Tripoli. Many went missing and remain so till this day. Foreign leaders rejoiced. Hillary Clinton was caught on camera joking about his death, “We came, we saw, he died”. Gulf states were also relieved as Libya’s development threatened to put Central Asia in second place.

What followed, however, was a power vacuum and violent in-fighting between militias as the differences had resurfaced once their common goal to get rid of Gaddafi was met. Although formally under NTC control, Libya was a patchwork of competing militias. In fact, the militia life became attractive to the youth as it paid much more than any other job.

In July 2012, parliamentary elections were hurried through, pressured by the international community. The NTC transferred power to the General National Congress (GNC) who were to rule only for 18 months. A series of decisions by them further reinforced the militancy culture. A state salary was given to those who fought in the revolution. Further, GNC gave into federalist demands from the East which set the precedent that force, or threat of force, would lead to concessions. Violence became a political currency. The most outright power grab was the 2013 Political Isolation Act which stated that if you were working under Gaddafi you could no longer hold a government post.

The GNC extended its term even though it was supposed to end in 2013. Simultaneously, General Khalifa Haftar rose in the East. He was abandoned by Gaddafi in Chad and subsequently rescued by the CIA and given citizenship in the USA. Upon his return in 2011, he formed the Libyan National Army in the East. He launched a ‘dignity war’ against the terrorist militias in Benghazi in the East.

In the June 2014 elections, an environment of violence had already been normalised. A party called the House of Representatives, backed by Haftar, won the majority and the government was shifted East to the city of Tobruk. However, the old government refused to give up power and there were two governments in Libya.

The irony is that during this civil war, the Tripoli controlled National Oil Corporation, as well as the Central Bank, continued to function under international pressure. So, militias were funded by the Central Bank on both sides with no national institutions or public services and oil sales boosted cash further.

In 2015, the UN tried to resolve the conflict by creating the Government of National Accord in Tripoli to act as an interim government of Libya, but they were not recognised by the Haftar-backed House of Representatives. Haftar slowly took control of Eastern oil ports and today controls most of Libya’s territory. Haftar aims to eventually take Tripoli and establish his regime.

Which countries are invested and why?

Haftar is supported by Gulf countries like United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt simply because they wish to curb the spread of ‘political Islam’, something that they believe the GNA stands for. These countries are largely responsible for the provision of arms, air support and troops to Haftar’s forces.

On the other hand, Turkey has been a foremost supporter of the GNA. President Erdogan has even promised military help to the GNA against Haftar’s Tripoli campaign.

The US, having arguably been the cause of this mess, has chosen to remain silent while officially supporting the UN efforts of a ceasefire. France and Russia, although officially supporting UN efforts, have also shown their vested interests by blocking an EU attempt to stop Haftar’s campaign. In fact, they have both been accused of providing weapons to Haftar.

Berlin Conference

The Berlin conference was a last-minute attempt by Germany to salvage what little political process is left in Libya. Held on January 19, 2020, it was timed to defer Haftar’s ‘final assault’ on Tripoli. Germany, the only country in Europe with enough political clout to summon important players, came to everyone’s rescue - at least for the moment.

The conference ended with a 55-point communique calling for a permanent ceasefire, the implementation of a UN arms embargo, the dismantling of militias, and the resumption of the political process. However, this is impossible to implement and, honestly, a little ironic, considering that many of the conference member states are themselves suppliers of arms that keep the conflict afloat.

The question that this account brings is who is safeguarding the interests of the people? Protests from the grassroots have spread like fire in Libya, condemning the violence and the disrupting effects it has on everyday lives. Has international power politics gone so far that domestic populations do not even receive cursory importance?

Another question we can ask is what did the death of Gaddafi really achieve? Many Libyans still mourn his death and hail his regime as a haven with free healthcare and education. Was his policy of using Libya’s oil for the Libyan people too much for the West to handle? One thing is clear - whichever foreign actor supported the revolution by way of arms or by way of silence, they remain enemies of the people.


Ritisha Gupta

A Political Science student from Delhi University. Hoping to make a difference, one step at a time.

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