Bill Fletcher, Global African Worker editor-in-chief, sat down in the late fall with Colgate University Associate Professor Jacob Mundy to discuss the Arab Spring and its role in today’s Libya.
Globalafricanworker: When the so-called Arab Spring unfolded, it eventually touched upon Libya. From the moment that the protests began in Libya, the story became very complicated and there have been many significant disagreements. I would like to start with your telling us, what actually happened in 2011 in Libya? Was there a revolution or was what we saw the machinations of outside forces?
There does seem to be an unfortunate framing — one that even Libyans buy into — that the events of 2011 can only be described as a massive popular uprising (thankfully aided by NATO), or it was an international conspiracy to oust the Gaddafi regime that exploited the appearance of an opposition. The story, as you say, is a bit more complicated, and I think it has to be approached as a both-and kind of event rather than an either/or. In other words, there was an armed resistance whose political objective of “revolution” was made possible by the intervention of outside military forces from NATO and the Arab League (the latter is often omitted).
The uprising in Libya, which most visibly took hold in the city of Benghazi in mid-February 2011, was undoubtedly inspired by the departures of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. The Libyan uprising also wasn’t out of thin air. As with Tunisia and Egypt, although without a similar context of labor struggle, the Libyan opposition in 2011 built upon longstanding forms and organizations of resistance that developed inside and outside of the country, from Liberal reformists to Islamist revolutionaries.
The Full Story
The story that often doesn’t get told, however, is the extent to which the 2011 conflict was much more of a civil war. That is, there was a significant counter-mobilization of Libyans to fight the revolutionaries and, later, take on NATO. At the time, one of the myths that helped to legitimate foreign intervention was rumors — replete with racist undertones — of an army of African mercenaries being unleashed upon the hapless Libyan opposition. When all was said and done, very few had actually responded to Gaddafi’s call, and, in fact, more fighters from sub-Saharan Africa had been sent to augment the relative weakness of the revolutionary camp.
When we think about the differences between Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the major one was the rapid militarization of the opposition in the face of the regime’s initial crackdown on protestors. Though far fewer people had died in comparison to Mubarak’s repression, the Libyan opposition raided arms depots while units of the security forces and military defected with their weapons. Though some communities were simply arming themselves in the name of self-defense rather than revolution, the anti-Gaddafi opposition realized that there could be some international benefit in drawing the regime into open civil war.
Similar to the ways in which Darfuri rebels tempted the regime in Khartoum to over-react so as to draw in outside intervention, the Libyan rebel leadership were quite strategic when it came to portraying the regime’s response as an unfolding humanitarian disaster, if not a genocide. Voices within the community of scholars, experts and policy professionals pushing for an activation of the so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine in Libya were literally comparing the situation there with Rwanda because the Gaddafi regime had allegedly used the term “cockroaches” to describe the protestors, as Hutu extremists had done vis-à-vis those they targeted in the 1994 massacres.
But we should recall that the Obama administration was initially reluctant to intervene, having won office due to his position on the Iraq war. He only agreed when France and other European partners claimed that they would take the lead before and after the intervention. Nonetheless, the entire NATO operation would not have been possible without U.S. involvement, logistical support and bombs for Europe’s planes.
It was also a prerequisite for the Obama administration that there be a “regional” partner. In this case it was the Arab League. Though opposed by the socialist-nationalist republics of Algeria and Syria, the Arab Gulf states eagerly and easily got on board for political reasons (UAE) and ideological ones (Qatar). The African Union, on the other hand, was actively marginalized because it was pursuing negotiations between the regime and the opposition.
The legacy of the Iraq war also conditioned the third stipulation for U.S. involvement, one that was also demanded by the armed opposition in Libya: “no boots on the ground,” as in no persistent foreign stabilization mission or UN peacekeeping force. Proponents of the NATO-Arab League intervention like to say that they prevented a genocide, but in refusing to play a significant multi-lateral role in the de-militarization of a society they had eagerly helped militarize, the stage was set for the disaster we see today.
The Historical Role of Hyper-Localism
Finally, the geography of the 2011 uprising has had lasting effects. Having seen what happened to Mubarak, Gaddafi’s first goal was to prevent, by any means necessary, the occupation of Green Square or any other significant open space in the capital, Tripoli. Instead of moving from the periphery to the center, as in Tunisia, the Libyan uprising was pushed to other areas of the country, particularly the east. In each location, there was sometimes a fierce struggle over control of the local leadership, with revolutionary factions taking on loyalist councils.
In other places, the revolutionaries quickly took over without a fight. In others, loyalists or neutral factions easily stayed in power. In almost all of them, militias quickly formed, often working within larger confederations of communities or ideological groupings. The important point is that the hyper-localism that seems to define the conflict and politics in Libya today not only has socio-historical roots, but localism is as much a result of what transpired in 2011.
Globalafricanworker: I was in Tunisia and Egypt in June 2011 for a visit. I could not find anyone who supported Qaddafi. The debate seemed to revolve around whether one supported the NATO intervention or not, but not whether to support Qaddafi. What do you make of that?
Gaddafi had made few friends and many enemies in North Africa and the Middle East, though one easily found basic laborers from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey all across Libya. His most important alliances in his final years of rule were in sub-Saharan Africa, notably in the Sahel, where the absence of Libyan largesse and peacemaking has played a role in that region’s recent destabilization.
Contrary to most accounts, the Gaddafi regime was not merely built upon massive coercion. Because of the internationally imposed isolation that gripped Libya from the 1980s right until 2011, it was difficult to understand the realities of the regime’s political authority, the shifting social relations underwriting it, and the political-economy of the robust socialist state that had built upon the massive oil revenues of the 1970s and in the 2000s.
Creating a Narrative
Perceptions of the Gaddafi regime were shaped not only by its profound demonization under Reagan and Thatcher (think: Palestine and Ireland), but also by activist opponents in the diaspora eager to feed these images. Few bothered to read the sophisticated sociological Ph.D dissertations being written by Libyans in European and American universities. How many people have read Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men but not read Amal Obeidi’s and Amal Ubaydi’s Political Culture in Libya?
None of which is to say that the Gaddafi regime wasn’t brutal and often ruthless. However, the idea that its rule was singularly constructed upon a foundation of massive coercion and repression of society is too simplistic a picture, one that is easily challenged by the fact that a significant percentage of Libyans would embrace similar “strongman” rule today if it would restore security and economic prosperity. As a former regional specialist with Amnesty USA, I saw very clearly unpublished reports of how the Gaddafi regime treated some of its opponents. At the same time, disentangling North Atlantic propaganda about the Gaddafi regime from the realities of its rule is an ongoing project. It would be very telling, for example, to put the Gaddafi regime’s human rights record next to that of Morocco under King Hassan II, an excessively brutal authoritarian who nonetheless received more US military aid than any other African country than Egypt during the Cold War.
Globalafricanworker: Was there a legitimate reason for a NATO intervention? Or was this about stealing the resources of Libya?
Hugh Roberts, who was the Crisis Group’s North Africa specialist at the time, pointed out that the U.N. Security Council had authorized the use of force in Libya when the alleged death toll was still significantly less than that attributed to the Mubarak regime at the same point in the Egyptian uprising. What drove the intervention wasn’t really facts on the ground so much as a confluence of interests, both Libya and foreign, that saw an opportunity in Libya’s unfolding civil war to use humanitarianism as a justification to reshape the country though military force. This, to me, isn’t just an abuse of the notion of humanitarian intervention, which is thoroughly problematic and rooted in late European imperialism, More fundamentally, the intervention was an abuse of the Security Council’s ability to designate a conflict “a threat to international peace and security” and so license military intervention.
People often ask whether or not Benghazi in March 2011 would have become Sarajevo or Srebrenica 2.0 if the Security Council hadn’t responded, which can only lead to a lot of imaginative counterfactual speculation. A more grounded question is to what extent the events in Libya in the spring of 2011 actually constituted a threat to international peace and security. And if they did then, then why don’t they now, given the fact that we’re now facing the very real prospect of Russian mercenaries and the Egyptian army facing off against the Turkish military and Syrian mercenaries in the deserts near Sirte.
For me, the deep irony of the 2011 intervention and “the Responsibility to Protect” isn’t just that Libya subsequently became a failed state, an Islamic State “capital” (for a time), and a center of the Mediterranean migration crisis. (What Obama described as a “shit show.”) To me, the original irony of the intervention was the extent to which, in the name of preventing atrocities, NATO and the Arab League created the conditions for even worse ones, atrocities committed in the name of the 2011 “revolution” with foreign assistance.
The one that has gotten the most attention is the ethnic cleansing of the entire town of Tawergha — some 40,000 — at the hands of NATO-allied anti-Gaddafi militias from Misrata. Tawerghans are one of Libya’s native ethnic populations, though they have sub-Saharan ancestry. Though Tawerghans and Misratans have tried to settle their dispute, allowing for their return, the initial cleansing involved killings, torture, and sexual assault. In the years that followed, Tawerghans were persecuted in their refugee camps by so-called revolutionary militias seeking revenge, information, or suspected regime loyalists.
Broadly speaking, the revolutionary militias easily conducted far more atrocities than what was attributed to the regime prior to the NATO-Arab League intervention and afterwards. One can also find instances where, in 2011, rebel forces were engaged in acts of collective punishment against “loyalist” towns like Bani Walid and Sirte with the active participation of NATO-Arab League air power and intelligence assistance, including intelligence agents working in the field side-by-side with rebel forces. In 2012, the UN Human Rights Council issued a report documenting the rebels’ massacres, extrajudicial executions, torture centers, and rapes, though the issue of sexual violence in the context of 2011, including male-on-male rape, is massively understudied for obvious reasons.
On the question of natural resources and Libya’s oil wealth, the irony here is that the Gaddafi regime had welcomed and encouraged foreign investment in the years leading up to 2011. Given the country’s isolation in the 1980s and 1990s, Libya’s oil infrastructure was in a poor state, which had effects on the wider economy. The Libyan oil sector in 2010 was more or less “open for busines,” and its not as if there has been any substantive change in the mix of foreign companies involved in extracting Libya’s oil since then. In recent years, Libya’s oil has in fact been a problem for an international market, a market struggling with over-supply since 2014 (thanks to US fracking). The question we have to ask isn’t always who wants to exploit Libya’s oil and gas, but also who wants it kept off the market.
Globalafricanworker: What was the central problem in stabilizing the situation after the overthrow of Qaddafi? Was the National Transitional Council legitimate?
It’s difficult to place the blame for the failed transition c. 2012 to 2014 on one specific problem, though the unwillingness of Libya’s rebel leaders and their foreign backers to contemplate an international stabilization force meant that disarming Libya’s newfound revolutionary militias would prove to be an impossible challenge. Whereas an international peacekeeping mission under U.N. trusteeship could have played the role of a neutral central authority during the transition (as was done in East Timor), there was no such authority capable of filling the void left by the ongoing decimation of the Gaddafi regime. The seemingly unified politics driving the revolution (i.e., the downfall of the old regime) dissipated as soon as Gaddafi fled Tripoli in September 2011. In fact, the National Transitional Council was already known for having some very bitter internal politics from day one, which includes ongoing questions about the assassination of the rebel’s top commander that summer.
In many ways, the interim authorities made the militia problem worse, though it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that they literally had a gun to their head when making these decisions. Perhaps the most fateful was to offer ongoing compensation to the militias, which had the predictable effect of increasing their number. Libya soon had more “revolutionary” militia members after the revolution than during it. Libya’s interim leaders also delegated key security roles to these militias, roles that the militias in many places had already assumed themselves as the self-designated guardians of key infrastructures, governmental installations, and prized commercial real-estate. Other militias easily adapted to the robust black markets that already existed in Libya, as well as new ones afforded by the collapse of the state. This is perhaps most absurdly illustrated in the case of EU trained and funded units within the Libyan coast guard being part of the very networks of human smuggling that the coast guard was supposed to stop.
Globalafricanworker: Who have been the main contending forces in Libya? Is this based on any sort of ideology or is this a factional dispute?
Ideologically, a major factor in the breakdown of the transition was a power grab by a coalition of hardline revolutionaries whose most prominent constituent element was Islamists, notably the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. One of their main goals was a kind of “de-Ba’athification” process for Libya targeting any and persons with ties to the old regime, even those who had defected to the 2011 rebellion early on. This meant that a lot of people with important technocratic skills, governmental experience, and training in security would be permanently banned from the public sector.
There were also accusations that Libya’s “moderate” Islamists in Tripoli were turning a blind eye to the violence and insecurity growing in the east of the country as more radical Islamist militias struggled to gain hegemony in places like Benghazi and Derna. Thus a kind of counter-revolutionary coalition began to emerge c. 2013 and 2014 to oppose these trends. Their goal wasn’t to reinstate the Gaddafi regime, though some “Gaddafists” joined their ranks; rather, it was to push back against the growing insecurity and the political agenda of hardline revolutionaries.
Since the breakdown of the transition in 2014, the politics of the two main factions has changed as they have both consolidated. Between 2014 and 2016, Libya appeared to be in a classic state of civil war, with two governments, one in Tripoli and one in Tobruk, each claiming sovereign legitimacy (though with dubious democratic backing) and backed by coalitions of militias. A problematic agreement was negotiated by the United Nations to unify these two rival legislatures and place them under a new executive authority headed by a relatively unknown figure, Fayez Serraj. The legislature in Tobruk, meanwhile, had thrown its support behind Khalifa Haftar, a military commander who had served under Gaddafi, lived in exile near Washington, D.C., for over two decades (likely as a CIA asset), and then returned in 2011 only to be sidelined by the hardline revolutionaries.
Since 2014, Haftar had been leading a campaign to purge Libya of “terrorists,” basically a euphemism for Islamists and others he views as his political opponents. While Serraj and the revolutionary forces controlling Tripoli found ways to make common cause, Haftar slowly consolidated his control over the east of the country, then the Saharan interior, and finally large parts of the west. During this period, the politics of Libya’s civil war transitioned as it became clearer that Haftar and his broad base of domestic and international supporters were seeking to impose him as Libya’s new dictator. In April 2019, Haftar finally launched his assault to take Tripoli, only to held off by tenacious local resistance. Then, earlier this year, the Turkish military launched a significant intervention to protect its clients in Tripoli, driving Haftar’s forces back to the middle of the country.
Globalafricanworker: Who have been the main external forces? What are their objectives?
When it seemed that Haftar might prevail and somehow install himself as Libya’s new ruler, his strength seemed to flow from clear backing from the Egypt, the UAE and Russia, with Saudi Arabia and Jordan also in his orbit. For Egypt under Sisi, an early backer of Haftar, the threat of an Islamist friendly, Muslim Brotherhood-led Libya — with all of its oil wealth — was viewed as a major threat to the re-consolidation of military rule in Egypt and its strategic interests. Except in Syria, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have likewise been keen to back counter-revolutionary and anti-Muslim Brotherhood forces across the Middle East and North Africa. Whereas the Middle East and North Africa of the immediate post-war period were politically defined by social movements grounded in populism, socialism and pan-Arab republicanism, Saudi Arabia, with the UAE as its Sparta, has been engaged in a long struggle since the 1980s to impose a different vision for the region, one grounded in monarchical authority and state-subservient forms of orthodox, if not puritanical, Islam.
France also appears to be more allied to Haftar, having worked closely with his forces on counter-terrorism and perhaps with an eye to future arms deals. The same goes for Moscow, which has given various kinds of assistance to Haftar’s forces. Shortly before the 2011 uprising, Russia had finalized a multibillion-dollar arms contract with the Gaddafi regime. It’s not unimaginable that they’re keen to see it restored under Haftar.
The two main backers of the revolutionary-Islamist camp in Tripoli, to which Serraj has lashed himself to, are the main backers of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, Qatar and Turkey. The latter’s profile in the conflict has grown immensely in recent months given the intervention this year described above. Indeed, the “Syria-ification” of Libya now seems complete, given the extent to which Libya’s fate today is being determined in Ankara and Moscow.
The United States seems to be a wild card in all of this. In the name of counter-terrorism, the Obama administration worked with Serraj’s government and Haftar’s forces to confront the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. The Trump administration has been less interested in Libya after using it as a political bludgeon to defeat his rival in 2016. There are also reports that the White House OK’d Haftar’s assault on Tripoli in 2019, though the current administration has sent many mixed signals, and has effectively blocked the UN from appointing a new envoy to restart the peace process. Leveraging its neutrality, Germany has tried to restart the negotiations between Serraj and Haftar, but the bigger problem is Libya has become embedded in a larger geopolitical struggle between contending visions for the region.
Globalafricanworker: Has the African Union undertaken any steps towards mediating the conflict? Why have peacekeeping forces not been deployed?
There are two main reasons why the African Union has not been a visible force for good in this conflict. For many Libyans, the AU was too friendly to Gaddafi, especially in 2011 when the AU attempted to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Gaddafi was indeed a champion of the OAU and the AU, even if his rhetoric and actions sometimes strained his relations within those organizations, as was the case with the comatose Arab Maghrib Union, too. The AU’s peacemaking efforts were also deliberately sidelined in 2011 as NATO and the Arab League prepared for their intervention. An AU delegation, in fact, was warned not to fly to Tripoli in March 2011 because NATO couldn’t guarantee it would not be shot down.
Of all the intergovernmental organizations that might be able to field peacekeepers today, the AU is the least likely because of these suspicions and mistrust from 2011. One can also find deeply racist sentiments among self-identifying Arab Libyans. These have not only been directed at sub-Saharan Africans but also to Libyan Tuaregs, Tebu, Tawerghans and even Amazigh (Berber) groups in the Nafusa Mountains. This racism often gets coded as a debate over “citizenship,” the subtext being an allegation that the Gaddafi regime allowed too many non-Libyan, sub-Saharan Africans to settle in the country, especially the Saharan south.
All that said, many Libyans might be more receptive today to an international peacekeeping force, if not a U.N. trusteeship, especially if the “blue helmets” are carefully drawn from nations that do not seem to have historical ties to the old regime or an ongoing stake in Libya’s civil war.
Globalafricanworker: Does Libya have a future or will the country descend into warlord fiefdoms?
I suspect that the Libyan civil war will end in a way similar to Lebanon. The main actors will reach a point of exhaustion, foreign players will face diminishing returns on their investments (as Haftar’s supporters are now experiencing), and a kind of status quo will develop depending on how things look politically, militarily, and geographically when a deal is reached. One thing to keep in mind is that the fighting in Libya is highly localized. Even when Tripoli was “under siege” most of the previous year, life was more or less a version of the post-2011 “normal” in most of the city. The same goes for most other parts of the country. Libya really is one of those cases where, if you only understood it through the major headlines, you would think it was something akin to Somalia or Afghanistan in the early 1990s, when Libya still is in many ways a very rich and developed country. Failed states don’t have the capacity to produce a million barrels of oil a day.
Though Libya lacks a coherent and unified national government, one finds quite competent leadership at the local level, where one also finds really interesting initiatives aimed at inter-communal peacemaking and economic development. Some of this “good news,” however, has to be tempered by the fact that all of the stability and reconstruction in the east, for example, has been in the shadow of military government, the kind of rule Haftar wants to extend to the rest of the country — to replace locally elected councils with militarily appointed ones.
But in the case of Libya, the evasion and manipulation of central state authority by local powers is a story with a rich genealogy, whether we’re talking about the otherwise brutal Italian occupation, the Sanusi monarchy in the 1950s and 1960s, the forty years of Gaddafi, and the periods since 2011. The trick in Libya is not to see localism as a sign of a failed state but rather as the potential building blocks of a polity adapted to its history.
Jacob Mundy is an associate professor at Colgate University, teaching both the Peace and Conflict Studies program and the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies program. His books include Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (with Stephen Zunes, 2010/2021), The Postconflict Environment (edited with Dan Monk, 2014), Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence (2015), and most recently Libya (2018) in Polity Press's Global Hotspots series.
Caption: Protestors in Tripoli denounce calls to divide the country into three autonomous regions as the country devolved into war following the 2011 Arab Spring.
Credit: By Magharebia - 120312 Libya rallies against federalism, division