The uprising in Libya that unseated Muammar Gaddafi is a vivid demonstration of the deep social, economic and political discontent in the Arab world and of the aspirations of its people—particularly the young—for democracy and equality. On 16 February 2011, Libyans staged a protest demonstration against Gaddafi’s forty-two-year rule, calling on him to step down and demanding change and freedom. Gaddafi, like other hated dictators, did not see himself as part of the problem and accused the terrorist group al-Qaeda of doping Libyan youths with hallucinogenic drugs and inciting them to destabilise the country.
The United States provides sustained military, financial and political support to pliant Arab dictators who defend its interests. It also utilises a roll-back policy against rulers who are no longer useful to its strategic objectives, replacing them with individuals who can effectively serve its needs. Gaddafi was a casualty of this latter policy. The United States condemned Libya as a pariah state sponsoring terrorism and denounced Gaddafi for waging war on his own people. It bankrolled anti-Gaddafi opposition groups who fought and eventually toppled him from power.
Society and Politics in Libya
Libya is divided into three major regions, each with its own history, culture and traditions. Tripolitania in the west includes Tripoli, the capital city of Libya; Cyrenaica in the east with Benghazi as its capital city shares cultural affinities with Egypt; and the region of Fezzan in the south is dominated by Bedouin tribes. The vast majority of Libyans are Sunni Muslims adhering to the Maliki school of Islamic law. The country’s social mosaic is made up of numerous tribal communities and the culture of tribalism remains strong. People of Arab heritage constitute the majority while people of Berber ancestry are marginal. Other ethnic groups include Tuaregs, black Libyans (descendents of sub-Saharan Africans), the Tehbu and Duwud.
Libya is rich in natural resources—oil, gas and gypsum—and has a population of only 6.5 million, most residing in two major cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. The literacy rate is high (87 per cent). Oil resources constitute 95 per cent of export earnings. With a small population and large oil revenues, Libya has one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa ($13,400 in 2009). Libya’s oil wealth in the 1980s attracted a large number of foreign labourers from Chad, Ghana and other sub-Saharan African countries. Privatisation in the 2000s, however, caused private and public institutions to lay off workers and most of these foreign labourers have since illegally migrated to Europe.
Gaddafi ruled Libya by maintaining patron–client relations with tribal communities, rewarding some with money and positions in the bureaucracy and repressing others. He relied on the support of the people of his hometown, Sirte, and on the tribes of Bani Walid and Sabha, whose members were recruited into the state apparatus, particularly the security forces and the army. Gaddafi relied exclusively on his intelligence agency—one of his more dreadful tools of repression—to quash internal dissent.
From Occupation to Independence
Libya was occupied by Italy from 1911 to 1943. Libyans opposed the Italian occupation and engaged in fierce but unsuccessful struggles to liberate their country. Italy dealt severely with those who resisted its rule, jailing and executing many. One such well-known Libyan freedom fighter was Omar al-Mukhtar of Cyrenaica. He was arrested in 1931 and later was executed by the Italians. His name has long served as a painful reminder of the brutal Italian occupation.
During the Second World War, Italy was one of the Axis powers fighting the Western Allies. The United States and Britain supported the pro-Western King Idris of Cyrenaica, who allowed them to have military bases in Libya. After the Allied forces drove the Axis powers from Libya in February 1943, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica came under British rule and Fezzan under that of France. The 1947 peace treaty with the Allies obliged Italy to withdraw its forces from Libya and two years later the United Nations endorsed a resolution that made Libya an independent state on 24 December 1951. Libya became a hereditary monarchy under King Idris.
The king remained dependent on Britain and the United States for financial and political support. He did not tolerate opposition groups and with external backing he violently suppressed them and consolidated his rule. He relied on his cronies to sustain his administration and after the discovery of oil in 1959 he further strengthened ties with the United States and western European countries, allowing international oil companies to establish production operations in Libya and receive the lion’s share of oil revenues. Libya’s ruling class exploited oil revenues largely for its own benefit, becoming wealthy in the process. As the king and his circle of close associates prospered, the majority of Libyans remained poor and were resentful of their situation.
Libya under Gaddafi
The 1960s saw growing Arab nationalism and solidarity with the Palestinians in their struggle against the state of Israel. People throughout the Arab world and the Middle East despised US‑backed rulers and their collusion with Israel. This factor, and capitalist-led development and modernisation that widened the gap between rich and poor, fuelled social discontent, providing opportunities for the spread of radical and liberal ideologies of change. Gaddafi and radical army officers who were largely under the influence of the pan-Arab ideology espoused by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser were determined to topple the pro-Western monarchy and build a new Libya. In 1969, when King Idris was in Turkey on holiday, the twenty-seven-year-old Gaddafi seized power in a coup and declared Libya a republic. Libyans, fed up with a corrupt monarchy, welcomed the change of regime. The king failed to secure British support to restore him to power, and the popularity of the new regime further convinced him to submit to exile in Egypt, where he died in 1983. The crown prince, Hasan al‑Rida, waived his right to the throne and expressed support for the new regime.
Gaddafi pursued progressive socio-economic development policies in the 1970s, but as he consolidated his power in the 1980s and afterwards, he adopted repressive and reactionary measures. To modernise Libya’s social, cultural, and economic infrastructures he nationalised the oil industry and private banks, built roads, schools and hospitals, and enacted laws that improved public welfare, reduced rents, provided more housing, and raised literacy and life expectancy. A desert land, Libya has small and salty lakes and wells. Gaddafi initiated a major agricultural project that became known as the “Great Man-Made River”. It provides nearly eight million cubic yards of water per day via several thousand miles of underground pipelines to areas in Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte and other places. Construction of the canal began in 1984 at an estimated cost of over $25 billion.
Gaddafi was intent on controlling every aspect of life in the country. He banned opposition parties, outlawed trade and labour unions, muzzled the media and ruthlessly eliminated those who dared to criticise him. He projected his image as a staunch pan-Arab nationalist and supported the Palestinian struggle for a free Palestine. Skilful and effective exploitation of Arab nationalism, championship of the Palestinian cause and advocacy of social equality fuelled the first decade of Gaddafi’s radical politics, causing many to view him as the voice of the Arab people.
In 1977, Gaddafi changed the country’s name from the “Libyan Arab Republic” to the “Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [State of the Masses]”. Although Gaddafi held no official title in the government, he was the de facto ruler of the country. He elevated his status to that of “Philosopher of the Libyan Revolution” and his collected writings, known as the Green Book, were touted as a Qur’an of sorts, intended to guide the community on moral, social, political and economic issues; Libyans were encouraged to have copies of the book and abide by the principles it articulated. Gaddafi declared the parliamentary system of governance a sham and formed People’s Committees in various regions, using them to expand his influence and tighten his grip on power. The regime claimed that power rested in the hands of the people through local Basic People’s Congresses as members of these organisations elected representatives to Regional Congresses as well as to the General People’s Congress, a quasi-parliamentary institution responsible for confirming cabinet members.
Gaddafi noted the successes of Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito, who split from the Soviet Bloc and championed the Non-Aligned Movement; he decided he would become the Tito of the Arab world and find a middle ground between capitalism and socialism in modernising Libya. His socio-economic policies were largely eclectic—a distorted combination of socialism and Islam. He made Islam the official religion of the state, shari’a law the foundation of Libya’s legal system and socialism a guiding principle for economic and social development. Gaddafi was not interested in thoroughgoing social, political and economic reform; he implemented selected reforms and liberalised some aspects of society to suit his political interests, while keeping the oppressive system of state power intact. Gaddafi viewed western Europe as a potential market for Libyan oil exports and as a supplier of arms and munitions. With his oil revenues he modernised the standing army and security forces, not only to suppress resistance to his rule but also to project Libya’s influence in the Middle East and Africa.
Gaddafi successfully thwarted coups and survived assassination attempts mounted by opposition groups that included Islamic extremists. In May 1984, the National Front for Salvation of Libya (formed in 1981) attacked a military barracks outside Tripoli in an effort to topple the regime. Gaddafi prevailed; his security forces arrested an estimated two thousand people and publicly hanged eight. The regime introduced a heresy law to justify war on Islamic extremists and in 1993 launched a pre-emptive strike on the Warfallah tribe, arresting its key leaders and forcing others into exile. Opposition parties remained fragmented and weak, unable to challenge Gaddafi’s leadership. In 1997, brutal repression following failed assassination attempts caused a number of opposition groups to flee to the United States and Britain.
Gaddafi consolidated his power base by purging suspect figures from the army and replacing them with trusted loyalists. One of his seven sons, Mutassim, served as his national security adviser and another, Saif al-Islam, served as General Co-ordinator of the People’s Social Leadership and chair of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. Gaddafi’s sons have long used their authority to enrich themselves. Two, Mutassim and Mohammed, even fought for control of the local Coca-Cola bottling company: “their battle turned into an armed confrontation dominated by a militia loyal to one of the sons … the dispute was settled when Colonel Gaddafi’s daughter intervened, but only after at least one worker was hurt, one of Gaddafi’s cousins was stuffed into the trunk of a car and the Coca-Cola plant was shut down for months.”1 International sanctions in the 1990s prohibited Coca-Cola from maintaining a franchise in Libya. Coca-Cola began to reinvest in Libya in 2005 when the sanctions were lifted after Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear-weapons programmes in 2003. Gaddafi’s sons were known for misusing government money to acquire luxury properties in Libya and Europe. (On 9 March 2011, Libyan dissidents in Britain seized a $15 million house belonging to one of Gaddafi’s sons in north London, demanding that it be returned to the people of Libya.)
Gaddafi’s Foreign Policy
Gaddafi denounced Britain and the United States as imperial powers, and soon after becoming leader he closed down the British and American military bases in Libya, nationalised foreign interests, and shut cultural and educational institutions operated by foreign countries. He strengthened relations with the Soviet Union, which was increasingly challenging US hegemony in the Middle East and Africa, competing for spheres of influence and supporting client regimes and political groups. Gaddafi purchased arms and military equipment from the Soviet Union and expanded commerce and trade with East Bloc countries. The Soviet navy was granted access to Libyan ports and Soviet aeroplanes flew from Libyan bases to monitor Western naval activities.
The third Arab–Israeli war of June 1967 that saw the defeat of a coalition of Arab countries and the Israeli occupation of their lands generated further anti-Israel sentiment in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Gaddafi regarded the state of Israel as a Zionist regime and a forward operating base for US strategic interests in the Middle East. He condemned Israel for its occupation of Arab territories and supported the Palestinian struggle for autonomy and statehood. In June 1972, Gaddafi announced that people who wished to volunteer for a Palestinian army could register their names with Libyan embassies and receive training and support to fight Israel. Gaddafi’s continued anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rhetoric formed the basis of his popularity in the Arab world.
During the Arab–Israeli war of October 1973, Egypt and Syria (with military contingents from other Arab countries) launched a surprise attack on Israel but were eventually defeated, and Israel maintained its occupation of Arab lands. As part of his pan-Arab policies, Gaddafi proposed the political union of Libya and Egypt, but Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat gravitated towards the United States to broker a peace settlement with Israel and was reluctant to accept Gaddafi’s proposal. Gaddafi became contemptuous of Sadat’s policy of a unilateral peace deal with Israel. Relations between Libya and Egypt deteriorated to the extent that in 1977 Gaddafi launched a military attack on Egypt. During this four-day confrontation Libya suffered a humiliating defeat, losing over four hundred men. Gaddafi rejected the US-sponsored 1978 Camp David Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel on the grounds that it failed to address the issue of Palestinian rights. He exploited resentment of the treaty to isolate Egypt in the Arab world, denounced Sadat for betraying Arab unity, and worked to rally Arabs in opposition to Egypt’s unilateral peace with Israel. By so doing, Gaddafi was lauded by Egypt’s critics and from then on he was keen to avoid any confrontation with autocratic leaders of Arab countries. Gaddafi rejoiced when Sadat was assassinated by the Islamic fundamentalist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, in October 1981, hailing his murder as a condign punishment for his actions.
Gaddafi strengthened ties with African countries, proposed a United States of Africa, and funded development projects in the continent. He depicted himself as the “Che Guevara of the Time” and provided financial and military support to political groups opposing US domination of their countries, particularly Chad, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Liberia. During the apartheid era in South Africa, he expressed support for the jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela.
Friction with the West
Gaddafi’s quasi-nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric led to the deterioration of Libya’s relations with the West. After Libya demanded higher prices for its oil exports, the bulk of which went to western Europe, the United States turned to other oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran—two Cold War allies that served as the bulwark of anti-Soviet influence in the region. Gaddafi’s support for anti-US radical organisations agitating against societal injustice in the Middle East and Africa contributed to his popularity in these regions for years.
Gaddafi’s attempts to encourage Arab hostility towards the United States and Israel were intended to promote his stature as an Arab leader. Libya’s improved relations with the Soviet Union caused the United States to downgrade its ties with Libya. The United States reduced its representation from the ambassadorial to chargé d’ affairs level and recalled its ambassador in 1972. Libya’s support for the Palestinian struggle and its provision of sanctuaries to Palestinian fighters further angered the United States, which viewed Gaddafi as a threat to its interests in the region and to the security of its ally, Israel. Libya was placed on Washington’s list of countries that sponsored terrorism. In 1973, the United States prohibited the sale of military equipment to Libya and this provoked Gaddafi to strengthen relations with the Soviet Union.
President Jimmy Carter (1977–80) used human rights as a yardstick in US dealings with Libya. He called Gaddafi a “polecat” and condemned him for violating humanitarian norms, but his rhetoric was somewhat undermined when it became known that his brother Billy had visited Libya, was registered as a foreign agent for the country, and had even obtained a $250,000 Libyan loan. US–Libyan relations suffered a major blow when the American embassy in Tripoli was burned down in December 1979. Although the United States supported dictatorial regimes around the world whose human-rights violations made Gaddafi’s despotism seem benign by comparison, it continued to condemn Libya as a rogue state.
The United States was determined to contain Libya’s radicalism and Soviet influence in Africa and the Middle East, particularly after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979. After his inauguration in January 1981, President Ronald Reagan adopted a tougher policy towards the Soviet Union. He decided to roll back Soviet influence in the Arab world and to obstruct Gaddafi’s meddling in the Middle East and Africa. Reagan “presided over a meeting of the National Security Council wherein Libya was a main issue. It was decided that Libya would be challenged and controlled, possibly paving the way for Gaddafi’s downfall”.2 Reagan dubbed Gaddafi the “mad dog of the Middle East” and closed the United States embassy in Libya. The Libyan mission in Washington remained open until the United States ordered it to close in 1981. Although Reagan told US companies working in Libya to leave the country, they continued to operate there but were forced to hire locals and other nationals to replace US employees.
US hostility towards Libya offended Gaddafi, prompting him to lend further support to radical anti-US forces. He also provided support to the Irish Republican Army fighting the British in Northern Ireland and to Palestinian militant groups, such as Abu Nidal’s, fighting Israel. He condemned Arab and African states that maintained close ties with the United States as lackeys. Gaddafi’s anti-Western rhetoric caused the United States to focus on regime change in Libya. In 1981, the United States deployed a warship to the Gulf of Sirte, claiming it was conducting a routine naval exercise. Libya regarded the Gulf of Sirte as its territorial waters and the presence of a US warship there as a hostile act. The United States shot down two Libyan fighter jets over the Gulf of Sirte when they fired on US aircraft and rejected Libyan claims that Sirte was under Libya’s jurisdiction. The Reagan administration declared US passports invalid for travel to Libya and persuaded other countries to curb exports to Libya that might help the Soviet Union. The United States provided covert support to anti-Gaddafi opposition groups, including Islamic fundamentalists, to topple Gaddafi’s regime.
Economic sanctions imposed by the West created tremendous hardships for the people of Libya as the fixed salaries of public-sector employees were insufficient to provide a reasonable standard of living. Many were forced to seek a second job to earn enough money to support their families. Sanctions crippled Libya’s economy, leading to higher inflation. As a result of privatisation policies and corruption in the government, the gap widened between small groups of rich families connected to the political power structure and the dispossessed, providing fertile ground for social discontent—a trend the United States hoped would lead to regime change in Libya.
When US warships engaged in naval exercises near the Gulf of Sirte in January–March 1986 Gaddafi was determined to retaliate. A few weeks later, in April 1986, two US servicemen and a Turkish woman were killed and twenty persons wounded in a bomb blast at a discotheque frequented by US personnel in Berlin. The United States accused Libya of having a hand in the bombing and retaliated with strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi that claimed the lives of some sixty people. The prime objective of this exercise was to demonstrate that the United States had the military capability and the will to punish Gaddafi for his subversive activities; however, it also further motivated Gaddafi to seek revenge.
Gaddafi Changes Course
The United States was determined to punish Gaddafi and in 1988 it accused Libya of organising the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 which exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Nearly three hundred people died in the atrocity. The international community and the United States accused Gaddafi of terrorism and imposed even tougher sanctions on Libya. International pressure and internal discontent grew and eventually compelled Gaddafi to try to improve relations with the West. He handed over two Libyans in 1999 for trial in The Hague over the Lockerbie bombing. In January 2001, a special Scottish court in the Netherlands convicted one of the Libyans, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, on charges of killing 270 people in the bombing. The other Libyan, Al-Amin Khalifa Fahim, was acquitted and freed. The United States secretly paid two key trial witnesses to testify against al-Megrahi—Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci received $2 million and his brother Paul Gauci received $1 million. Al-Megrahi always maintained his innocence. His lawyers argued that the United States had a political agenda in accusing al-Megrahi, and produced US government documents to support their claim that the United States believed it was Iran that had plotted the Lockerbie bombing to avenge the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a US warship in July 1988, yet deliberately continued to blame Libya for the incident.3 In 2009, Britain freed al-Megrahi from prison on compassionate grounds, alleging that he was suffering from a terminal illness; he returned to Libya and was publicly welcomed as a hero by one of Gaddafi’s sons.
Another factor that prompted Gaddafi to seek rapprochement with the West was the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. The Soviet Union had provided Libya with military equipment but successor state Russia could no longer do so, forcing Gaddafi to adjust to the realities of a changing world. Gaddafi began to pursue better relations with the West. Relations with the European Union improved when Gaddafi freed five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused of deliberately infecting over four hundred children with the HIV virus in Benghazi. A court in Libya found the six medical personnel guilty and sentenced them to death in 2004 but the Libyan Higher Court commuted their sentence to life imprisonment in 2007. On the basis of an agreement between Libya and Bulgaria the medics were allowed to return home to serve the remainder of their sentences there; once home, they were pardoned by the Bulgarian president.
When the United States launched its military offensive against Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein on the accusation of developing weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi feared that he might be the next target. Consequently, he agreed to US nuclear disarmament demands and renounced terrorism. Relations between Libya and the West improved to the extent that the United States and its allies tolerated Gaddafi’s eccentricities and turned a blind eye to his ruthlessness against domestic opponents. President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed Gaddafi when he visited Paris and granted his wish to be permitted to pitch and reside in his own Bedouin tent. British prime minister Tony Blair visited Tripoli to meet Gaddafi, and western European countries resumed business as usual with Libya. During his last visit to Rome, Gaddafi was dressed “in his singular combination of Arab cloak and Western-style white business suit … he had pinned a grainy black-and-white picture to his lapel—which Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi studiously avoided looking at. The picture was of a shackled Omar al-Mukhtar”. Gaddafi wanted to remind Berlusconi of the brutal Italian occupation “during which as much as half the population of Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern province, may have died”.4
The collapse of the Soviet imperial power provided the United States with greater leverage to dominate the Arab world. Bereft of support from the Russians, Gaddafi had no option but to abandon his anti-imperialist rhetoric. To convince the West that he was a changed man, Gaddafi agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing (without explicitly accepting Libya’s responsibility for the atrocity). Gaddafi’s policy-changes and renunciation of his biological and chemical weapons programmes also convinced the United Nations to lift sanctions against Libya, which included a ban on arms sales and flights in and out of the country.
A major development in US–Libyan relations came after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Gaddafi sought to gain favour by supporting the US war on terrorism, agreed to share intelligence information with the CIA on al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups, and endorsed the US rendition policy, accepting al-Qaeda fighters for interrogation in Libya. Gaddafi became such a valuable friend that the United States removed Libya from its list of countries supporting terrorism. US oil companies rushed to do business with Libya as Gaddafi privatised some sectors of the economy. In 2004, the United States opened a diplomatic liaison office in Tripoli and lifted the freeze on an estimated $1.3 billion in Libyan assets in the United States; this led to the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between Washington and Tripoli in 2007. Trade and commerce expanded between Libya, the United States and western Europe; by 2010, the West sold billions of dollars’ worth of military and paramilitary equipment to Gaddafi’s regime.
Gaddafi, members of his family and his circle of cronies enriched themselves through deals with foreign companies seeking to do business in Libya. In 2009, Gaddafi reportedly demanded that fifteen executives of international energy companies pay Libya the sum it had paid in compensation to the victims of Pan Am flight 103 as a condition of their continuing to operate in the country. Although not all companies complied with this demand, several US-based companies allegedly acquiesced:
The episode and others like it … reflect a Libyan culture rife with corruption, kickbacks, strong-arm tactics and political patronage since the United States reopened trade with Colonel Qaddafi’s government in 2004. As American and international oil companies, telecommunications firms and contractors moved into the Libyan market, they discovered that Colonel Qaddafi or his loyalists often sought to extract millions of dollars in “signing bonuses” and “consultancy contracts”—or insisted that the strongman’s sons get a piece of the action through shotgun partnerships … At least a dozen American corporations, including Boeing, Raytheon, ConocoPhillips, Occidental, Caterpillar and Halliburton, gained footholds, or tried to do so … Other companies also struck costly deals with the government. In 2008, Occidental Petroleum, based in California, paid a $1 billion “signing bonus” to the Libyan government as part of a 30-year agreement.5
Days of Rage: February 2011
The liberal economic policies adopted by Gaddafi led to the emergence of a commercial class intent on maximising its gains to the exclusion of ordinary Libyan citizens. Popular disenchantment with this trend of development, the government’s inability to provide jobs, and repressive state policies in dealing with dissidents and curbing civil liberties generated further public dismay. The seeds of an anti-regime rebellion were planted.
On 16 February 2011, anti-Gaddafi protests erupted in Benghazi, long a simmering cauldron of discontent. The demonstrations were sparked by the murder of a human-rights activist the previous day. People in Benghazi rose up against Gaddafi and demanded change. The uprising lacked effective leadership and strategy and this provided Libya’s pro-US elite with an opportunity to fill the void. After opposition groups took control of Benghazi, anti-Gaddafi protests spread to other parts of Libya. Gaddafi condemned the protesters, saying that the people loved him and warning that Libya would regress into tribal wars if the unrest continued.
His dire prophecies failed to dissuade the opposition. Emboldened by events, rebels battled Gaddafi’s forces and gained control of two major cities, Misurata and Zawiyah, near Tripoli. They seized government ammunition depots, taking heavy weapons and tanks and looting public properties. In the towns they captured, they smashed and toppled the public monuments to Gaddafi’s Green Book and tore down posters bearing his image. The anti-Gaddafi opposition hoisted the flag which last flew under King Idris, showing the Islamic crescent and stars at the centre. They formed committees to govern society and maintain order as Gaddafi’s security forces disintegrated and abandoned their posts.
Libya’s opposition groups come from different ideological backgrounds; each is determined to defend its parochial interests. The opposition includes disgruntled elements of Gaddafi’s regime with pro-Western proclivities, liberals, Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda fighters. Virtually the sole thing uniting them was the desire to be rid of Gaddafi. One Islamist extremist who recast himself as a US ally is Abdel Hakim Belhaj. In 2004, he was arrested in Malaysia, sent to Thailand as part of the US rendition programme and later extradited by the CIA to Libya where he was tortured in Gaddafi’s jails.
Now this man is in charge of the military committee responsible for keeping order in Tripoli, and, he says, is a grateful ally of the United States and NATO. And while Mr. Belhaj concedes that he was the emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was deemed by the United States to be a terrorist group allied with Al Qaeda, he says he has no Islamic agenda … Once considered enemies in the war on terror, [Islamists like Belhaj] suddenly have been thrust into positions of authority—with American and NATO blessing.6
Gaddafi’s anti-imperialist and pan-Arab nationalist rhetoric to rally support at home and abroad had lost its former appeal and opposition groups remained defiant. As the rebellion gained momentum, elements of the ruling elite, including from the Libyan army, defected to the opposition. One prominent defector was the minister of the interior, General Abdul Fatah Younis. He became the rebels’ military commander but was assassinated on 28 July, seemingly by rebel dissidents.
On 26 February, the opposition formed quasi-administrative bodies: the National Transitional Council (NTC), a Crisis Team, and a Military Council. They selected former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who had resigned from his post in January 2010, as NTC chairman, and the US-educated Mahmoud Jibril as acting prime minister. Most other rebel leaders come from the Libyan diaspora in the West. These self-appointed rulers regard themselves as representatives of the Libyan people who enjoy popular backing. However, they rely on the United States and its European allies for support. The neo-colonial elites appealed for Western air strikes on Gaddafi’s military, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya’s airspace, a no-drive zone to protect them from Gaddafi’s tanks and armoured vehicles, and for weapons to topple the regime.
Washington Backs the Rebels
Western foreign policy in the Arab world and elsewhere is not based on ethical and moral principles but is primarily determined by national interests. As Lord Palmerston famously stated, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and these interests it is our duty to follow.” The United States likewise supports leaders who further its interests and removes and punishes those who are no longer useful to its strategic goals. Despite decades of authoritarian rule in Egypt, the United States supported the country, trained its military officers and provided weapons to the Egyptian army. When Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak outlasted his usefulness to the United States, Washington gave a green light to the Egyptian army to remove him from power. Conversely, the United States continues to support King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain despite his violent suppression of pro-democracy protests there. The United States still regards al-Khalifa as useful to its objectives in the region: Bahrain is headquarters for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, allowing Washington to project its power in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. When demonstrations by Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority for change, freedom and democracy broke out, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates deployed one thousand troops and crushed the uprising. The United States did not publicly condemn al-Khalifa for his enlisting of violent means to suppress peaceful protests.
Similarly, the United States funded and supported the Libyan rebels, condemned Gaddafi for violating human rights, and denounced him as a dictator who had lost his legitimacy to rule. However, the United States declined to condemn and take action against despotic rulers such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, who violently suppressed protests in their own countries. The United States supports these leaders because they serve its interests. Although Gaddafi had normalised relations with the United States and served its interests more than those of the Libyan people, he was not openly servile to Washington like Mubarak of Egypt. His conciliatory overtures were too little, too late; the United States regarded him as an untrustworthy ally and worked to install a more pliant leader.
The United States seized about $37 billion in Libyan government and Gaddafi family assets. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton met key opposition figures and promised that Washington would eventually unfreeze the assets to give them the resources to continue their fight against Gaddafi. The United States ordered its warships to stand off the Libyan coast, and on 27 June the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands issued an indictment against Gaddafi on charges of crimes against humanity in his campaign to crush the anti-regime uprising.
The United States was intent on regime change in Libya. It initiated a concerted media campaign to demonise Gaddafi so that his removal would be seen as the only way to restore stability to the country. The White House successfully pressured the Arab League, largely made up of pro-US leaders hated by their own people, to support the call for a no-fly zone. It then cited the league’s stance to portray US moves against Gaddafi as a response to Arab demands. Washington pressed for a UN no-fly resolution over Libya to prevent Gaddafi from exploiting his air superiority over the rebels. On 17 March, UN resolution no. 1973 duly banned all flights in Libyan airspace. The no-fly zone soon morphed into fully fledged US and NATO air strikes on Gaddafi’s military installations. On 19 March, the eighth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, the United States and its European allies launched operation Odyssey Dawn, targeting Libya’s air-defence system and its control and command centres. The Western powers claimed their operations were motivated by humanitarian concern for the people of Libya, under attack by Gaddafi’s forces. But the Western air strikes also hit residences, supplies of food and water, and power stations.
The United States recognised the NTC as the legitimate governing authority in Libya, and on 18 August allowed the Libyan ambassador, Ali Oujali, who had defected in February and represented the rebels, to reopen the embassy in Washington on behalf of the NTC. The United States had ordered the closure of the embassy in March. In late September, the United States reopened its embassy in Tripoli.
Gaddafi’s violent response to the uprising does not alter the fact that the US and NATO war on Libya was not motivated by humanitarian concern but was intended to punish and topple a regime that crossed a line drawn by imperial powers. Gaddafi counted on anti-imperialist sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world, mistakenly believing that they would oppose a US war on Libya and support him as before in his crusade against the United States and its European allies.
Collapse of the Regime
Gaddafi’s forty-two years of despotic rule in effect ended when the rebels, supported by US and NATO air strikes, swept into the capital, Tripoli, on 21 August and swiftly seized control of most of the city. The rebels were welcomed as heroes by disgruntled citizens who had suffered under Gaddafi. As Gaddafi fled the city, ebullient rebels celebrated the victory. Shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), they stamped on Gaddafi’s posters, smashed every symbol associated with the regime, and renamed Green Square—where Gaddafi used to address public rallies—“Martyrs’ Square”. Many Tripoli residents began crossing out “the word Jamahiriya from their license plates, erasing a dictator’s farcical vision of a republic ruled by the masses. They are covering their green passport covers with the red, black and green flag of [pre-Gaddafi] Libya”.7
Gaddafi remained at large and defiant, urging his supporters to fight and clear Libya of traitors, infidels, crusaders and devils. To capture Gaddafi dead or alive, a bounty of $1.7 million was offered to anyone, including those in Gaddafi’s inner circle, who captured or killed him. The United States and Britain sent special agents to assist the rebels in their hunt for Gaddafi. The International Criminal Court asked Interpol to arrest Gaddafi, his son Saif al‑Islam and his intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi. The head of the NTC’s military council in Tripoli, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the former al-Qaeda fighter, led the assault on Gaddafi’s compound, Bab al-Aziziya, in the south of the capital. After rebels seized the compound, the symbol of Gaddafi’s power, they vandalised and looted it, regarding their booty as war trophies. Celebratory gunfire gave way to “a pandemonium of looting, rebels and residents made off with weapons, flat-screen television sets and souvenirs … One man waved an ivory staff capped with an engraved head. Another made his way across the compound’s sweeping lawns, wheeling a gold-plated cocktail trolley”.8
The battle for Libya continued, the rebels trying to seize control of areas still loyal to Gaddafi and urging his remaining supporters to surrender. Gaddafi’s wife Safiya, his sons Mohammed and Hannibal and daughter Aisha sought refuge in Algeria; another son, Saadi, and a number of army officers fled to Niger. As Gaddafi loyalists and rebels fought for control of the country both sides were accused of atrocities and revenge killings. Rebels in particular brutally mistreated black Africans, mainly migrant labourers, and Libyans of dark skin. They claimed that such people were Gaddafi mercenaries, recruited from sub-Saharan Africa. With the collapse of Tripoli and continuing conflict in other areas, African migrant labourers began to flee Libya for neighbouring countries.
As rebels closed in on Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha—Gaddafi’s remaining strongholds—the United States and NATO continued their air strikes on Gaddafi’s forces, inflicting a heavy toll on residents of the towns. When Secretary of State Clinton visited Tripoli on 18 October, she said the United States wanted to see Gaddafi either captured or killed swiftly. Two days later rebels seized control of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, forcing him to flee the city. He was wounded when his convoy of cars was hit by US and NATO air strikes. Earlier, in a televised address to the nation, Gaddafi said, “I am not going to leave this land. I will die as a martyr at the end ... I shall remain, defiant. Muammar is leader of the revolution until the end of time.”9 However, when the dictator’s time came, his bravado evaporated: he ran and hid with a golden pistol and a rifle in his possession. He was found cowering in a drainage pipe, bleeding from his head and chest, and begged rebels not to kill him. But they stripped him and shot him to death. His captors toyed with his body, banging his head up and down and waving the V for victory sign. They paraded their other prisoners in the streets, shouting Allahu Akbar, God is great.
Libya’s self-appointed rulers in the NTC declared the complete liberation of the country and the beginning of a new era for it. The NTC promised general elections, the formation of an interim government and a democratic constitution in order to appease tribal, regional and political groups jockeying for power. It also appealed to the United States and Europe to provide aid to rebuild the country as the several months of armed conflict had destroyed much of Libya’s infrastructure. It called on the international community to recognise the transitional authority.
‘Leading from Behind’
The United States and its NATO allies hailed the downfall of Gaddafi as a people’s victory and a triumph of democracy over repression and tyranny. They also urged the people of Libya to put aside their differences and avoid revenge killing. The United States had no interest in seeing Gaddafi survive and stand trial in a court of law, as this might lead to embarrassing disclosures about the West’s past dealings with the dictator.
From the beginning of the conflict, the United States had played a crucial role in the war on Gaddafi, but policymakers and pundits downplayed this and the US support for anti-Gaddafi rebels. They characterised the US policy as one of “leading from behind” and allowing NATO allies France and Britain to play a frontline role in the rebels’ victory:
It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength.10
The United States unfroze Libyan assets to prevent the country from descending into chaos. Libya had an estimated $170 billion in frozen assets with some $37 billion in the United States alone. Following Gaddafi’s overthrow, Washington and its European partners worked feverishly to rebuild Libya’s oil industry, which came to a virtual standstill during the fighting. Before the war, Libya had produced 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, which many European refineries depended on; during the war, this was reduced to some 600,000 barrels of oil a day. Western oil companies are determined to re-establish their domination over Libyan oil resources. Prior to the conflict, Chinese and Russian companies had concluded lucrative oil contracts with Libya; after Gaddafi’s downfall, the NTC made it clear that the two countries may suffer for failing to back the rebels.
A New Dawn for Libya?
The Libyan struggle for change and freedom was a long time coming and was realised after the United States decided to put its weight into the scales against Gaddafi. US officials declared that the objective of the war was to liberate Libya and build a democratic system of governance. But the war’s true objective was to seize control of Libya’s oil resources and install a subservient regime willing to defend imperial interests over the interests and welfare of the Libyan people. Democracy imposed by imperial powers will be touted yet again by their lackeys as a harbinger of peace, prosperity, freedom and progress. For an angry and dispossessed people it just doesn’t matter.
Although opposition groups removed Gaddafi from power, their victory will not usher in a new era in Libya because they were united solely by the desire to end his rule. A similar scenario played out in Afghanistan, where the United States, NATO and their local allies, tribal warlords, fought and toppled the Taliban. The warlords reasserted their rule and exiles reinventing themselves as patriots returned and claimed their share of the pie. These people enriched themselves individually or through sham political processes while foreign companies secured lucrative contracts to rebuild Afghanistan’s war-torn infrastructure.
Sustainable change and development do not come about as a result of removing one dictator and replacing him with another who simply relabels himself as a democrat and promises to reform the bureaucracy. Comprehensive reform and change occur when a people’s uprising leads to the complete dismantling and reconfiguration of the oppressive state machinery; to the establishment of a political system of governance that abides by the will of majority while assuring and protecting the rights of minorities; to laws that guarantee the social, political and economic equality of citizens regardless of their ethnic and tribal background; and to the grassroots participation of the people in decision-making and the implementation of policies that directly affect their lives. The US and NATO support for the opposition groups coalesced around the NTC is not altruistic; the West will do business with anyone in charge, as it did with Gaddafi, and support a “democracy” that serves its vested interests—particularly the interests of Western oil companies, which are already rushing in to exploit Libya’s rich oil resources, the largest in Africa.
1. James Risen, “Qaddafis Fought over Business, Cables Show”, New York Times, 2 March 2011.
2. Tim Niblock, Pariah States and Sanctions in the Middle East: Iraq, Libya, Sudan (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), p. 23.
3. See Antonia Hoyle and Fidelma Cook, “$2m Witness Payment, Bogus Forensic Evidence and Pentagon Memo Blaming Iran: How Lockerbie Bomber Appeal Threatened Scottish Justice”, Daily Mail (London), 24 August 2009.
4. Dirk Vandewalle, “After Gaddafi: How Does a Country Recover from 40 Years of Destruction by an Unchallenged Tyrant?”, Newsweek, 7 March 2011.
5. Eric Lichtblau, David Rohde and James Risen, “Shady Dealings Helped Qaddafi Build Fortune and Regime”, New York Times, 24 March 2011.
6. Rod Nordland, “In Libya, Former Enemy Is Recast in Role of Ally”, New York Times, 1 September 2011.
7. Borzou Daragahi, “A People’s Pride Restored”, Los Angeles Times, 23 August 2011.
8. Charles Levinson, “Gadhafi’s Compound Falls: Rebels Storm Fortified Headquarters, but Strongman Nowhere to be Found”, Wall Street Journal, 24 August 2011.
9. Ian Black, “Gaddafi Urges Violent Showdown and Tells Libya ‘I’ll Die a Martyr’ ”, Guardian (London), 22 February 2011.
10. Ryan Lizza, “The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama’s Foreign Policy”, New Yorker, 2 May 2011.