Even before the conflict started in Libya, Libyan ruler Moammer Gaddafi’s image was tainted with allegations of tyranny, brutality and authoritarianism. There is a general consensus that the former Libyan army colonel ruled his subjects with an iron fist with no room for dissent. However, the claims of a revolution to seek democracy and justice by overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in the light of the popular uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt need to be scrutinised very closely. The following photo feature takes a look at certain aspects of the “revolution” of Libya that have been deliberately ignored by the Western-dominated mainstream media:
The Libyan state is based on a tribal structure, united by the central power which also rules the country. Unlike neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, the society is distributed along the lines of tribes and clans with tribal loyalty playing a key part in power politics.
The 69-year-old Muammar Gaddafi comes from a small tribe named ‘Al-Gadadfa’ which is based around the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte in the northern middle of the country’s territory, a region full of oil reserves. The tribe claims to be the descendants of Prophet Mohammad and enjoys eminence in the deeply religious society.
Back in 1969, soon after the coup against King Idris I, Gaddafi based his regime on an alliance with two of the largest tribes of the country; the Warfalla, based principally in the western region of Libya known as Tripolitana; and the Magarha, of the Fezzan, south western region. Gaddafi managed to unite the tribes, and obtain their cooperation, through a carrot and stick approach – granting cash, perks and jobs, to supporters and fostering blood ties with intertribal marriages while crushing dissent with violence, intimidation, and confiscating property.
Despite Gaddafi’s deep-seated support for pan-Arab nationalism and efforts to unify the country on linguistic lines, Libyans primarily recognise themselves by their tribal structure.
Following are the main tribes in Libya:
TRIPOLITANIA REGION: Warfalla, Awlad Busayf, Al-Zintan, Al-Rijban
CYRENAICA: Al-Awagir, Al-Abaydat, Drasa, Al-Barasa, Al-Fawakhir, Al-Zuwayya, Al-Majabra
SIRTE-GIBLAH: Al-Gaddadfa, Al-Magarha, Al-Magharba, Al-Riyyah, Al-Haraba, Al-Zuwaid, Al-Guwaid
FEZZAN: Al-Hutman, Al-Hassawna, Tibbu, Tuareg
All the tribes are spread throughout the country because of the on‐going intermingling of the population, encouraged by Gaddafi. This social mobility explains why tribal uprising against the Gaddafi regime erupted across the country and not just in Cyrenaica region of which Benghazi is the capital.
Muammar Gaddafi’s regime spanned more than 42 years of totalitarian rule marred by injustice and restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly. While regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak were crumbling, Gaddafi failed to take stock of the situation and mend his ways. Instead he denounced the popular uprisings and accused the masses of being impatient and unruly. “What is this for? To change Zine al-Abidine? Hasn’t he told you he would step down after three years? Be patient for three years and your son stays alive,” he said in his speech on Libyan television on 18 January shortly after the Tunisian dictator fled the country.
By February, the situation in Libya was at a standstill. There was no room for political activism, trade unions, independent media, and civic society was almost nonexistent. There was no opposition to Gaddafi regime in the country as the masses lived under constant surveillance and feared arrests and torture. The revolutionary committees were the organs of his absolute control over the Libyan society. The one-man show put on by the Sirte-born former military colonel was crumbling under the weight of his larger than life persona. But all pleas of change, some coming from his own family, were blatantly ignored by the Libyan dictator.
The totalitarian state structure impeded the development of a civic society and effectively isolated the system put in place by Muammar Gaddafi 40 years ago. According to the Brother Leader, the emergence of a civil society did not make sense in Libya where the masses already have all the power. He insisted that there could not exist a social entity opposed to the same people. As a result, the emergence of future leaders was non-existent in the ‘state of the masses’ where power was supposed to reside in the hands of the people.
The Libyan people were one of the least developed in the world when Gaddafi came to power in September, 1969. Under the Senussi monarchy, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world with an annual income of less than sixty dollars per capita.
Muammar Gaddafi based his system on Arab socialism and utilised the vast petroleum wealth to remarkably improve the people’s standard of living in the Arab world and Africa. Most Libyan families now own a home and a car. The public health service is free, and is one of the best in the Arab world and so is education, compulsory and widely open to women.
Hospitals and pharmacies in Libya are of international standards and any costs incurred at treatment abroad are paid for by the State.
The country has an impressive urban infrastructure that includes well-built road networks, motorways, telecommunication system, water and electricity and other key amenities.
According to the CIA Factbook, the country has the world’s 9th largest proven oil reserves with an estimated 47 billion barrels of which it produces 1.79 million barrels per day. The country earns $46.31 billion per annum through its exports of which oil consists of 95%. However, the CIA maintained statistics also show that 30% of the population is unemployed (last updated 2004) and about one third people live under the poverty line (an estimate as no official Libyan stats are available).
Muammar Gaddafi initiated a unique Libyan project, the “Great Man Made River”, that brought water from under the Sahara Desert in the south of Libya and made it available to coastal cities in the north. The Libyan dictator believed that wars will be fought over access to water throughout the Arab lands in coming years and its control could become even more decisive than petroleum reserves. Hence came his solution to tap the water reserves in various basins of the desert.
Foundation of this colossal project was laid in 1984 with an estimated cost of $5 billion. Massive machines pump water from aquifers in Sahara desert in the southern part of the country. The ‘Great Manmade River’ consists of more than 1,300 wells, most more than 500 m deep, and supplies 6,500,000 cubic metres of fresh water per day transported by reinforced concrete pipelines to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte and elsewhere.
The inauguration was carried out by Col. Gaddafi on 28 August, 1991. According to an Executive Intelligence Review article published in September 1991, the Libyan leader underlined the following in his speech: “After this achievement, American threats against Libya will double…The United States will make excuses, [but] the real reason is to stop this achievement, to keep the people of Libya oppressed.” Gaddafi presented the project to the cheering crowd as a gift to the Third World and called on farmers from neighbouring countries to come to Libya for agriculture.
Gaddafi projected himself as the revolutionary force across the continent. He helped many aspiring African politicians gain power; aided many rebel movements by supplying weapons and training; and helped African heads of state to retain power and keep a firm grip on their country.
But this is half the story about Gaddafi’s attachment with Africa. The matter of the fact is that Libya played a key role in the development of the African continent and advocated its independence from the West.
The Libyan autocrat enabled Africa to experience a veritable technological revolution by financing the first African communication satellite. Gaddafi invested $300 million in this landmark project that enabled the whole of the continent to establish telephone links, transmission of television and radio stations, introduction of telemedicine (remote diagnosis), distance learning and education and many other projects of far reaching implications. Before the satellite’s launch in December 2007, African countries paid a fortune to Europe for using their satellites.
Gaddafi also provided 15% of the budget of the African Union at the InterAfrican institutional level. This really explains the reluctance of African Union to condemn Gaddafi, in contrast to the Arab League, which abhors him.
Gaddafi also extended his generosity to South Africa, Liberia, Madagascar, the countries of the Sahel and central Africa where he financed administrative buildings, hotels, restaurants, NGOs, Islamic organisations, a network of petrol distribution, (via the Libyan National Oil Company), shops, entertainment events – like the Malian Festival of the Desert – and charities.
On the other hand, Gaddafi never shied away from supporting rebel movements active in African countries. He extended his support to the Tuaregs in Mali by offering protection and finance during the repression of their movement by Malian government in the 1990’s.
The claims of mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi is hardly surprising as back in 2005, he granted a residency permit to all the Nigerian Tuaregs, Malians and other sub-Saharan Africans and provided them free housing. In 2006, Gaddafi called the tribes of the Sahara, including the Tuaregs, to form a coalition to oppose terrorism and drug trafficking.
Despite Western isolation imposed on Gaddafi since the coup in 1969, the Libyan leader made efforts to get back into the international fold by actively seeking the duties of his sons. He reportedly decided to abandon his weapons of mass destruction programme after witnessing the fate of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He brought forward his son, Saif al Islam, and made him in charge of the “Gaddafi Foundation for Development” that sought different welfare projects in the developing world.
He also sought the services of Monitor Group, an American public relations company, between 2000-2008 in order to let the West know that he wanted his country to change and develop.
Many critics of Gaddafi regime will undoubtedly admit Saif al-Islam’s efforts to free thousands of political prisoners over the years that supported Muslim Brotherhood.
On the 30th of August 2008, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed a historic cooperation treaty in Benghazi. According to the treaty, Italy paid $5 billion to Libya as compensation for its former military occupation and colonial atrocities. In exchange, Libya promised to take measures to combat illegal immigration coming from its shores and let Italian companies boost investments in the oil sector. Thanks to the agreement, the arrival of migrants on Italy’s southern shores diminished by 90%.
Moreover, the Libyan leader developed a strong cooperation with the West in the fight against Al Qaeda. A report published by the US State Department in 2008 stated that “the Libyan government continued to cooperate with the United States and the international community to fight against terrorism and its financing…the intelligence services hope to lend their assistance to Libya with reference to counterterrorism during the years, 2010 and 2011″.
Moussa Koussa, a notable figure of the Gaddafi regime who defected in late March, is said to have led a joint Libyan intelligence-CIA programme on counter-terrorism in which Libyan intelligence officers received training from their American counterparts. The confidence between the two agencies was cemented when Western spy services provided intelligence about Islamic fundamentalists and, quite possibly Libyan dissidents, based in London and other parts of Europe.
So despite the regime’s dubious past, Gaddafi was ready to break from the past and get closer to the West by initiating some democratic reforms that could foster its relationship particularly with the US, UK and France.
Unlike other North African countries that have a long history of statehood with a coherent and enduring boundary, e.g. Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, the very entity of Libya was a formation of the provinces of Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east on the Egyptian border and Saharan Fezzan in the southwest to form modern Libya in 1934. According to Ali Abdul Latif Ahmida, the author of ‘The Making of Modern Libya’, the country has a very plural society. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, the two main densely populated regions on the northern coast have two separate societies, each with its own distinct history and background that extend beyond modern Libya. On page 12 of his book he writes:
“One has to keep in mind that prior to the colonial period and the colonial conquest in 1911, strict borders were nonexistent, as were local ties to just one state. The tribes of western Tripolitania and southern Tunisia had strong confederations and were tied to the larger Muslim community of the Maghreb and the Sahara. The state of Awlad Muhammad in Fezzan was linked to the Lake Chad region for trade and the recruitment of soldiers. It also formed a strategic refuge from the Ottoman state in time of war. Equally important to note are the strong socioeconomic ties between the tribes of Cyrenaica and western Egypt. Cyrenaican tribes viewed western Egyptian cities and the desert as both sanctuaries to escape wars and as markets for agropastoral products.”
Soon after its independence, Libya was established as a federation of three regions – Fezzan, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. The western region of Tripolitania, the seat of the government with capital Tripoli, is home to two-thirds of the country’s population and holds most of Libya’s proven oil reserves. Interestingly, the Senussi religious order that came into power after the country’s independence in 1951 was based in Cyrenaica, of which Benghazi is the capital. It was only until Gadaffi, who comes from the Tripolitania region, overthrew the Libyan king and established his power base in Tripoli.
Arab channels, especially Al Jazeera, are more watched than the Libyan channels controlled by the Gaddafi regime. The rigorous 24/7 coverage of the events in Libya by the satellite channels requires deep scrutiny. There were massive uprisings against the regime in several cities in the east and west of Libya e.g. the revolt in Al Zawiya near Tripoli. But many of these events were subject to intense exaggeration and disinformation. For example, the international media outlets claimed that Libyan airforce has bombed some areas in Tripoli, which was false; no Libyan plane bombarded any neighbourhood of Tripoli or Benghazi, despite the fact that some demonstrations and clashes took place on the ground.
The Western and Arab media kept repeating that the Gaddafi regime was killing its own people en-masse without producing the facts. A delegation of French Centre for Intelligence Studies travelled across Libya after the 17 February uprising and did not find any evidence of reports that were constantly aired on non-Libyan news channels. The French think tank says in its report that Al Jazeera reporters in Tripoli, mostly Westerners, travelled without hindrance by the Gaddafi regime, despite insisting otherwise.
The consequences of this disinformation were wide-reaching. The UN Security Council did not send any fact-finding mission to the unrest-hit areas to investigate the reported events. Instead, it approved the resolution 1973 on the basis of widespread misinformation from the media that mostly gave coverage to anti-Gaddafi protestors. The CIRET-AVT/CFR2 in its report says:
“It is no exaggeration to say that Al Jazeera created the ‘event’ that influenced the UN. The media hype around this situation is astonishingly similar to what happened in the Balkans in 1991, to the detriment of Serbia.”
Several other substantiated reports circulated in the media which lacked credibility of some sort. Following are some of the rumours that were presented by the Western and Arab as ground situation:
– NATO intervention saved more than a million humans (sic), the entire population of Benghazi
– People in Tripoli can’t even go out in the streets. There is no life. Everyone is afraid and only goes out surreptitiously to get food.
– Gaddafi has hired African mercenaries to kill the opponents of the regime
– Libyan troops fighting in Misrata and Ajdabiya have been given Viagra and condoms to rape women
There is a lot of speculation going on about the role of the ‘mercenaries’ serving in the Libyan Army but little can be believed as the truth. The tradition of using mercenaries in Africa, particularly in Libya, is longstanding. For several decades, foreigners, including White Europeans, have served African regimes and coordinated with their military units and armed militias. Despite the obvious drawbacks, their utility to the regimes has proved quite indispensable.
At the end of the 1970’s, Colonel Gaddafi created an Islamic Legion that would intervene in the whole continent in which he dreamed of creating the United States of Africa. However, he had to disband the mercenary forces after the catastrophic end of Chad conflict in 1987.
During the recent few years, new recruitment of fighters mainly from Mali, Chad, Niger, Congo and Sudan has been undertaken. This phenomenon reflects a fact of Libyan economic life – a high proportion of foreign workers employed at every level and department.
The Libyan rebels based in Benghazi have claimed at numerous times that mercenaries from Algeria, Chad, Niger and other African countries are aiding Gaddafi’s forces, despite the fact that they themselves are receiving military aid and assistance from Britain, France, United States, Qatar and UAE under the NATO banner.
In reality, the influence of these ‘African mercenaries’ is hard to evaluate. Figures put forward by the rebels could be exaggerated, and it appears that confusion is deliberately spread to malign the pro-Gaddafi Libyan fighters and their supporters from other countries. Despite the conflicting reports about their strength in numbers, African mercenaries constitute a very small part of the Libyan forces.
The mistreatment of Black African nationals, often civilians living in Libya for years but suspected of being mercenaries by the rebels, has led to serious violations of human rights under the Geneva Conventions. Black people, suspected of ties with Gaddafi regime, have been whisked away by the rebels in captured towns, badly beaten and tortured in the open and summarily executed in some cases with their bodies dumped in the streets. One such instance caught international attention when a young African man, suspected of being a pro-Gaddafi mercenary, was hung in a main square in Benghazi.
As soon as the unrest in Libya changed into an armed insurrection, NATO began waiting impatiently to intervene in Libyan internal affairs. Sadly, the aspect of the intervention was not diplomatic but militaristic. The coalition leaders were not interested to bring warring factions on negotiating table but wanted to see them in the battleground.
On the pretext of imposing the United Nations Security Council resolution 1973, Britain, France, US and other coalition forces began pounding Libya on 19 March, a date that ironically coincided with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. NATO warplanes flew sorties to maintain a no-fly zone over Libya and impose a naval blockade in line with the UN resolution. The trans-Atlantic military alliance interpreted the “calls for using all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas from attack, imposed a no-fly zone, and called for an immediate and with-standing cease-fire ” by attacking Libyan forces on the ground and targeting them with missiles and bombs.
NATO leaders, especially French President Nicolas Sarkozy, insisted that his forces under the UN mandate saved the lives of a million Libyans in Benghazi by promptly targeting the marching pro-Gaddafi forces that sought to eliminate the armed insurrection in the east of Libya. Even if this statement is found to be true, the massive bombing campaign that NATO carried out since March 19 led to an unknown number of civilian deaths, serious damage to Libyan infrastructure, killing and maiming of lightly armed Libyan troops, friendly fire deaths of hundreds of Libyan revolutionaries and the suspected use of depleted uranium.
All of these actions, according to Dennis Kucinich, US Democratic Party Senator from Ohio, tantamount to war crimes. “A negotiated settlement in Libya was deliberately avoided for months while NATO, in violation of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 1970 and 1973, illegally pursued regime change,” said the congressman. Kucinich claimed the NATO recklessly bombed civilians in the name of saving civilians. “If members of the Gaddafi Regime are to be held accountable, NATO’s top commanders must also be held accountable through the International Criminal Court for all civilian deaths resulting from bombing,” he said.
NATO also violated UNSC resolution 1973 on several occasions. On 20 June, coalition warplanes bombed civilian homes in a compound belonging to Gaddafi aides resulting in the death of dozens of civilians. On August 9, Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO condemned a NATO strike on Libyan State TV, Al-Jamahiriya that killed at least 3 journalists and wounding many others. “Media outlets should not be targeted in military actions,” she underlined but within two days NATO committed another massacre in Majer, a town 40km east of Tripoli, allegedly killing 85 civilians. The atrocity prompted, instead of condemnation, a muted call from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to do as much as possible to ‘avoid killing innocent people’.
The alliance kept a record of the destroyed tanks, armoured carriers, military vehicles and other equipment of Libyan forces but ironically never mentioned the toll of military personnel killed and injured during its bombing campaign. Instead, it fed the world media with calculated statements such as this one:
“NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives and takes great care in conducting strikes against a regime determined to use violence against its own citizens.”
The NATO intervention in Libya and wide ranging support for Libyan rebels is unprecedented in many ways. The Western leaders were surprised and dismayed by the people’s uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and were too slow to ask dictators like Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak to step down. However, it was not the same case with Libya. Calls on Gaddafi to resign and leave office came as immediately as the protests broke out in Benghazi in mid February when protestors asked the regime to release a prominent Libyan human rights activist named Fathi Terbil.
The outbreak of violence after the 17 February protests in Benghazi, Tobruk, Al-Bayda, Darnah and other eastern Libyan cities escalated the situation which led to the ultimate ouster of Gaddafi regime forces from the region. The revolution that started after violent events took place in Benghazi spread across the Cyrenaica region, a traditional stronghold of anti-Gaddafi forces and Islamists. Gaddafi’s response to the insurrection was hostile and aggressive in which he threatened the protestors with severe punishments and likened them with rats that need to be cleansed street by street, house by house and room by room.
The international community was swift, not only to condemn the use of excessive force by Gaddafi to restore order, it also imposed sanctions on the country on 27 February, within a mere 10 days of the armed insurrection. The US and the EU froze Libyan assets worth billions of dollars as a punitive action.
The rebel leadership initially opposed any foreign intervention in Libyan affairs. Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, the Libyan opposition spokesman, rejected a dialogue with Gaddafi but refused to ask western nations for military help. “We will help liberate other Libyan cities, in particular Tripoli through our national army, our armed forces, of which part have announced their support for the people,” Ghoga said in a press conference. He did not give details about how the National Transitional Council (NTC) would help.
Within two weeks into the confrontation, the US, British and French navies moved their warships near the Libyan coast without any explanation. Urge for a military solution soon replaced the calls for peaceful resolution with rebel leadership as well as Western leaders issuing threats of a coordinated aerial campaign against the Libyan government. The International Criminal Court also moved in to exert pressure on Gaddafi’s side and warned him of committing war crimes against his own people. It seemed as if the West had already planned to wage a war and preparations of an all-out aerial attack were in full swing.
Soon after the voting on the UNSC Resolution 1973 on 19th March, NATO jets started bombarding the military positions of the Libyan army and systematically decimated anti-aircraft radars, tanks, heavy artillery and armoured carriers. Libyan navy installations were also attacked by NATO despite the fact that they were charged to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
The Western leaders, initially calling on Gaddafi to step down in exchange for a safe passage, took a U-turn and tacitly gave approval to his assassination. NATO jets bombed one of the houses of Gaddafi family where he was present with his son, Saif Al-Arab. His son and three grandchildren died in the attack. NATO blatantly denied any war crime was committed by targeting a head of state present in a civilian compound.
NATO aircraft spared nothing they suspected of being used by pro-Gaddafi forces. Pipeline factories, communications towers, electricity pylons, water and sewerage pipelines, roads and other civilian infrastructure came under the fire of the Coalition forces on numerous occasions which is also a violation of international laws. US President Barack Obama signed an executive order that directed the killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin openly questioned NATO’s attack on Gaddafi’s residence in Tripoli during a visit to Denmark. “They said they didn’t want to kill Gaddafi. Now some officials say: ‘Yes, we are trying to kill Gaddafi’. Who permitted this? Was there any trial? Who took on the right to execute this man, no matter who he is?” he asked during a press conference with Danish prime minister.
Gaddafi regime took proceeds of the oil money and distributed the wealth among the Libyan people. Critics of the Gaddafi regime accuse it of stealing oil wealth and stashing it in secret bank accounts in Switzerland and other Western countries while Libyan people suffered from unemployment. Skeptics of the rebels claim that the standard of living of Libyan people is one of the highest in Africa as well as among Arab nations with free education, healthcare and state-subsidised housing available to every Libyan citizen.
Libya is the supplier of 2% of worldwide oil production and holds the largest reserves in Africa. Its hydrocarbons are of better quality compared to the Gulf countries, which makes the extraction and shipping easy and profitable. Most of Libya’s high-quality crude flows to European destinations with Italy grabbing one third of its oil exports.
Western countries, especially the US, are not ashamed of their selfish interest in Libya due to its massive oil reserves. A recent Reuters report suggested: “Western companies look well positioned as billions of dollars in oil exploration and construction contracts come up for grabs as part of the reconstruction effort.”
The Libyan rebels have already signed an agreement with Qatari Arabian Gulf Oil Company to exploit Libya’s oil and export it to international buyers. However, the revolutionaries already have some priorities. “We don’t have a problem with Western countries like the Italians, French and UK companies. But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.” The only reason for problems with the emerging nations is their refusal to participate in the West-controlled regime change that brought down Gaddafi and now seeks to impose a favourable government in Libya. Russia, China, Brazil and other emerging nations invested heavily in Libyan oil sector and now face a serious danger of expropriation.
We must not forget the war crimes committed by all the warring factions – Gaddafi loyalists, revolutionaries and NATO – and their blatant disregard for human lives, property and rights. The events that took place during the last six months have revealed that atrocities were committed by all the three sides that tantamount to war crimes which should be investigated impartially by the ICC.
While many political pundits suggest that the uprising, which was born in Benghazi, was driven by hatred and revenge towards a system that oppressed them for more than four decades. However, this ‘genuine discontent’, if it was really massive as reported by mainstream media, was hijacked by France, Britain, USA, Italy, Qatar and other countries for reasons that suit – not democratic interests – but their own vested interests that they seek to pursue in the short and long term.
What has been painted as a liberal intervention on humanitarian grounds quickly faded away due to the contradiction of Western powers and their allies when it comes to freedom, democracy and respect of human rights. While NATO warplanes fly sorties over Libya day in day out, Israeli forces routinely attack innocent civilians in besieged Gaza Strip and use heavy weapons in densely populated areas. NATO maintains criminal silence over the atrocities committed by Israel. Western countries that form the NATO alliance also maintain cordial relations with countries in the Middle East that persecute their population for their religious beliefs, ethnicity or democracy. NATO is in no moral position to carry out any intervention before it sets its record straight.
Last but not the least, the international community cannot act like a super state which can overthrow governments as it pleases on reasons befitting its own rules and values. It is nothing less than hypocrisy to take action in the name of principles that a nation, or a group of nations, purport to uphold but, by its own actions, clearly disregards them. Such actions can bring change and help seek vested interests in the short term but contribute to long term destabilisation and wars.