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Libya: a just war?

Andrew Coates on the rise and fall of a kleptocracy and what the future holds

Libya ‘could become an example for mutual respect, mutual compassion, mutual love among humanity.' (New York Times. 2.10.11)  Optimism, if not always as exuberant as Aref Nayed's, is widely echoed. The Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya has crumbled. In Tripoli and Benghazi the National Transitional Council (NTC) holds the reigns of power. Colonel Gaddafi is dead. A new beginning appears possible. But, as the Libyan people look for justice they face many challenges before anything resembling Nayed's dream can be fulfilled. 

Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt the West was directly involved in the change of regime. Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Libya, has heralded Western military help given to overthrow Gaddafi. ‘Britain, as in Kosovo, has taken the lead'. President Sarkozy is under the impression that France played that role. 

How did this come about? The Tunisian people drove their autocrat, Ben Ali, out in January 2011. Egypt followed.  The Libyan opposition launched their revolt in mid-February. They faced a violent counter-attack. Gaddafi's troops were soon on the point of crushing the Benghazi heart of the popular insurrection. UN Resolution 1973, to protect Libyan civilians through a no-fly zone, met calls for help on the ground. From liberal quarters there was welcome and relief.

Reaction on the left was more mixed. Many were viscerally hostile to UN sanctioned NATO involvement. But in a widely discussed article Gilbert Achcar argued that if there are no guarantees against  ‘transgressing the mandate' nobody can “just ignore a popular movement's plea for protection.” (Z-Net 25.3.11)  No convincing alternative existed. French left Presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon supported the resolution. He too warned of deeper entanglement, and backed ‘nothing but the resolution'.

For some on the left, America was behind both Downing Street and the Élysée, and has used the UN as a cover while it manipulated the uprising to get a grip on the Libya's resources.

Gilbert Achcar disagreed ‘The idea that Western powers are intervening in Libya because they want to topple a regime hostile to their interests is just preposterous. Equally preposterous is the idea that what they are after is laying their hands on Libyan oil. In fact, the whole range of Western oil and gas companies is active in Libya…' Perry Anderson saw less direct motives. The Arab spring had initially caught Western governments wrong-footed. They were now determined to get on the right side of history.  Intervention would be ‘icing on the cake', ‘more of a luxury than a necessity' that would help burnish the West's ‘democratic credentials'. (New Left Review. March/April, 2011)

The West has played a very direct part in modern Libyan history.  In the 20th century it began with a brutal Italian colonial occupation. Opposition, inspired by the Sanusiyya Islamic order, was strong. From 1923 to 1931, when the Italians publicly hanged him, Mumar al-Mukhtar led armed resistance. This was viciously crushed. It is estimated that during Italian intervention and rule between 250,000 and 300,000 people died from ‘all causes except natural ones', from a total population of 800,000 to one million. Italy's ‘Fourth Shore', Quarta Sponda, was settled by Italian farmers, and was run entirely in Rome's interests. The Italians created neither a local bourgeoisie nor did they employ locals in the administration. 

Italian rule ended following the Axis defeat in the Second World War. There was no anti-colonial fight. The creation of an independent Libya was, as Dirk Vandewalle notes, ‘at the behest of the Western powers'. (A History of Modern Libya. 2006) Cold War geopolitics came into play. The United Kingdom of Libya, proclaimed in 1951, ruled by King Idris al-Sanusi, was, he adds, a ‘valued client' of the US, not to mention Britain. A nominal parliament existed, but political parties were banned. With exploitation of vast oil reserves those in power monopolised a major part of the considerable revenues. The alternative offered by Nasser's Egypt became attractive. His nationalisation of the Suez Canal and successful defiance of Britain, France and Israel is said to have inspired Gaddafi. The military coup that brought the Colonel to power in 1969 was seen to embody the nationalist Arab Revolution of the decade. 

Libya's ‘socialist society' began with wholesale nationalisation and the expulsion of foreign troops. Political opposition was outlawed in 1972. In 1977 Gaddafi announced a state ‘directly managed by its citizens', that replaced the ‘dictatorship' of parties, the Jamahiryya.

Yet 2003 saw rapprochement with the West.  In 2004 Tony Blair visited Gaddafi in his tent paving the way for commercial and military deals. By 2005 the Libyan economy was liberalised, and the US returned. Academic links with the West were established, notoriously with the LSE and Third Way guru, Anthony Giddens. 

Gaddafi's socialism was a strange hybrid of Rousseau, Arab nationalism, Islam and his own whims. Socialist autarky, and anti-imperialism, for a population of around four million, was a creaking affair. Libya, effectively a rentier state, was locked into the global economy. After defiance, agreements with the West were not surprising. The Revolutionary Committees, the base of the People's Congress, had begun to run out of any remaining utopian zeal.  The regime lacked mechanisms for fundamental democratic change. The Leader depended more on members of his own family, tribal allies, and collaborators of the security services. It became a kleptocracy.

The Libyan regime's repression, cruelty and the control of everyday life have been sharply exposed, as its citizens are free to tell their stories. With up to 10% of the population informers, surveillance was as total as under Eastern European Stalinism. The horrors and massacres uncovered at the top security prison, Abu Salim, indicate the dark side of this police state.

The National Transitional Council is a heterogeneous bloc. Former Gaddafi allies, and ex-members of the armed forces, mix with human rights activists, business figures, and Islamists. To many observers falling back on basic loyalties has now accelerated. Patrick Haimzadeh singles out that the central difficulty of the National Transitional Council remains dealing with the multiplicity of regional and tribal allegiances. (Le Monde Diplomatique September 2011) Unlike, say, Tunisia, which has a long-standing civil society, a trade union movement, and left, as well as Islamists, there are no strong democratic counterweights to the government. With this in mind elections will be difficult. 

A discouraging sign is that the NTC has not always conducted itself democratically. The killing of former Gaddafi Minister turned Commander Fatah Younis remains a blot.  Their forces have committed excess. 

Those on the left, who put the accent on supporting the oppressed Libyan people, rather than on opposition to Western intervention, have reasons to be concerned. Recently BBC Four's Analysis discussed Libya's Islamic capitalists. (26.9.11) Islam, we learnt, was not opposed to commerce, or capitalism, though demands the zakat (alms-giving) to ensure social justice. From the NTC, Ali Tarhouni  – a former socialist – endorsed the opening up of the country to business in religious terms. 

This economic policy is not unexpected given Libya's position in world markets, and the West's backing. But how will it deal with inequality, the rights of migrant workers, and the employment of its own disaffected young people? What will the social policies parties put forward? Will Islam also be the answer? The BBC programme contained interviews with increasingly influential supporters of Sharia law. Such prospects are less than encouraging.