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Libya: NATO's 'conspiracy' against the revolution; Who are the Libyan rebels?

Gilbert Achcar interviewed on August 24, 2011 by Democracy Now!. Transcript below.

The following article, reposted from Jadiliyya, was written before the entry of rebels into Tripoli on August 20-21, signalling the looming collapse of the Gaddafi regime. It offers valuable analysis of the dynamics between imperialism and the rebel movement and the Libyan masses. It contends that the Western powers, in an attempt to control the uprising, rationed their military support to ensure that significant sections of the Gaddafi state would be retained in any post-Gaddafi regime.

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By Gilbert Achcar

August 16, 2011 -- In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal (July 19, 2011), Max Boot — the aptly named neoconservative author and military historian known for his support for “democracy promotion” at the point of a gun, and an ardent supporter of full-scale US military engagement in Libya — referred to a Financial Times article (June 15) that compared the current aerial bombing campaign over Libya and the Kosovo air war in 1999 in order to emphasise “the lack of firepower in the Libya operation”. Boot commented, dwelling on the same comparison with additional details:

The earlier war was hardly “Apocalypse Now” — it was tightly limited in its own right. But after 78 days in Kosovo, NATO allies had committed 1,100 aircraft and flown 38,004 sorties. By contrast, in Libya NATO had sent just 250 aircraft and flown 11,107 sorties. Not coincidentally, after 78 days Slobodan Milosevic decided to relinquish Kosovo, whereas even after 124 days—and counting—Gadhafi continues to cling to power.

NATO’s Libyan paradoxes

In Operation Desert Storm launched by the US-led coalition against Iraq in 1991, it took only 11 days to equal the above number of air sorties flown over Libya in 78 days. The total number of sorties in 43 days of Desert Storm reached 109,876 — an average of 2555 per day. After the devastation brought about by that “storm” and further bombing campaigns during the 12 embargo years between 1991 and 2003, 41,850 sorties were flown during the first four weeks alone of so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom. Of these, 15,825 were strike sorties, averaging 565 per day. Andrew Gilligan could write accordingly in The Spectator (June 4):

For all the ritual incantations about “intensified” attacks and “heaviest bombing yet,” the bombing is and always has been relatively light. Across the whole operation, the number of Nato strike sorties—only a proportion of which actually result in airstrikes—has averaged 57 a day, less than half the number in the alliance’s very similar mission in Kosovo, and a mere fraction of what the US and Britain did in Iraq.

Add to this that it takes much more pressure to force a dictator to relinquish power than to force one to abandon a section of his territory. Since Gaddafi’s chance of regaining control over Benghazi is close to nil, he actually would have been happy to get rid of the rebellious city and with it the whole region east of Ajdabiya in a bid to save the throne of “King of kings of Africa” for which he has been lavishly buying allegiance since 2008. That is why he concentrated so much military power and violence on trying to seize Misrata, the key rebel-held city in western Libya that prevented him from de facto partitioning the country. And that is why insurgents have clung obstinately to Misrata despite the heavy violence inflicted upon them, even though they had the option of being evacuated by sea with the rest of the city’s inhabitants, like the thousands of migrants and wounded who were moved out of the city in this way.

The early propaganda accusations against the insurgents alleging that they were carrying out a plan to partition the country have been thoroughly disproved by their relentlessness in fighting for the liberation of their country’s whole territory from Gaddafi’s dictatorship. This is happening despite the very high cost for them due to the wide disproportion between their ground forces and those of the regime — a disproportion in armored vehicles, artillery, missiles and trained combatants that is only partially offset by NATO’s intervention. Military correspondents reporting from the various fronts of the Libyan ground war emphasise both the poorly armed, poorly trained, amateurish and chaotic character of the insurgents’ forces and the amazing dedication of a large number of civilians turned into fighters for the liberation of their whole country. This dedication explains the rebels’ determination to continue fighting against such heavy odds, confronting the well-equipped and well-trained forces that are generously paid by Gaddafi’s regime.

The crucial questions are then: why is NATO conducting an aerial campaign in Libya that is low key not only in comparison with the air component of the war to grab similarly oil-rich Iraq, but even compared to the air war for economically unimportant Kosovo? And why is the alliance at the same time refraining from providing the insurgents with the weaponry they have consistently and insistently requested? On the face of it, there are two striking paradoxes at play here.

The first paradox is that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US-led wars emphasise the “nationalisation” of the conflict (in the spirit of the “Vietnamisation” that preceded the US withdrawal in 1973). In Libya, with local forces begging NATO to provide the weapons they need and assuring that with adequate armament they could finish the job of liberating their country very soon, NATO refuses to arm them — a fact that the limited delivery of weapons by France on the Western front does not alter substantially.

This is despite the fact that, contrary to the Afghans, the insurgents are willing and potentially able to pay for whatever weapons would be delivered to them. As everyone knows, it is not in the tradition of Western merchants of death to turn up their nose at such juicy sales opportunities. They all competed so zealously to sell weapons to Gaddafi in recent years that they managed to strike deals with him for close to $1 billion between the end of 2004, when their governments lifted their embargo on Libya, and the end of 2009. This included cluster bombs, sold by a Spanish firm, which Gaddafi did not hesitate to use against his own people.

The logical corollary of NATO’s refusal to arm the insurgents would have been its waging a very intensive war campaign to compensate for the weakness on the ground of those it purports to support. And yet — second paradox— NATO’s Libya air campaign pales in comparison with the Kosovo one, not to mention other US-led aerial operations in recent times. This fact is strongly resented by the Libyan insurgency, as Western correspondents have reported since the early days of NATO’s air war. As C.J. Chivers related on July 24 on the New York Times’ “At War” blog, the rebels’ frustration has actually kept growing:

One of the consistent experiences of reporting alongside opposition fighters in Libya is feeling the delineation between what the rank and file have to say of the NATO bombing campaign and the statements of the officials in the Transitional National Council [TNC], the de facto rebel authority. Officially, the rebel leadership cannot thank the pilots flying overhead enough. The political figures of the TNC are given to vanilla declarations of full support and gratitude for the work of NATO, whose leaders they clearly are wary of offending.

Those closer to the fighting or who live in harm’s way, however, have a richer take. They, too, express gratitude for NATO’s early work in the war, when Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces were stopped by airstrikes from overrunning the rebels in the east and crushing the uprising in Benghazi. But they also express deep and sometimes agonized frustration at the pace and target selection of the air support, and talk often of what they perceive to be NATO half-stepping and incompetence.

Could it be that NATO, which blithely sidestepped the UN Security Council (UNSC) in waging its air war against the Serbian Milosevic regime in 1999, suddenly converted to the observance of the rule of law in international affairs? Hardly. Is it then that NATO feels compelled to stick to the letter of UNSC resolution 1973, which authorised the air campaign over Libya? Only a fool would believe that. Both the letter and the spirit of that resolution have been largely violated by NATO’s campaign, which went way beyond “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack”. It included a high proportion of raids on Tripoli and other regime-held territories, thus increasing the risk and extent of the “collateral damage” that NATO inflicts upon the civilians it is purporting to protect.

The “strict implementation of the arms embargo” called for in the UNSC resolution is definitely not what is preventing NATO powers from arming the rebellion. Had the intentions of these powers been to deliver significant weapons to the rebels, neither Moscow’s nor Beijing’s vetoes could have prevented the US and its allies from doing what they wished, as they did in the Balkans in 1999 and again in Iraq in 2003. Likewise if NATO is not intervening on the ground, this is definitely not in observance of the UNSC resolution’s exclusion of “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”. It is principally because the rebels themselves have been adamant about rejecting a ground intervention. A billboard in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square, the photo of which can be seen on Palestinian journalist Dima Khatib’s blog, pointedly explains: “No to foreign intervention on our soil, Yes to arming the rebels.”

A mutual distrust

The distrust is plainly mutual. The Western powers’ practical attitude toward the Libyan rebels stands in sharp contrast with their attitude toward the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) prior to and during the 1999 war, or their attitude toward the Northern Alliance prior to and during their bombing of Afghanistan starting in October 2001. Witness the permanent Islamophobic emphasis in the Western media on the role of “Islamists” in the Libyan rebellion given as a pretext for not supplying the rebels with weapons, and compare it with  their complacency about the presence of similar groups among Kosovar forces, not to mention the fact that the Afghan Northern Alliance (whose real local name is United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan) is overwhelmingly composed of groups upholding shades of fundamentalism that are only slightly less extreme than the Taliban’s own brand. The Western media hypocritically denounces Islamic fundamentalists when they are anti-Western and yet remain very circumspect about the most fundamentalist state on Earth and the main worldwide sponsor of the most reactionary brands of Islamic fundamentalism, namely the Saudi kingdom.

The Western media were never worried about the heterogeneity of the Afghan forces regrouped in the Northern Alliance, to which they handed power in Afghanistan. And yet in 1992 — after defeating the Najibullah regime which had been propped up by Moscow until the Soviet Union’s demise at the end of the previous year — the very same components of the Northern Alliance had turned Afghanistan into a chaotic battlefield that constituted a Hobbesian “war of all against all”. The “Islamic State of Afghanistan” proved such a bloody mess that the Taliban won a relatively easy victory in 1996. Of course, no such concerns were haunting Washington when it decided to topple the Taliban by the joint action of Northern Alliance troops and its air power — with an average of 85 strike sorties per day during 76 days from the beginning of operations in October until December 23, 2001 (i.e. 50 per cent more than the average over Libya).

The paradoxical character of Western intervention in Libya has been underlined by various observers who saw its rationale as centered around securing control over post-Gaddafi Libya. Many sympathisers of the Libyan insurrection — some of them, myself included, expressing understanding for the fact that Benghazi asked “the devil” for help against a massacre foretold — warned the rebels from day one against portraying this devil as an angel on that occasion, and against fostering illusions about the Western powers’ real motives. Such early suspicions were soon confirmed by the evolution of the situation in Libya, to the point that there is now widespread conviction in Arab anti-Western circles that NATO is deliberately prolonging the war and hence the Gaddafi regime’s existence. This conviction was clearly articulated by Munir Shafiq, a former leader of a Maoist current in Yasser Arafat’s Fatah and the general coordinator of the Islamic-Nationalist Congress (an umbrella organisation for a variety of parties and personalities, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah), in a column on (July 4, in Arabic):

No one can understand the reason why NATO’s airplanes are focused on bombing positions in Tripoli that are almost decoys, while they let missile batteries, artillery and military vehicles bomb Misrata as well as other towns. They even let columns of Gaddafi’s forces move around in the open without attacking them. Where then is the protection of civilians, and where is the assistance to the people in getting rid of Gaddafi?

America and NATO’s position is flagrant in conspiring against the people’s revolution in Libya and maintaining Gaddafi’s forces in activity until they manage to control the TNC and maybe also some field leaders. They would only then topple Gaddafi, as they are conspiring against the people, the revolution and Libya’s future.

Such a strong suspicion echoes a feeling expressed among the Libyan rebels themselves, as illustrated by the statement of one of their local leaders to the Beirut daily Al-Akhbar (June 2):

According to Abu-Bakr al-Farjani, the spokesman for the local council of the city of Sirt, which adheres to the oppositional TNC, NATO itself is progressing slowly in its military operations against Gaddafi’s brigades in order to maintain him longer in power, and to increase thereby the price the opposition can be requested to pay to world powers and to the major companies that stand behind them.

NATO’s plans for Libya

These are not phantasmagorical figments of some Middle Eastern inclination toward conspiracy theory. They correspond to real facts on the ground, such as the shifting location of NATO strikes in Libya as analysed by Tom Dale in The Guardian online (July 4). And above all they correspond to an all too true “conspiracy” by NATO powers about Libya’s future. The plan was revealed by Andrew Mitchell, the UK international development secretary, on June 28: a 50-page “stabilisation document” devised by a UK-led international “stabilisation response team” (involving Turkey) designs a post-Gaddafi scenario on the assumption that the King of kings will step down or be removed. This is because, despite repeated Western attempts to convince the TNC to cut a deal with Gaddafi himself as has been regularly leaked to the media over the last months, the TNC has made it clear that the removal from power of Gaddafi along with his sons was non-negotiable for the Libyan rebellion. Even the prospect of giving Gaddafi a comfortable retirement in Libya, which was tentatively and timidly evoked by the TNC under Western pressure, was quickly withdrawn due to the uproar it created in rebel ranks.

A key protagonist of Western attempts to cut a deal with Gaddafi’s inner circle is his son, Saif al-Islam, the man who bought himself a PhD (on civil society and democratisation) from the London School of Economics and procured visits and advice from Richard Perle, Anthony Giddens, Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Benjamin Barber and Joseph Nye, among others, in order to “enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi.” Saif told the Algerian daily Al-Khabar (July 11, in Arabic) that the French government , despite its official posture on Libya, negotiated with Tripoli:

We are holding now negotiations with Paris, we have contacts with France. The French told us that the TNC is subordinate to them; they even told us that if they reached an agreement with us in Tripoli, they would impose a ceasefire on the council. … I say, if France wants to sell “Rafale” planes, if they want to conclude oil deals, if they want their firms to come back, they need to talk with the legitimate Libyan government and with the Libyan people, through peaceful and official channels.

The King of kings, for his part, shows no readiness to oblige. He reiterated on July 23 his harsh criticism of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples for having overthrown their own dictators. In any event, the NATO UK-led blueprint is based on the scenario of a “ceasefire between the regime and the rebels”, meaning that the regime’s apparatuses and barons will remain in place.

The overarching concern of the UK-led NATO roadmap is to avoid a repetition of the catastrophic US-led handling of the situation in post-invasion Iraq. There, the Bush administration was confronted with a choice between co-opting the bulk of the Ba’athist state and dismantling it wholesale. It opted for the latter option advocated by Ahmed Chalabi and the neocons with their crackpot blueprint for a US minimalist client-state in Iraq. Consequently, the new Libyan roadmap is inspired by the CIA-sponsored scenario that was discarded in Iraq. As Mitchell explained, it is based on “the recommendation that Libya should not follow the Iraqi example of disbanding the army, which has been seen by some officials as a strategic mistake that helped fuel the insurgency in the sensitive and volatile circumstances after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow”.

This same concern was impressed upon the TNC by British foreign secretary William Hague the day after he visited Benghazi on June 5. “No de-Baathification, so certainly (the rebels are) learning from that”, said Hague. “They now need to publicise that more effectively, to be able to convince members of the current regime that this is something that would work.” The same concern is dictating the Western powers’ attitude toward the revolutionary upheaval in Syria. Their leverage in Libya is much more powerful, however. Mitchell’s depiction of the “strong input” of NATO powers and their allies in managing post-Gaddafi Libya — short of “boots on the ground” — is so hilarious that one wonders whether he wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek:

The EU, NATO and the UN would take the lead on issues of security and justice; Australia, Turkey and the UN would help with basic services; Turkey, the US and the international financial institutions would lead on the economy. But, added Mitchell: “It is incredibly important that the whole of this process is Libyan-owned. This has been done as a service to the Libyan people.”

This plan A does not go without a plan B, indicating Western powers’ lack of faith in the likelihood of a post-Gaddafi “orderly transition” (to borrow the phrase that was repeated like an incantation by the Obama administration about Egypt). Reporting on the UK-led plan, the Wall Street Journal revealed (June 29) that UN officials are preparing “contingency plans” including “the deployment of an armed, multinational force” that “would likely be comprised of troops from regional nations such as Turkey, Jordan and perhaps from African Union nations”. One of the advocates of such a deployment is unsurprisingly one of the Western leaders most hostile to the Libyan rebels, General Carter Ham, the present commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM). He shares this attitude with the Algerian military to whom he paid a visit in early June, warning against the risk that arms circulating in Libya could fall into the hands of al Qaeda. (Another factor in Algiers’ hostile attitude is probably the Amazigh emancipation in Western Libya.)

It did not take the Libyan TNC long to abide by NATO’s instructions and produce its own version of the NATO roadmap, obviously designed in such a way as to satisfy the Western obsession with “the Iraqi example”. A copy of this 70-page Libyan blueprint was leaked to the London Times, which published a summary on August 8. It describes such implausibly detailed figures that its authors can only be suspected of trying to please their NATO overlords:

It claims 800 serving Gaddafi government security officials have been recruited covertly to the rebel cause and are ready to form the “backbone” of a new security apparatus.…The documents claim that the rebel groups in Tripoli and surrounding areas have 8660 supporters, including 3255 in the Gaddafi army. A mass defection by high-ranking officials is considered highly likely, with 70 per cent of them judged to support the regime out of fear alone.


Dissension in opposition ranks

The comment by the Times shows scepticism about the TNC’s regime-cooptation scenario: “This is likely to prove not only risky, but controversial, with many rebel fighters determined to sweep away all vestiges of the regime.” As the Wall Street Journal had noted in its reporting on the UK-led roadmap:

Many rebel brigades have evolved into militias—some of which resent taking orders from or working alongside those who held military or security positions in Col. Gadhafi’s regime and later switched sides to join the rebellion that erupted in February. Some influential rebel leaders have called for purging regime loyalists from any future force and giving priority to those who fought against Col. Gadhafi.

Rebel determination to purge those who took the side of Gaddafi against the insurrection is actually the key to understanding NATO’s paradoxical behaviour described above. NATO powers do not want the rebels to liberate Tripoli by their own means, as the London Economist stated bluntly (June 16):

The hope among Western governments is that the rebels will not capture Tripoli after a headlong advance from the east, with the attendant risks of retribution being inflicted on Qaddafi loyalists en route. Rather, the preference is for the regime to implode from within and for the people of Tripoli to rise up to remove the colonel—an eventuality widely reckoned, in Western government circles, to be getting close.

Tom Dale has commented on this NATO preference for an “implosion from within”:

But why would the western powers prefer a coup by Gaddafi’s inner circle to victory by the rebel army? Such a coup would imply a negotiated settlement between the elements of the old regime still around Gaddafi, and the rebel leadership—which itself incorporates many ex-regime figures. Western governments want stability and influence, and they see the figures of the old regime, minus the Gaddafi family, as the best guarantors of that.

This last assertion should be qualified. Take Major General Abdul-Fattah Younis, one of the key figures of the Gaddafi regime who defected to the rebellion a few days after it started, for instance. A military commander of the Libyan rebellion who was recently assassinated, he had been a vocal critic of NATO’s performance. And he developed a very antagonistic relationship with CIA asset Colonel Khalifa Haftar (sometimes spelled Hifter) who, after living in exile for close to a quarter of a century, mostly in the US and on the CIA payroll, returned to Libya and was given a high ranking military position by the TNC under Washington’s pressure. The man was loathed by many in the Libyan opposition. As journalist Shashank Bengali explained on the Real News Network (April 14):

There’s some concern here that Hifter’s long time in the US, his alleged ties to the CIA and other US officials, make him a bit of a controversial figure for Libyans, who really feel this is a homegrown uprising. They want foreign support in the forms of weapons and recognition for the Libyan opposition government. So they also want this to be not a rebellion that’s overtaken by an outside force such as the CIA.

The hostility between Younis and Haftar led some to believe that the assassination of the former was designed by the CIA in order to clear the way for the latter. However, Younis was not replaced by Haftar but by another early defector from Gaddafi’s regime, General Suleiman Mahmoud, commander of the Eastern province based in Tobruk prior to his defection. In fact, conditions do not seem to be favourable to the men with the strongest foreign links, as comments on the dissolution of the provisional cabinet by the TNC in the wake of Younis’ assassination indicate:

The reshuffling also seemed to represent an effort by interest groups within the rebel movement, including homegrown leaders who helped start the uprising, to assert their power by sidelining leaders who had returned from exile and held key posts. For months, there had been complaints that cabinet members were unknown to most Libyans, spending most of their time abroad — especially in Qatar, the country that has emerged as the rebels’ most enthusiastic patron.

A rebel spokesman said that Mr. [Mahmoud] Jibril [the neoliberal economist appointed by the TNC to head its Cabinet, after having presided over the Gaddafi regime’s neoliberal reforms from 2007 until the uprising], who has rarely been seen in Benghazi, would be required to start spending more time in Libya.

A plausible account of Abdul-Fattah Younis’ assassination was given by his collaborator, Mohammed Agoury, who attributed the killing to members of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade. (According to another source, the perpetrators belong to an Islamic group calling itself the Abu Ubaidah Ibn al-Jarrah Brigade.) Agoury’s testimony provides a glimpse of the complex and heterogeneous composition of the rebellion:

The February 17 Martyrs Brigade is a group made up of hundreds of civilians who took up arms to join the rebellion. Their fighters participate in the front-line battles with Gadhafi’s forces, but also act as a semi-official internal security force for the opposition. Some of its leadership comes from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an Islamic militant group that waged a campaign of violence against Gadhafi’s regime in the 1990s. … “They don’t trust anyone who was with Gadhafi’s regime, they wanted revenge,” said Agoury.

Another revealing event showing the heterogeneity in opposition ranks was the “Conference for National Dialogue” held in Benghazi on July 28. It was attended by 350 participants including members of the same February 17 Martyrs Brigade and former members of the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the brotherhood itself denied any connection with the conference. The participants emphasised Libya’s unity, its Islamic character and the necessity of an encompassing national dialogue, while TNC member Al-Amin Belhaj stated that although Gaddafi and his sons could not stay in power, they could remain in Libya under protection. Apparently, some of the participants had contacts with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, a fact that fits well with the latter’s recent declarations to the New York Times.

“I released [Libyan Islamists] from prison, I know them personally, they are my friends,” he said, though he added that he considered their release “of course a mistake” because of their role in the revolt.

A demonstration took place outside the hotel where the conference was held.’s report shows a young man holding a placard saying in the name of the 17 February Revolution’s Youth: “The National Conference only represents itself.” The demonstrators stressed their rejection of any dialogue with Saif al-Islam and his collaborators. They accused the conference organisers of resorting to militias in order to seize power before Libya’s liberation is completed. Naima Djibril, a jurist and member of the Benghazi “committee for the support of women’s participation in decision-making”, complained to the website of the exclusion of women from the conference.

Further details of the TNC’s blueprint, as reported by the Wall Street Journal (August 12), show a reassuring acknowledgement of the complexity of the Libyan situation and plans to tackle it in a democratic way:

The blueprint acknowledges that the leadership in Benghazi doesn’t yet have official backing from regions still under Col. Gadhafi’s control, setting out a process to fill 25 empty posts intended to represent those areas on the 65-seat body. Under the plan, current members of the council would be proscribed from running in the first two rounds of national elections and accepting political appointments in those governments....According to the document, an expanded National Transitional Council—including new representatives from Gadhafi-held areas—would govern for eight months after Col. Gadhafi’s fall, during which time elections would be held to select a constitutional committee and choose a 200-member interim national congress. District representation in the congress would be divvied up based on a 2010 population census. The congress would govern for an interim period of less than a year, during which time a new draft constitution would be voted on in a national referendum and the new permanent government of Libya would be elected in line with the parameters laid out in that constitution.

One can only hope that reality will match the blueprint. But the odds are against the smooth implementation of this scheme given the extraordinary tangle of tribal, ethnic and political forces that constitute Libyan society that is just coming out of more than four decades of one of the craziest dictatorial rules in modern history. The recently published provisional constitution based on the above-mentioned blueprint is already contested in Benghazi, and the TNC is accused of working behind closed doors.

The key difference between the Libyan political tumult and the situation that prevails in Egypt is that the opposition and the regime are territorially separated in Libya, and that the ruling family has been dismissed in Cairo but not yet in Tripoli. As in Egypt, the political battle rages on between various groups in the opposition, some of them, especially among Islamic forces, willing to compromise with the regime’s institutions, while others, especially among the youth, reject this perspective and want a radical transformation of their country. Another major difference is the absence in Libya of the role of the workers’ movement which is very important in the Egyptian process. (However, Kamal Abu-Aita, the president of the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, told me that a similar independent federation was recently founded in Benghazi.)

The situation in Libya — as in Tunisia and Egypt and all the other countries of the Middle East where the present revolutionary process is unfolding — is only at the beginning of a protracted and tumultuous course of development. This is the normal destiny of revolutionary upheavals. Western powers will have much difficulty controlling the process. They don’t have troops on the ground — let alone the fact that they failed anyway to control the situation in countries where their forces are deployed, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The process of peoples’ liberation and self-determination is convoluted, and can well go through ugly phases. But without this process and the readiness to pay the inherent cost, which may prove heavy indeed, the whole world would still live under absolutist regimes.

[The author thanks Stephen Shalom for his comments and editing.]

The $1 billion question: Who are the Libyan rebels?

August 24, 2011 -- Democracy Now! -- Libyan rebels have consolidated their grip on the capital of Tripoli by capturing Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s main compound, but the whereabouts of the Libyan leader remain unknown, and he has vowed his forces would resist "the aggression with all strength" until either victory or death. Reporters in Tripoli say heavy gunfire could still be heard nearby the area of the Rixos Hotel, where dozens of international journalists guarded by heavily armed Gaddafi loyalists are unable to leave. The Arab League said on August 22 that it will meet this week to consider giving Libyan rebels the country’s seat at the League, after it was taken away a few months ago from the Gaddafi government. Britain’s National Security Council is meeting to discuss unfreezing Libyan assets to financially assist the National Transitional Council. We speak with Gilbert Achcar, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "Who are the rebels? Well, this is actually the $1 billion question," says Achcar. "Even in NATO circles, you find the same questions."

Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is author of several books, most recently, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. He has published a long essay, "NATO’s 'Conspiracy' Against the Libyan Revolution," on

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AMY GOODMAN: Libyan rebels have consolidated their grip on the capital of Tripoli by capturing Muammar Gaddafi’s main compound, a hugely symbolic victory that appears to put an end to his 42-year-long rule, but the whereabouts of Gaddafi remain unknown. He spoke Tuesday night on a poor phone connection to a Syrian-based television channel.

MUAMMAR GADDAFI: [translated] All the tribes in Tripoli, out of Tripoli, youths, senior people, women, men and armed communities must attack Tripoli and comb the streets and eradicate the traitors and rats. They will slaughter you and desecrate your bodies.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Muammar Gaddafi speaking from an undisclosed location on Tuesday. The Libyan leader said he had retreated from his Tripoli compound in a tactical move after NATO air strikes reduced it to rubble. In his address, Gaddafi vowed his forces would resist the aggression with all strength until either victory or death.

Reporters in Tripoli say heavy gunfire could still be heard nearby the area of the Rixos Hotel, where dozens of international journalists are trapped. The hotel is guarded by heavily armed Gaddafi loyalists. Former U.S. Congress Member Walter Fauntroy is one of the 35 people stuck in the hotel. He told the Daily Telegraph, quote, "Right now we are in a precarious situation with some of our friends from the media, because we fear that unless we are able to relocate, we may all be in danger."

Meanwhile, Libya’s U.N. envoy, Ibrahim Dabbashi, predicted Tuesday the country would be liberated within 72 hours.

IBRAHIM DABBASHI: We expect Sirte, which is the natal city of Colonel Gaddafi, to fall in the hands of the freedom fighters within the next 48 hours. Our forces are coming from both sides, from the west starting from Misurata and also from the east starting from Ras Lanuf and Brega. They are moving now toward Sirte, and we expect them to capture Sirte very soon. We expect also the population of Sirte to join the revolution soon. For Sabha, also we expect it also to join the revolution in the next 48 hours. So, we expect Libya to be totally liberated and totally calm and peaceful within the 72—the next 72 hours.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Libya’s U.N. envoy Ibrahim Dabbashi. He had represented Gaddafi but was one of the first diplomats to defect. He said Gaddafi and other top officials may be scattered in houses across Tripoli or in an underground shelter.

The Arab League said Tuesday it will meet this week to consider giving Libyan rebels the country’s seat at the League after it was taken away a few months ago from the Gaddafi government.

[Corrected for accuracy] This is [Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, Qatar’s prime minister and minister of foreign affairs], speaking at a meeting in Qatar, one of the main backers of the Libyan rebels.

HAMAD BIN JASSIM BIN JABER AL-THANI: [translated] Libyan brothers who have died so far, what we hope for now is stability and consensus in Libya, and we also hope that wisdom, forgiveness and the rule of law will be adopted by all Libyans. One war is over, but the next has just begun, that of building and forging consensus amongst Libyans. And I think this is just as important as the previous war.

AMY GOODMAN: That was [Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, Qatar’s prime minister and minister of foreign affairs].

Today, Britain’s National Security Council is meeting to discuss welcoming the National Transitional Council. Talks have included how to send humanitarian aid and medical supplies. Ministers also discussed working with the U.N. to unfreeze Libyan assets to financially assist the council.

For more, we’re going to go to London, where we’re joined by Gilbert Achcar, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, author of a number of books, including The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. He published a long essay last week on NATO’s role in Libya.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Achcar. Can you talk about what’s happening in Libya today?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Hello, Amy. Good to talk to you.

Well, what is happening now in Libya is what you described. I would say I don’t have more news than you do. But basically, the fight is going on until they can catch Gaddafi and subdue the remaining cities which are pro-Gaddafi or dominated by pro-Gaddafi forces. And as far as we know from the news, they are in intensive negotiations with people in these cities to do it peacefully. And we just heard also this spokesperson speaking of the rebels taking control in Sirte. So this remains to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: The piece you wrote is called "NATO’s 'Conspiracy' Against the Libyan Revolution." Explain.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Well, "conspiracy," of course, is in quote marks, because I’m quoting in the article people who say that there is a conspiracy. But the key point is not a conspiracy. It’s a very open scheme that has been developing there from the beginning, actually, of NATO’s intervention. Ever since it appeared that it would be a longer perspective kind of intervention, schemes were designed actually to keep the situation, the war, going on, in some sense, not to precipitate its conclusion, while trying to get to some kind of agreement between the regime of Gaddafi and the rebels. And this has been until the very last period.

A few weeks ago, the U.K.-led team of NATO, which designed a blueprint for Libya, was insisting on—you know, you have this kind of obsession about the Iraq example, where the Bush administration dismantled the Baathist state of Saddam Hussein when they invaded the country. And usually in Western sources, they attribute the big—the disaster that the invasion of Iraq turned into to this initial act. And therefore, the very obsession of NATO has been to avoid the same kind of situation in Libya and have a deal between the barons of the regime of Gaddafi and the rebellion.

Until just a few days ago, the Financial Times editorial, for instance, was saying the rebels should not attack Tripoli. And, of course, the pretext given for that was that a bloodbath would occur. Of course, this hasn’t occurred, and fortunately. But this idea of not attacking Tripoli and trying to cut a deal with Tripoli has been all the time there. And the real stumbling block preventing this from happening has been the stubbornness of Gaddafi himself, because there was no way the rebels would accept a deal maintaining Gaddafi in any official position, and there was no way he would accept to step down.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the rebels, Gilbert Achcar?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Who are the rebels? Well, this is actually the $1 billion question, actually, because even in NATO circles, you find the same questions. The fact is, of course, we know about the Transitional National Council, and even that is a limited knowledge because not all the members of this council are known, and there will be new members announced in order to represent the remaining areas, including Tripoli. And here you find a mixture of, you know, liberals and former regime members and traditional people representing tribal or original components of the country.

What we can judge really is the program put forward by this council. In terms of a political program, what we have looks like a democratic blueprint for a democratic transition. They pledged to organize election, and actually two rounds of election: one for a constituent assembly, which would draft a constitution, and then a second round of election, based on the constitution, to elect a final government. And they pledged—and I’m really skeptical about it—but they pledged even that all the members of the existing National Council, the Traditional National Council, would not, I mean, enter in this electoral arena for the two rounds of election. Well, of course, this, again, remains to be seen.

At the level of the economic program that is represented in the existing cabinet of the council, you find people who actually were already playing the same role under Gaddafi in supervising the neoliberal reforms in the country. So nothing much original, I think, to expect in that regard. I mean, this is not a socialist revolution. I don’t think anyone has ever had any kind of illusion about that.

But this said, when we think of the rebels in terms of the fighting people, the fighting groups, when you think of the rebels in terms of the masses that have been—the insurgent masses that we have even seen in Tripoli on Sunday night coming out in huge numbers in what was formerly called the Green Square, which is the Martyrs’ Square, well, then you find, I mean, a completely heterogeneous landscape, and I would say the overwhelming majority of these people are people with no previous political background, and including those holding weapons now, because you have—I mean, most of the—on the rebel side, most of the people holding weapons were civilians before that. They were not military. And most of these people, you know, after 42 years of dictatorship, without any real, genuine political life in the country, are very difficult to describe politically. We will have to wait and see what will come out, when you will have a real political struggle starting in the country, in the same way that we have—we are witnessing a political struggle going on in Egypt or Tunisia, the two countries where the dictators have been toppled until now.

AMY GOODMAN: How did NATO choose to work with this group of rebels rather than others?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Well, I mean, you don’t—they didn’t have—you don’t have much choice. I mean, when the many countries in the world recognized the Transitional National Council, and you hear people saying, "Well, it’s not elected," well, how could it be elected? It’s an insurrectional situation, and you deal with what you have. They didn’t claim to be the permanent rule of the country. They called themselves, from the start, interim or transitional. And they say that they will organize election and just leave the scene. And I just mentioned that they even say that all the members of their council would not even run in the two next—the next two rounds of election. So, I mean, there’s no alternative, I mean, to the Gaddafi rule for the time being in Libya but this council.

Now, what will happen politically will—remains to be seen. Again, it’s like saying in Egypt, well, in Egypt Mubarak was toppled, but who took power? Who—I mean, the military. And actually, in that sense, what is happening now in Libya is a more radical transformation of the regime than what you had in Egypt, because in Egypt, basically, aside from the tip of the iceberg that was pushed aside, Mubarak and his cronies, basically the army is still in control, and it has been the backbone of the regime from the start, from the ’50s, whereas now, in Libya, although you have former members of the regime in the rebellions, in the rebellion, the structures of the regime, starting with the army, of course, of Gaddafi, which was rather a group of private militias and Praetorian guards and also including mercenaries, this is crumbling, this is collapsing. And we have seen how it has collapsed in Tripoli, even though it is not completely finished yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! spoke to Phyllis Bennis yesterday, with the Institute for Policy Studies. She said control of oil in Libya by Western powers has been a crucial part of this conflict.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It’s not about access to the oil itself. That will be on a global market. It will be part of it. It’s about control. It’s about controlling the terms of those contracts. It’s about controlling amounts that are being pumped at different times. It’s about controlling prices. It’s about controlling that crucial resource.

AMY GOODMAN: So we’re talking about many different oil companies—the French company Total, the U.S. companies Marathon and Hess, ConocoPhillips. There are many oil companies. And interestingly, Libyan rebel government said to Reuters in an interview that they would honor all the oil contracts granted during the Gaddafi regime, including Chinese companies. Gilbert Achcar, your response?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Well, it’s absolutely obvious that oil is a key factor in NATO’s intervention, and had Libya not been an oil country, they wouldn’t have intervened. That’s absolutely obvious. Now, the issue here is, as you just mentioned, it’s not a matter of, you know, getting access to some territory which was beyond the Western access. All—basically all Western interests have been represented in Libya. All major Western oil companies have had contracts with the Libyan regime. And the government, the transitional government, Transitional National Council, is saying that they will honor these contracts with all—all countries. Well, that basically means that the gains, at this level, cannot be huge. Of course, if there are new concessions or contracts, those who will be privileged in getting the deals are the countries which supported the rebellion from the start, as the council said.

But I think more important than that is the market to come, you know, because there has been a lot of destruction, and a lot of the infrastructure has to be rebuilt and all that. And of course, Western companies, starting with the American, British and French companies, will be very much interested in getting to this market. So, of course, NATO has a major incentive, and it’s a matter of interest, behind its intervention, and nothing else, basically.

But between this and believing that NATO is now in control of Libya, there is, you know, a very far cry, because how can—I mean, even if you take countries like Iraq or Afghanistan with NATO troops on the ground, and massively in Iraq for a long while, they weren’t even able to control the country. So how do you want NATO or the West to control Libya by remote control, without any troops on the ground? And that’s why some people, like Richard Haass from Council on Foreign Relations, are now saying—you know, claiming—asking Washington to send boots on the ground. But this is something that has been adamantly rejected by the rebellion from day one. They asked for air cover. They asked for air protection. But they were adamant from the start at rejecting any form of intervention of troops on the ground. And they are still very much on this position. They have even made statements just recently that they would not allow NATO to establish any bases in their country. And we can see many signs, like, for instance, refusing to—saying that they would not hand over Gaddafi or his sons to the International Criminal Court, but through—I mean, to have trials in Libya itself. So, this shows the limitation, whatever they claim in Washington or London or Paris, the limitation of their real leverage over the Libyan situation. They had a leverage as long as—and they still have a more limited one—as long as Gaddafi’s forces are there and as long as the war is going on. But as soon as this will vanish, then the leverage that they will have will be extremely diminished.

AMY GOODMAN: Gilbert Achcar, I want to thank you very much for being with us, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, author of a number of books, and most recently, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, published a long essay this past week on NATO’s role in Libya.

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