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Libya and the Arab Spring

This year has seen grassroots revolts throw down tyrants in Morocco and Egypt. In Libya the Gadaffi regime fell as well, but with the help of NATO jets and guns. Bill Bonnar asks what should the left say about these events.

libyan rebel fighter

Photo: byammar on flickr/Creative Commons

Rarely has an international conflict thrown the Left into such confusion. Opinions have ranged from all out support for the Libyan Revolution in their struggle to overthrow the tyrant Gaddafi to all out support to the revolutionary hero Gaddafi in his struggle against western imperialism and its Libyan stooges: and every position in between. The purpose of this article is not to come up with a definitive line because such a line isn’t possible but rather to look at the broad range of issues thrown up by this conflict and to attempt at a perspective for the future. It will look at a number of questions.

    Did the Gaddafi regime have any revolutionary or socialist or anti-imperialist credentials or was it simply a self seeking, corrupt and brutal dictatorship now thankfully consigned to history?
    Were the rebels involved in a genuinely revolutionary struggle for a better Libya or are they essentially an alliance of reactionary forces who will ultimately betray the Libyan people?
    Can the West ever be involved in a progressive war to support revolutionary forces or is it simply intervening to further its own interests?

    How does what has happened in Libya relate to the movement for change in the rest of the Arab World?

Libya - History and Geography

However, to start at the beginning. Libya is a vast country; eight times the size of Britain but with a population of just six million; a tenth of that of the UK. 99% of the Libyan people live in a relative handful of towns and cities spread along the Mediterranean coast; most of the rest of the country is desert. The country is divided into three historic regions; Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica, each with their own specific tribal characteristics and loyalties. Although this all sounds like the beginning of a geography lesson; these factors have been decisive in shaping the modern history and politics of the country.

Formerly an Italian colony the country became independent in 1951 under the name; the United Kingdom of Libya. Power was shared between an elected Constituent Assembly and a hereditary monarchy in the form of King Idris. Very quickly, however, the balance of power shifted to the King with the Constituent Assembly reduced in role to that of a rubber stamp body and King Idris ruling as a dictator.
In 1959, oil was discovered and within a decade the country became a major oil exporter. Like other oil rich Arab countries this wealth was concentrated in the hands of a rich elite around the King who was also now closely allied to Western powers. The rise of Arab nationalism and Nasserism in the fifties and sixties produced within Libya a radical, left leaning movement in opposition to the King and the country’s increasing western orientation and in 1969 the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup  by a group of young army officers led by Muammar Gadaffi. This self styled revolution had widespread support within the country and mirrored other radical movements which had emerged elsewhere in the Arab world.

The aims of the revolution were clear cut. To establish Libya as a modern, secular republic rising above the tribal and religious politics which had dominated the country under the monarchy
The aims of the revolution were clear cut. To establish Libya as a modern, secular republic rising above the tribal and religious politics which had dominated the country under the monarchy. To nationalise the oil industry so that the huge oil revenues could be used for the economic and social benefit of the country and not simply controlled by oil companies or diverted into the foreign bank accounts of the elite. To re-orientate the county’s foreign policy in a way that placed Libya firmly in the camp of anti-imperialism. How successful were they in achieving these aims?

The Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiria

The military coup of 1969 swept aside the monarchy and all existing political institutions and in 1973 a new ‘revolutionary’ state was created called The Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiria. The new state had a ‘Maoist’ feel to it. Local government was replaced by revolutionary committees, a people’s militia established with law and order now under the control of security forces determined to purge the country of ‘counter-revolutionary’ elements; real or imagined. A cult of Gadaffi was promoted with him now officially described as ‘Brother, Leader and Guide of the Revolution’. While the original coup had widespread support much of this evaporated in the teeth of this oppression and the country became dangerously divided between supporters of this new revolution and whole sections of society; tribal, religious and political; who were seen as counter-revolutionary. This in turn created the dilemma common in all Stalinist political systems. The activities of the government create organised opposition which the government labels counter- revolutionary. This then becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy as the opposition then take on this role and adopt the language and symbols of the old regime. e.g. the recent widespread use of the old royalist flag in Libya.

This in turn justifies the government oppression which then becomes institutionalised. Internal security forces become a law unto themselves needing to constantly find enemies of the state to justify their own existence  and finding no shortage of contenders. Of course what is missing here is democracy. The need to build consensus around the new political order, the creation of genuinely democratic institutions, the rule of law and a political system that can change and adapt to meet the changes taking place in wider society. This last point is important. Democratic political systems are efficient because they are not fixed but rather constantly change to meet the political needs of society. The revolution, fuelled by oil wealth, transformed Libyan society beyond recognition within a single generation. One example of this was education. A young post revolutionary generation emerged, highly educated and with much higher material and political aspirations than the previous generation. Like the overthrow of the ‘socialist’ systems in Eastern Europe, it was the growing division between this generation and the one which established the system that fuelled its overthrow. Or to quote Eric Honeker; the then leader of the East German Communist Party; ‘in creating a new, healthy, educated generation of young people, we sewed the seeds of our own destruction’.

In terms of their second aim which was to use the huge oil wealth to carry out the economic and social transformation of the country; the regime can count many successes. Despite plenty of evidence of corruption particularly at the higher levels and the use of oil wealth to reward areas for loyalty to the regime, the vast majority of oil wealth was used for the common good and the country transformed. Cities were rebuilt, huge infrastructural projects particularly in relation to water resources were constructed and a modern health and education system established. Libya now enjoyed the highest living standards in Africa and in terms of most socio-economic indicators was comparable to many European countries. The position of women was transformed beyond all recognition compared to the previous position and as has already been stated a new young, educated generation emerged. Of course, all of this should have contributed to the consolidation of the regime and a broadening of support but the regime was simply not built that way.


In terms of Libya’s international position the regime, for most of its existence, positioned itself very much in the anti-imperialist camp. A solid supporter of liberation struggles throughout the world it gave political, diplomatic and economic support to many organisations. The country also had a generous aid budget. One caveat to this was than in the first decade of this century, the regime sought an active accommodation with the West which resulted in political ties and western investment.

This was one of the reasons why the regime was initially baffled by western support for the rebels and wondered why new friends and allies were turning against it.

The conflict, which erupted in February is coming to an end, at least on one level. The Gadaffi regime has effectively been swept from power by a combination of rebel forces and Nato airpower; the latter much more important than the former. Without this airpower, the rebels would have been crushed. The danger now is that Libya is entering a period of low intensity conflict with remnants of the old regime continuing to fight on and the real prospect of conflict between regional, tribal and religious groups as the new Libya emerges. What will that new Libya look like? That will depend on who emerges from these various struggles. For the West, the preferred option would be for those elements of the old regime which switched sides during the conflict to come out on top. The West’s aim has always been the establishment of a dependent pro-western regime in Tripoli which would maintain control in the country while handing over the oil wealth to foreign oil companies. Their main, initial aim will be to disarm most of the rebel groups and send them home. The problem is, what if they don’t want to go home? What if they want to stay and fight their regional, tribal and religious corner? This could fuel conflict for years to come; something the African Union warned of when they tried unsuccessfully to broker a peace deal earlier this year.

The Rebels

This brings us back to the second question asked earlier. Were the rebels engaged in an heroic revolutionary struggle or were they simply an alliance of reactionary groups whose aim was to restore Libya to its pre-Gadaffi status. The evidence is clear cut. Although, no doubt, there were progressive and democratic forces involved in this struggle these existed very much on the margins. The core of the rebels were tribal based regional groups fighting for their specific interests, Islamic fundamentalist groups and opportunist elements of the old regime. The regional groups want to restore pre-revolutionary Libya and united under the old royalist flag, the Islamic groups want to establish an Islamic state while the remnants of the old regime will happily do what their new paymasters tell them. The overall aim will be to destroy the entire legacy of the Gadaffi regime, good and bad and turn the clock back to 1969. Which means that not only are the rebels reactionary in nature their aims for Libya are equally reactionary.

Although, no doubt, there were progressive and democratic forces involved in this struggle these existed very much on the margins.

The West’s role in this conflict has been fairly clear cut. It has been to achieve the outcomes which best serve western interests. There is some confusion as to why, after aligning themselves to the regime in the first decade of this century, they did such an about face and supported the rebels. Yet there is no real contradiction here. They supported Gadaffi because their interests dictated it and ditched him again when it was no longer in their interests. What they want in power in Tripoli is a regime which will look after western interests, keep order and hand over the oil. They care nothing for the suffering of the Libyan people and even less for the establishment of democracy. When the new regime turns its guns on the regional and religious groups which threaten the new order; watched how quickly the west supports the suppression of the ‘freedom fighters’ it was happy to eulogies during the conflict.

The other question is how the events in Libya fit with the wider struggle in the Arab world. There is obviously a connection; in particular, the original uprising in the East of the country was clearly inspired by events elsewhere; particularly in neighbouring Tunisia. This gave the rebels the confidence and inspiration that victory could be possible. However, given that their action was directed against a regime which itself came from a radical tradition and given the overt support from the west; this has shaped the character of the rebellion and moved it in a very different direction from elsewhere. The main similarity would be with the movement in Syria although that regime would appear far stronger and there is a lot less likelihood of western intervention.

The most likely outcome of this conflict will be a Libya fractured along religious, political and tribal lines with a weak, pro-western government made up mostly of former regime members trying to hold the country together. The county is awash with guns, interest groups and simmering resentments which will not be easily contained. The overthrow of the Gadaffi regime might prove simply to be the beginning of the story not the end.