[Marxism] The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jan 30 17:23:26 MST 2015

NY Review of Books, February 19, 2015 issue
Libya Against Itself
by Nicolas Pelham

The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath
edited by Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn
Oxford University Press, 416 pp., $49.95

Gentle Islamism?

Mahdi al-Herati is sipping his lemon tea in the open-air café beneath 
the grand Italian porticos of Algiers Square in Tripoli. He seems a 
little too casual to be either an international jihadi or the elected 
mayor of the capital city of a country supposedly rescued from Colonel 
Muammar Qaddafi and sliding into civil war. Still, Herati is both, 
although he prefers to call himself a Libyan revolutionary. Since 
becoming mayor last year, he tells me, he has invited his counterparts 
in Dublin and Rome to “twin” with Tripoli under its new rulers, the 
group called Libya Dawn. He has taken other steps to counter Libya 
Dawn’s reputation for Islamism. He speaks of his efforts to drum up 
support from local writers and actors for an arts festival he has 
planned promoting Tripoli as a cosmopolitan Mediterranean capital of 

Herati plans to reopen the movie houses that Qaddafi closed in an 
earlier revolution. His men protect the national museum, he says, which 
is crammed full of ancient pagan statues. A new spa for women is 
opening. And yes, he tells me, his festival will include female as well 
as male performers and spectators. The capital, he says with only an 
occasional look over his shoulder and at his two security guards, is safe.

The Libya Dawn coalition Herati belongs to overran the capital after six 
weeks of bombardment last summer. Many of its leaders are former 
militiamen from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the jihadi movement 
that after fighting the unbelievers in alliance with Osama bin Laden in 
Afghanistan turned their guns on Qaddafi and his army. But allied with 
them are such unlikely bedfellows as merchants from Misrata, a 
Mediterranean port dependent on trade with Europe, and the Imazighen, or 
Berber revivalists, whose leaders are either secularists or adherents of 
a small reformist sect, Ibadiyya, dating back to the first decades of 
Islam, that opposed the supremacy of the Prophet Muhammad’s Arabian 
tribe and elected its own leaders.

As in the time of Qaddafi, words and reality in postrevolutionary Libya 
often seem to inhabit separate spheres. Twenty minutes before landing in 
Tripoli, women returning from Egypt drape their highlighted hair and 
designer jeans in black cloth. The women at passport control have gone, 
and the man in charge of immigration is the one with the bushiest beard. 
Inside the city, Muslim iconoclasts are purging the capital of its 
colonial-era images. Soon after capturing the capital in August, they 
fired a shell through the belly of the Bride of the Sea, a sculpture of 
a bare-breasted mermaid entwined with a tender gazelle, which since 
Italian times had served as a backdrop for wedding photos. And last 
month they stole the sculpture itself. Herati only got it back because 
the thieves could be traced by the cameras Qaddafi hid in the capital’s 
roadside trees. For now, though, he says, it is safer for it to remain 
under wraps.

Other monuments in the capital are disappearing too. The three tombs of 
Ottoman mystics that graced the entrance of the eighteenth-century Ahmed 
Pasha Qaramanli mosque at the entrance of the souk have been smashed, 
and replaced with an already overgrown patch of grass. Islamists have 
snapped off the antique Koranic inscriptions in the souk’s other old 
mosques, lest believers be led astray into polytheism by venerating the 
ornaments instead of God alone.

Libya Dawn’s officials blame the attacks on the local followers of a 
Saudi scholar, Rabi’ al-Mudkhali. He works, says an official, with Saudi 
intelligence, seeking to tarnish the name of Islamist groups that do not 
follow Saudi’s puritanical doctrines or more importantly their politics. 
Others suggest that acolytes of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic 
State, or ISIS, are finding a foothold thanks to Libya Dawn’s relaxed 
approach to Islamic extremists. I failed to find evidence of the Islamic 
State cadres that had been reported in Tripoli, but cafés frequented by 
couples have been torched and embassies car-bombed. A couple of days 
after I left Tripoli, a gunman shot dead an unveiled woman driving home 
near the city center. Lest anyone be tempted to investigate, in 
mid-November Libya Dawn raided the National Commission for Human Rights, 
seized its database, and padlocked its doors.

Tripoli’s distraught population might have welcomed anyone bringing a 
semblance of order, including the ghost of Qaddafi. But three months 
into its rule, Libya Dawn’s honeymoon is fading. My first night in the 
capital was blissfully free of explosions. Libya Dawn had sent text 
messages to residents’ mobile phones banning not just gunfire but 
fireworks. But the following night, Tripoli’s gunpowder orchestra began 
its familiar crescendo. The criminal gangs who had largely gone 
underground after Libya Dawn took over again began trying their luck.

Driving back into town after a meeting in Café di Roma, a popular 
rendezvous in an upmarket suburb, I was caught in the crossfire after a 
local Islamist militia—connected with Libya Dawn—clashed with local drug 
barons. The young men in a neighboring open-air café went on watching 
televised soccer, so common were such shootings. Husbands continued 
their shopping, and drivers waited at traffic lights with almost 
exaggerated decorum.

Libyans feel even more isolated than when the UN imposed sanctions on 
Qaddafi. The civil society that briefly emerged after the colonel’s 
downfall has all but disappeared. Each activist can reel off the names 
of colleagues shot dead or kidnapped, often by Islamists. “My husband 
hates guns, and vowed he would never get one,” says my friend from the 
Café di Roma, who is an economist. “Last week for the first time he 
brought one home.” Exiles who jubilantly if naively returned to build a 
new post-Qaddafi order have almost all left. Many more would have gone 
with them had Europe’s consulates not all withdrawn and with them any 
hope of a visa. Libya’s neighbors periodically close their borders. And 
flights out of Libya are in jeopardy too after rival armed groups began 
targeting the country’s airports. Libya should be one of the world’s 
richer states but many facilities and power stations have been set 
aflame as Libya Dawn battles for control of the oil terminals along the 
Gulf of Sirte coast.

“The Revolution’s leaders promised we would be like Dubai,” says a civil 
servant who doubles as a taxi driver to make ends meet. “But private 
hotels that had opened in the last years of Qaddafi have shut down. 
There’s no business. And where before we had one family who stole, now 
we have hundreds.” Just like Qaddafi, Libya’s rulers win power by 
seizing it. Although Herati himself was elected in local elections, his 
movement, Libya Dawn, is made up of the factions that fared badly in the 
June general election for Libya’s parliament, the House of 
Representatives, and then took Tripoli by force.

Libya Dawn vs. Dignity

After they were displaced, the winners of the election fled to Libya’s 
far east. A short distance shy of the border with Egypt, they seemed to 
be preparing for a last stand. From their seat of government in the 
hilltop city of Beida, ministers sit behind empty desks while a central 
bank governor with empty coffers signs ornate declarations for their 
Potemkin state. At one point, the parliamentarians took refuge in a 
ferry anchored off Tobruk, the coastal town nearest the border with Egypt.

But by presenting their cause as a struggle for survival against jihadi 
Islam, they have found allies at home and abroad. They made an alliance 
with the remnants of the armed forces, which fought Islamists in the 
east under Qaddafi, and they launched a counter-attack they called 
Operation Karama, or Dignity. “There are two rival programs jostling for 
power in Libya,” Mohammed Bazaza, the young spokesman of the Dignity 
security forces in Beida, tells me. “The Islamic state and the civil 
state. If we don’t react now, [Libya’s] terrorists are going to come 
across the Mediterranean to a place near you.” Last year, he says, Ansar 
al-Sharia, the same group whose members killed the US ambassador, 
Christopher Stevens, on the eleventh anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attacks 
in America, killed his father, a security chief in Benghazi, the east’s 
provincial capital and birthplace of the 2011 revolution. The group 
planted a bomb in his car, and then for good measure set off another 
bomb at his funeral.

Islamists are carrying out similar attacks all along Libya’s 
Mediterranean coast, he insists, lumping together all groups from the 
Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda. In Derna, an old Ottoman garrison town 
on the coast below Beida, some militiamen have declared allegiance to 
al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State and are carrying out his signature 
beheadings. (In fact this is only a fraction of those killed by a 
staunch Western ally, Saudi Arabia, which reportedly has decapitated 
three score people this year alone.)

Leading the Dignity counterattack is Khalifa Haftar, who as a young army 
officer helped Qaddafi launch his coup in 1969, and after commanding 
Libya’s forces in a disastrous war on Chad fled to the United States. 
Some twenty-five years later, he seized on the 2011 revolution as an 
opportunity for staging a comeback. Though himself from a relatively 
small Bedouin Arab tribe, he wooed larger ones to his side, and last 
year he commandeered what remained of Qaddafi’s army and turned to the 
region’s anti-Islamist powers for support.

The Egyptian general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Egypt’s elected 
Islamists and made himself president, offered to supply Haftar’s forces 
with both arms and training. The United Arab Emirates, a Gulf state, 
paid them. And both drummed up international support. On his first visit 
to Europe as president, Sisi warned of the “extremely dangerous jihadist 
bases” in Libya and called on Western powers to give supplies to 
Dignity’s General Haftar as part of their war on terror, despite the UN 
arms embargo. “Aid, equipment, training,” he said, “must be sent to 
[Dignity’s anti-Dawn army].”

Haftar launched Dignity’s first operation in May in Benghazi, Libya’s 
unruly second city, where Islamist jihadis, tribesmen, and student 
revolutionaries all jostled for control. The results were initially 
meager. He dealt with snipers by shelling the apartment blocks from 
which they were shooting. The tactic was counterproductive, creating 
more opponents than it killed. But when he acquired spare parts for the 
army’s aging fighter jets, the battle lines began to shift. Air strikes 
helped him capture much of Benghazi and project his strength deep into 
the west of the country. He intermittently cut off Libya Dawn’s exits by 
bombing the land crossing to Tunis and bombing Tripoli’s airport as 
passengers were preparing to board planes.

Piqued and irate, the head of Libya Dawn’s government in Tripoli, Omar 
al-Hasi, who before the war was a geography professor, rallied to the 
side of Haftar’s foes in the east, Ansar al-Sharia, the killers of 
Christopher Stevens, calling them “amiable revolutionaries.” In the 
lobby of the Tripoli hotel where al-Hasi has set up his Dawn government, 
his ministers and commanders congregate, encouraging militiamen to plant 
more car bombs. Indeed hundreds of miles to the east, glass litters the 
parking lot of the former royal palace in Beida that now serves as the 
seat of the constitutional assembly. Convoked by Dignity, its defiant 
chairman, Ali Tarhouni, says he has survived fourteen attempted 
assassinations. A short drive away, Dignity’s deputy prime minister 
looks out of his window disconcertedly at the upturned breeze blocks 
placed every ten yards or so beneath his office. These are security 
measures taken since a car bomb exploded a week before we met. 
“Terrorists will always find a way through,” he says glumly.

At the same time, Libya Dawn’s forces have been advancing east toward 
their beleagured allies, besieged by Haftar’s forces in Benghazi while 
setting on fire the country’s main oil terminals along the Mediterranean 
Gulf of Sirte. Black plumes of burning oil from the country’s largest 
terminal at Sidra waft toward Europe over more than seventy miles.

As the stakes rise, the efforts of the UN envoy, Bernardino León, to 
mediate a compromise repeatedly falter. According to Libya Body Count, 
which uses press reports to keep a tally of all deaths since January 
2014, 2,500 people were killed just in the past six months of fighting. 
The scale of the terror and destruction on both sides far surpasses that 
of Qaddafi’s last years. One wonders how many of the Westerners who 
cheered on the war against him recognize this.

An Ethnic Divide?

It was always unrealistic to expect Libyans to emerge overnight from 
four decades of whimsical dictatorship into a state of democratic 
institutions. Western powers provided the military support to oust the 
colonel, but myopically not the civilian support to put a workable 
administration in his place. When civilians tried to erect a modern 
state themselves, warlords from the different parts of Libya easily 
bypassed the elections that had been held and seized power in the name 
of whatever cause they hoped might attract support. Some militia leaders 
justify their recourse to arms as a battle against jihadi Islamists or 
the remnants of the Qaddafi regime. Others claim to defend whatever 
tribal, religious, or ethnic group might win them local constituencies. 
They have tried to revive traditional myths in order to cultivate fresh 
loyalties. In the process a once relatively homogeneous society has 
splintered into multiple bickering armed groups.

The irrepressible rise of Libya’s many contending forces is one of the 
enigmas of the 2011 revolution. When Libyans first revolted, they 
counted among their blessings that they had few of the cleavages of sect 
and ethnicity that divided other Arab states. Through intermarriage, 
relocation for work, and Qaddafi’s deliberate jumbling of ethnic groups, 
many Libyans had multiple associations spanning the country’s vast terrain.

Yet The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, a compilation edited by 
Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn, British analysts of Libya, is a timely 
acknowledgment that Libya’s chemistry is older than the laboratory 
Qaddafi fashioned. The book traces not only the colonel’s demise, as 
many others have done, but the appearance of a lesser-known new cast. 
Written almost entirely by foreign experts, some of whom know the 
different factions intimately, it is the most detailed account I have 
read of the old forces shaping new Libya. Chapter by chapter, it 
analyzes each of the “sub-national identities” jostling for influence, 
and the communal narratives their representatives use to promote their 
claims. They include Libya’s Islamists, the merchants of Misrata, the 
Arab Bedouin tribes concentrated in the Green Mountains of the east, the 
indigenous Imazighen (i.e., Berbers) in the west, and the two ethnic 
groups of Libya’s slice of the Sahara—the Tuareg and Tubu.

Libya in its current shape is a recent, fragile construct, originating 
in Italy’s invasion of 1911, exactly a century before the Arab Spring. 
It has been fracturing and reuniting ever since. Unable to overcome the 
Arab Bedouin tribes in the east, Italy’s first wave of colonizers 
sanctioned the creation of an autonomous Emirate of Cyrenaica. In 1929 
Benito Mussolini tried again, and succeeded by imprisoning tens of 
thousands of Bedouins in concentration camps, where half of them died. 
After World War II, the British backed the revival of the Cyrenaican 
emirate replete with a king, Idris I. But the discovery of oil, whose 
fields and pipelines straddled boundaries, drew Libya’s disparate 
provinces into ever closer union. In 1951, Cyrenaica established a 
federation with the Fezzan region in the south, hitherto under French 
hegemony, and Tripolitania in the northwest, also under the British. 
King Idris added a green and a red band below and above his black flag 
with a white crescent. And in 1963, under King Idris, Libya abolished 
the federation and declared itself a single unified state.

For forty-two years, Qaddafi, who called himself Il Duce with overtones 
of Mussolini, suppressed these separate identities. But once he had 
fallen, vulnerable Libyans floundering for some means of protection 
turned to their closest kin. In Tripoli each district of the city 
assembled its armed wing. Islamists organized anti-vice squads, and the 
Imazighen established “rapid deployment forces” to support neighborhoods 
with high concentrations of Berbers. Libya’s new power brokers revived 
and inflamed ancient grievances to consolidate their hold.

In a hollow beneath the crest of the Green Mountains lies Cyrene, a 
Hellenistic city about 130 miles east of Benghazi. In ruins since the 
seventh century, it was once dubbed the Athens of Africa because of its 
many ancient philosophers. In Cyrene it is possible briefly to forget 
the encroaching war. Families displaced by the fighting find relief 
sharing a picnic amid the city’s lost grandeur. Boys dive into Apollo’s 
pools where Caesar once wooed Cleopatra. Lovers, with the young women 
sometimes fully veiled, slip into the shadows between the columns of 
Mithra’s temple to hold hands. And professors from the nearby highland 
town of Beida regale each other with Bedouin verse, a pre-Islamic 
tradition reviled by Islamists, while swigging home-brewed grappa, one 
of colonial Italy’s more enduring legacies. “I’ve tried to bandage the 
pain of my love, but the wound just grows deeper,” sings Salah, a 
lecturer on urban planning who helps Haftar’s generals draw their battle 

On our way back to Beida, the lecturer, with alcohol-induced clarity, 
questions the notion that the conflict is a battle between Libya Dawn’s 
Islamists and Dignity’s old security apparatchiks. “No one here believes 
it. We have our Islamists, they have theirs. Ours were the first to 
officially adopt sharia law, after Qaddafi was killed.” At Beida’s 
Turkish restaurant, he introduces me to his friends—bank managers, 
delegates to Dignity’s constitutional assembly, and more university 
professors, who despite their disparate professions all recite proud 
verses about their Bedouin past. The current conflict, they insist, is 
primarily an epic struggle as old as Islam, between, on the one hand, 
Bedouin Arab nomadic tribes of the hinterland, and on the other, Libyans 
living on the coast. While they celebrate the troubadours and swordsmen 
of their Bedouin forebears, they disparage their coastal rivals who have 
rallied to the side of Libya Dawn. A lawyer who took up arms curses them 
for having been bastardized by mingling with indigenous Berbers 
inhabiting the west and with the waves of colonizers who have washed up 
on Libya’s shores, and reduced them to effete, urbanized taxpayers.

Reciting from al-Sirah al-Hilaliyya, an Arab bard’s answer to the Song 
of Roland, they tell of the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym, who surged out 
of Arabia in the eleventh century and swept aside the bourgeoisie in 
Cyrenaica and beyond. The Banu Hilal Arabs settled in the east; the Banu 
Sulaym Arabs in the west.

When Libya’s Revolution erupted in 2011, the Bedouin Arabs saw their 
chance for a second coming. The bank manager joined his Bedouin Arab 
tribesmen from the Green Mountains. With arms in the trunk of his SUV he 
raced toward Benghazi, while the Bedouin Arabs’ counterparts in Zintan, 
a Bedouin town in the Nafusa Mountains, established their hold over the 
capital Tripoli, eighty-five miles north on the coast. But others 
besides the Bedouin Arabs sought their share, too. Last July the 
disparate militias from the coastal cities, the Berber towns, and 
Islamist movements concentrated in the west joined forces, creating the 
coalition of Libya Dawn, and forced the Bedouin tribes to retrench.

Back in Beida, Salah the urban-planning expert and his Arab kinsmen 
dream of reviving the dominance they enjoyed when Cyrenaica was an 
emirate under the king and the Arab tribes ran his army. They hope to 
reconstitute such a force under Haftar, and look to him to crush the 
revolt of non-Arab settlers on the coast below.

It oversimplifies, of course, to reduce Libya’s conflict into a battle 
between Bedouin Arab tribes and Libyans of other ethnic groups Arabized 
over centuries. Some Bedouins hold senior positions in Libya Dawn, and 
Berbers can be found fighting for Dignity. But increasingly, the 
rank-and-file on both sides paint the conflict in stark ethnic colors. 
The Bedouin professor Salah and many like him dismiss their opponents in 
the east as settlers from the west brought by colonizers over the 
centuries to weaken the Arab tribes. The family of Wissam ben Hamid, a 
militia leader fighting Haftar’s Dignity forces in Benghazi, he notes 
derisively, comes from Misrata.

Surrounded by Berber towns, the 40,000 Arabs of Zintan increasingly see 
themselves as a Bedouin fringe left out on a limb in the Nafusa 
mountains of the west. They have rapidly shed the alliance they formed 
with their Berber neighbors to unseat Qaddafi in the heady months of 
2011, and allied themselves with the Arab Bedouin and their armed forces 
in the east. With the help of the United Arab Emirates, the Zintani 
Arabs repulsed a two-month offensive by Libya Dawn’s militias drawn from 
western cities ten times its size. We feel we are waging an existential 
battle, a young Zintani man tells me. The Berbers, he says, have never 
forgiven the Arabs for killing their Berber Jewish queen, Kahina, when 
the first generation of Muslims spilled out of Arabia in the seventh 

Berber revivalists, too, paint their struggle as a similarly ancient tug 
of war against 1,400 years of Arabization. They have turned to Berbers 
in neighboring Algeria as well as large diaspora communities in Europe 
to combat pan-Arabism. “While we look to the Maghreb [west North 
Africa], the Arabs look to the Mashreq [the Middle East],” says Wael, a 
Berber activist in Tripoli, who reprimands me severely when I speak of 
the Arab Spring. “North Africa’s spring,” he corrects me.

The recourse to politics pitting different ethnic and religious groups 
against one another is sowing schisms across Libya’s vast terrain. The 
World Amazigh (or Berber) Congress demands minority rights and autonomy 
in the west. Meanwhile officials in Beida, who furtively whispered 
support for federalism a year ago, now openly broach the prospect of 
partition. With only a third of Libya’s population, but two thirds of 
its oil fields, most of its aquifers, and the country’s gold mines 
bordering Egypt, Cyrenaican separatists dream of the untold riches that 
lie ahead if they separate from the west. An alliance with the Jibarna, 
another Arab tribal federation hugging the Gulf of Sidra, would ensure 
control over the country’s main oil terminals. One of the Dignity 
representatives in Beida who is drafting the new constitution says that 
Cyrenaica “is part of the Middle East. Tripoli is part of the Maghreb 
[i.e., North Africa]. Historically, there’s no such thing as Libya.”

No doubt the next time I visit Libya, the country’s constellation of 
alliances will have shifted again. Bedouin tribes who rose up against 
Qaddafi in the east might have tired of producing a new crop of colonels 
to rule them. The UN’s decision to blacklist Libya’s more radical 
Islamist movements might prompt Berbers and people from Misrata to 
withdraw from their alliance with Libya Dawn. Communal conflicts that 
seem so unsolvable when one listens to the invective on their rival 
satellite televisions have an odd way of melting away once dialogue starts.

Bernardino León, the UN’s special envoy to Libya, recalls how careful he 
was to separate the negotiating parties before the start of the 
discussions he organized on the Algerian border last September, only to 
be taken aback when they bumped into each other in the hotel lobby and 
hugged and kissed. He points to the commitment he has received from the 
various Libyan spokesmen that they will pay for up to six thousand UN 
peacekeepers should they succeed in agreeing on local cease-fires and on 
a constitutional system of government for a new Libya. Sadly, it seems 
likely that the toll on Libya’s wealth and human life will rise further 
before the rivals tire of demonizing each other’s ethnic and religious 
identities, and resorting to external support for a confrontation with 
militant Islam that only radicalizes the factions and deepens Libya’s 
civil war.

—January 22, 2015

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