EXACTLY 100 years ago, Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy began its invasion and subjugation of Libya. On 23 October 1911, Italian warships and land forces began the assault of towns like Benghazi and Misrata, names that have once more become familiar. For the first time, tanks were deployed in the desert and aerial bombing followed. The Italians engineered the construction of concentration camps, into which the largely nomadic tribals of Libya were herded.
The Libyans retreated into their desert hinterland. Despite the fact that thousands of Libyans were killed, the Italians had to face a 20-year-long insurgency, waged by an impoverished but highly respected teacher of the Quran from Cyrenaica, Omar al-Mukhtar. It was not until 1936 that the Italians managed to catch up with the 74-year-old guerrilla hero. He was hanged following a three-day trial. Libya did not achieve independence until 1951. When it did, Libya was among the poorest nations on earth. In 1969, Capt. Muammar Gaddafi deposed the ruling Senussi monarch Emir Idris in a bloodless coup and assumed control. His power did not appear to be in jeopardy until six months ago.
For many, Gaddafi’s name was synonymous with outlandish, even weird behaviour, accentuated by exasperating diplomacy wound up in dazzling costumery and dizzying dithyrambs. Once regarded as a rogue, a menace to global peace, the western world had begun to see him in a favourable light of late. In 2004, Tony Blair rowed out across the Mediterranean to shake hands with Gaddafi in his tent in Libya. Nicolas Sarkozy visited Tripoli in 2007. In 2008, the Italians signed a cooperation treaty with Libya. The same year, Gaddafi met US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The next year, he participated in the G8 summit meeting where US President Barack Obama shook hands with him.
For many, Gaddafi was a dogged anti-imperialist and fervent nationalist, in the correct understanding of the term. He consistently and — with the exception of Fidel Castro — individually for the longest time, stood up to the will of the US in particular and western domination in general. He was the last of the pan-Arab leaders.
In his final public testament, Gaddafi wrote, “Obama wants to kill me, to take away the freedom of our country, to take away our free housing, our free medicine, our free education, our free food, and replace it with American-style thievery, called ‘capitalism’. But all of us in the Third World know what that means. It means corporations run the countries and the people suffer. So, there is no alternative for me. I must make my stand, and if Allah wishes, I shall die by following his path.”
NATO and its ‘alliance of the killing’, which disgracefully includes the Arab League in its ranks, would have the world believe that the Gaddafi regime was overthrown by the people of Libya, a la Tahrir Square. Obama has tried to present this as another moral undertaking, underwritten by the US, to bring freedom and democracy to the people of Libya. Libya is the bloom, we are told, of the so-called Arab Spring.
FIRST SOME facts about Libya: At its independence, Libya was one of the poorest countries on the planet. Life expectancy in the 1960s was only 46 years. There was no health system to speak of (King Idris was, in fact, on a routine medical check-up abroad when he was deposed). Most Libyans lived in tents around the few pastures that dotted the desert. Nearly the entire population of Libya was agrarian. For the past 40 years, Libya faced economic sanctions from most of the western world. Tribal tensions were rampant and water was scarce. Literacy was less than 20 percent.
Gaddafi was the last of the pan- Arab leaders and a leading financier of development across Africa
Cut to 2010, the last year of the Gaddafi regime in office: Compared to the health status of the population of the rest of West Asia (including Saudi Arabia), Libya’s healthcare was above average. Life expectancy in Libya before the recent conflict began was 77.65 years. Literacy was at 82.6 percent and over 97 percent of the population had access to sanitation facilities. In the 1980s and ’90s, Gaddafi undertook what is to date the world’s largest drinking water project: 6,000 km of pipelines carried water under the Sahara to disparate corners of Libya. Libya ranks 58 out of 177 on the 2004 United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report, which measures quality of life.
In addition to the projects and development he carried out using his country’s petro-dollars, Gaddafi was a leading financier of development across Africa. The manner of his removal from power prompted a diplomatic backlash from South Africa and the wider African Union, with good reason.
Plans to oust Gaddafi had been in the making for decades. In the end, it was not hugely difficult. How could it have been? After four decades of demonising Gaddafi, the mass brainwashing that accompanied the 21,090 air sorties, the indiscriminate strafing and carpet bombing of civilians, the laying to waste of a national infrastructure built up over 40 years convinced many in the West that this was a war worth fighting. In a single sortie alone, 85 members of 12 families, including 33 children and 32 women, were pounded to dust in Zlitan, a few days before Eid-ul-Fitr. Whole villages were bombed to clear a sanitised corridor for the advance of the so-called ‘rebels’ who were armed with shiny new FN-FAL assault rifles, the standard issue of NATO forces. These were not patriotic rebels of a deprived Libya. They are auxiliaries of an empire whose future depends on the exploitation of sovereign states, to ensure a steady supply of the economic means of production.
Vladimir Putin, aware of Russia’s own oil contracts at stake, nevertheless stood up to the aggression and stated, “Who gave them (NATO) that right? Did he have a fair trial? The bombings are destroying the country’s entire infrastructure. When the so-called civilised world uses all its military power against a small country destroying what has been created by generations, I don’t know if that is good or bad. I do not like it.”
Everyone on the street knows that the killing of Gaddafi was only about oil and, perhaps, banking
To the Russian leader, and to many others, Gaddafi was a man who built his country over four decades — from the sand and vestiges of tribal society — well by well, road by road, brick by brick.
Nevertheless, why be sentimental about it? Everyone on the street knows this was only about oil and, perhaps, banking. Until last year, Libya was producing nearly two million barrels of oil a day. To put that in perspective, India’s daily national consumption of oil is approximately three million barrels per day. In addition, Libya sits on one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world. The trouble with the Colonel was, he had sat there far too long for a fuel-hungry Europe and North America to remain patient. More worryingly for the West, Gaddafi, not unlike Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, was actively seeking to delink the price of oil from the dollar and float a new bullion-based currency, in this case, a gold African dinar. This prompted Sarkozy to call Libya, “a threat to the financial security of mankind”.
More alarmingly, writing in the Tehran Times, Chandra Muzaffar commented, “This is the second time that NATO is involved in a military adventure outside its geographical zone. Is this going to become a pattern in the future — whereby NATO obtains UN Security Council mandate to employ its massive air power to conquer some resource rich or strategically critical State in the Global South?” There is a fear that having failed to control Iraq and Afghanistan, the West is targeting Africa with its abundant natural resources.”
Finally, to come to the new dispensation that is going to be running Libya at face value. The provisional government is headed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil who, until this February, was law minister. Ali Abd-al-Aziz al-Isawi, a former minister of economy, trade and investment in the erstwhile Libyan government, once bizarrely stated, “Blacks are a burden on healthcare, they spread disease, crime. They are illegal.” He then faded into oblivion but now NATO has brought him back as the international liaison of the transitional government, a position of considerable importance.
A sinister man called Khalifa Belqasim Haftar has been vying for the position of commander of the forces since the beginning of the conflict. He returned to Libya after decades spent around Langley, Virginia — along with dozens of handlers, trainers, contractors and all those other denominations that are used to describe members of special forces or private security personnel — to take charge of Libya. To his annoyance, he found another officer and former minister of the interior in Gaddafi’s government, Maj Gen Abdal Fatah Younis had been made commander of the rebel forces. It was not until Younis was mysteriously assassinated in July that Haftar was able to resume control.
Abdul Hakim Belhaj is one of the founders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, listed by both the US State Department and the British Home Office as an international terrorist organisation. Gaddafi treated this organisation perhaps almost as badly as American soldiers treat their prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq. Belhaj was hunted in Libya (MI6 and the CIA did not support Gaddafi for nothing) and spent a few years in Abu Selim Prison. Upon release, he returned to plot the demise of the Libyan government and was among the first to charge through the gates of the Bab el Aziziyah compound in Tripoli. He is now commander of the newly created Tripoli Military Council, with 8,000 armed men.
THE COST of the human tragedy, like in all wars, is incalculable. Some of the private stories that have found their way out are heart-wrenching, the images extremely disturbing. For those of us, who live in what is called the Third World, the fate of Libya is something from which to take heed. In his last address to the UN Security Council, in 2006-07, Gaddafi had asked, “What was the reason to invade Iraq? We want to know because it is mysterious and ambiguous and we may face the same destiny. The invasion in itself was and is a serious violation of the UN Charter.”
In the 16th century, Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli argued that “whenever men cease fighting through necessity, they go to fighting through ambition, which is so powerful in human breasts that whatever rank men climb to, never does ambition abandon them…”
Gaddafi’s life and times may not appear to contradict this view of human nature, but the actions of the leaders of the western powers and of the new rulers of Libya certainly reconfirm it.
The views expressed here are the writer’s own
Yusuf Ansari is Writer and political activist.