What’s next after Qaddafi’s downfall?

October 13, 2011

SocialistWorker.org is publishing a collection of articles about Libya to contribute to a discussion about the left's analysis of the downfall of Qaddafi and the role of Western military intervention. In addition to an article by SW writers Lance Selfa and Alan Maass, we are republishing previous interviews and articles by Gilbert Achcar, Richard Seymour and Anand Gopal.

Here, SocialistWorker.org's Lance Selfa and Alan Maass trace the development of the revolt against the Qaddafi regime, describe the role of NATO military operations in his downfall and analyze the forces contending for power in post-Qaddafi Libya.

ANOTHER TYRANT has fallen in the Middle East. Though Muammar el-Qaddafi has not been captured and fighting continues in Libya--most notably in Sirte, the last stronghold of the regime, which has endured a brutal siege--there is no question that Qaddafi's four-decade reign is over.

The end of Qaddafi's rule should be reason for celebration for anyone committed to justice. But the manner in which the Qaddafi regime has fallen in Libya raises questions because it is so different to the downfall of dictators in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.

In Egypt and Tunisia, mass popular mobilizations pushed out tyrants whose friends in Western governments like the U.S. were trying to save them up to the last hours and days.

In Libya, on the other hand, the U.S. government and its allies in NATO intervened decisively against the Qaddafi regime months ago. NATO served as the anti-Qaddafi rebels' de facto air force since the intervention began in March--without Western bombs and missiles, the rebels would not have achieved the victory they did. And now, Western governments are promoting their choice for a government in Libya--the Transitional National Council (TNC).

Libyan rebels arrive in Tripoli
Libyan rebels arrive in Tripoli (Ammar Abd Rabbo)

Much remains unclear about the shape of post-Qaddafi Libya, but this much is certain: The U.S. and its European allies played a central role in bringing about Qaddafi's downfall, and they now are exploiting this role to shape the new order to come--with the aim of ensuring a continued flow of oil to the West and a friendly regime that can act as a breakwater against the wave of revolt that has swept the region.

As SocialistWorker.org argued in its editorial titled "Who really won in Libya?" Qaddafi deserved to be toppled--but the fact that his ouster took place under such circumstances represents an "an advance for imperialism, which means a setback for the struggle to extend democracy and freedom."

The defeat of the Qaddafi regime has rekindled a debate on the left about Libya. Back in March, veteran socialist and Middle East scholar Gilbert Achcar castigated left-wing voices, like SocialistWorker.org, that opposed the Western intervention--now, he is claiming the victory of rebel forces backed by NATO as a vindication of his arguments. Several readers of this website have written Readers' Views articles ("The winner in Libya is undetermined" and "A thoroughgoing popular revolution") that take issue with aspects of SW's editorial.

Answering these questions is critical, especially for those organizing "in the belly of the beast" against the world's most powerful military machine. Our article will look at these objections and put forward an anti-imperialist analysis of what has happened in Libya.

NO ONE who cares about justice or about the future of the Arab Spring will shed a tear for Muammar el-Qaddafi. He presided over a police state for more than 40 years. Despite its claims to the contrary, his government preserved a system of vast inequality and political repression.

Hatred of this regime drove the popular rebellion in Libya that took shape in the shadow of the Egyptian revolution last February--and it was certainly visible in the celebrations and street mobilizations in Tripoli and elsewhere last month when the rebels finally gained the upper hand.

This should answer the claims of some left-wing groups who believe that Qaddafi was really a progressive, and he was still supported by the masses of Libyans. In the U.S., for example, the Party of Socialism and Liberation and other groups sponsored a speaking tour this summer in which former Rep. Cynthia McKinney declared that "the government of Muammar Qaddafi maintains strong support among significant sections of the population." But no such popular force in the capital rose to defend the "great leader."

Support for dictators like Qaddafi or Syria's Bashar al-Assad is a shameful mark against organizations like PSL and the Workers World Party. These two organizations long accepted the Libyan regime's claim to be progressive and anti-imperialist in spite of the savagery of its police-state violence--and, as recently as the beginning of this year, its collaboration with Western powers, including the U.S. government.

But for anyone wishing to understand the Middle East, there is more to the question. To start with, there were important differences between Libya's rebellion in its initial stages and what took place in Tripoli at the end of August.

The revolt against Qaddafi began in the wake of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in Egypt last February. But in a matter of a few weeks, Qaddafi's regime had regained the upper hand against the revolt through a brutal military offensive.

At this point, the U.S. and its European allies recognized an opportunity to reassert themselves in a region where they had lost influence. They turned on their former ally, Qaddafi, and intervened militarily. Intervention came in the guise of a "humanitarian" operation to stop the regime's massacres. But very quickly, the aim of the war in Libya became regime change.

Western governments that led the bombardment of Libya are now crowing about their success in bringing down Qaddafi. "France, Great Britain [and] Europe will always stand by the side of the Libyan people," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, acknowledging a hero's welcome that he and British Prime Minister David Cameron received when they arrived in Tripoli in September.

Given the mismatch between Qaddafi's forces and the world's most sophisticated military arsenals, NATO shouldn't congratulate itself too much. Indeed, the rebels' NATO-backed military campaign stalled again and again before August.

By contrast, the conquest of Libya's capital of Tripoli in August took place with remarkable speed when the regime's threatened last-ditch defense failed to materialize as rebel forces advanced into the city. SocialistWorker.org's editorial was written as these events were unfolding and anticipated a definitive end to Qaddafi's government in a matter of days.

But the celebrations of Qaddafi's downfall gave way to further fighting with remnants of the regime, and those days stretched into weeks. Meanwhile, different units of the rebels struggled to present a united alternative. For example, no representative of the TNC set foot in the capital for days after rebels overran many of the regime's bases--a clear sign of the council's weakness on the ground in spite of its powerful friends in Western governments.

There may be weeks of further confusion and clashes as different forces that opposed Qaddafi both battle to defeat the last stands of his loyalists and vie with one another to shape the post-Qaddafi order--including Libya's relationship to the West. The TNC and its U.S. and European backers clearly want a close relationship, but other parts of the opposition will resist this.

All this bears a certain resemblance to the aftermath of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. But there is an important difference in Libya: Western governments are a central actor, directly involved to some extent on the ground and indirectly looming over the aftermath of Qaddafi's effective downfall. The West was decisive in toppling Qaddafi with its military campaign, and it intends to leverage that role now in determining the outlines of a new order.

DESCRIPTIONS OF the conquest of Tripoli are filled with images of popular mobilizations and mass celebrations at the fall of the old order.

Journalist Anand Gopal, writing in Foreign Policy, for example, described the battle in one particular neighborhood:

At first, the security forces outnumbered the protesters almost three to one. But the protests were spreading from one block to the next, and soon they reached the streets behind the security forces. Within moments after the shooting began, the government forces were surrounded. The few protesters with weapons began firing back. Some started throwing stones. "I'm a bit scared of guns, so I threw Molotov cocktails," says El Burai.

Things turned into a stunning rout in the protesters' favor: Thirteen police lay dead and almost 30 were captured. The rest fled. In that moment, on that street corner, 42 years of despair began to dissolve. "We've lost a whole generation to fear," says El Burai. "This was like a rebirth." Women and younger children gingerly stepped out onto the streets, for the first time in their lives free of the state's presence. Strangers embraced, men praised God, and rebels fired their weapons in the air.

As Juan Cole, the liberal Middle East expert who supported NATO intervention, put it: "The secret of the uprising's final days of success lay in a popular revolt in the working-class districts of the capital, which did most of the hard work of throwing off the rule of secret police and military cliques."

This picture of local actions to retake sections of the capital, with little involvement with the West's military offensive, echoes aspects of other accounts that underline the decentralized character of the rebel forces. For example, Patrick Cockburn, writing in the Independent, reported as the capital fell that rebels in Misrata, a city on the Mediterranean that saw some of the most brutal fighting, said they would refuse to take orders from the TNC.

On this basis, author Toufic Haddad, a contributor to Socialist Worker, critiqued SW's editorial on the conquest of Tripoli:

[T]hat the rebellion benefited from NATO support in its insurgency still doesn't mean that the rebellion has lost its way or is a stooge of imperialism. The overwhelming thrust of the rebellion has been paid for by a determined struggle of the Libyan people, who sacrificed perhaps as much as tens of thousands of lives for their freedom. The thought that they would allow the fruits of their rebellion to be so easily snapped up by an ex-regime, pro-West alliance, is unlikely, premature and excessively cynical.

No one can deny that events and political conflicts are still unfolding in Libya, and that they will play out in unpredictable ways. But it's wrong to claim that NATO forces played a subordinate role in the offensive against the capital, as Cole does--or that the rebels can easily separate themselves from the West's military and political efforts.

The evidence of NATO's on-the-ground involvement in Libya is overwhelming. For example, as Gopal points out, the revolutionary military committee that led the Tripoli uprising had, months earlier, "began to covertly train activists in Tripoli's dark back alleys. Some 20 rebels went secretly to Tunisia to meet with figures in the rebels' operations center on the Tunisian island of Djerba, and then went back into the western Libyan mountains to receive training from NATO soldiers and intelligence agents."

Nicholas Pelham, reporting from Libya for the New York Review of Books, described in further detail the NATO/rebel planning from the first intervention to the last uprising:

Hatched in capitals across Europe and the Arab world, as well as in rebel operation rooms secretly organized in Libya itself, the military campaign took four months of planning. In May, exiled opposition leaders abandoned their jobs as lecturers in American colleges and established an intelligence-gathering bureau on Djerba, the Tunisian island across the border from Libya.

Pelham highlighted the role of a number of non-Libyan forces--some from post-revolution Tunisia and Egypt, others from Qatar and Turkey, as well as Special Forces from NATO governments that were deployed inside Libya, despite Western promises not to use ground troops.

In time, we will probably learn more about the precise extent of Western involvement in the operation to conquer Tripoli. But the broader point is this: There is no contradiction in recognizing that the defeat of Qaddafi's forces in Tripoli was made up of battles fought by decentralized rebel forces, accompanied at times by elements of mass popular mobilization--and also understanding that the U.S. and NATO were intimately involved in the wider war the whole time, not just in providing air support, but in driving the overall strategy and the political aims.

Gopal is right in pointing out that the rebels in Tripoli didn't necessarily need NATO to provide them with guns. Qaddafi's opponents were able to obtain those in various ways, including from the old regime itself.

But the rebel forces did need NATO's bombs and missiles. They fell on Tripoli steadily for five months between the start of the air war in March and the fall of Tripoli in August, dropped and fired by Western airplanes that flew an average of 50 sorties every day during that time period.

The battles on the ground, whether outside Tripoli or in the capital's neighborhoods, would have been impossible without NATO's bombs and missiles from the air. On this basis, we believe it's necessary to conclude that the West played a decisive role in the downfall of Qaddafi--a clear contrast with the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia.

And all the while, the West was moving aggressively to shape the political leadership of the opposition to Qaddafi, with an eye to what would happen after he fell.

BEFORE DISCUSSING the rebel forces themselves, it's worth stepping back and considering how this war was sold--and why veteran leftists and anti-imperialists like Gilbert Achcar were convinced that Western military intervention must not be opposed.

The no-fly zone established under UN Resolution 1973, approved last March, was explicitly aimed at protecting civilians--and in particular, those facing a threatened massacre at the hands of security forces in Benghazi. As Achcar put it months after NATO warplanes initiated the bombing campaign:

When Adolphe Thiers' forces took back Paris at the time of the Commune in 1871, with much less lethal weaponry, they killed and executed 25,000 persons. This is the kind of massacre that Benghazi was facing, and that is why I said under such circumstances--when the city's population and the rebellion requested, even implored the UN to provide them with air cover, and in the absence of any alternative--that it was neither acceptable nor decent from the comfort of London or New York to say, "No to the no-fly zone." Those on the left who did so were in my view reacting out of knee-jerk anti-imperialism, showing little care for the people concerned on the ground. That's not my understanding of what it means to be on the left.

But there is much more involved than Achcar's formulations allow. For one thing, even in March, when advocates of NATO intervention insisted that a massacre was at hand, the evidence for their conclusions wasn't clear-cut.

In April, for example, Human Rights Watch reported 257 dead and almost 1,000 injured in the regime's siege of Misrata--probably the hardest-hit city in the regime's counter-attack against the anti-Qaddafi rebellion. While this is a terrible toll and evidence of the regime's criminality, it's a long way from the tens of thousands of dead that advocates for intervention predicted in Benghazi if NATO failed to act.

Phyllis Bennis, the long-time Middle East analyst and antiwar activist--and certainly no mouthpiece for the Qaddafi regime--challenged Juan Cole for claiming the Libyan opposition was defenseless:

In fact, Gaddafi's tanks had already attacked Benghazi and had been driven out by the armed power of the opposition forces--that's why the tanks were outside the city when they were destroyed by the French warplanes.

Was there danger to Benghazi and other parts of the country? Of course. But it is far from certain that the opposition, albeit less well-armed than the government's forces, lacks the power to fight back. We've heard a great deal about military forces who defected with their weapons--in the east apparently, Qaddafi lost the ability to deploy any of his military forces very early on.

Whether a massacre in Benghazi was imminent is unknowable now. But at the very least, the scenarios used to justify Western military intervention were not foregone conclusions. Obviously, Achcar holds very strong opinions about those conclusions--though this is an issue he once argued needed to be debated openly on the left. Ultimately, it does little good to try to shut down that debate with inflammatory accusations about the indecency of anyone who doesn't accept the core of one's position.

There was a larger issue at stake, however. As SocialistWorker.org and others argued, it was inevitable that Western action in Libya wouldn't stop at preventing civilian bloodshed. And indeed, within days, it became clear that the Western air war was being conducted not just to stop threatened massacres, but to weaken the Qaddafi regime, with the ultimate aim of overthrowing it. Indeed, Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron signed a joint article that shifted the aim of the war decisively to regime change.

Challenging advocates of "humanitarian" NATO intervention, British socialist Richard Seymour wrote in August:

I also think it the height of bad faith to ground an argument for intervention of this kind on the premise that a massacre in Benghazi was forthcoming, and this was the only way to stop it. To begin with, if that was the case, and the massacre was stopped, why are the bombs still falling? I'm afraid the logic of this kind of intervention, of indeterminate duration, with indeterminate goals, extends well beyond the management of an immediate emergency, even assuming that the intervention was genuinely motivated by this and that it made all the difference in that respect. There has to be a longer-term objective--but what is it?

If writers like Seymour and we at SW were skeptical about NATO's claims of a "humanitarian" intent, it was because of a long history of imperialist adventures being justified under just such a pretext. For example, NATO justified its 1999 air war against Serbia on the grounds that it was merely protecting Kosovar Albanians. The U.S. and Britain justified 12 years of genocidal sanctions in Iraq, in part, on the need to enforce a "no-fly zone" to protect the Kurdish population in northern Iraq. The list could go on.

Of course, Achcar knows the history Western meddling in the Middle East very well, and he says he is skeptical of NATO's proclaimed goals. In an interview published at ZNet, he noted, "[W]hereas there should have been no illusion whatsoever about the real purpose of NATO, the initial stage of its military action in Libya, i.e., the destruction of Qaddafi's forces concentrated on the outskirts of Benghazi and the destruction of his air force and major missile batteries, should not have been opposed, but only monitored with vigilance in order to denounce any NATO actions exceeding these goals."

But Achcar previously conceded that NATO had exceeded its mandate:

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.

Yet in spite of this conclusion, Achcar didn't call for a halt to NATO's war. On the contrary, in the same article, he characterized the air war against Libya as "low-key" in comparison to earlier NATO adventures in Iraq and Kosovo.

The relative barbarism of Western violence in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya can be debated--but the larger point is that Libya and the downfall of Qaddafi will be rightly associated in most people's minds with U.S.-led wars that targeted strongmen in Iraq and Serbia, not with the popular rebellions that toppled tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt.

The bottom line is this: NATO became the air force for the anti-Qaddafi rebels--a development that was inevitable, in our opinion, from the moment the UN Security Council approved a "no-fly zone"--and nothing the rebels accomplished would remain untainted by that fact.

WHAT IS the picture now in Libya? There are signs of a popular revolution, to be sure, existing alongside more conventional images of civil war, with no connection to mass mobilizations.

This is the product of an uprising with many different components. In Tripoli, for example, Pelham describes neighborhoods with a history of anti-Qaddafi activism, where popular committees emerged to take over the running of essential social and government functions. In other more pro-Qaddafi areas, these aspects of popular power aren't on display.

This is understandable given the disparate forces that came together in opposition to Qaddafi. In a letter to SocialistWorker.org, another observer in the capital described at least six different tendencies of the resistance:

1) Revolutionary leaders in Tripoli who have been directing the movement there since day one, in February, often with little direct contact with NATO; 2) Revolutionaries from Tripoli who have been based outside, in Benghazi, Tunisia or further abroad, and who are returning; 3) Islamist currents, led by prominent clerics; 4) The Benghazi-based, U.S.-backed National Transitional Council (NTC), and particularly the cabinet-like Executive Committee; 5) The Tripoli military forces, themselves split into two factions, one under the command of ex-Islamist Abdel Hakim Belhaj and the other under the control of ex-Qaddafi figures. Belhaj, who was imprisoned and tortured due to the collusion of the U.S. and Qaddafi, has some popular support in eastern Libya, and is believed to be backed by Qatar 6) About 40 rebel kataibas, or brigades, from around the country.

So there are genuinely popular forces that were part of the uprising from its start in February. Also present are long-time oppositionists--some with histories of working with the imperialist powers--returning from exile. Others are recent defectors from the regime who are inclined to work with the West. And there are also opportunists with no real commitment to the revolution, but who, in the first phase of the triumph, are claiming to have supported Qaddafi's overthrow from the beginning.

There is sure to be competition between these groups over the course of post-Qaddafi Libya, now and in the months to come--and supporters of democracy should make it clear that our sympathies lie with forces that stand for independence from the West.

It will take some time to see how these conflicts play out. But one point that can be made for sure now is about the Western governments. They will do everything they can to exert their influence, and because of military intervention, they have numerous forces in Libya to count on as allies.

As many writers rightly point out, the Libyan opposition is broader than the NATO-allied TNC, but the Western role in destroying Qaddafi's heavy weapons and in making the insurrection possible is a trump card that the West will certainly play.

Already, dozens of countries, including the U.S., have recognized the TNC as the legitimate governing authority of Libya. With that recognition comes aid, contracts, non-governmental organization assistance and all of the other "soft-power" weapons in the Western arsenal. Any Libyan political forces without a strong commitment to remaining independent of the West will be lured toward playing a role in a reliable governing elite that will play its assigned part in the neoliberal world order.

As Bennis pointed out in August, TNC President Mustafa Abdul Jalil held a press conference after the triumph in Tripoli in which he:

thanked the international community as a whole but singled out those countries that had been especially supportive of the TNC; the implication was unmistakable that those countries, presumably the United States, other NATO members, and Qatar (whose special forces had trained the TNC's "Tripoli Brigade") could expect closer ties and privileged access to Libyan resources in the future.

As Bennis continued:

That, more than anything else, will determine whether a "new Libya" has a chance of becoming a truly new, unified and sovereign Libya, or whether it just moves from control by a small family-based autocracy to control by outside Western forces more interested in maintaining privileged access to Libya's oil and strategic location than in the human and national rights of Libya's people.

THE TNC will likely have a harder time winning support throughout Libya than it did gaining recognition from European capitals. But even if the TNC doesn't emerge as the leading force in the new Libya, will any other force emerge to champion the interests of working people?

Here, the development of a left and class-based social movement will be crucial. Due to a confluence of circumstances--a history of an economy run as an adjunct of a family-based personality cult, the bizarre notion that Qaddafi was a progressive, and the former regime's massive use of repression--left and pro-labor forces in Libya are tiny and disorganized.

This represents an obvious difference from the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. In Tunisia, a general strike helped bring down the regime. The Egyptian revolution followed years of workers' strikes and protests in which basic organizations of the working class were built up.

One tragic consequence of the absence of a class-based or internationalist opposition was the racist bloodletting against Black Africans conducted by anti-Qaddafi militias. Claiming that Qaddafi had employed Black African mercenaries to defend his rule--an allegation that has been disputed--these militias rounded up and executed untold numbers of Black men of military age. The TNC issued only the most tepid statement against these racist attacks, and the U.S. and its European allies did nothing.

Once again, the difference between the racist attacks on Black Africans in Libya and the conscious efforts of the movement in Cairo's Tahrir Square to unite Christians and Muslims, for example, are stark. The importance of such efforts was highlighted this month by the Egyptian military's savage attack on Coptic Christians.

But these observations underline the difference between a popular revolution and a predominantly military struggle where popular mobilizations were ultimately auxiliary. Independent Palestinian analysis Hani al-Masri, interviewed in the Washington Post, drew out this point:

[The overthrow of Gaddafi] is getting a cautious welcome because it was achieved with foreign intervention rather than by the people themselves, as was the case in Egypt. Some people are calling it liberation through occupation. The Egyptian experience was inspiring. In Libya, we have to wait and see.

Supporters of NATO intervention in Western governments are congratulating themselves for helping Libya to extend the "Arab Spring." Of course, as allies of Qaddafi and Mubarak only months before each was overthrown, this is a rewriting of history. That's one reason to oppose their attempts to use the NATO-backed victory in Libya to rehabilitate themselves as "friends of Arab democracy."

Another is the imperialist designs in the region that lie behind the self-congratulatory rhetoric. The U.S. and Europe have spent decades backing dictators in this part of the world--including Qaddafi, who went from being a favorite target of the West to a valued ally in the U.S. "war on terror." Now the West is trying to line up new political forces emerging from the Arab Spring that it can rely on, and will use whatever political capital it can from its "humanitarian" intervention in Libya.

The aims of imperialism--assuring access to oil and military dominance of the region--have not changed. While posing as friends of democracy, the U.S. and Europe are busily trying to develop relations with Arab elites who will help them fulfill their goals. Those aims--not the aspirations of the Arab masses--are all that matters to the imperialist countries.

Bennis captures this dynamic well in her discussion of the endgame in Libya:

The Libyan uprising began as part of the Arab Spring, with an effort to depose one more Arab dictator. Current developments are moving towards that goal. But the complications of the Libyan Summer, and the consequences of the militarization of its struggle, leave unanswered the question of whether events so far are ultimately a victory for the Libyan people, or for NATO. Given recent models of U.S. and NATO involvement in overthrowing dictatorships, we don't have a lot of examples of how it can be both.

People struggling for democracy and justice around the world have been inspired by the mass revolt against Qaddafi and his regime, as we were by the revolutions that toppled tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt. But the central role of NATO intervention in bringing about Qaddafi's downfall is an established fact, and anti-imperialists in the U.S. and Europe have a duty to challenge the West's attempt to determine Libya's future--and use its war machine to turn back the Arab Spring.

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