In Libya, the End of an Era
Oxford, 23 August 2011
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule in Libya has finally come to an end, and the Libyan people can now hope to reshape their destiny along democratic lines. This, indeed, will be an arduous task, since prolonged dictatorships—and Gaddafi’s was the longest ever in modern Arab history—often leave behind scores of scars and frictions that cannot be expected to overnight heal and bridge. Given that, the foremost challenge before the National Transitional Council (NTC) in post-Gaddafi Libya will be how to effectively steer the initial course of democratisation in the country.

This is the same challenge facing Tunisia and Egypt as two other Arab countries, where the recent wave of democratisation in North Africa and the Middle East called aptly as Arab spring swept away long-standing despotic rulers and regimes. In Libya’s case, however, the prevalence of tribal divisions and the absence of democratic fabric are two distinct factors that make the realization of peaceful political transformation to be a relatively more challenging undertaking. The NTC will need continuing security help from NATO and unwavering political support from UN to let Libya move quickly beyond the Gaddafi era in consolidating the political gains of a violent revolution and kick-starting a genuine nation-building process.

Good Riddance

Without any doubt, the departure of Gaddafi is a good omen for not just the Libyan people but also the Arab Muslim world. It has, indeed, been sickening to see the same faces ruling over their hapless masses amorally and illegitimately, years and decades on. Not just that, each of the despots who has fallen or may so sooner or later has been preparing a son for succession. What each of these rulers, from Mubarak to Ben Ali to Gaddafi made sure was that generations of people under their respective rules might born and demise, but what should remain alive and kicking was the power wielded by them and their kith and kin and cronies. This factor alone has probably been the most obvious expression of stagnation in the Arab Muslim world.

It was in 1969 that Colonel Gaddafi led a group of army officers to stage a bloodless coup against King Idris and capture political power with promises of freedom and progress. He subsequently authored three texts, collectively called as Green Book, offering his political thoughts on issues of governance, social relationship and economic affairs. Gaddafi termed it as a philosophical alternative to Capitalism and Communism. However, a rule that began on an attractive rationale, rooted in the concept of Jamahiriya, meaning people’s rule, took from bad to worse turn with each year that passed after the honeymoon phase of Gaddafi’s reign in the 70s.

To be sure, even despots have benevolent traits. Gaddafi was no exception. Therefore, to argue that he did not do anything for Libya may amount to refuting history of the country as it evolved under his rule. Being the foremost oil-producing nation in North Africa, Libya earned handsome revenue through oil exports. Gaddafi made good use of the state earnings in building a vast civic infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and highways.

The Gaddafi regime can also be credited duly for giving Libyans a miraculous system of irrigating their Saharan desert and supplying clear water to major cities through what is known as the world’s greatest ever Man-Made Irrigation Project. Gaddafi is also loved across sub-Saharan Africa, for his contribution to develop several nations there. This explains why the African Union stood by him until the end, condemning NATO for exceeding the limits of UN Security Council resolution 1973 and offering to mediate a negotiated settlement of the conflict inside Libya.

However, as far as the people of Libya are concerned, Gaddafi’s story is also like most post-colonial rulers, who are initially hailed as liberators but in the end turn out to be worse than colonial masters or Kingdoms following the end of Western colonialism, as was the case in Libya. As years and decades pass, such rulers assume upon themselves the sort of a divine mandate to govern. Even if the Green Book was a revolutionary treatise with secular ideals, it endowed Gaddafi with the self-proclaimed role of a Brother Leader for the Libyans.

Overtime, Libya became synonymous with Gaddafi, and vice versa—with the people of Libya and their inherently legitimate aspirations for freedom, democracy and prosperity taking a secondary position. His sons, friends, and tribesmen were the ones who actually enjoyed his long rule. So much so that Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent Seif al-Islam was able to virtually buy a doctoral degree from the London School of Economics, and would throw parties with pop singers such as Beyoncé performing for him and Gaddafi’s henchmen in private concerts. All of this life of luxury led with Libyan wealth.

In place of an inspiring, charismatic person, which is what Gaddafi was back in the initial years of his rule—merely 27 years old when he took over in 1969—the world eventually saw an erratic, eccentric and unpredictable personality, ridiculing his Arab or Muslim compatriots each time the Arab League or the OIC met. That is why he was gradually ostracised by one Arab and Muslim ruler and regime after another. Eventually, he turned to Africa for support, even recruiting mercenaries from Chad and elsewhere in Africa for suppressing the Libyan population.

Gaddafi never had good relationship with the Western world. The situation improved after Nelson Mandela helped sort out the Lockerbie issue in the late 90s, with Libya officially accepting responsibility for the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland and handing over its principal suspect and Libyan intelligence official Abdel Basset al-Megrahi for trial in the Netherlands. He was also opportunistic enough to take a lesson from Saddam Hussain’s humiliating capture and agree soon afterwards to shipload the entire Libyan nuclear programme to the United States. For the sake of saving his skin, Gaddafi did not care for the interest of a country like Pakistan where he has always enjoyed public respect.

As we know now, America and its European allies neither seemed to have forgotten nor forgiven what Gaddafi’s Libya did to them especially in the 70s and 80s. A couple of notable instances involving Libya’s active campaign to directly target Western interests, besides the Lockerbie disaster, include the arming of the IRA and the bombing of a Berlin night club bombing, which compelled Ronald Reagan to call him a Mad Dog of the Middle East and launch an air strike on his Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli in 1986.

NATO’s Role

February of this year presented the greatest opportunity for the West to take its revenge against Gaddafi’s Libya: the process began as soon as the people in Benghazi started to revolt. The UN Security Council was taken on broad with two consecutive resolutions, including resolution 1973 that paved the way for the imposition of a non fly zone by NATO apparently to protect civilians from Gaddafi regime’s air and ground assault. Actually, the Western alliance provided the much-needed security cover to armed rebels, paving the way for their consistent military successes against Gaddafi’s army in the last six months—until the fall of Tripoli as Gaddafi regime’s last stronghold in the capital.

It can be reasonably argued that in the absence of military support from NATO, the public rebellion against Gaddafi regime might have continued for many more months or even years. Libya’s case might have been the same as that of Syria, where the military arsenal at the disposal of Bashr al-Asad regime is so vast and massive that, without external intervention supporting an internal armed revolt, the ability of a sea of people that we see almost daily protesting non-violently in Syria’s city streets and squares to depose its despotic ruler and regime is extremely limited.

NATO’s role in liberating Libya from Gaddafi is no doubt questionable: for the mandate it acquired from the Security Council was only to protect civilians and not to shield armed rebels. What NATO calls a humanitarian intervention in Libya also forces us to review the way international law has historically evolved and operated, and rethink the provisions of inter-state conduct enshrined in the UN Charter. The duality of Western diplomatic conduct in the Arad world is also clear from NATO’s active engagement in Libya’s case, the West’s cautious stand on the Syria uprising and the covert US support to Saudi Arabia to subvert non-violent populist revolts in Yemen and Bahrain.

The West also courted Gaddafi in recent years, despite charges of terrorism against him in he past—with Tony Blair spending time with the Libyan dictator in Tripoli negotiating favourable trade terms, a reason often cited as responsible for the release of el-Megrahi. Berlusconi became his personal friend. Sarkozy made sure the Libyan dictator visiting Paris in 2007 was housed in a Bedouin tent inside the Elysee palace.

So, when amid the popular Libyan upsurge, Moussa Ibrahim, the Gaddafi regime’s spokesman and most visible face in the last six months, would often cite instances of duality on the part of Western regimes, he was hardly off the mark. So was the case when Seif al-Islam protested the freezing of Libyan assets by Western governments, exposing them as having no qualms in dealing with Gaddafi when he was powerful, and destroying him when he became weak.

Such criticism may be correct, but the problem here is that person levelling it also did not conduct himself differently. The disconnect of Gaddafi’s heir apparent from Libyan people was starkly visible the day 95 per cent of Tripoli fell into rebel hands. On TV screens, he was still seen waving before a handful of supporters in the city, believing and claiming that a massive counter-revolution had already set in motion against the rebels.

That America and Europe have acted above and beyond the confines of the prevailing norms of international diplomacy specifically in Libya’s case is also because of the lucrative commercial interests associated with the North African nation’s vast oil reserves. That is why we see US-British, Italian, French and Qatari oil giants queueing up before rebel leadership in Benghazi to win contracts from NTC as soon as Gaddafi’s rule crumbled in Tripoli. There is no doubt that Libyan oil played a key role in determining NATO’s violation of UN resolution 1973. An oil-less Libya might have been the last place where NATO would have committed itself for a humanitarian intervention.

Road Ahead

All of these charges of duality in practicing diplomacy and intervening for the sake of sheer commercial interests on the part of the West, however, cannot overshadow the grand reality of a regime that retained power for full 42 years. The road to new political transformation in Libya, just as in the case of Tunisia and Egypt—and probably in Syria and beyond in the Arab Muslim world—may not be steady. Of course, it will be difficult for Libya's transitional setup and the government that comes to power through first-ever elections to people’s aspirations in a country where decades-long despotic rule has created so many pent-up grievances. Then, it is always possible in a tribal setting such as Libya’s, that those long denied power and privilege started to take revenge from those—in this case, Gaddafi’s tribe from hometown Sirte and its chief allies. What if the fall of Gaddafi leads to such anarchic outcome in the shape of a civil war?

This is an eventuality that may require the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Libya. In short, a far more difficult task in Libya than winning the war will be how to make peace, especially with those who may still remain loyal to the former ruler for whatever reason even after his fall.

As for Gaddafi and his sons, and a few close associates of the former regime, they need to be held accountable for their deeds, but only in a court of law—whether in Libya or at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The rule of law and accountability are core democratic principles that Libya’s transitional leadership should abide by. Otherwise, if the rebels also behave as mercilessly as the custodians of the Gaddafi regime did, then they will themselves demolish the very meaningful struggle that brought the Libyan nation to the current hopeful state, after lifting it up from the abyss of decades-long depression and suffering.

To conclude, NATO’s role in the demise of Gaddafi was critical, yet controversial. However, if the end result is the possibility that real power in Libya may eventually come in the hands of its people, then it is welcome news. All of the faces that historically epitomise Muslim world stagnation must disappear from the scene. It is only then that we can expect the beginning of a credible political, social and economic transformation of the Arab world—which is politically the most backward of the Muslim regions and where only a few families, and their friend and cronies have dominated political scene for decades, without any legitimacy and morality.

The commentary was published in weekly Pulse Magazine, August 26-September 1, 2011. It can be accessed at