In October 2011 the corrupt and repressive regime of Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya by a set of rebel forces backed by NATO.  Very quickly the country descended into chaos, broken up into a series of areas run by rival warlords and their militias.  The Libyan people have paid a high price for their ‘liberation’.  The following article was written a year later, in October 2012, and explains what happened and why.  The article has certainly been confirmed by events since.

After NATO, another key imperialist institution, the United Nations, began playing a central role in the ongoing chaos.  Now a new peace deal is supposed to unite the country behind a single parliament – two parliaments emerged after the overthrow of Gaddafi – and a government has been appointed.  The prospects of peace, let alone peace and prosperity, seem very limited however.  Once again Western intervention has wreaked havoc.

by Workers Fight

_81052882_libya_strikes_624v2On October 23rd it will have been exactly one year since Libya was officially declared “free” by the governments of the imperialist powers, after seven months of “humanitarian” carpet bombing which they carried under the official pretext of protecting the Libyan population from Gaddafi’s guns.

However, if it was not for the inconvenient death, right in the middle of the American presidential campaign, of the US ambassador in Libya and three of his diplomatic staff, killed by gunmen in Benghazi, on September 11th this year, Libya’s dire situation would have been left under the carpet where it was swept many months ago.

Apparently the Obama administration had at first hoped that this killing could be explained away as the collateral damage of a wave of protests which had been taking place at the time throughout the Middle-East and beyond, following the release of a US video accused of “insulting Islam”.

But any cover-up would have been immediately exposed, since the diplomats had obviously been killed as a result of well-organised rocket attacks on two US facilities in Benghazi. Instead of a fanatical mob going mad, this was a serious military operation against a western power, which had been planned in advance to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New-York. And this, in a country whose population was supposedly eternally grateful to the US for its help in overthrowing Gaddafi’s dictatorship!

While US politicians of all shades were bickering over the lack of protection given to diplomatic personnel, what these developments really exposed, once again, was the myth of the West’s “humanitarian” intervention in Libya. Just as in Iraq and Afghanistan, “regime change” in Libya was carried out by Western bombs – the main difference being that, this time, it had been done at a minimal political, material and human cost for the imperialist powers. But just as in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Pandora’s box was opened in the process. The brutal rule of the previous dictator was just replaced by the no less brutal rule of rival militias vying for power. Meanwhile, the Libyan population, which the West’s “humanitarian” intervention was supposed to protect, is once again at the receiving end of this brutality.

The setting up an alternative state machinery

On October 23rd, 2011, when Libya was officially declared “free”, following Gaddafi’s execution and the fall of the last strongholds of his regime, there were celebrations in western capitals. For once, it seemed that a western military intervention had gone according to plan without causing a backlash. Western leaders were quick to claim the high moral ground for having restored “democracy” in Libya. In the US, for instance, a former staff member of the state Department from the Bush era even praised Obama in the coded jargon of US diplomacy by writing that “Libya had demonstrated the viability of a well-implemented Responsibility to Protect intervention”.

Yet, within weeks of this “victory for democracy”, another kind of “demonstration” could be seen in Libya. Demonstrations were taking place in the streets of Tripoli on an almost daily basis, to protest against the brutality of the brigades of “thuwwars” (revolutionaries) which were now roaming the streets of the main towns in heavily-armed pick-ups, imposing their rule on people under the pretext of hunting down “Gaddafi loyalists”, while waging a bloody turf war between themselves. All evidence pointed to the fact that, instead of the idyllic “democracy” hailed by western governments, bloody chaos was emerging out of the ashes of Gaddafi’s regime.

Obviously, this was not what the western powers had hoped for. Democratic freedoms for the Libyan population were never really on their agenda, neither during Gaddafi’s long rule, nor during their military intervention. But the one thing they wanted to avoid was a power vacuum and the political chaos which would inevitably follow, after the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime, as had happened in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In this respect the imperialist powers were confronted with a major problem: they had no insiders, nor influence, among the ruling circles of Gaddafi’s repressive apparatus. So they could not rely on the Libyan army to push the dictator out while keeping everything else under control, which is the pattern which had been followed some of the other countries affected by the so-called “Arab Spring” (such as Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, for instance). Overthrowing Gaddafi could only be achieved through the disintegration of this army and, in order to fill the vacuum, some sort of embryonic state machinery “in waiting” had to be built.

This was the purpose assigned to the National Transitional Council (NTC), which was set up in Benghazi on February 27th 2011 and immediately recognised by the main western powers. While the majority of its members were unknown characters, except maybe to western secret services, if they had lived in exile for decades, the NTC leadership was a known quantity. Its chief was one of Gaddafi’s former Justice ministers, Mustafa Abdul Jalil. It included an ex-Interior minister, general Abdul Fatah Younis – who was to head the new Libyan army – and a former head of the regime’s National Economic Development Board. These high-ranking individuals from Gaddafi’s ruling circles were expected to encourage leading figures of the regime to defect. Western governments spared no effort in trying to entice regime dignitaries – especially Libyan diplomats – to side with the NTC. At the same time the western bombing campaign was meant, among other things, to convince Gaddafi’s officers that they were on the losing side, and that they would have everything to gain by defecting with their men and weapons before it was too late.

However, this strategy did not prove as successful as was hoped – at least not in the army. While a few army units switched sides, together with their officers and heavy weaponry they were mostly from Cyrenaica, the eastern province around Benghazi. But in most units, especially in Gaddafi’s strongholds around Tripoli and Sirte, the officer caste remained behind the regime and the soldiers who joined the rebels did so in relatively small, isolated groups, taking with them their own weapons, but no heavy equipment. Instead of providing the NTC with a solid, ready-made skeleton for a its future army, most of these soldiers returned individually to their native towns, where they either returned to civilian life or joined the local militias which had began to emerge.

The mushrooming of the militias

Most of these militias were formed in the name of defending the specific interests of one town, or sometimes even just one urban district. Others were organised by businessmen who were rich enough to buy the required weapons and provide for their men – who they used primarily as their own private armies.

Other militias were set up by political currents pursuing their own objectives. Among these currents were different brands of provincial and ethnic separatists, from the eastern province of Cyrenaica and the southern province of Fezzan, in particular. But probably the most active of these currents came out of splinter groups originating from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – a Salafist armed organisation set up in 1990 by returnees from the “jihad” against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The LIFG had been brutally repressed by Gaddafi in the 1990s and the organisation itself had been effectively destroyed. But it had survived in the form of a number of more or less rival small groups, which all claimed the heritage of the LIFG for themselves as well as its martyrs, whether underground in Libya itself or in exile.

In any case, these militias had their own priorities, which did not always coincide with the NTC’s agenda, nor even with the requirements of the war against Gaddafi’s forces. In particular, right from their inception, political and local rivalries – if not, personal rivalries – often made co-operation between these militias quite complicated, if not totally impossible.

Whether the NTC command was able to use these militias effectively in combat depended entirely on the goodwill of their self-proclaimed commanders. And few of them took orders without question- . The resulting total chaos among the rebel forces accounted for much of their slow progress against the regime, despite the western bombing of Gaddafi’s forces and positions.

When the dictatorship finally collapsed, more due to western bombs than to the fighting capacity of the rebels, these militias were suddenly promoted to the status of “heroes of the revolution”. Taking advantage of the disarray prevailing among the remains of the former regime’s police and army, they took over the existing stocks of weapons and used these weapons to occupy official buildings and impose their own appointees to official positions. This was seldom a smooth process as, especially in the largest cities, several rival militias were vying for the role of top dog – resulting in numerous armed confrontations in the street.

At the same time the checkpoints manned by the militias and their arbitrary arrests of alleged “pro-Gaddafi suspects”, whose main purpose seemed to be to extract heavy ransom, disguised as “fines”, from the relatives of arrested “suspects”, became part of the day-to-day life of the population. There were more and more reports of beatings and tortures inflicted on “suspects”. Many people “disappeared” after being arrested, either because they were killed after failing to pay the required “fine” or because they were kept in one of the clandestine jails that the largest militias have established – in January this year, the UN estimated that the militias illegally held 7,000 detainees in their prisons.

The downfall of Gaddafi’s regime did not stop the development of the militias. On the contrary, they experienced a meteoric growth. By June this year, it was estimated that 400 different militias existed across the country, probably five times more than in October last year. A number of these, of course, had been formed by traffickers, smugglers and gangsters of all kinds, for whom a militia was merely a convenient way of concealing criminal activities.

Moreover, in a country whose economy had come to a virtual standstill and where over one third of the population of working age had no source of income, membership of a militia provided both social status and a source of income, even if only modest. This was even more the case when, by April this year, the NTC announced a scheme involving the payment of a one-off bonus for all “thuwwars”. Predictably, the scheme attracted around 10 times as many applications as the estimated number of “thuwwars” involved in the civil war. But all applications had to be sponsored by one “recognised” militia or another – which must have allowed them to boost their recruitment even more. In the end, however, the scheme had to be abandoned due to the blatant fraud it was generating.

In short, no sooner had the dust of the so-called “revolution” against Gaddafi settled, than the chaos of the militias’ rule settled in, leading to many protests over the following months, similar to those already mentioned in Tripoli.

From militias to security contractors

The NTC’s western advisers were determined to avoid a repetition of one of the catastrophic mistakes made in Iraq – the “de-Baathification” of the army and police, which had paralysed the repressive machinery of the Iraqi state, while pushing tens of thousands of its members into the arms of the forces fighting the occupation. Of course, there was no occupation in Libya. But there was still the risk of an armed opposition to the NTC emerging out of the remnants of the defunct regime’s state machinery. So, the western governments urged the NTC to maintain the role and apparatuses of Gaddafi’s police and army, without too many questions asked, while the militias were to be progressively integrated into their ranks.

However, this was easier said than done. As a result of the western bombing campaign, many army units had disintegrated. The units which were still intact by the end of the campaign had dispersed after the regime’s collapse, for fear of retribution, and so had a large part of Gaddafi’s police and gendarmerie. More importantly, the main militias, many of which could now line up dozens of tanks and other heavy weaponry, were determined to have a decisive political role of their own in the new Libya.

Besides, it was out of the question for the militias to agree to operate under the authority of former senior officials from Gaddafi’s regime. Not that this was anything new, in fact: the murder of the NTC’s defence minister, Gaddafi’s ex-Interior minister Younis, in July (probably by members of an Islamic militia, although they never admitted responsibility) and the subsequent protracted process of finding a replacement for his post, had already shown the extent to which the militias were prepared to go in order to retain their autonomy and to impose their will on the new regime.

So, the NTC changed tack and instead of trying to pour the water into the bottle, they decided to try to fit the bottle around the water. In other words, instead of integrating the militias into a new army with an appointed officer staff, the NTC sub-contracted military tasks to the militias – turning them into the de facto army of the regime – and then tried to appoint former high-ranking officers, first as advisers to these militias and, much later on, as commanding officers.

At the end of 2011, the NTC set up a new body called the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) which was supposed to coordinate policing tasks across the country, under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. In reality, however, the SSC was a patchwork of militias – some of which were just local armed groups, while others were large groups with a political agenda – to whom policing work was to be subcontracted. In return for maintaining order around the country on behalf of the NTC and using its authority, these militias were awarded funds to pay their fighters a salary slightly higher than the average wage. This was designed to be an incentive to encourage militias to work for the government rather than remain independent.

Likewise, military tasks, especially in the hinterland and alongside the country’s borders, were sub-contracted some time later to two groupings of militias, both operating under the control of the Ministry of Defence. The largest of the two, the “Libyan Shield”, which comprised seven militias, included the main armed groups from the towns of Misrata and Zintan, in the Tripoli province. In reality, this was merely institutionalising the state of affairs left by the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, because according to a study published in June, the Misrata militia on its own controlled more than half of the country’s heavy weapons, including 820 tanks! Being incapable of regaining control of these heavy weapons from the militias which held them, the NTC simply declared that these militias would form its official army!

The militias at work

This sub-contracting of police and military tasks has resulted in an endless series of intractable – and often bloody – conflicts, and still does at the time of writing. Because it is one thing to give a mission to militia commanders and it is quite another to get them to fulfil it. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But even when they do intervene as requested, it may be in a way which is very different from what was intended.

One example among many others is provided by the repeated interventions of the Libyan Shield around Sabha, in southern Libya, where it was meant to stop an on-going turf war waged by local Arab militias against the Toubous, a black African ethnic group which is split between Libya, Chad, Niger and Sudan. In several towns the Toubous were forced to flee by the Arab militias. But each time, when the Libyan Shield was requested to intervene and provide protection to the Toubous, its militias took the side of their aggressors.

These militias often simply ignore the orders they receive. For a long time, for instance, Tripoli’s international airport was officially controlled by the Zintan militia belonging to the Libyan Shield, which used it as a launching pad for its own activities – controlling passports and filtering visitors according to its own criteria and, above all, raising its own duties on certain imported goods. After months of painstaking negotiations and several failed deals, the NTC finally got the Zintan militia to withdraw. On paper, the old Libyan airport police was supposed to take over from there. In reality, as Libyan airport officials recalled later, the militia men just changed their uniforms, re-painted their cars in the official red and white and… remained in control of the airport. And who had the confidence, or the capacity, to dislodge them?

What is true for the Libyan Shield is just as true for the SSC. Several of its components are Islamic militias led by former cadres of the LIFG who are pursuing their own political agenda independently from the orders they are supposed to follow. In May this year, for instance, one of these militias kidnapped and tortured a prominent Ministry of Health official with whom it was in dispute, ignoring direct orders from the Ministry of Interior to release him and pleas from the Health ministry. More recently, in September, SSC militias intervened in a series of attacks staged by Salafist groups against Sufi shrines and mosques in central Tripoli. But these militias did not intervene to protect these shrines, but on the contrary to protect the attackers while they were bulldozing the shrines and beating up Sufi protesters.

In general, whether they are part of the bodies officially put in place by the NTC or not, the militias have been particularly prominent in hunting down hundreds of thousands of foreign workers who had remained in Libya after the end of the war. The militias have closed down refugee camps which had been set up by NGOs in order to provide a shelter for displaced foreigners. Many of these foreigners have been arrested, jailed and tortured, under the charge of being Gaddafi supporters. And this is an on-going manhunt which has never stopped over the past year. As recently as October 21st, Egyptian families who had settled many years ago in Bani Walid, a town located 115 miles south-east of Tripoli, were being forced at gunpoint by local militias to leave their houses and to flee towards the capital.

As to the endless series of terrorist attacks which have taken place in the main Libyan towns over the past year, most of which have been duly attributed to “Gaddafi loyalists” or to Al-Qaeda by the NTC, every Libyan knows that they are carried out by these same militias – including by those which have won the NTC’s official recognition. Whether their targets are foreigners and foreign dignitaries, or whether they are official buildings and NTC appointees, these attacks all have the same objective – to maintain a climate of terror among the population which justifies the need for the militias and their guns to remain on the streets, to “protect the revolution” against its enemies, whoever they may be.

From NTC to GNC – rotten regimes

The NTC was certainly not a reluctant victim of the militias even if it failed to act because it was paralysed by its impotence. That it did not have the resources to counter easily the rising power of the militias is probably true. But it did not have the political will either.

A significant number of NTC members where themselves Islamic fundamentalists or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had personal or political links with one or another of the main militias. Leading figures of the Ministry of the Interior appointed by the NTC to control the SSC were known to have Islamic sympathies. If the NTC never challenged the Islamic militias, which were the most vicious of the whole lot, it was not just because it did not dare to do so, but also because, for many NTC members, these militias were a political instrument of choice.

The NTC went repeatedly through the motions of ordering the militias to relinquish their weapons and even of banning them altogether. Deadlines were announced and passed without anything ever happening. Meanwhile insecurity remained for the population, together with the militias on the streets and their on-going in-fighting. And for weeks and months the NTC found nothing to say.

If only for that reason, the NTC would have quickly discredited itself. But there were many other reasons, for its lack of credit, particularly its chronic corruption and incompetence.

At the end of 2011 for instance, the NTC announced that its 2012 budget would involve $53bn worth of expenditure. This was meant to involve a scheme designed to provide medical treatment for those injured during the war, training and job opportunities for young “thuwwars” and a vast programme of essential rebuilding work.

However, none of that happened. Instead, by August, most of the budget announced remained unspent. Public sector wages and pensions had been substantially increased on paper, but they had not been paid for months. New jobs had been created and employees hired, but they had neither work nor pay. The essential rebuilding work announced had not materialised. As to the Gaddafi era housing projects which had not been hit by western bombs, they were now falling into disrepair because the foreign contractors who had started working on them were refusing to return to a country “run by shadowy gunmen”, as the Financial Times correspondent put it, while the NTC had failed to do anything about them.

The NTC kept boasting, together with the western media, that oil production was returning to its pre-war level. Officially, by August, government oil revenue had reached $5bn per month. But it seemed as if that flow of cash was blocked in some bureaucratic pipeline – or, maybe, as a growing number of Libyans suspected, as if it was channelled into the politicians’ own pockets. In any case, it was nowhere to be seen and discontent kept growing.

Last year, elections had been announced to replace the self-appointed NTC. They were planned for this June. In the end, they had to be held in July, due to the huge number of candidates (3,700 actually stood) and the large number of who were disqualified because of their links with the previous regime.

The country had been divided into 73 constituencies represented by a total of 120 deputies, who were meant to stand as individuals without any party affiliation. In addition, there were 80 seats allocated to political parties, which were to be filled in proportion to the votes scored by the national lists presented by registered parties.

The result of the election went against all expectations. Opinion polls and political commentators had predicted a clear win for the Justice and Construction Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which appeared to be the best organised, the most visible and the largest party in the country. But in fact, the clear winner in this election was the National Forces Alliance, a coalition led by the former head of Gaddafi’s National Economic Development Board, Mahmoud Jibril. The NFA had, however, appeared as being one of the least the least focused on religion. By contrast, while the Muslim Brotherhood came second, but well behind the winner, none of the other parties managed to win more than 3 seats – especially not the three Islamic fundamentalist parties which won only one seat each.

Drawing conclusions from this result is obviously difficult from a distance and without knowing enough about what voters actually expected from it. But it would seem that the results expressed the exasperation of an electorate in the face of a drastic deterioration in their situation and their desire to see a return, not to Gaddafi’s regime, of course, but to some sort of normality, in the economy and in the streets.

That being said, the fact that the new General National Congress (GNC) includes a majority of deputies elected as independent, makes the situation far more complicated to assess, because no-one knows which parties they support, if any. In any case, the GNC is clearly not going to act fast judging from the time it is taking to agree on a new government. Already it has elected and sacked one prime minister whom the deputies eventually found to be too close to the Islamic parties for their liking. On 14 October it finally elected a new prime minister, Ali Zidan – a human rights lawyer who was elected as an independent and who is considered to be a “secular liberal”. But Zidan still has to get the GNC to endorse his government, which is not a done deal.

Chaos spreading inside and outside

The reasons why the GNC is taking such a long time to get its act together have, again, something to do with the rule of the militias, or rather with the underlying centrifugal forces which many of them have been whipping up in order to justify their existence and boost their influence.

Right from the very early days of the uprising against Gaddafi, demands for regional autonomy, or even independence, featured high on the agenda of the protesters and, subsequently, the insurgents. This was particularly true in the original stronghold of the uprising – Cynenaica, the region around Benghazi, where protesters claimed to have been discriminated against for far too long under Gaddafi.

Since the fall of Gaddafi, demands for regional autonomy, federalism and regional independence, have gained even more importance. And the election for the GNC has been one more opportunity for these demands to be raised, despite all the precautions taken in the distribution of the seats to guarantee a more or less proportional representation to each of the country’s three provinces and its various districts.

So, in March, militia commanders from Cyrenaica, who were unhappy with the 60 seats allocated to the province in the GNC (as opposed to 100 for Tripoli province and 40 for the southern province, Fezzan), joined forces to declare a semi-autonomous region, which they called Barqa (the Arabic name of the province). Two months later, in the run-up to the GNC election, the militia affiliated to the resulting self-proclaimed Barqa Transitional Council blocked the Tripoli-Benghazi road to all military and commercial traffic.

Cyrenaica has long been a hotbed of separatism – going way back in Libya’s history. But now there are smaller regions, or even towns, where the local ruling militias are institutionalising the powers they have won for themselves by raising demands for autonomy or, at least, better representation in the GNC.

For instance, on 4 October, armed demonstrators from the western town of Zawiyah (30 miles west of Tripoli) stormed a GNC meeting and occupied the building in protest against what they considered as inadequate representation of their town. Potentially more ominous was a report by the Guardian correspondent, in June, for instance, about the huge placards at the entrance of the western port-town of Misrata which read “Welcome to the Republic of Misrata”. And this was more than just a symbol. Located on Misrata’s territory is Qasr Ahmed, Libya’s largest container harbour. Since the militias have taken over control of Misrata, this harbour has been run as an autonomous entity, without taking any notice of existing legislation and without paying a penny of its income to the central government!

In southern Libya, a militia aiming at defending the specific interests of the Toubou population was formed during the uprising against Gaddafi – the Toubou Front for the Salvation of Libya (TFSL). Unlike the other militias, the TFSL had some real justification to exist: not only had the Toubous been deprived of their Libyan citizenship by Gaddafi, in 2008, but they were the targets of ethnic cleansing attempts by local Arab strong men. A similar situation has developed around the western town of Zuwara whose predominantly ethnic Berber population is constantly under attack from neighbouring Arab militias.

Not only are centrifugal forces at work in Libya itself, which, given the rivalries between the militias, could tear the country apart, but some of these centrifugal forces are also directly affecting neighbouring countries.

In fact, the Libyan civil war has already had catastrophic consequences for many of its bordering countries, especially on its southern border. UN figures show that an estimated 420,000 people have returned from Libya to Sub-Saharan Africa since the beginning of 2011 (200,000 to Niger, 150,000 to Chad, 30,000 to Mali and 40,000 to Mauritania), resulting in additional strain on these countries and an increase in trafficking and smuggling across the borders.

But in addition, the massive quantities of weapons which have become available in Libya, both those supplied by the NATO and Middle-Eastern allies during the war and those released by the collapse of Gaddafi’s army, have boosted enormously the arsenal of militias operating in neighbouring countries. In northern Mali, in particular, the local Islamic fundamentalist militias which have links with their opposite number in Libya, have been able to raise their profile and wreak havoc, thanks to this new source of weapons. In Syria too, although not a neighbour of Libya, Islamic militias armed and trained in Libya are currently taking part in the civil war against the Assad regime.

No-one knows how far the chaos unleashed in Libya, with the assistance of the imperialist bombs, will spread in the region nor what long-term consequences it will have in Libya. As far as Libya itself is concerned, there is, at least, one element of optimism: the reaction of the population of Benghazi against the latest wave of terrorist attacks in their town, on 21 September, when large crowds of protesters stormed the barracks of two of the most notorious Islamic militias and drove them out of the town. This may be a starting point. But it will certainly take a lot more than that – a far deeper and more radical mobilisation of the masses against these armed gangs, the politicians who use their services and this exploitative system which provides a fertile ground for such poisonous outgrowths, to rid the country of the dictatorship of the militias.

The article above first appeared in the British Marxist journal Class Struggle (Oct/Dec 2012); see here

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