Libya - The balance sheet of imperialist aggression

Jan/Mar 2012

Since the gruesome pictures of colonel Gaddafi's execution were shown on television, on October 20th last year, Libya seems to have all but disappeared from the radar of the British media. And much the same can be said of British ministers.

Or, to be more accurate, the only references to Libya which have been re-emerging in the media lately, had more to do with the ties maintained by the British secret services, MI5 and MI6 with their opposite numbers under Gaddafi and how these services, together with the CIA, helped one another in the "rendition" of alleged "terror" suspects. Given this, no wonder British ministers are not too keen to focus attention on Libya these days, especially as these allegations against the British secret services come from the very top ranks of the former anti-Gaddafi rebels that they helped into power!

Yet, last October, Western leaders fell over themselves in publicly welcoming Gaddafi's long-awaited death, with almost obscene glee.

In Britain, Philip Hammond, who had just been appointed to head the MoD, revealed the petty mercantile face of imperialism. In a statement to the BBC, after hailing the "hugely successful" British mission in Libya, he invited British bosses to put on their travelling salesmen kit: "I would expect British companies, even British sales directors, [to be] packing their suitcases and looking to get out to Libya (..) as soon as they can".

Meanwhile, in the US, president Obama chose to impersonate the Great Power face of imperialism, when he stated that Gaddafi's death meant that "we are seeing the strength of American leadership across the world". Meanwhile, on a more practical note, US vice-president Joe Biden was declaring: "In this case, America spent $2 billion and didn't lose a single life. This is more the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has in the past". So whoever happens not to be in the good books of the imperialist world order should be warned: like Gaddafi, they should expect a Predator missile remotely controlled from a US Air Force base in Arizona to be fired at them by a US drone!

By then, all the song and dance about the western "humanitarian mission" to protect civilians from the dictator's gunfire, which had justified the UN/NATO military intervention from March 17th last year, had been forgotten.What both governments were celebrating, together with their French and Italian imperialist allies, was the success of the real, unspoken objective of their military intervention in Libya - regime change.

The question that remained open, though, and still remains to date, is - what kind of regime would come out of this intervention.

Imperialism and the Middle East crisis

First, one has to go back to the reasoning which presided over the decision of the imperialist powers to launch a military intervention in order to get rid of Gaddafi, in the first place.

It was certainly not the ruthless nature of Gaddafi's dictatorship which bothered the imperialist leaders. There is no shortage of brutal dictators, in the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa, enjoying their unwavering support. And after all, ever since 9/11, Gaddafi had been a useful partner for the imperialist powers, not just in business terms, but also in security matters, as the "rendition" scandal is now showing. Moreover, Gaddafi's policy of locking up Sub-Saharan migrants passing through Libya, in prison camps, was helping to police the borders of "Fortress Europe" against the flow of poor Africans. What more could the imperialist powers, especially Europe's minor imperialist powers, have wished for?

However, there was a political context - the wave of protests which had developed across the Middle-East and North Africa since the end of 2010. Back in February 2011, when demonstrators first took to the streets of Libya, these protests had already resulted in the downfall of dictatorships which had been in place for decades in Tunisia and Egypt. By that time, things seemed to have gone quiet in Jordan, Algeria and Morocco and although the situation was still chaotic in tiny Bahrain, the troops sent by Saudi Arabia were there to ensure that it did not get out of hand. But bloody clashes were taking place in Yemen and angry protests were gathering momentum in Syria - two countries with substantial populations of over 20 million, which occupied strategic positions in the Middle East.

In several of these countries, the dictators targeted by the protesters were longstanding stooges of imperialism and their regimes were vital cogs in the imperialist system of domination over the region.

But then, this was a highly sensitive region, in which over a century of imperialist meddling had built up a powder keg which had long been waiting to explode. Intervening militarily to shore up pro-western dictators whose regimes had generated so much hatred that hundreds of thousands were prepared to face the bullets of the police in the streets, was just too risky for the imperialist powers.

In the case of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, however, the imperialist powers could rely on trusted men among the military. Many of their high-ranking officers had been trained in western military academies - mostly in the US - and had remained in close contact with western military advisers, especially as these countries were in receipt of a large amount of western military aid. To that extent, it did not matter much for the imperialist leaders if their past protégés at the head of these countries were overthrown, as long as their armies remained in control. There was even some advantage in getting rid of characters like Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Saleh in Yemen, who, over decades of dictatorship, had become excessively greedy in their dealings with western multinationals, for the benefit of their private business empires.

It was no coincidence, therefore, if in these three countries, the army hierarchy quickly adopted a policy of standing above the confrontation between the regime and the protesters and even, on occasion, pretended to be "protecting" demonstrators against the regime's thugs. This allowed the military to step in when the situation reached tipping point and it became safer to get the ruling dictator to go. The army was, therefore, able to take over with the support of a significant section of the population, thanks to the illusions created by their policy during the clashes, thereby ensuring the continuity of a state machinery that the imperialist powers knew they could rely upon.

Such "controlled overthrow" of the ruling dictators had the added advantage of allowing the imperialist powers to carry on pulling the strings from behind the scenes and to avoid becoming the target of the protesters. On the other hand, there was also a drawback to this strategy, in that, in the victorious atmosphere created by the dictators' downfall, it could fuel the illusion among the protesters that they had gained a new independence from imperialism, and generate the desire to take advantage of this assumed independence. It was not for nothing if, long before the overthrow of the Egyptian and Tunisian dictators, the US and British navy ostentatiously increased their profile in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, even if they were careful to avoid any threatening moves.

Libya - an opportunistic intervention

When Libyan protestors took to the streets in February, to meet the brutal repression of the regime, the imperialist powers were faced, at first, with a problem.

Although Gaddafi had been a partner of the imperialist powers for a number of years, they did not have the same kind of influence over the Libyan army as with the armies of the other regional dictatorships. This was partly due to the fact that this partnership had only been re-established recently, partly due to Gaddafi's suspicions towards the western powers and partly due, also, to the fact that, thanks to his oil revenues, Gaddafi did not need western military assistance to fund his military machine. So the imperialist powers had no "relay" personnel in positions of power inside the Libyan state machinery, and therefore no strings to pull to ensure the continuity of state power, nor to guarantee the future loyalty of the state to their interests, in case Gaddafi was overthrown.

The only solution to this problem had to be some form of intervention designed to shape the outcome of the political crisis, whatever it was. But whereas this could not have been considered as a serious option in the case of Egypt, for instance, it could, in the case of Libya. Indeed, Libya had a much smaller population than the region's other troubled dictatorships, with only 5.5m inhabitants (half of the population of Tunisia), plus 1m illegal immigrants who were deprived of any rights. Besides, for a mixture of historical, political and geographical reasons, Libya had far fewer links with neighbouring countries. So an intervention in Libya would have only limited repercussions in the region. Besides, if the first weeks of protests were anything to go by, the scale and depth of the protest movement seemed significantly less than it had been in Egypt or Tunisia.

Due to these combined factors, it seems that the imperialist leaders saw the events in Libya as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone with a military intervention - by shaping the outcome of the political crisis according to their needs, while reasserting their regional domination at a minimal political and military cost by making a demonstration of strength. Moreover, by appearing to intervene on the side of the protesters against Gaddafi's repression, they could even hope to win some support for their policy of aggression at home (no-one can forget Cameron's posturing as a champion of the Libyan protesters!) but also, even, among a section of the region's population.

There were many other advantages to such an intervention. First and foremost, the possibility of replacing Gaddafi's regime with one which would be far more pliable, because it owed its accession to power to a western intervention. After all, although a partner of imperialism, Gaddafi was never a "loyal" partner in the sense that Mubarak or Ben Ali were. He was far too independent for the imperialist powers' liking and far too unpredictable in his regional policies.

This unpredictability even affected Libya's oil policy and therefore the interests of the oil majors operating in Libya. Although the figures put on Libya's so-called "verified oil reserves" are hotly disputed, it probably has the largest reserves in Africa. And, over the past decade, most oil majors have been pumping oil and gas out of there, with 28% going to Italian companies (mainly ENI), 15% to France's Total, 3% to US companies, 4% for British companies and 11% to Chinese companies. However, in 2009, Gaddafi imposed a renegotiation of existing contracts which increased the share of oil production that companies had to give to the Libyan authorities as royalties, from 50% to 73%, and the share from gas, from 50% to 60%. It is not hard to guess, therefore, that the western oil majors were keen to return to more favourable sharing agreements! The odds are also that the US and British companies were eager to increase their own share of the Libyan oil cake!

Finally, there were also strategic stakes for imperialism. It should be recalled that the three former provinces of the Ottoman empire which make up today's Libya (Tripolitania around Tripoli, Cyrenaica around Benghazi, and Fazzan in the south west) were first colonised by Italy in 1911. After WWII, it was initially proposed to leave Tripolitania to Italy, while Cyrenaica would be handed over to Britain and Fazzan to France. However, in the early 1950s, the US government weighed in and demanded the setting up of an independent Libya which incorporated the three provinces. The aim was to have large military bases on the Mediterranean shore, close enough to Central Europe to be within striking distance of the Soviet Union's satellites, while being able to keep a watchful eye on the oil-rich and trouble-prone Middle East. Thus came into being, in 1951, a new federal Libya. As ruler of the new country, the imperialist powers hand-picked the chief of a Salafist religious order originating from Cyrenaica, the Senussi. This king Idris, as he was called, immediately proceeded to ban political parties. At this point, the country was one of the world's poorest and, until oil revenue began to flow a decade later, its main source of income remained the rents paid by the US and Britain for their two military bases. Eventually, in 1969, Gaddafi and his "Free Officers" staged a coup, easily overthrowing a regime which was largely discredited by its corruption and by its bias in favour of Cyrenaica.

Today, of course, the Cold War is over. Nevertheless, control over the Mediterranean remains an issue and ad hoc naval facilities for the US and British fleet which roam this sea on a permanent basis, would be an asset. Moreover, what better "aircraft carrier" could the US find to threaten the Middle East, Iran and any country in the northern half of Africa, than Libya, with its sparsely populated huge territory?

The making of a state apparatus

The imperialist powers were facing a number of difficulties in carrying out their plan, though. They needed to secure the downfall of Gaddafi without putting in troops on the ground (at least not visibly), for fear of the political discredit this would cause. But there was no guarantee - and in fact very little chance - that the protest movement would be able to topple Gaddafi. Moreover, and this was just as important, there was no trustworthy replacement for Gaddafi's state apparatus at hand.

The first two problems were dealt with by transforming what was officially meant to be a "humanitarian" intervention, into a war of aggression designed to do what the protesters at first, and then the rebel militias, could never have achieved on their own - to destroy Gaddafi's military forces and dislodge them from the towns they held. By a cynical sleight of hand, the inhabitants of these towns were apparently not considered to be "civilians" and their lives were certainly not considered worth "protecting"!

The last problem was more difficult to resolve. According to various reports, in the early days of the protests (and even before according to some) a number of regime dignitaries managed to go to France and Britain, from where they defected. Subsequently, after the intervention had been sanctioned by the UN, diplomats representing Libya in several countries and international institutions followed suit, probably realising that the most sensible career move was to join the camp most likely to win. Besides, there were already a number of political exiles groomed by the CIA in the US - although mostly royalists who had fled Libya after 1969, or their US-educated scions. But none of these people had any real influence in Libya and many had been cut off from the country for a significant time. They could hardly form the embryo of a new regime, let alone of a new state machinery.

Yet other reports state that, despite subsequent denials, there were already western "boots on the ground" in Libya - secret service and special forces agents sent to make contact with leaders of the rebellion. To what extent the setting up of the National Transitional Council (NTC) near Benghazi, on 27 February, was the product of their work, no-one knows as yet. But within days, there was a scramble among the imperialist leaders to recognise the NTC. French president Sarkozy was first to do so on March 10th, immediately followed by Cameron and the then Italia prime minister, Berlusconi.

The NTC was a motley crew of academics, human rights lawyers, former regime officials and officers and Islamic activists who had belonged to the Muslim Brothers or the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. They were led by three of Gaddafi's top officials who had just defected - ex-Justice minister, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the former head of the National Economic Development Board and ex-Interior minister, general Abdul Fatah Younis, who became head of the rebel forces.

If the NTC won the recognition of the western countries, it was not because it was more representative of the Libyan population, nor even because it had much more influence at this stage than the Libyan exiles who were still kept in the cooler for later use. It was only because the NTC was present on the ground, at the centre of the rebels' territory, and because it included people coming straight from the top ranks of Gaddafi's state machinery. Allowing the NTC to claim sole recognition from the western powers was merely a way of ensuring that future regime defectors would see no option but to rally behind it. The West was clearly counting on the prompt disintegration of Gaddafi's regime. It did of course disintegrate, but much more slowly than had been expected.

Later on, a number of "independents" (i.e. not defectors) were to be co-opted to the NTC, as new towns were taken over by rebel forces, while exiles came back. Many of these "independents" were members of the rich families which had dominated the country in the days of the monarchy. More Islamists joined too, such as the three sons of one of the founders of the Muslim Brothers back in the 1960s.

Of course, this embryonic regime was not large enough to make up a state apparatus. It needed a repressive machinery for that. The rebel militias were to fill the gap. Of course, as the slow development of the war showed, total chaos presided over the militias. Many were formed on the basis of one town, or sometimes even of one district. Others were organised by a businessman who was rich enough to buy the required weapons and provide for his men, while using them both as private guards and militia. Either way, whether the rebel command was able to use these militias effectively in combat depended entirely on the goodwill of their impromptu officers. And few of them took orders without questioning.

But, from the point of view of building up a repressive machinery, this did not matter too much. What mattered was to get a large enough number of people into the habit of imposing their diktat on the population at gunpoint if necessary. Discipline could come later. In fact, last August, British security giant G4S (which employs a mere 600,000 people worldwide!) was telling the press that it was looking forward to the opportunity of helping to train the Libyan police - meaning, obviously, to instill some discipline into those rebel militias which are to be converted into the future regime's police force.

Rivalries and instability

Since the NTC has ceased to be a mainly Benghazi-based body, especially after the fall of Tripoli, in August, tensions have been increasing within its ranks, between the rebel militias and between these militias and the new embryonic army formed from units which defected from the regular army.

The most spectacular illustration of this took place in July, even before the fall of Tripoli, when Abdul Fatah Younis, who headed the new regular army, was murdered. No-one has claimed responsibility for this murder. But numerous reports have pointed to Islamic militias which objected to a former Gaddafi minister being put in charge of the army.

Since then, the issue of replacing Younis has been a bone of contention within the new army, especially between its officers, but also the militias which have demanded to be given a say in this appointment. Eventually, four months later, the NTC endorsed the election, by an assembly of 200 officers, of one of Gaddafi's former generals who had lived in exile in the US over the past 20 years. A few weeks later, however, this general narrowly escaped a terrorist attack and was invited to resign from his post. Finally, in January, the NTC pulled a former colonel, who had taken early retirement, out of its cupboard and appointed him to the post. So far, the new appointee is said to be in good health. For how long remains to be seen...

Within a month of Gaddafi's death, more and more commentators were blaming the rising insecurity on the colossal numbers of automatic weapons and rocket launchers left by the dictator's army as it was falling apart. The US authorities have hypocritically boasted that they are dealing with the problem, since they have allocated funds to clean the country of its weapons. But in fact, funds have been allocated only to look for, and dispose of "heat-seeking" missiles (effective against aircraft and helicopters), but not to dispose of the huge stocks of explosives, mines and other "man-killing" weapons.

In Tripoli, armed clashes between militias have become so frequent that there have been repeated demonstrations against them. These clashes are due to turf wars developing between militias over their territory, much as between gangs in council estates. Except that the kids (many of them are just youngsters) are armed with automatic rifles or even machine guns mounted on pick-ups, and their turf wars claim casualties, within their ranks and among passers-by!

The point is that, as always when the imperialist powers intervene anywhere, even in such a "hands-off" fashion from the air, they have made no plan whatsoever for the "cannon-fodder" they have used and abused, let alone for the population as a whole. So the western bombs pushed back Gaddafi's forces and unlocked their stocks of weapons, but no plan has been made to free Libya of this oversupply of dangerous arms, nor to give militia members a good reason to drop them and get on with their lives. Because what life would they get on with? There is no work. The economic life of the country is virtually at a standstill. Nothing is being done to start the massive reconstruction work needed, despite the fact that this could provide a massive number of jobs and a way out of the militias for the youth - provided the pay was decent.

No plans have been made for the soldiers of the new regular army either. At the end of December, the soldiers went on strike after having received no pay for ten months and staged a protest outside Benghazi's central bank.

During the second half of December, daily protests have been taking place in Benghazi against the NTC, its lack of transparency (no-one knows exactly who sits on it, even though the need for security, which justified this secrecy before the end of Gaddafi's regime, no longer applies today) and its failure to organise any material help for the population.

The NTC's secretiveness may well reflect its worries that its members could become the targets of some militias. With good reason too, because, while many militias seem to be little more that gangs of lost, armed youths, others are definitely organised around political objectives. Among them, there is a re-emergence of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, founded in 1990 by Libyans coming back from Afghanistan. Whether it was linked or not to Al-Qaeda, as the CIA and Gaddafi claimed at the time, is an open question. But it was certainly a nasty outfit with all the features of the most reactionary brands of Islamic fundamentalism. And today, one of its best-known figures (who is also suing Britain over his "rendition" to Gaddafi by MI5) is both head of Tripoli's Military Council and the commander of the town's largest militia.

One may wonder whether, just as it did in Iraq and long before in Afghanistan, the imperialist powers' intervention might have once again opened a Pandora's box, by giving a new lease of life to these reactionary forces.

What is definitely the case, however, is that the NTC itself is taking the direction of an Islamic state of some kind, judging from the place that sharia has in the draft constitution, or judging from the 10% of seats reserved for women in the parliament due to be elected next June - if there is an election...

As to the NTC's failure to meet the most basic needs of the population, it is certainly partly at fault. But it is not hard either to imagine the horse-trading which is taking place in the background, between the NTC on the one hand and, on the other, the representatives of the western powers and their multinational companies. An estimated £110bn of Libyan money is frozen in western banks (out of which Cameron has spontaneously offered to return the grand sum of £680m!) and in order to get even a fraction of this money, the NTC will undoubtedly first have to jump through a host of hoops and sign numerous perilous contracts.

But this is a lose-lose situation. If the NTC signs and goes through the required hoops, it will be blamed, and if it does not, it will also be blamed, for failing to cater for the population's needs. Either way, the greed of western companies may well now be threatening to destabilise the state that the imperialist powers have not even finished putting in place!