Libya’s armed protest movement at the edge of an abyss

The coffin of Emad al-Giryani, a former petroleum engineer who fought for the opposition in Ras Lanuf. Some Obama administration officials have said privately that the level of violence in Libya would have to approach the scale of that in Rwanda or Bosnia in the 1990s before the United States would engage militarily. (New York Times)

As some commentators solemnly warn about the dangers of a backlash if the Arab democratic revolution was to become poisoned by American involvement in a no-fly zone over Libya, they fail to note a rising chorus inside Libya: anger towards the United States because of its reluctance to become involved.

There’s stunning paradox here. Three decades ago, America’s support of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan sowed the seeds for a jihad against America. And now, America’s lack of support for a revolution in Libya may eventually have the same effect.

There are those who would on this basis jump to the conclusion that this demonstrates a visceral hatred of America across the Muslim world, but I would argue the exact opposite: that it demonstrates that attitudes towards America in a region in which it exerts so much influence are predominantly pragmatic and rooted in the present tense: they are a response to whatever the United States is doing or is not doing at any particular time.

Anthony Shadid in one of the finest pieces of reporting to come out of Libya since the fighting started, writes from Ras Lanuf:

Everyone here seems to have a gun these days, in a lawlessness tempered only by revolutionary ebullience. Young men at the front parade with the swagger that a rocket-propelled grenade launcher grants but hint privately that they will try to emigrate if they fail. Anti-American sentiments build, as rebels complain of Western inaction. And the hint of radicalization — religious or something more nihilist — gathers as the momentum in the three-week conflict clearly shifts to the forces of one of the world’s most bizarre leaders.

“This better not go on any longer,” said Dr. Salem Langhi, a surgeon who was working around the clock at a hospital that was abandoned as Colonel Qaddafi’s forces rushed in. “It will only bring misery and hard feelings among people. Losing lives and limbs doesn’t make anyone optimistic.”

No one seems to know what to call this conflict — a revolution, a civil war or, in a translation of what some call it in Arabic, “the events,” a shorthand for confusing violence. It certainly looks like a war — the thud of shelling in the distance offers a cadence to occasional airstrikes, their targets smoking like oil fires that turn afternoon to dusk. The dead and dismembered are ferried in ambulances driven by medical students.

But especially for the rebels, there is an amateurishness to the fighting that began as a protest and became an armed uprising.

“We’re here because we want to be,” said one of the fighters, Mohammed Fawzi.

His sense of a spontaneous gathering offers a prism through which to understand the war: the front at Ras Lanuf is the most militarized version of Tahrir Square in Cairo, where hundreds of thousands wrote a script of opposition and street theater that brought down a strongman everyone thought would die in office. The fighting here feels less like combat in the conventional sense and more like another form of frustrated protest.

Some vehicles bear the inscription Joint Security Committee, but nothing is all that coordinated across a landscape that seems anarchic and lacking in leadership. Fighters don leather jackets from Turkey, Desert Fox-style goggles, ski masks, cowboy hats and World War II-era British waistcoats.

Slogans are scrawled in the street just miles from the fighting. “Muammar is a dog,” one reads. A man who bicycled for three days from Darnah, far to the east, became a local celebrity at the front. Free food is offered, as it was in the canteens in Tahrir, and fighters rummaged through donated clothes. “These are American jeans!” one shouted.

Young men revel in the novelty of having no one to tell them not to play with guns. “God is great!” rings out whenever a volley of bullets is fired into the air.

“Some guys consider this a lot of fun, and they’re hoping the war lasts a lot longer,” said Marwan Buhidma, a 21-year-old computer student who credited video games with helping him figure out how to operate a 14.5-millimeter antiaircraft battery.

An hour or so before Friday’s headlong retreat, a gaggle of young men in aviator sunglasses and knit caps danced on military hardware, thrusting weapons into the air.

“Where is the house of the guy with really bad hair?” they chanted, referring to Colonel Qaddafi, jumping on spent cartridges and empty milk cartons. “Let’s go down the road and see it!”

The protests across the Arab world have disparate demands — from power-sharing in Bahrain to the dismantling of the regime in Egypt. But the demographic shift they represent as a generation comes of age is their constant. It is no different in Libya, where the young look at their parents’ lives in disgust and vow that they will not live without dignity, a say in their future and a constitution — a catchall term for the rule of law.

Nearly 70 percent of Libya’s population is under the age of 34, virtually identical to Egypt’s, and a refrain at the front or faraway in the mountain town of Bayda is that a country blessed with the largest oil reserves in Africa should have better schools, hospitals, roads and housing across a land dominated by Soviet-era monotony.

“People here didn’t revolt because they were hungry, because they wanted power or for religious reasons or something,” said Abdel-Rahman al-Dihami, a young man from Benghazi who had spent days at the front. “They revolted because they deserve better.”

The seeming justice of that revolt has prompted moments of naïveté — time and again, young people express amazement that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces would deploy tanks and warplanes against them — with an incipient and unpredictable frustration over demands unmet.

The revolt remains amorphous, but already, religion has emerged as an axis around which to focus opposition to Colonel Qaddafi’s government, especially across a terrain where little unites it otherwise. The sermon at the front on Friday framed the revolt as a crusade against an infidel leader. “This guy is not a Muslim,” said Jawdeh al-Fakri, the prayer leader. “He has no faith.”

Deserting officers have offered what leadership there is, along with some men who call themselves veterans of fighting in Afghanistan or an Islamist insurgency in eastern Libya in the 1990s. The shift remains tentative — and far short of the accusations made by Colonel Qaddafi that he faces an insurgency led by Al Qaeda — but even the opposition acknowledges the threat of radicalization in a drawn-out conflict.

Dr. Langhi, the surgeon, said he scolded rebels who called themselves mujahedeen — a religious term for pious fighters. “This isn’t our situation,” he pleaded. “This is a revolution.”

Sitting on ammunition boxes, four young men from Benghazi debated the war, as they watched occasional volleys of antiaircraft guns fired at nothing. They promised victory but echoed the anger heard often these days at the United States and the West for failing to impose a no-flight zone, swelling a sense of abandonment.

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14 thoughts on “Libya’s armed protest movement at the edge of an abyss

  1. Renfro

    ” but I would argue the exact opposite: that it demonstrates that attitudes towards America in a region in which it exerts so much influence are predominantly pragmatic and rooted in the present tense: they are a response to whatever the United States is doing or is not doing at any particular time”

    It would be amusing if it wasn’t so Orwellian that the US ‘intervenes ‘ usually on the wrong side, as in I/P, for the wrong reasons as in Iraq and Afghan…and yet misses the opportunity to intervene ‘after invited’ on right side and regain some trust and respect in a region that we have meddeled in for decades…..because we don’t want to ‘meddle.’
    ROTFLMAO……beam me up Scotty.

  2. M. Smith

    I still see no detailed and honest analysis of the long term implications of a US intervention in Libya. I read only “we’ve got do do something!” Military engagements are guaranteed to involve unforeseen events that spiral out of control. The Shadid piece should give one pause. It is clearly a chaotic situation. I reiterate my point that US military action in Libya -even in the unlikely event of it being done purely out of principle and held in check- will ensure decades more of “righteous” US interventions elsewhere because the “humanitarians” will use this as Exhibit “A” of US benevolence. This action will give cover for terrible things in the future as US/NATO wars in the former Yugoslavia did for Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, there now seems to be cracks in the Arab League position with many sober analysts asking what is the endgame and if Libya why not half a dozen more rebellions in the region? I understand your point that pure motives are not necessary as long as help arrives. But I wish you’d address the issue in a more comprehensive manner taking into account what kind of license we would be giving a serial invading super power as well as how this will be drawn down. Not to take this into account and merely focus on the present situation courts future disasters of an incalculable magnitude.

  3. M. Smith

    Thanks for that Colm. It raises additional issues I haven’t sufficient knowledge to address.

    Interesting that George Will raises the Srbrenica card (hard to read his view of it) as if on my cue to illustrate the use of past self-justified bombings to legitimize the one they want to carry out now or in the future.

  4. Sandra Morton

    I have worked with Salem Langhi in Ireland and I am worried for his safety as a brave human being who is a doctor trying to save his countrymen, the Libyan people.

  5. john

    The logic of American support for rebels in Libya, at the same time that it opposes political freedom for Palestinians, Yemenis, Bahrainis, Saudis, and so on, is this: Qadafi, like Saddam, has had ambitions to lead the Arab cause in defiance of America, whereas the leaders of the oppression in these other places have always been loyal followers of Washington.

    In other words, support for this kind of intervention in Libya not only relies on an excessively narrow focus in terms of probable sequence of events in other places, I think the logic of it is also narrowly Washington-political in and of itself.

  6. rosemerry

    “they deserve better”? I think the situation in Libya is not like the Egypt or Tunisian protest movements-nonviolent and focussed. The Libyans are not poor, their country has attracted hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, so there is work, and conditions cannot have been so terrible if those people are only now leaving. There has been lots of US and IMF pain-inducing actions in recent years, and naturally the people do not like that, but their aims seem strangely vague;

  7. Christopher Hoare

    It seems that most of the discussion about the Libyan crisis is of the order of trying to re-invent the spoke (not worthy of being graced with the distinction ‘wheel’). There is a UN mechanism for dealing with Qaddhafi’s actions, it’s called the Responsibility to Protect. Learn more at

    Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian Parliament and former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, stated in his New York Times Op-Ed, Libya and the Responsibility to Protect, “The situation in Libya is a test case for the Security Council and its implementation of the RtoP doctrine. Yet it remains the case that, as the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, put it, “loss of time means more loss of lives.” The Security Council must do more — and fast. It is our collective responsibility to ensure RtoP is an effective approach to protect people and human rights.”

    The doctrine is not in full effect; perhaps one of the hurdles is to provide a mechanism for preventing any of the five permanent members of the Security Council from exercising a veto when gross violations occur. Another necessary change to the operation of the UN is to prepare a swift reaction force under UN control to provide the muscle in any crisis. These two changes are among those which bring virulent opposition from xenophobes everywhere, but which are inevitable if a just and workable international rule of law is ever to be established.
    Pushing R2P forward might be the only memorial we can offer the brave civilians and their army comrades in Libya who are being condemned to death by this squabbling among armchair pundits many thousands of miles from the fighting.

  8. Renfro

    M. Smith March 13, 2011 at 2:46 pm
    I still see no detailed and honest analysis of the long term implications of a US intervention in Libya. I read only “we’ve got do do something!” Military engagements are guaranteed to involve unforeseen events that spiral out of control.>>>>>

    Not necessarily…we didn’t invade and occupy Iraq after the Gulf War.
    Nothing is “guaranteed”…as the Jesuits said…there is an exception to every rule.

  9. M. Smith


    Though I agree nothing is guaranteed and there are exceptions to every rule we are still talking about the documentary record of US foreign policy. I’d be interested to see if you could provide a military conflict in history that went according to some preordained plan exactly as the planners intended
    You’re correct we did not occupy Iraq after the Gulf war. Bush Sr., and his pals flush with the excitement of the fall of the Soviet Union were able to institute their “New World Order” because now that the Soviets were gone “What we say goes.” This was exactly nine months after daddy Bush invaded Panama killing some 3000 innocent civilians to arrest his former CIA thug client Noriega who had gotten out of hand. This gross violation of international law –the “supreme crime” of aggressive war– was quickly forgotten by all right thinking people because now Saddam, a far worse client had also gotten out of hand. So we bribed and cajoled those folks who saw the writing on the wall and wished to be on the right side of the NWO to join us in attacking Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, its water treatment facilities and electrical grids etc. which was followed by illegally bombing and strafing the broken nation under the ruse of the illegal US/British NFZ which continued thru to the mass murder (who will ever forget “Shock and Awe”) that was dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in 2003. This was in conjunction with the Sanctions of Mass Destruction which doomed some 500,000 Iraqi children to slow agonizing deaths. But you’re correct we did not actually occupy Iraq until some 13 years later when we were certain we had finished destroying the place.
    But as our friend Christopher Hoare keeps telling us, we have a “responsibility to protect.” I for one am glad I’m not on the end of US protection.

  10. Renfro


    No I can’t cite an instance where an entire military plan went exactly as planned but there are probably some single operations within a war that did.
    But since it’s pretty obvious that you can’t be convinced of the wisdom or the benefits to the US in helping the Libyans I won’t try.
    I’ll just remind you of one thing…it is possible to be both a realist and moral… measure the realism of a policy against the morality of an act or inaction…in most instances that is a good as a country or individual can do…neither realism nor caution nor morality will always turn out to produce perfect results or even advance the greater good in all cases.
    However the only other alternative is the one you have chosen…… to do nothing because you afraid of the execution and the results.
    Our main difference, you and me is that I don’t think we ‘have to’ remain mired in the US policies and actions of the past.
    I don’t trust US motivations any more you do but that’s why I advocate for something different in the way we react to situtations like Libya.

  11. M. Smith

    Christopher Hoare continues to entice us with the promise of his beloved R2P without addressing the many issues I raised in an earlier post.

    The advocates of R2P and so called Humanitarian Intervention are consistent in their avoidance of the nature of powerful states (note that the majority of the advocates and architects of R2P are servants to those same powerful states) and how they control mechanisms such as the UN Security council with or without the hope of eliminating (highly unlikely) veto powers. Again some of the worst atrocities and mass killings have been carried out by western states and even the most naive among us understand such crimes by the powerful will continue in the future. “R2P” will only be allowed to work based on the nature of this power (basic common sense) and the interests of powerful states, period. There will be no R2P interventions when the killing is being carried out by the powerful just as there hasn’t been since the beginning of time. The fear of those in the global south and in other developing countries that the implementation of this doctrine will be used to maintain the global and economic system preferred by in this case, western elites is based on real world experience of being on the receiving end of such interventions. Mr. Hoare seems oblivious to their concerns. It doesn’t help that the Samantha Powers and the Gareth Evans of the world refuse to address the elephant in the room: will R2P be triggered in such cases as Gaza/West Bank, Iraq, Colombia, Afghanistan or other countries under the assault of the US, NATO or Israel? When asked about this obvious and glaring flaw that renders the whole thing a joke, the response is nothing but crickets.

  12. M. Smith


    When you speak of the “wisdom or benefits of the U.S. helping Libya…” what kind of help and what benefits are you talking about? It is not enough to call for a NFZ by the most powerful state the world has ever seen with its attendant track record of law breaking and extreme violence. It is just not that simple. There are probably dozens of different ways of implementing such a regime with the potential for exponential numbers of disastrous outcomes that are entirely unknowable. You are predicting “benefits” before you even implement a plan you haven’t even begun to conceive in any detail. “We should do a NFZ!” What is that EXACTLY? And then what?

    And I think you have been swallowed up in the quagmire of “We have to do something!” logic. My point is not intervening is in fact doing something. Because to do “something” (still not defined) in this case will for reasons having to do with the nature of power and the historical record make things infinitely worse. There are countless instances when if the US had chosen to do exactly NOTHING thousands of lives would have been saved.
    One thing that could be done would be for the American people to wake up and make its government accountable to international law and to insist it stop using terror in its foreign policy as well as halting its support for the class war being waged by financial elites against the rest of the american people. Once that has been achieved and maintained then you and I can have a discussion about the efficacy of US intervention to stop the crimes of others.

  13. Dieter Heymann

    There are two “quick” hence tempting solutions for the Libyan conundrum, both disastrous for the future of that land. One is to do nothing and let Gadhaffi re-unite Libya under his rule, hoping that Libyan oil will then soon return to market. The other is to militarily support a rebel government to the hilt and help it conquer all of Libya. That will take longer, cost the lives of NATO soldiers, but will eventually return Libyan oil to market also.
    Both are potentially disastrous because they force the two peoples of Tripolitanians and Cyrenaicans that do not want to live together in the same state to do exactly that. Vice President Biden had it right for Iraq. El-Maliki is morphing there into the next Saddam. Why does Biden not speak out for the logical partitioning of Libya?
    Even worse will be choosing sides and interfering but failing to make “our side” win because that will result in a lengthy civil war.
    Here is what I would advise President Obama:
    The very first action that you must take is to state publicly that the removal of Gadhaffi from governing, let alone his assassination is “off the table” and that all current sanctions against him will be lifted if he agrees to the partitioning of Libya into the two entities of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. If the people of Tripolitania wish to have him as their ruler, so be it. The second action is to encourage the swift formation of a separate Cyrenaican government which must also accept the partitioning of Libya (the Southern region of Libya is so sparsely inhabited that it does not require a separate status). The third action is to call for an armistice pending negotiations for the partitioning of Libya. A preliminary line of truce must be swiftly established and enforced. If that needs a UN or NATO force on the ground, (alas) so be it. You will have only a few days or weeks to start the process. Time is NOT on your side.
    Then the real hard work of drawing lines in the sands of the Libyan desert and of down-arming the Tripolitanians and arming the Cyrenaicans must then begin. It will take patience and much time. As always: two steps forward, one step back. No demands for “democracy” must ever be made on either side. If one or both decide to be autocratic or “Islamic”, so be it. No more Quixotic nonsense of telling people how they must govern themselves.
    Once a two-state solution is firmly in place all foreign troops, if any were introduced at all, will be removed. Both nations must become UN members and abide by its charter.
    If the oil companies do not like this solution they must be told that they have no voice in the matter. However, it seems entirely feasible and just that all companies which purchase Libyan oil will pool the royalties owed the owners of the oil in the ground and disburse these to the two governments on the basis of the number of residents of the two entities sans new immigrants and transient foreigners.

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