Getting Libya’s rebels wrong

When Tunisians rose up calling for the end of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule, beyond the fact that the revolution caught the rest of the world by surprise, no one seemed in much doubt about what the Tunisian people wanted. And shortly after that when Egyptians rose up demanding that Hosni Mubarak must go, the sentiment of the people was not hard to decipher. But when it comes to Libya, many Western observers seem willing to accept the analysis provided by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi who in February warned that Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt and that those challenging his father’s rule would be inviting civil war.

On Wednesday, Libyan officials took Western journalists on a trek 70 miles south of Tripoli to witness the carnage wrought by NATO airstrikes. After 10 days of attacks, Siraj Najib Mohamed Suessi, an 18-month old baby, was described by a New York Times reporter as “the first specific and credible civilian death” from allied airstrikes.

Beyond the earshot of Gaddafi government officials, relatives of the child were clear about who they blamed for his death:

“No, no, no, this is not from NATO,” one relative said, speaking quietly and on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. The Western planes had struck an ammunition depot at a military base nearby, he said, and the explosion had sent a tank shell flying into the bedroom of the baby, a boy, in a civilian’s home. “What NATO is doing is good,” he said, referring to the Western military alliance that is enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya.

[A]s government minders directed journalists to the house and the grave, several residents approached foreign correspondents to tell them surreptitiously of their hatred of Colonel Qaddafi.

“He is not a man. He is Dracula,” one said. “For 42 years, it has been dark. Anyone who speaks, he kills. But everyone here wants Qaddafi to go.”

Denunciations of this type have been reported from all over Libya — even now some people in Tripoli are willing to cautiously speak out.

The objective of Libya’s rebel fighters is not hard to decipher — they aim to get rid of Gaddafi — unless, that is, you are skeptical about the intentions of the foreign powers.

Steve Coll says: “It is not clear what the rebels are fighting for, other than survival and the possible opportunity to take power in a country loaded with oil.”

David Bromwich sees the hand of the CIA at work and echoes of the Bay of Pigs.

While the Obama administration itself is raising the specter of al Qaeda:

President Obama’s top two national security officials signaled on Thursday that the United States was unlikely to arm the Libyan rebels, raising the possibility that the French alone among the Western allies would provide weapons and training for the poorly organized forces fighting Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made his views known for the first time on Thursday in a marathon day of testimony to members of Congress. He said the United States should stick to offering communications, surveillance and other support, but suggested that the administration had no problem with other countries sending weapons to help the rebels, who in recent days have been retreating under attack from pro-Qaddafi forces.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who pushed the president to intervene in Libya, was described by an administration official on Thursday as supremely cautious about arming the rebels “because of the unknowns” about who they were and whether they might have links to Al Qaeda.

Najla Abdurrahman, a Libyan-American writer and activist, expresses her frustration about the confused image of the Libyan pro-democracy movement that is frequently being presented in the media.

The recent remarks by Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, alleging “flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah” among Libyan rebels are indicative of a disturbing trend in much of the discussion — and reporting — on Libya over the past several weeks. Ambiguous statements linking Libya and al Qaeda have repeatedly been made in the media without clarifying or providing appropriate context to such remarks. In many instances, these claims have been distorted or exaggerated; at times they have simply been false.

The admiral’s comments — and the subsequent headlines they’ve engendered — represent a new level of irresponsibility, constructing false connections, through use of highly obscure and equivocal language, between al Qaeda and Libyan pro-democracy forces backed by the Transitional National Council. The latter is itself led by a group of well-known and respected Libyan professionals and technocrats. Even more far-fetched is the admiral’s mention of a Hezbollah connection, or “flicker” as he put it.

Statements of this type are troubling because of their tendency to create alarmist ripple effects. Such perceptions, once created, are nearly impossible to reverse and may do serious damage to the pro-democracy cause in Libya. The fact that Stavridis qualified his comments by stating that the opposition’s leadership appeared to be “responsible men and women” will almost certainly be overshadowed by the mention of al Qaeda in the same breath. One must wonder, then, what precisely was the purpose of the admiral’s vague and perplexing remarks.

There is a pressing need for officials and commentators to clarify connections drawn between Libya and al Qaeda and to provide more accurate and responsible analysis. And it’s not just Stavridis’s reference to al Qaeda that is problematic; two similar claims making the media rounds also demand careful scrutiny. One involves an anti-Qaddafi organization called the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that confronted and was crushed by the regime in the 1990s. The second involves disturbing reports of the recruitment of Libyan youth by al Qaeda in Iraq, some of whom left their homes to take part in suicide missions in that country. Neither is connected to the current uprising, but both are frequently mentioned when discussing it.

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3 thoughts on “Getting Libya’s rebels wrong

  1. Norman

    One thing is certainly clear, the West has pulled out all the stops as far as the bogymen are in the plans. Goodness, they just can’t contain themselves when it’s pointing fingers at others, for what they themselves allowed to happen. I suppose the saving grace here is that the U.S. is running out of treasure at an accelerated pace, so will be relegated to a minor position, sooner that believed.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    It has to be remarked how so many of the voices raised in the media and the West against supporting the Libyan rebels quote Saif al-Islam Qaddhafi and the dictator’s own media propaganda. I presume that Qaddhafi’s claims to having created a socialist society trump any clear analysis what the regime actually is — a cruel parody of Stalin’s.

    When will the left get over feasting upon their own children and have the same guts the Libyans show to take their own legitimate grievances to the streets?

  3. BARB


    While the US, British and French are firing missiles, loaded with depleted uranium, at the Libyan military and key civilian installations, their ‘allies’ the armed militias in Benghazi, rather than go to battle against the regime’s armed forces, are busy rounding up, arresting and often executing any suspected members of Gaddafi’s “revolutionary committees”, arbitrarily labeling these civilians as “fifth columnists”. The top leaders of these “revolutionary” masses in Benghazi include two recent defectors from what the ‘Left’ dubs Gaddafi’s “murderous regime”: Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former Justice minister, who prosecuted dissenters up to the day before the armed uprising, Mahmoud Jebri, who was prominent in inviting multi-nationals to take over the oil fields (FT, March 23, 2011, p. 7), and Gaddafi’s former ambassador to India, Ali Aziz al-Eisawa, who jumped ship as soon as it looked like the uprising appeared to be succeeding. These self-appointed ‘leaders’ of the rebels who now staunchly support the Euro-US military intervention, were long-time supporters of the Gaddafi’s dictatorship and promoters of MNC takeovers of oil and gas fields. The heads of the “rebels” military council is Omar Hariri and General Abdul Fattah Younis, former head of the Ministry of Interior. Both men have long histories (since 1969) of repressing democratic movements within Libya. Given their unsavory background, it is not surprising that these top level military defectors to the ‘rebel’ cause have been unable to arouse their troops, mostly conscripts, to engage the loyalist forces backing Gaddafi. They too will have to take ride into Tripoli on the coattails of the Anglo-US-French armed forces.

    The anti-Gaddafi force’s lack of any democratic credentials and mass support is evident in their reliance on foreign imperial armed forces to bring them to power and their subservience to imperial demands. Their abuse and persecution of immigrant workers from Asia, Turkey and especially sub-Sahara Africa, as well as black Libyan citizens, is well documented in the international press. Their brutal treatment of black Libyans, falsely accused of being Gaddafi’s “mercenaries” , includes torture, mutilation and horrific executions, does not auger well for the advent of a new democratic order, or even the revival of an economy, which has been dependent on immigrant labor, let alone a unified country with national institutions and a national economy.

    The self-declared leadership of the “National Transitional Council” is not democratic, nationalist or even capable of uniting the country. These are not credible leaders capable of restoring the economy and creating jobs lost as a result of their armed power grab. No one seriously envisions these ‘exiles’, tribalists, monarchists and Islamists maintaining the paternalistic social welfare and employment programs created by the Gaddafi government and which gave Libyans the highest per-capita income in Africa.

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