Libya – Lessons of the Uprising

From the high hopes of toppling the Gaddafi regime within days, the Libyan uprising has become a military conflict that finds itself in a position of uneasy and precarious stalemate.

Why did the revolution fail to grasp the victory that seemed so tantalisingly close? Was the taste of victory a hopeless exercise in optimism? What lessons[1] can be drawn from the course followed by the February 15th uprising?

The Libyan revolution as it unfolded

The uprising began with the suppression of a demonstration held in Benghazi, protesting at the arrest of Fathi Terbil, a human rights lawyer, 15th February 2011. This proved to be the blue touch paper that set off the uprising.

Protests sprang up all over Libya and spread like wildfire, catching the regime off guard. The security apparatus slunk into the shadows powerless to act. Sizeable sections of the Libyan Army deserted or defected to the side of the revolution leaving Gaddafi to rely on brigades of elite troops that were under direct control of family members.

In little more than a week, Gaddafi’s control had been reduced to the capital Tripoli, his home town of Sirte and a handful of small towns in the west of Libya.

However, the mass protests were to fall victim to an inherent flaw that would allow Gaddafi the opportunity to consolidate and organise his demoralised forces.

The strength of spontaneous mass protests is that they have many leaders which makes them a difficult target for regimes to hit. The weakness with these types of protests is that there is a danger of too little co-operation across the many groups, a lack of central organisation, making it vulnerable to divide and rule tactics that fragment the movement. In the case of Libya, this fragmentation happened town by town allowing Gaddafi the chance to pick them one off one at a time.

The institutions that people would usually turn to during mass protest have been ruthlessly suppressed in countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen. These same institutions, whether they be political parties or trades unions would also provide a pool of activists experienced in organising action. There was none of this available, nothing that could articulate the pro-democracy’s demands into the tactics and strategy necessary to carry the movement beyond its natural limits.

The vacuum of leadership

This was to leave a vacuum at the top of the movement that was to be partially filled by the formation of the Transitional National Council on the 27th of February.

Unfortunately, events were to show that the TNC itself suffered fundamental flaws. It is not clear whether the TNC ever enjoyed much credibility outside of Benghazi and Tobruk. Rebel groupings seem to operate under their own localised command with little deference to the TNC.

Neither the TNC nor any other group managed to unite all the forces of the revolution under one banner. This may go some way to explaining the isolation of rebels towns under attack and the lack of co-ordination across Libya of the rebel forces. It was not a problem of geography which some have put forward, geographical problems didn’t impede the spread of the revolution throughout Libya, why should it prevent its successful outcome?

By the time the UN passed resolution 1973[2] on 17th March Gaddafi’s forces were on the offensive and moving East.

The TNC calls for Western intervention

Libyans celebrated the beginning of the air strikes by the Coalition Forces[3] little realising that the strategy of the TNC leadership had in effect handed over the fate of Revolution to the West.

Even prior to the founding of the TNC, elements of what was to become the leadership were discussing the call for Western intervention.

Initially, there were splits about calling for a No Fly Zone, spokesman Hafiz Ghoga stated: “We are completely against foreign intervention. The rest of Libya will be liberated by the people and Gadhafi’s security forces will be eliminated by the people of Libya.”. This position was to be contradicted by Mahmud Gebril when he called for: “military assistance without direct military intervention,” Gebril said that “empowering the people to continue their armed struggles against Kadhafi can be done by different means” and underlined that a “no-fly zone is one of them.”

The composition of the TNC leadership was to point to future problems, the executive body was almost wholly staffed by ex-Gaddafi loyalists. This from an article[4] by The Economist magazine reveals that some of the ex-Gaddafi allies in the TNC leadership had brought their internecine method of politics with them:

“…Half of the deserters take orders from General Suleiman Mahmoud, based in Tobruk, north-east of Benghazi, and another 1,000 or so special forces are led by Colonel Qaddafi’s former interior minister, Abdel Fatah Younis. Though both men declared their defection, they seem to be defying demands by the rebels’ “national transitional council” to throw their military weight fully behind the war against their former comrades still loyal to the colonel. Perhaps they are hedging their bets. “They’re playing games,” says a council member.”

Voices of concern were raised elsewhere[5] especially regarding the defected troops. A tweet from @yqxo 17th March asked “…Where are the “defected” military? Are they all sipping lattes in Malta? We keep seeing only untrained rebels.”, to which came a reply from @iyad_elbaghdadi “…There’s an 8000-man strong elite special forces unit with the revolution, but they don’t advertise their moves.”.

As it would transpire, there was no need advertise the moves of these troops because they were not to be deployed in the defence of Benghazi when they were needed.

Gaddafi troops attack Benghazi

When Gaddafi’s troops attacked Benghazi on the night of the 18th March, it highlighted and gave substance to the growing doubts that had surrounded the TNC’s political and military strategies.

There was some shock that in a region that was supposed to be the revolutionaries stronghold, Gaddafi’s troops, with heavy equipment could get to within 100Km of the revolutionaries capital with very little challenge.

It wasn’t the attacks from Gaddafi aircraft, modern tanks or heavy artillery that was the problem for the revolution, it was the shortcomings and politicking within its own leadership. Had the Coalition Forces required an extra day for preparation, Benghazi would’ve almost certainly found itself in the same position as Misurata, it was only an accident of timing that averted disaster.

In the words of Clausewitz, war is “… a mere continuation of politics by other means,”. The military blunders of the TNC leadership were to be a mere continuation of their political blunders. Their mistakes brought about a potential humanitarian crisis for Benghazi and gave the West the cover they needed for intervention.

The real relationship between the West and the TNC was to be revealed at the The London Conference on Libya held on March 29th, the TNC representative had to be content with waiting in a side room, while the fate of Libya was decided by the West and their allies.

Little support in the west for intervention

No blame can be attached to those ordinary Libyans on the ground calling for air strikes, to use an analogy, if you’re being mugged in a dark alley, you’ll welcome help from any quarter.

Libyan exiles appeared on TV programmes in the West in support of Western intervention. There is no doubting the sincerity of the exiles, many of whom had friends and family at risk in Libya. However, they didn’t fully appreciate just how apprehensive ordinary people were at being pulled into another military intervention in an Arab country.

There was no articulation of a programme that would identify common ground between ordinary Western and Libyan people or even other Arab people. Not enough was made of the battle for political freedoms such as the right to vote, form political parties and trades unions, all taken for granted by western people. Little mention was made of the fight for basic everyday rights of a decent education, a health service, care for the elderly, social security and decent pensions.

In essence, the demands of the Libyan exiles came across as little different from that of Western politicians in calling for regime change. As a consequence, the TNC and their exiled supporters failed to gain significant support outside of western political elites.

A noteworthy observation is that there is apparently very little enthusiasm from Egyptian or Tunisian revolutionaries for the Libyan rebels. Their insistence on Western intervention seems to have left the Libyan rebels largely alienated from their Arab peers.

The rebel forces

A lack of faith in the ability of the TNC leadership was reflected by the rebel fighters on the ground in their joining calls for western air strikes. It also reflected a lack of faith in the ability of the revolution itself to overthrow Gaddafi.

The revolutionary fighters are poorly equipped and lead. Their total numbers from media images do not seem great. A BBC reporter, (24/03/02011 GMT programme), quoting a TNC source put the numbers at around 17,000. This doesn’t seem high for a region with a population, predominately young, of around one million.

These forces gradually diminished in number, a report[6] by a New Yorker reporter put the active numbers as low as a thousand on the front line. Towards the end of a BBC report 29th March 2011, titled “Gaddafi forces push rebels back from Sirte”, there is a hint that the turnover of personnel of the rebel forces may have resulted in a change in their composition. It quotes a rebel: “We’ve been lucky for three days, for most of the people it’s their first time fighting”. At the time of writing it’s unclear what exactly this new composition is.

This is not to ignore the courage of revolutionaries in places like al-Zawiya and other towns where they have taken on modern equipped forces with sticks, knives and light weapons before eventually being overwhelmed.

The revolution has morphed into an armed resistance. The danger is that with the ascendency of the ex-Gaddafi allies, the revolution degenerates into a faction fight between them and Gaddafi. The result would be to repel genuine revolutionaries and open up the danger of more reactionary elements filling the void.

Support for Gaddafi

There are reams of information about the atrocities committed by the Libyan regime but naked use of force is not enough to explain why Gaddafi has managed to hold on. A report for the BBC by Jeremy Bowen, 19th April, from Tripoli demonstrates this. He quoted a rebel interviewed by an Arab TV station in which the rebel stated: “…that if the tribes around Misurata weren’t with Gaddafi, he would have fallen long ago”. It’s reasonable to hypothesis that Gaddafi enjoys far greater social support[7] than his opponents have claimed.

Augmenting Gaddafi’s social support was a section of the population that, while not giving active support, were acquiescing on the grounds that they were unconvinced that the revolution would succeed or that they believed the alternative may have been the descent of Libya into Somalia style chaos.

The uprising failed to spread because the revolutionaries could not win this acquiescing section of the population over, which would have given the revolution a decisive advantage. Instead, this section remained passive observers adopting a wait and see stance.

The Sectarian Card

From the the outset, the sectarian card was played by the regime. Gaddafi has a history of playing off different tribes against each other. It has to be accepted that sectarianism has been a complicating factor.

In extraordinary times mass struggle can overcome and cut across the barriers of sectarianism. In all the Arab uprisings, the people have been at pains to emphasis their unity across race and religious lines.

Common to all the Arab uprisings have been chants emphasising their unity, “we’re all Egyptians“, “we’re all Bahrainis“, “we’re all Syrians” and so on. What that shows is an instinctive reflex to rise above tribal, religious and racial differences – it’s the old adage, “united we stand, divided we fall”.

A long experience of common struggle can foster a culture of non-sectarian unity and can underpin strong institutions based on those lessons. Northern Ireland is a good example of this, in-spite of thirty or more years of sectarian violence, organisations such as the Trades Unions remained intact. It is also from these institutions that a pool of experienced activists can be used as a supply for leadership roles and for training the less experienced participants in the ‘art of struggle’.

In countries such as Libya, Yemen and Syria these institutions are very fragile or non-existent. In these circumstances if struggle is not successful then there is a greater probability of sectarianism recovering ground or filling the void where mass struggle has failed.

The poison of racism

Unfortunately, sectarianism and racism also infected those in the ranks of the rebels[8]. There are reports of violent and fatal attacks against black migrant labour whom they accused of being mercenaries.

A harrowing report, April 1st 2011, from the Globe and Mail illustrates the poison of racism that affects some elements of the rebels. Intriguingly, it also unintentionally gives a clue to a divide between the rebels and a sections of the pro-revolution population:

Families that sheltered the prisoners that night remain afraid to speak to the media, fearing retribution. Abdel Gadir, 29, said one of his friends took in a group of prisoners and soon found it difficult to keep them. “His door alarm rang in the middle of the night,” Mr. Gadir said. “Men with guns were in the road with covered faces. They told him, ‘Give us those criminals.’”

The article goes on to quote a telling remark: “My friend said, ‘Our revolution has taken a wrong turn,’” Mr. Gadir said. “Each of the bodies had a bullet in the head.”

This deeply unattractive face of the uprising would be repellent to most ordinary people and act as a barrier to widespread support for the rebels. To those Libyans who were wavering between the two sides, witnessing some of these activities would have been a chilling reminder of Gaddafi’s methods.

Why did the uprising fail?

It’s worth summarising the arguments made so far to draw them out into succinct points.

There are a couple of rules that can be said to apply in the case mass struggles whether they be strikes or uprisings, for the most part people will only participate if:

  • They have no other choice
  • If they think they will win

This may seem a statement of the obvious but it can be tempting to discuss mass movements, uprisings and revolutions as if they are just markers on a board to be moved about and called into battle at a whim. Just a cursory observation of the Arab uprisings shows that they are living, organic and self-evolving phenomena. Though uprisings may develop or not according to general laws, their chaotic[9] nature makes them difficult to predict.

It was evident from watching the spread of the uprising and listening to commentary from the ground that the Libyan people were convinced they would win. When the initial momentum of the revolution began to dissipate with no plan to carry it forward, the mood changed. Protests, such as those in Tripoli became more patchy as doubt filled the minds of Libyans. Gaddafi’s forces were able to take advantage of the the wavering of its opponents to bloodily suppress dissent as was the case in Tripoli.

The revolution floundered on a deadly cocktail of flaws:

  • A fragmented movement with a poor leadership, reactionary elements as well as the TNC stepped into this vacuum
  • No strategy or programme to win over passive observers and those wavering between the two sides to the side of the revolution
  • The running sore of racism and sectarianism which allowed legitimacy for reactionary elements to operate and hampered cross tribal and racial unity
  • Gaddafi had enough social support to maintain control of the important sectors of the state and significant sections of the population

What next for Libya?

The uprising has ended, the current military conflict may pause at a division of Libya. There are at present discussions about putting western military advisors on the ground. The west does not want a military victory[10] for Gaddafi and combined with the fact that the dwindling band of rebel fighters have no possibility of defeating Gaddafi on the military front, the west will be faced with a bald choice of compromise with Gaddafi or using ground troops[11] against him to force a settlement on western terms.

Sections of Libyans may sink into despair and conclude that struggle is futile, others may even move over to the side of reaction.

There will be those, especially from the youth who will draw the lessons of the need to build their own organisations to lead future movements. In this there is a responsibility on the part of revolutionaries from other Arab countries to reach out to their Libyan brothers and sisters to help them rebuild a genuine revolutionary movement in what is one of the most hostile of environments.

The impact and development of other revolutions shouldn’t be underestimated. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt inspired the Libyan revolution. A fresh upsurge in revolutionary activity in either country has the power to cut across events and spark off a fresh revolutionary wave in Libya.

Gary Hollands – April 20th 2011.

Notes and references

1. Caveats. Some difficulties are presented because events are still unfolding and are yet to conclude. A glimpse of an apparently insignificant incident through the fog of war can throw great light on events or just add to the general confusion. Any arguments based on incidents of this nature are explained as fully as possible in their context.
All links and references were correct and working at the time of writing. Links to external sites is not an endorsement.
There may be some updating of this article to correct typing and grammatical errors or to use better links for references but the substance of the article will not be affected.

2. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) passed 17 March 2011. Sometimes mistakenly referred to as a No Fly Zone resolution.

3. The Coalition Forces were an alliance of NATO and Arab League members that enforced UN Resolution 1973 before formal control was transferred to NATO.

4. The Economist March 10th 2011 The colonel fights back.

5. Global Voices article, Libya: All Eyes on Benghazi (Video).

6. A report for CNN on rebel fighter numbers by Jon Lee Anderson

7. Social support or social reserves refers to the support enjoyed from one or a number of strata within society. This can include class, tribal, ethnic support and so on.

8. Reports of lynch law in rebel held areas. A collection of reports of alleged atrocities by anti-Gaddafi forces. Also a Los Angeles Times story.

9. By chaotic I don’t mean as in an untidy room but in the scientific sense of Chaos Theory. To quote ‘Chaos theory studies the behaviour of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions…’.

10. To quote Libya – Observations as the uprising unfolded: “The primary objective of the West is to contain Gaddafi, at least prevent him achieving a complete victory over the uprising. They do not want an emboldened rogue oil state on the border of Europe.”

11. UN Resolution 1973 does not exclude to use of ground troops in Libya. To quote a previous article ‘Libya – Is there case for a No Fly Zone?‘: “On the protection of civilians, “while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”, does that exclude military sorties on the ground, hit and run missions?”


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