Can NATO intervention help the Libyan people?


On the morning of March 20, waves of NATO jet fighters and bombers launched an air attack against Libya’s air force, air defence systems, airports, roads, ports and ground forces with hundreds of cruise missiles, under cover of UN Resolution 1973, pushed through the Security Council on March 17. The resolution, which approved “all measures necessary” in the name of protecting Libyan civilians against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, has given the NATO powers a free hand for open-ended war against Libya.

Some welcomed this attack, arguing that it is a “necessary evil” to give Libya’s rebel forces breathing space to renew their offensive against Gaddafi’s repressive rule. Others have argued that there was no popular revolt in Libya, that the CIA engineered protests to create a pretext for imperialist military intervention.

This latest imperialist military intervention – exactly eight years after the US-led invasion of Iraq – is an unprovoked military attack intended to abort a wave of popular uprisings that has swept the Arab world. Claims by Washington, Paris and London to be intervening to save the Libyan people from the brutal repression of the Gaddafi regime are as hollow as their claims of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.

Arab spring

Libya’s popular uprising and the NATO military intervention cannot be viewed in isolation from the revolt that has swept the Arab world. Millions in North Africa and the Middle East have, since last December, risen up against military and monarchist regimes. In Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, their demands have been the same: an end to autocratic and military rule, corruption and the rising cost of living. In all cases these rebellions have had an anti-imperialist character. They have all opposed regimes that have either been sponsored by, or colluded with, Western powers to exploit the peoples and resources of the region.

In Tunisia, dictator Ben Ali was backed by French President Sarkozy right up until his hasty departure on January 14. The partial victory of the Tunisian revolution, which dislodged a dictator but left behind the remnants of his regime, spurred protests across North Africa. In Egypt, protesters set up camp in Tahrir Square and rallied in their millions to achieve the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Washington’s principal puppet in the Arab world. But, as in Tunisia, this revolution remains unfinished. A military junta now rules Egypt, determined to preserve autocratic rule, close ties with Washington and Tel Aviv and an economy geared to the interests of foreign investors.

On February 17, it was Libya’s turn. Following the example of the youth of Tunisia and Egypt – angered by the rising cost of living, unemployment and a lack of democratic freedoms – a popular uprising swept Libya, from Tripoli to Benghazi.

A month earlier, protesters in Darnah, Benghazi and Bani Walid had broken into and occupied government housing projects in frustration at delays in public housing construction, corruption and the rising cost of living. While the regime’s announcement of a US$24 billion investment fund, to provide housing and development, quelled this protest briefly, protests resumed on the evening of February 15, when hundreds of youth chanted slogans in front of the Benghazi police headquarters. The protest was broken up violently by police. Novelist Idris Al-Mesmari was arrested hours after giving an interview with Al Jazeera about the police reaction to protests. In Al Bayda and Az Zintan, hundreds of protesters called for an end of the Gaddafi regime and set fire to police and security buildings.

The National Conference for the Libyan Opposition responded to the repression by Gaddafi’s forces, who had used mercenaries and live ammunition to quell protests, by calling on all opposition forces to hold a “Day of Rage” on February 17, in memory of demonstrations in Benghazi five years earlier. As masses of people poured onto the streets across the country, army troops in the east defected, forming a rebel army. Popular committees sprung up in the cities and towns in the east, many of these arming youth with weapons seized by the defecting troops.

At the outset of the Arab spring, the Muammar Gaddafi regime enjoyed strong support from Washington, London, Paris and Rome. Isolation of the regime in the 1980s had long since given way to lucrative trade deals.

Gaddafi came to power in 1969 in a popularly supported coup against the British-backed monarchy. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was seen as a pan-Arab nationalist, supporting liberation movements in Africa and the Middle East, particularly Palestine. At home, however, his regime was brutal and autocratic.

During this period, the regime undertook major infrastructure projects funded by revenues from the country’s vast oil deposits, the largest in Africa. Libya’s GDP (US$14,878 in 2010), its human development index (0.755 in 2010) and its literacy rate (87% in 2009) remain among the highest in Africa (higher than Egypt and Tunisia). These indicators reflect not only the country’s oil wealth, but a legacy of much greater state spending than most other African and Arab regimes.

During the Cold War, the US considered Libya a “rogue state”. US President Ronald Reagan ordered the bombardment of the capital Tripoli, in 1986, bombing one of Gaddafi’s residences (which killed his 15-month-old daughter).

But in the late 1990s, Gaddafi began to make peace with his former adversaries. And after 9/11, Gaddafi offered Libyan support for the US government’s “war on terror” under George W. Bush. The regime restored diplomatic relations with the US, leading Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other US corporations to rush into exploration and production deals.

Libya also re-established ties to Western Europe, especially Berlusconi in Italy, which was once the colonial ruler of Libya. Gaddafi and Berlusconi agreed on harsh measures to stem the flow of migrants from North Africa to Europe.

While Libya’s GDP per capita in 2010 was the highest in Africa, the regime’s neoliberal policies over the last decade have sharpened the divisions between rich and poor. Unemployment is roughly 25% and wages remain low (around US$250 a month). Europe’s economic crisis has hit North Africa hard as European businesses lay off North African workers and cut foreign investment. Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s immediate inner circle has squirreled away fortunes in foreign banks and overseas investments.

A highly educated population, a stifling autocracy and declining living standards all contributed to the explosion of popular discontent on February 17.

NATO intervention

Even before February 17, discontented elements within Gaddafi’s regime had begun to see the Arab spring as a means to bring pressure to bear. On December 23, three weeks before the Tunisian uprising unseated Ben Ali, four Libyan entrepreneurs (Fathi Boukhris, Farj Charani, Mustafa Gheriani and All Ounes Mansouri) met with regime defector Nuri Mesmari at the Concord-Lafayette Hotel in Paris. Mesmari expressed his conviction that other regime figures close to Western governments could be persuaded to defect to the opposition. The group took the name “February 17 Movement” from an uprising in Benghazi on February 17, 2006, that was crushed by Gaddafi. Gheriani told journalist Jon Lee Anderson that the group were “Western-educated intellectuals” who would lead the new state, not the “confused mobs or religious extremists” (a reference to the youth who later led the uprising in Libya’s east).

After February 17, several key defectors joined with the February 17 Movement, forming the Transitional National Council on March 5. These included: Colonel Abdallah Gehani of the air defence corps (based in Benghazi), former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril. A former head of Libya’s National Economic Development Board, Jibril was a key proponent of US and British economic interests in Libya, promoting privatisation and liberalisation of the economy.

A US embassy cable (published by Wikileaks) dated May 11, 2009, describes Jibril as keen on a close relationship with the US and eager “to create a strategic partnership between private companies and the government”. Jibril told the US ambassador that “American companies and universities are welcome to join him” in the creation of new sectors outside hydrocarbons and that “we [the US government] should take him up on his offer”.

The US embassy cable stated, “With a PhD in strategic planning from the University of Pittsburgh, Jibril is a serious interlocutor who ‘gets’ the U.S. perspective.”

On March 23, the TNC announced a transitional government, with Jibril as its prime minister. The transitional government was promptly recognised by Paris as the “legitimate representative” of the Libyan people. The formation of the TNC by pro-Western entrepreneurs and regime defectors was a calculated attempt to usurp power from the popular committees that had taken control of Benghazi and other eastern cities. These popular committees had, in late February, hung banners from buildings across Benghazi demanding “No foreign intervention”.

But even before the UN Security Council authorised a “no-fly zone” imposed by military force, hundreds of US, British and French military advisers were on the ground, invited by the TNC and its military wing to oversee the training of some 17,000 volunteer militia. The military wing of the Benghazi rebellion was now under the command of an ex-colonel of the Libyan army, Khalifa Heftir, and the former interior minister, General Abdel Fateh Younis, whose troops had been routed from Ras Lanouf on March 12.

Heftir formed the US-backed Libyan National Salvation Front in the late 1980s to lead resistance against Gaddafi from a base in Chad. When the US-supported government of Chad, led by Hissene Habre, fell in 1990, Heftir fled Chad for the United States, taking up residence in Virginia, close to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he remained for the next 20 years. With covert CIA support, Heftir formed the Libyan National Army, which, in 1996, was foiled in an attempt to launch an armed rebellion against Gaddafi in eastern Libya.

With the command of Libya’s popular uprising now having shifted to a neoliberal political leadership and a CIA-backed military leadership, the governments of the US, France and Britain committed to military action. While NATO’s air strikes were welcomed by the people of Benghazi, who faced the advance of Gaddafi’s forces, it soon became clear that the UN no-fly zone resolution was being used to provide air support for the rebel army.

While the US and France said that no ground forces would be used, the US has brought its AC130 gunships, dubbed “boots in the air”, and A10s into operation over Libya. These are not designed to patrol the sky, but are capable of hovering and firing at ground troops and at heavy machinery with cannons (including a 40mm Bofors cannon) and machine guns. The US arsenal is actively engaged against the Gaddafi forces on the ground.

While supporters of the NATO intervention claim that it is aiding a rebel army out-gunned by the Gaddafi regime, according to an Al Jazeera report on March 3, the total fighting forces loyal to Gaddafi amounted to 12,000 troops, while the total number of rebel volunteer fighters was 17,000. And the NATO forces now command the skies and the sea with scores of jets, warships and submarines, mounting daily attacks on Libya’s air force, air defence systems, airports, roads, ports and ground forces.

The stalemate now faced by the rebels can’t be explained simply by the military logic of who has the most firepower. Calls by the TNC for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone have enabled the regime to portray itself as the defender of Libyan sovereignty against foreign military aggression. This has enabled Gaddafi to rally support, particularly in and around Tripoli, and neutralise support for the pro-democracy rebellion in the area between Tripoli and the rebellion’s base in Benghazi.

The Libyan rebels’ position has in fact been weakened by the NATO intervention. The rebels are now dependent on NATO help to hold back attacks by Gaddafi’s forces.

The popular uprising that gave rise to a civil war is now increasingly a war between the Gaddafi regime and the NATO powers, while the Libyan masses who took part in the February uprising have been robbed of any control over the direction of the war they are engaged in.

While Washington and its NATO allies have backed bloody repression by their puppet regimes in Cairo, Manama and Sanaa, they have pursued a different tactic in Libya. It is not intended to liberate the Libyan people from autocratic rule, but to divide and demobilise a popular uprising. With the military conflict between the regime and the pro-democracy rebellion now a stalemate, only an escalation of the imperialist intervention – through the introduction of increasing numbers of foreign military advisers and troops – is likely to bring victory to Gaddafi’s opponents.

Such a “victory” under these conditions would not be a victory for the Libyan people. Its only possible outcome would be the creation, by the occupying powers, of a compliant regime that provides Western investors with favourable access to the country’s rich oil reserves, as the example of regime change in Baghdad has so clearly illustrated.

[This is an edited version of a talk presented to a Direct Action forum in Perth on April 16.]

International News & Analysis