Libya — Homage to Benghazi
by Frank Brodhead
This article was written on April 1, 2011 and circulated on listserves.
More sympathy for the aspirations of Libya's rebels would allow a greater perspective on their uprising and their dilemmas. I would like to suggest, very summarily, an alternative to the view advanced by many writers, that the Libyan revolution has been hijacked by reactionaries who would advance US and European military and economic interests as they advance their own careers by toppling Gaddafi's government.
In summary, I would like to set aside for a moment the fully justified critiques of US/NATO intervention, of its illegality, illegitimacy, and hypocrisy, and look at the events in Libya from what might be the viewpoint of a Libyan revolutionary. That is, how might a Libyan committed to ending Gaddafi's dictatorship and pushing forward civil liberties and perhaps a social-democratic agenda view his or her situation at this moment? In my view, this is the other half of the coin of opposing US intervention. Neither is complete without the other.
At the outset, in mid-February, we saw protests in Libya that appeared to be the next step in the Arab Spring, following on Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and other places. The protests in Libya spread from city to city; there seemed to be no city or town untouched. Outside of Benghazi and to some extent Tripoli, we know very little of how these struggles developed, but it appears that the protesters were able to neutralize local police and security forces everywhere except in Tripoli, where large demonstrations also took place, and where the western, working-class parts of Tripoli were totally in the hands of protesters. Again, though we have only sketchy reports, it appears that in each “liberated” city and town residents set up rudimentary self-governing councils or committees, resuming their city's day-ay-to-day services. In at least one city, uncensored newspapers and a radio station appeared, and it is likely that this happened in more than one place.
The popular support for these outcomes was indicated by the success of the rebels in fighting off attacks by small pro-Gaddafi units that the rebels called “thugs” or “mercenaries.“ We don't know details for each of the cities, but in Benghazi rebels armed themselves from a captured armory. It appears that many of Libya's regular army units defected to the rebels, or refused to fight. Several air force pilots defected or, according to Aljazeera, appeared to be dropping their bombs deliberately wide of their supposed targets. In any case, Gadaffi's three, 10,000-man elite units, each headed by one of his sons, became solely responsible for stopping the uprising. In addition to their military training, they had on their side tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons, which began to turn the tide of battle against the rebels.
We should be aware of how little we know of the next, military phase of the uprising. Western media coverage was limited to a hotel window and government-organized trips in Tripoli, as well as the Benghazi-based force of some 1,500 men as they advanced to the west and retreated back, and whatever was happening in Benghazi and Tobruk. For the rest, we know that troops loyal to Gaddafi advanced on and eventually retook the western towns of Zintan and Zawia, though not until they had made several attempts to take them and were beaten back. The attacks and eventual pro-Gaddafi military successes in Misurata, Libya's third-largest city, and in the eastern city of Ajdabiya followed a similar pattern: artillery bombardment from the outskirts of the city, several unsuccessful attempts to capture the city centers with tanks, and finally something resembling “victory.” Battles over the two oil refinery ports of Ras Lanuf and Brega continue today.
To summarize the story so far: in mid-February a pan-Libya uprising, largely nonviolent, captured all of Libya's cities and major towns with the exception of Tripoli, and even there large sections were under rebel control. Largely isolated from each other, rebels in each city were able to defeat a preliminary counterattack by “mercenaries,” and then fought off for days/weeks attacks by Gaddafi's ellite units. To my knowledge, nowhere did local anti-rebel forces join the fight.
It was at this stage that the French and British “no fly zone” proposals gained acceptance within the Obama administration and then the UN Security Council, and that UN/US-led military intervention began. It is debatable whether French military*strikes were necessary to save Benghazi from massacre: Cole and Achcar say yes, Bennis says no. What is not debatable, in my opinion, is that the Libyan revolution was dramatically changed. While the rebellion was saved/greatly aided militarily by intervention, it was now severely damaged politically.
While all revolutionary movements begin as a very broad coalition — as the Libyan uprising certainly did — the course of fighting itself is one of many factors that shape the political aims of the rebellion. The broad coalition of businessmen, lawyers, and professors who chose themselves to be the revolutionary council in Benghazi would not necessarily have survived an extended uprising leading to victory. But the rebellion's need/desire for military help, and the pro-western/pro-business orientation of Benghazi's leadership melded with the needs of Britain and France, and of the United States, to gain access and perhaps control over the uprising. While the effectiveness of the CIA and British SAS forces on the ground (apparently for weeks) may be dubious, the overall direction is clear: the Benghazi-based part of Libya's revolution is no longer independent of colonial influence and control.
Considering again the Libyan uprising in the context of the Arab Spring, we recall that the United States had isolated itself by clinging to Egypt's Mubarak until the last minute. In addition to the permanent US aim of getting/retaining control of Middle East oil, I think the Obama administration realized that it was on the brink of regional political disaster, and this helped to guide them to join (their own version of) Libya's uprising, rather than to continue to back each regional dictator. Of all the choices available to them (i.e. not Bahrain, not Yemen, etc.), joining the Arab revolt against Gaddafi's tyranny was a no-brainer.
Returning to the perspective of Libya's rebels, we now see them confronted with several difficulties equally perilous to the problems posed by the heavily armed Gaddafi regime. UN/NATO military assistance, whether necessary or not, has brought and will bring to the fore of the official leadership of the revolution conservative and pro-US/NATO men who welcome the end of the regime under a protective, neo-colonial umbrella. As water flows downhill, they will diminish the spirit of liberation and bolster the possibilities for an “orderly” transition. Already, the irregular elements in the military units west of Benghazi are being called home for training, leaving the defense/advance of the revolution in the west to regular military units that had defected and are being led by a leader said to be close to the US CIA. Undoubtedly there is much more we don't know, but tending in the same direction.
Will this “counterrevevolution within the revolution” be successful? Will it not only conquer power, but also establish a regime amenable to US/European military and business needs, while pushing the liberationist spirit of the volunteer army and municipal councils to the background? In short, will Libya's someday-to-be-discovered George Orwell write an “Homage to Benghazi,” as Orwell bemoaned the Stalinist takeover of the Republican forces in Spain?
The odds against the Libyan revolution seem long. In a sense, our hope lies in what we don't know. If and when the regime falls, will the people of cities rise up again, form new councils, and demand real democratic government? And what will happen in Tripoli, Libya's largest city? What will they want, and will they easily submit to the political goals of a Benghazi-based leadership that wants NATO and US guidance and support? There is a lot we don't know and will find out. We should “accompany” the Libyan rebels to the end, and not toss them overboard in our desire to fight another round of US military intervention.