Deconstructing the Libyan war

Stanly Johny reviews Vijay Prashad's book, "Arab Spring, Libyan Winter". 

Is the war in Libya over? The dictator is long dead. The foreign invaders claimed victory months ago. There was an election that liberal internationalists praised upon and a new government is now in place in Tripoli. All point toward the claim that everything changed for good in Libya, thanks to the air campaign of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). Then came another 11 September. The attack on the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, which led to the death of four Americans, including the Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, has taken many by horror and surprise.  

The violence was purportedly triggered by a film made by a US-based Israeli, Sam Bacile, mocking Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. After parts of the film, Innocence of Muslims, were uploaded on Youtube, the popular video-sharing website from Google Inc, protesters stormed the American embassy in Cairo, Egypt and the consulate in Benghazi—two cities where popular upsurges broke off one-and-a-half years ago against their respective dictators. Anti-American protests spread across the region in the following days, with several US diplomatic missions coming under attack. The protests in Benghazi were more fatal than other similar incidents in the region. And the irony is that the same United States, which “led from behind”[i] the Nato’s air campaign in Libya that helped the rebels get rid of Muammar Gaddafi, was targeted in Benghazi.  The last time a serving American Ambassador was murdered was in Afghanistan, in February 1979. Adolph Dubs was taken hostage and shot dead in Kabul during the violence that out broke after the Soviet-backed coup. Though it’s too early to draw in conclusions about the real reasons behind or the possible ramifications of these incidents, the very outbreak of violence and its target undoubtedly point to one thing—the failure of President Barack Obama’s West Asia-North Africa policy, which was shaped in the wake of revolts in the Arab world. At the same time, it also betrays the western narrative about the Libyan upsurge.  

To understand what’s happening in Libya, or in the larger Arab world, it’s imperative to go beyond the dominant interpretations of the Arab protests. Liberal internationalists maintained that the root cause of the ‘Arab Spring’ was popular opposition against dictatorship. This one-dimensional perspective fed into imperialist policy formulation when it came to Libya. Western capitals said at the centre of the Libyan upsurge was the people’s anger against Gaddafi’s decades-old dictatorship and only a “humanitarian intervention” could stop him from slaughtering his own people. This argument was partially flawed and factually incorrect and it was on the wings of this very argument the elites in Libya hijacked a genuine popular movement and rolled out red carpet for Atlantic invaders, argues Vijay Prashad in his latest book Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.  

Was it only about dictatorship, as the liberals claim? Look at the countries where revolts touched off and gained momentum. Both Tunisia and Egypt were among the best examples for neoliberal security states of our time. The economic philosophy of both Hosni Mukbarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia were hardly different from that advocated by the Atlantic capitals and the Bretton Woods duo. The dictatorship prevailing in those countries helped these rulers to implement neoliberal policies with an iron fist, a privilege that democratic governments in the Third World hardly enjoyed. The Atlantic powers, who claimed to have saved the Libyan revolution, had never bothered about these people when their lives became miserable under the neoliberal dictatorship. The West preferred “rehabilitating” these regimes, instead of supporting popular movements. Ben Ali did not face any pressure from the West to leave power till his army stood down before the popular revolt and sent him packing. In Egypt, even when Mubarak’s thugs were attacking the peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square, the United States was busy making plans to salvage its client regime. But when it came to Libya, an oil-rich country that embarked on the path of neoliberalism very late, and half-heartedly, everything turned upside down. Why?

Not just dictatorship

In Tunisia and Egypt, people across the spectrum stood up against their dictators and their policies. During the build-up to the revolts of 2010-11, both societies had witnessed several agitations by different sections of the people including workers, Islamists and middle class activists. When the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouaziz self-immolated on 17 December 2010, in protest against the confiscation of his wares and the harassment inflicted on him by government officials, the fire he lit activated the hitherto suppressed public consciousness of a people that consumed the dictatorship within weeks. It was not different in Egypt either. The rumbles from below were so strong that the fall of Ben Ali brought tens of thousands of people together under one banner against Mubarak. Libya was not free from these rumbles, either. Though Gaddafi was rhetorical about his own revolution of 1969 and had indeed been instrumental in building the modern Libya, his turn towards privatisation in 1980s and the subsequent collaboration with the United States in its “war on terror” had driven a substantial chunk of his supporters away from the regime. There was widespread resentment against Gaddafi’s neoliberal turn. “Working class protests in the industrial suburbs of Tripoli conjoined with political Islamist unrest in the eastern part of the country,” Prashad writes. These protests got a shot in their arm when both Ben Ali and Mubarak fell in early 2011. The crisis spilled over to Libya and protests broke out in Benghazi, which had earlier revolted against the Gaddafi regime. But unlike the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, the neoliberals in Libya, who were not happy with the “pace of change” in the Gaddafi regime, hijacked the protests and thereby, provided an opportunity for the Atlantic powers to step into the Libyan theatre.  

The man from America

In March 2011, Prashad wrote about Khalifa Hifter[ii], a former Libyan colonel who had been living in the US, inCounterpunch. On 9 March 2011, he talked about him in Democracy Now!. That evening, “miraculously my computer was hanged and the database destroyed”, he writes. Prashad’s detailed description in the book about Hifter and the role he played in defeating Gaddafi answers not only why his computer was hacked, but also how the Americans were involved in the Libyan revolution. Hifter was part of the Libyan troops that attacked Chad in 1980s. He later defected and joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an anti-Gaddafi political group founded in 1981. Hifter continued to operate from Chad in the 1980s where he and his soldiers were reportedly trained by American intelligence officials. When the US-backed President Hissene Habre was deposed in 1990, Hifter left Chad for the United States. He lived there, less than 11 km away from Langley, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, till Benghazi stood up against Gaddafi in February 2011. Prasahd writes it was after Hifter flew in to Benghazi in March that year and took command of the defected troops, the talk of a no-fly zone emerged. After the war, Hifter emerged as the “army’s most influential officer”. 

Hifter was not alone. If he took control of the military opposition to Gaddafi, the political opposition had already been hijacked by the neoliberal clique whom Prashad calls “America’s Libyans”. Take the case of Gaddafi’s external security organisation director Moussa Koussa. Koussa was the man who oversaw Libya’s cooperation with the US in the “war on terror”. He was a long-time regime loyalist and the Gaddafi man in the regime’s dealings with foreign countries, particularly the Atlantic powers. Still, when the United Nations placed sanctions on senior members of the regime in March 2011, Koussa’s name was not on the list. On a private Swiss jet, organised by British intelligence agency M16, Koussa flew to Britain from Tunisia on 30 March. The revolution didn’t touch him. Mahmoud Jibril was another politician who worked closely with the Gaddafi regime during the privatisation period. He was cherry-picked by Gaddafi’s son Said al-Islam to lead the reform agenda. It was not a coincidence that he became the chairman of the Libyan National Transition Council, which emerged as the principal opposition to the regime. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the justice minister of Gaddafi, was another rebel leader. Till his resignation and the further defection, Abdel-Jalil was in the forefront of those who vehemently defended the actions of the regime.  Abdel-Jalil, like Jibril, was selected by Saif al-Islam to reform the country’s legal system. Gaddafi’s director general for the ownership expansion programme (privatisation fund) Ali Abd al-Aziz al-Isawi was also among the political leadership of rebels. In other words, what we saw in Libya was the irony of the same neoliberal clique which was part and parcel of the Gaddafi regime’s anti-people reform agenda emerging as the leaders of the very opposition to that regime. That this clique, along with the support of imperialism, could defeat Muammer Gaddafi is hardly surprising.

Even the reasons listed out to support the war were manufactured. The official version was that if Gaddafi was allowed to retake Benghazi, another Sebrinica or even Rwanda would be repeated in the eastern city. The international media, including al-Jazeera played their role well in the West’s effort to “control the narrative about the war”, says Prashad. This narrative has been powerfully critiqued by many. In an essay written in London Review of Books, Hugh Roberts[iii] argues that “in retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government’s control, Gaddafi’s forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda”. Countering the Western narrative about the war, Alan Kuperman wrote in an essay in US Today that “despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda.”[iv]

Failed State?

Prashad doesn’t shed any tears for Gaddafi. He writes convincingly that the Gaddafi since 1980s estranged his people. But he doesn’t point his fingers to Gaddafi alone. Only the dictator is down. Those who wanted him to be more neoliberal are now calling the shots. The Gaddafi family was replaced by the regime’s neoliberal clique. Gaddafi’s army was replaced by “Hifter’s bodyguards”. The country’s resources are up for sales. And the west is calling it a revolution. Will the post-Gaddafi Libya succeed as a modern state? “A modern state is defined by its monopoly over violence. The new Libyan regime tired to yoke the various city-based militias and the political Islamists into one command, but failed… The frequent clashes amongst the militia groups and then between the militias and the Libyan national army are… signs of this failure.” Do these sentences remind someone what happened in Libya on 11 September? 

In the introduction, Prashad writes the book is “less about predicting” the future and more about showing us how the Atlantic powers insinuated themselves in the Arab Spring.” As today’s Libya becomes more chaotic day by day, it’s not difficult to see that the book has done fairly well in the prediction part as well.

[i] For Obama’s West Asia policy, see Lizza, Ryan (2011), “The Consequentalist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama’s Foreign Policy.” The New Yorker, 2 May, Viewed on 15 August 2012 (
[ii] Vijay Prashad (2011), “Neoliberal Interventionism: America’s Libyans.” Counterpunch, 31 March, Viewed on  2 September 2012 (
[iii] Hugh Roberts (2011), “Who Said Gaddafi Had to Go?” London Review of Books, 33(22):8-18
[iv] Alan J. Kuperman (2011), “5 things the U.S. should consider in Libya.” USA Today, 22 March, Viewed on 10 September 2012 (    




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