Understanding the Libyan Uprisings: An Alternative Perspective

This week we recognize the 8th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, an illegal war of occupation that continues to this day.  The grounds on which the Iraq war was based turned out to be a batch of lies coaxed up by top officials in the United States government.  The U.S. Secretary of State – General Colon Powell, introduced these lies and manipulations to the United Nations at the request of his boss President George W. Bush.  Eight years later and under a new administration, another U.S. Secretary of State makes arguments supporting military action against what would be the fifth country currently under attack by U.S. military forces.  Libya can now be added to the exclusive list of nations being bombed by the United States and her allies, which also includes Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the occasional bombing of Yemen. (This list does not count the dozen or more nations currently being victimized by U.S. covert actions and state sponsored terrorism.)

To better understand the complex and dynamic circumstances involved in the Libya situation requires an understanding and analysis that goes far beyond what is reported in the mainstream media.  This article will be one of a three-part series that will attempt to shed some light on the situation and fill in some of the voids that are a result of a well designed misinformation campaign against the Libyan government and perpetuated by U.S. and European intelligence agencies.  “Part 1” focuses on who the Libyan “opposition” or “rebel” forces are.  “Part 2” talks about some of the confusing and contradicting language that is being used by Western media outlets, Al Jazeera, and even many of the independent progressive media sources here in the United States. “Part 3” focuses on the question “why Libya?” as opposed to Yemen, Bahrain, and other non-democratic regimes facing domestic opposition in the region.

The conclusions I make are not merely speculative.  Much of what I will be writing draws on both my personal knowledge on the subject, as well as correspondence with Libyan friends who are currently in Tripoli and Benghazi.  My contact in Benghazi is a University Professor who I met while visiting Tripoli a year ago as part of a delegation led by former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.  For safety, I agreed to conceal this person’s identity and will not specify which information came from this source, although in some cases it may be obvious.

Part 1: The Opposition Forces?

As I sit to write this article from the safety of an American café in Anchorage, Alaska, bombs rain down on cities and towns all across the North African nation of Libya.  I can hear reports from one of the corporate news stations on the television here.  As I look up at the screen I see a close-up of Libyans cheering, while in a small window on the upper right side of the screen there are far off images of bombs and missiles causing explosions on what appear to be Libyan targets.  I suppose the message here is similar to the visual messages that we were fed 8 years ago as we saw Iraqi’s cheering their new occupiers driving in on tanks and heavily armored humvees.

One of the questions regarding the Libyan unrest that has yet to be answered by any of the news agencies is – who exactly are these Libyan rebels?  The western media, with help from Al Jazeera, has done a remarkable job portraying the unrest in Libya as a popular revolt.  The anti-government or opposition forces have been referred to by various titles, including “pro-democracy protestors” and “non-violent demonstrators” to sell the image of them as a continuation of the pro-democracy movements that began in Tunisia then spread to Egypt.  However these terms, while still being used by some media outlets, fail to correctly identify the extremely complex and diverse makeup of the rebels.  While some of the protestors are calling for democracy in Libya, that is not necessarily the consensus among everyone in the opposition.

For instance, we can begin to understand who this opposition group is by first looking at what flag they are flying.  It seems as though the flag of the opposition has been widely accepted by the rebels.  What is not talked about in the media, and even among progressives, is what this red, black, and green flag with a crescent in the center actually represents.  First of all, it is the former flag of Libya that was introduced after independence under the rule of King Idris.  Idris ruled the monarchy after independence until 1969 when he was overthrown by the military under the lead of a young Colonel with a Pan-Arab/Nassarite ideology.  (A monarchy is far from a democracy and monarchs are still ruling in many parts of the Arab world.  Their rule is passed through hereditary and sometimes marital relations.)

Following the overthrow of King Idris in 1969, the flag was changed from the red, black, and green to a red, white, and black flag with no religious symbols.  In 1977 the revolutionary council led by Colonel Gaddafi introduced a new flag.   The Libyan flag, which still flies today, is a simple green flag.  Libya is the only nation represented by a single color flag with no symbols.

The issue of what flag the opposition forces are flying is of extreme importance because it says a lot about who they are and what they want.  If you recall, during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprising, the protestors flew their national flags, which suggested that although they wanted an end to the dictatorial rule, they still identified with the nation in its modern form.  At the beginning of the uprising in Libya, there were green Libyan flags being flown by some of the youth, students and professionals who make up what can be considered the “intelligencia” class.  These were the very first protestors who where clearly inspired by the democratic movement that hit North Africa, starting with Tunisia and spreading to Egypt.   I remember the first image I saw regarding a demonstration in Libya was online at Al Jazeera English.  The demonstrator, a young man who looked like he was in his mid-twenties, was on camera demanding Libya live up to the country’s official name the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.”   [The term Jamahiriya is Arabic for “a state of the masses,” which is another term for the governing structure known as a “direct democracy.”  A direct democracy refers to a system where the masses of the people are involved in the decision making through a process of councils starting from their local community reaching up to their national government.  It differs from a representative democracy where individuals elect candidates to speak for and represent them.]

Immediately following the first day of protests in the capital city of Tripoli the government clamped down hard and things seemed quiet for about a week in early February.  By the middle of February protests sprung up outside of the capital, primarily in the second largest city of Benghazi, which has since been the focus area of the corporate media.  The protests in Benghazi differed from the earlier non-violent protests that occurred in Tripoli.  The Benghazi protests included the attacking of government institutions.  The burning of government buildings quickly distinguished these protests from what was happening in other parts of North African and the Middle East.  The news media continued to call the protestors “non-violent” and “pro-democratic,” even as the protestors themselves acted contrary to those descriptions.  The terminology is important, as it is used strategically to form public opinion.  In “Part 2” of this series I will go further into the biased news reports and terminology that was used to shape the discourse and raise sympathy for the opposition forces.

What should be understood about the opposition forces in Libya is that they are not made up of any one particular group.  In actuality, the opposition is made up of a coalition of groups that only really have one political view in common, ending the 40-year rule of Gaddafi.   However, the problem facing the opposition forces is that there are differing beliefs on what should come after to replace Gaddafi’s regime.  Just because they all want change does not mean that they all agree on what that change should be.  For instance, the intelligencia class was demanding democratic reform, not necessarily the overthrow of the government.  They advocate living up to the true meaning and mission of a direct democracy.  Ironically enough, this was also part of a critique leveled against the Libyan government by Gaddafi himself, in 2008 and again in 2009 when he called for the reforming of the government due to a failed bureaucracy and corruption.  (Another issue that will be talked about in the second part of this series is the fact that the media refuses to recognize the actual government of Libya that is and has been in place prior to the unrest.  If you only listen to the corporate media they would have you believe this 70 something year old man was running every government entity in the country.)

The next group that participates in the opposition coalition is based on partial tribal alliances that would like to see the entire government of Libya overthrown and possibly the re-instatement of the monarchy.  This group is rather powerful and is not new to Libya.  They are strongest in the town of Benghazi and they have a history of being in cahoots with foreign intelligence agencies.  This element of the opposition has been funded and armed by foreign intelligence agencies in the past and even attempted an uprising against the government after a 1996 massacre in a local prison where inmates took hostages and held a prison revolt, but were ultimately killed by prison guards. The exact number of killed prisoners is unknown but some reports claim to be as high as 1200.

Family members of the slain prisoners have on several occasions protested the massacre.  Opportunistic anti-government forces in Benghazi attempted to exploit these protests with the intent to start a popular uprising, by rallying people around this prison massacre.  This brings us to the next group and probably the best organized prior to the current uprising.  This group is made up of educated professionals who feel Libya should be modeled after western capitalist nations like the United States.  Prior to the civil unrest these power hungry opportunists where never able to amass any considerable amount of support from the Libyan masses.  When they tried to use the prison massacre protests to ignite the people of Benghazi, the Libyan government quickly suppressed the protests. This segment of the opposition continued to organize both inside Benghazi and internationally under the title the “Libyan National Council”.

Mahmoud Jibril

The leader of the Libyan National Council is a man named Mahmoud Jibril.  Jibril has close ties with the United States, Britain and France.  It was reported last week by several news agencies that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a brief meeting with Jibril while she was in France.  French officials are also watching over Jibril and protecting him from harm upon reports that Colonel Gaddafi put up a reward of $400,000 to kill Jibril.  Jibril is believed by some to have been on the CIA payroll dating back to when he studied and then later taught in the U.S. prior to working in the Libyan government.  Jibril is an ex-patriot who worked high up in the Libyan government.  Some believe that his CIA ties were discovered and the cause of his quick exile to Europe.  It must be noted that Mahmoud Jibril and the Libyan National Council does not represent all of the anti-government forces in Libya.  There are many who will not follow him because of his close ties with European and U.S. Intelligence agencies.

The third group that contributes to the opposition is the fundamentalist Muslims or what the media calls Islamists.  This is the religious sector in Libya that would like to see a government lead by Shari’ a, or the law of the Quran.  This segment has also made its objectives very clear over the years, they wants to take over the country.  The most popular of the Islamist groups is known as the “Fighting Islamist Group in Libya”.

At the beginning of the unrest Gaddafi came on television and accused al-Qaeda of being responsible for the unrest.  He said that they drugged the youth in order to gain their support.  Many thought this to be an absurd accusation and a desperate attempt to demonize the young protestors.  It may have been a sign of desperation, but it certainly was not unfounded, at least the al-Qaeda part.  As for the drug accusation I can only assume Gaddafi was confused as to why the students would come out against him after all he had done for them and the country.  Making the university system open and free to everyone, or government sponsorship of students to study abroad in the US, Europe and in parts of the Middle East was a product of his (Gaddafi’s) leadership.  He knows the Islamists did not have that big of an influence on the youth and students, so in his mind, they must have been drugged.   How he came up with the charge of drugs is not quite clear to this writer, but what is clear is that al-Qaeda has been active in Libya and conspiring against Gaddafi for over 15 years.

On November 10, 2002 an article appeared in the Guardian, the U.K.’s largest daily newspaper, exposing a plot between the MI6 (British Intelligence) and an active al-Qaeda cell in Libya.  The article charges MI6 with paying the al-Qaeda cell to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in 1996.  The al-Qaeda cell attempted to carry out the assassination attempt, but was obviously unsuccessful.  The details of the plot are not completely clear, however al-Qaeda members attempted to kill Gaddafi by throwing a grenade at him while he was visiting the town of Sirte.  During an intense gunfight, the Islamists and several civilians where killed.

There are multiple Muslim fundamentalist organizations active in Libya.  It is not clear whether the Islamists are al-Qaeda, or part of another group if any, or if they are just fundamentalists who want Shari’ a law imposed.  On November 3, 2007 the BBC and other press agencies reported that the “Fighting Islamist Group in Libya” merged with al-Qaeda and this was substantiated through a recorded message by Ayman al-Zawahri a senior leader in al-Qaeda at the time.  But regardless of their particular affiliation, what is important to note here are that their ultimate objective conflicts with the pro-democracy youth, the tribal loyalists of the monarchy, and the opportunistic Libyan National Council.   I have to assume that for the purpose of working together against the Libyan government, the Islamists put their differences aside temporarily.

Finally, you have the masses of people who, for the most part did not belong to any of these groups but where caught up in the excitement and the possibility of change and freedom.  I am told that this is the largest portion of the opposition.  Many of these people have legitimate dispute with and disdain for the government.  They just want to live in peace free from fear and repression.  Some have even served in the Libyan military and are applying their training to what has turned into a civil war.  This group includes those in the police and military forces that sided with the anti-government forces.

I have also been told that some of the former soldiers in Benghazi would rather be loyal to the Government, but they fear for their safety and therefore feel that they must go along with the opposition.  This touches on another issue that I will discuss in “Part 2” of this series, that is, the fact that a large portion of the Libyan society is loyal to the government and Gaddafi, whereas the western media would have you believe the opposite.

I have pointed out roughly five completely different groups that make up the anti-government forces.  I refuse to call them “pro-democracy” forces because they are not all for a democratic society.  I also cannot call them “non-violent” protestors because the only non-violent group among them is the actual “pro-democracy” youth.  I was told that some of the students and youth protestors have been pushed out of the opposition because they continually argued for non-violent resistance and opposed taking up arms against government forces.  They understood clearly that they were no match against the military and that foreign intervention would be required to save their lives if they turn the struggle into a civil war.  Other forces within the opposition, mainly within the tribal monarchy supporters along with the opportunists, dominated the opposition politically and forced the armed struggle on the masses in Benghazi and other small towns.  In Benghazi many of the youth leaders and activists have given up because many of the internal conflicts have resulted in fighting within the opposition and many of them left the opposition and the country in fear for their lives.  This is not fear of government forces, but rather of violence perpetrated on them by members of the opposition.  In other words, there was a segment that was following the Tunisia/Egypt model, but they were forced to abandon that model or leave the anti-government ranks.

There where other conflicts between the youth/students and the supporters of the Libyan National Council, such as the issue of the Council’s leader, Mahmoud Jibril.  The youth do not trust him and believe he is an opportunist who will ultimately serve the interests of the west.  They compare him with Hamid Karzai, the U.S. -installed President of Afghanistan.  As with the youth of Tunisia and Egypt, Libyan youth are not willing to settle for anything less than a true democracy, free of dictators and neo-colonial rulers.

The youth also oppose the request for foreign intervention.  They understand what comes with that intervention and how it is applied.  However, the majority of the opposition forces are very hopeful, if not convinced, that support from the U.S. and Europe will lead to a victory against the Libyan military and ultimately the end of the Gaddafi regime.  The Libyan National Council fully supports the foreign intervention because they know it is their ticket to power in the post-Gaddafi Libya.

The question that will need to be asked in the near future is what promises or deals did Mahmoud Jibril make in return for Western support? If the U.S., U.K., and France achieve their goal of toppling the Gaddafi regime, will they install their man Jibril with mass Libyan support or will they do it regardless of any Libyan opposition to the Libyan National Council?  All of this is conditioned on how far Western involvement in Libya extends.  The British Defense Secretary, Liam Fox, recently suggested that Gaddafi is a target, while U.S. President Obama said that Gaddafi was not a target.  Either one of them is lying or they have different objectives.

About the Author:

Troy Nkrumah is a Pan-Africanist with a long history of social justice and anti-imperialist activism. He began as a student organizer in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  He is currently the President/CEO of the Anchorage Urban League and an outspoken advocate for Human Rights.  Troy has traveled extensively throughout Africa and Latin America.  He traveled to Libya at the end of 2009 as part of a delegation lead by former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.  Troy has studied, taught and written about Africa and the anti-colonial struggle. He holds a Bachelors and a Masters Degree in International Relations. He also has a Law Degree and has worked in Tanzania for the United Nations at the Rwanda Genocide Tribunal.