Colonel in his labyrinth

Print edition : March 25, 2011

Muammar Qaddafi greeting supporters in Tripoli, the capital, on March 2. - BEN CURTIS/AP

Libya could be in for a protracted period of instability as Muammar Qaddafi has indicated that he will not go down without a fight.

IF the cataclysmic events in Tunisia and Egypt took everyone by surprise, the scale of the uprising against the more-than-four-decade-old rule of Muammar Qaddafi has been an even greater surprise. Here is a man who withstood decades of hostility and sanctions from the West, was loathed by many of his fellow Arab rulers for his revolutionary talk, but yet managed to survive and at the same time make Libya a player in regional politics.

Since his revolution in 1969, Qaddafi nationalised the country's oil wealth and qualitatively improved the standard of living of his people. Libya has the highest life expectancy and the highest per capita income on the African continent. The literacy rate among women is among the highest in the Arab world. His grandiose project, the great man-made river, which taps water from the aquifers under the Libyan desert and diverts it for agricultural and drinking purposes, is one of the biggest engineering feats in Africa. The multi-billion project has already succeeded in supplying water to major cities such as Tripoli, the capital.

During his radical days, too, Qaddafi was known for his flip-flops. He initially supported the Sahrawi struggle for independence only to backtrack in the early 1980s. In 1971, Qaddafi played a crucial role in thwarting a communist coup in Sudan. He forced down the plane carrying one of the coup leaders and handed him over to Gen. Gaffar Nimeiry, the Sudanese military leader at the time. He also handed over two of the leading plotters to the Sudanese authorities. All three were promptly hanged. Qaddafi's ideology at the time was strongly influenced by Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arabism, which was anti-West and anti-communist at the same time. Until the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the main challengers of the Nasserist ideology in the Arab world were the communists, who had a strong presence in many Arab countries, including Iraq, Yemen and Sudan.

Embrace of the West

Many observers, including diplomats from the region, believe that Qaddafi's embrace of the West in the beginning of the last decade may finally lead to the unravelling of his government. Qaddafi, the man who helped and financed revolutionary movements ranging from the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), seemingly blinked after the American invasion of Iraq. He unilaterally made political and economic concessions to the West to ward off any military threats to his government. Officials of the George W. Bush administration have said that Libya was indeed on the list of states earmarked for regime change.

With his sons playing highly visible roles in the running of the government, Qaddafi showed that he was no different from the average regional despot. Though the country was renamed the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and Qaddafi's Green Book deemed it to be a direct democracy run by people's councils, in reality no opposition was allowed. The Mukhabarat, or secret police, like in most Arab countries, was all pervasive.

In the Arab street, Qaddafi was in recent years viewed as being no different from the likes of Hosni Mubarak or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the just-ousted leaders of Egypt and Tunisia respectively. Long and frequent photo opportunities with European heads of state such as Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Nicolas Sarkozy of France dented his revolutionary credentials in the eyes of the Arab masses. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair played an important role in the rapprochement Qaddafi affected with the West.

A DEMONSTRATION AGAINST Qaddafi at the court square in Benghazi on February 25, Benghazi, where the revolt began, was "liberated" by the anti-Qaddafi forces.-

The United States re-established full diplomatic relations with Libya in 2004. George W. Bush has claimed that it was the Iraq invasion that forced Libya to do an about-turn. Bush's Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, visited Qaddafi in 2008. At the 2009 Rome summit, President Barack Obama warmly shook hands with Qaddafi.

In December 2003, Libya suddenly announced that it was scrapping its programme of building weapons of mass destruction, though United Nations inspectors could find no trace of a nuclear weapons programme. Before that Libya was fully cooperating with Washington's global war on terror. Terror suspects were sent by the U.S. authorities to Libyan prisons for torture sessions. Many never returned.

We had a huge bonanza: cooperation on counterterrorism and on problems of weapons proliferation,'' David Mack, a former U.S. Ambassador and a senior State Department official, told The Washington Post. The Libyans gave us the key to the whole A.Q. Khan network, Mack added. He was referring to the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist allegedly responsible for running a clandestine nuclear smuggling ring.

All the same, it has to be said that Libya was the first country to seek an international arrest warrant against Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. In the mid-1990s and the early part of the last decade, there were sporadic attempts by Al Qaeda-inspired Islamists to overthrow the government of Libya.

Qaddafi has been unsparing in his treatment of his foes, whether Islamists or not. Benghazi, which is now in rebel hands, was the scene of Islamist-inspired protests. Former U.S. State Department officials have confirmed that Libyan officials approached Washington in the late 1990s requesting more coordination between the two countries in the fight against Al Qaeda. The cooperation to combat Al Qaeda was cemented after the events of September 11, 2001.

More than a thousand political prisoners, allegedly having links with the Islamists, were killed in a 1996 prison riot in Benghazi. Those who started the recent demonstrations in Benghazi that led to the unravelling of Qaddafi's hold over the country were relatives or friends of those killed in the notorious 1996 riot. Those who liberated Benghazi were seen waving the Libyan national flag used during the rule of King Idris, a puppet of the West.

Eyeing oil reserves

The upheaval in Libya, which was kick-started on February 15, is being viewed by the U.S. and its European allies as a gilt-edged opportunity to establish their economic and strategic stranglehold on the country's rich energy assets once again. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said recently that the U.S. was after Libyan oil just as it was after Iraqi oil. The U.S. has said that it is ready to invade Libya, Chavez said. And almost all the European countries have condemned Libya. What do they want? Libya's oil, insisted Chavez.

British and German military planes have started illegally landing in Libya on the pretext of securing their nationals. This is the first time the West has used its military assets in Libya since the aerial attacks on Benghazi and Qaddafi's residence in Tripoli in 1986 by the U.S. Air Force during the Ronald Reagan presidency. Qaddafi, in his first public address after the recent crisis began, chose to speak from the precincts of the bombed-out residence. Among those killed in the 1986 raid was one of his daughters.

The U.S. wants a decisive end to the current impasse in Libya. A protracted civil war will have unforeseen consequences apart from giving the West an excuse to intervene. Most of Libya's oil and gas go to Europe. The country is now virtually divided into two parts, with much of the east under the control of the rebels. Oil is produced in many parts of the country, with the refineries and ports spread out along the long coastline. The West also wants to ensure that it will have overall control of the Trans-Saharan oil pipeline that will connect Nigeria to Algeria. The 4,128-km-long pipeline is expected to be functional from 2015 and will run through Libya.

Libya was the first African country to become independent, in 1951. It was created after the Second World War by the merging of three distinct regions Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. As the recent events have shown, these divisions continue to linger. Many of the tribal leaders in the east, including those of the influential Senussi tribe, raised the banner of revolt in the third week of February. The Senussis were supporters of King Idris. There are more than 100 tribes in the vast country. Three key tribes, the Qadhadfa, from which Qaddafi hails, the Maghraha, and the Warfalla still support the regime. The Free Officers, who made the 1969 coup, came from these tribes.

The energy sector has not been targeted by both sides so far, but oil companies have evacuated all their expatriate staff. Oil output has already gone down considerably. With energy prices threatening to skyrocket and civil strife already present in many of the other oil-producing Arab countries, the trouble in Libya could be the tipping point. Libya has the African continent's largest proven oil reserves 44.3 billion barrels. Its crude is of the highest quality and requires very little refining.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in an article in the last week of February, presciently warned that the West would use the crisis in Libya to justify military intervention and once again monopolise the country's oil wealth. In other Arab countries, the U.S. can at least depend on the military when it comes to the crunch. In Libya, the bulk of the military is still with the regime and the Americans have little influence over it.

Tribal loyalties have come to the fore. Among the senior regime figures who have resigned, most are from the eastern region. Resignations have depleted Qaddafi's Cabinet as well as diplomatic corps. Among those who resigned were Libya's Ambassadors to the U.N., the U.S. and India. Qaddafi has been warning that Libya after him could be worse than Somalia and Afghanistan. The Libyan leader, despite his kowtowing to Western interests in the latter part of his rule, saw to it that the country's hydrocarbon assets were firmly in the hands of the Libyan people.

Many of the oil-producing centres are now in the hands of the rag-tag bunch of rebels, united only by their hatred of Qaddafi. The reported fall of Zawiyah, a port and refinery city 50 km from Tripoli, shows that the rebellion has expanded to areas that were considered the regime's strongholds. Forces loyal to Qaddafi are on the offensive, trying to retake Zawiyah and other cities along the Mediterranean coast. However, until the first week of March, according to reports, they have only been able to retain Tripoli and Sirte, Qaddafi's hometown. The oases towns in the south are also with Qaddafi. Sections of the armed forces have defected from the government, taking along with them heavy weaponry.

Qaddafi has repeatedly stated that there was no question of his leaving Libya and indicated that he would rather die a martyr. Most of the news about the reported atrocities and massacres committed by forces loyal to Qaddafi emanate from the offices of the exiled National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which is trained and financed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the U.S. A recent article in The New York Times, quoting experts on the region, said that Qaddafi had clarified that there were no large massacres, and air power is being used in a calculated way. Western electronic media, like the BBC and the CNN, have been dissembling mainly anti-regime news. Al Jazeera, which played a key role in igniting the Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan, seems to have gone slightly overboard in its coverage of Libya. A leading imam, having close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a fatwa on the channel calling for the assassination of Qaddafi.

U.N. censure

Another major diplomatic setback for Qaddafi was the unanimous resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council on February 26, imposing sanctions on the Libyan leader and his close circle of advisers. It also called for an international war crimes investigation into widespread and systemic attacks against Libyans who have staged an uprising against their government. It was the first important vote for India after being elected to the Security Council late last year.

This is only the second time that the Security Council has referred a member state to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2005, it had called for an investigation into war crimes in the Darfur region of Sudan. Interestingly, the U.S. had abstained from that vote. The U.S. is not a member of the ICC. When the ICC was created in 1998, the U.S. and Israel were among the seven countries that voted against its creation. The U.S. has chosen to abstain from the ICC to ensure that none of its officials or military men is ever charged for war crimes. In the week the Security Council passed its resolution on Libya, U.S. warplanes bombed Afghan villages killing innocent civilians. The U.S. has on countless occasions used its influence in the U.N. to stop Israel from being censured for crimes against humanity.

Qaddafi now could become the second African head of state after the Sudanese President, Omar al Bashir, to be referred to the ICC. Qaddafi has, of course, been claiming that he holds no official position in his country.

The Security Council resolution, in addition to the sanctions, has imposed an arms embargo on Libya and a travel ban on 16 Libyan leaders. The U.N. has also ordered a freeze on the assets of Qaddafi and his family members. According to the WikiLeaks cables, Libya had invested billions of dollars of its sovereign funds in Western banks. Libya's sovereign wealth fund at the end of 2010 totalled an impressive $162 billion. The U.S. has been quick to seize the $30 billion of Libyan assets in U.S. banks after the passage of the U.N. resolution.

The sanctions, however, do not include the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. It has been reported that the U.S. and its Western allies in the Council were pressing for such an action, but there were objections from other countries. In fact, many of the Security Council members were initially reluctant to support the draft of the resolution that was originally circulated by the U.S., Britain, France and Germany. Countries such as Russia, China and Brazil have been more circumspect in their handling of the Libyan crisis. India seems to be taking its cue from Washington, as in its handling of the crisis in Egypt. India too has sent warships to bolster the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces already assembled off the coast of Libya, instead of focussing on the repatriation of thousands of Indian workers stranded for weeks in a country where anarchy reigns in large swathes of inhospitable desert terrain.

Bolstered by the Security Council resolution, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Western officials have raised the pitch on the need to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. In recent days, American and European officials have also been focussing on the need for a so-called humanitarian military intervention in Libya. Hillary Clinton told reporters on the sidelines of a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) meet in Geneva, which suspended Libya from the organisation, that the U.S. is offering any kind of assistance to Libyans who might wish to consider overthrowing Colonel Qaddafi. Italy has suspended a 2008 treaty with Libya, which has a non-aggression clause. There are many U.S. and NATO bases in Italy which will be used if the West decides to intervene militarily in Libya. Russia and France are so far opposed to the idea of establishing a no-fly zone. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Ambassador to the U.N., described the no-fly zone idea as superfluous. Dmitry Rozogin, Russia's Ambassador to NATO, cautioned against a military intervention in Libya without U.N. authorisation. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe too stressed that military action cannot happen without a clear U.N. mandate.

Arab League reaction

The Arab League, in a resolution passed on March 2, rejected any outside military intervention in Libya. At the same time, a ministerial meeting of the body held in Cairo reiterated its condemnation of the use of force by the Libyan government against its people. The Arab League called on the government to accept the legitimate demands of its people and said that if the unrest continued, it would recommend the introduction of a no-fly zone in coordination with the African Union. The Arab League had suspended Libya from its sessions on February 22. Qaddafi, in a speech on the same day, said that he was willing to talk about political and constitutional changes provided there was no armed conflict or chaos. Qaddafi challenged the U.S. and NATO to send investigation teams to Libya to ascertain whether his security forces had fired on unarmed civilians. I dare you to find that peaceful protesters were killed. In America, France and everywhere, if people attacked military stores and tried to steal weapons, they would shoot them, the Libyan leader said.

Hugo Chavez, along with other Latin American leaders, has called for an international mediation effort to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. He said that he had already discussed the idea with many heads of state, including some in Europe. I hope we can create a commission that can go to Libya and talk to the government and the opposition, he said. Chavez emphasised that it was better to seek a political solution instead of sending marines to Libya. The Venezuelan President proposed the immediate despatch of an international peace mission to the country so that there is a halt to the bloodshed. Reliable casualty figures are hard to come, but hundreds of people have already perished since the trouble erupted in mid-February.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking in Germany in the last week of February, said that discussions about an intervention in Libya or sanctions are worrisome. He said that foreign powers should act on Libya from a humanitarian perspective and not out of considerations for their oil interests.

Refugee problem

Meanwhile, the refugee problem has reached crisis proportions. More than 140,000 people, most of them foreign workers from Arab countries such as Egypt and from sub-Saharan Africa, have fled from the violence and chaos in Libya, through Tunisia. Egypt had a million and a half of its nationals working there. As many as 69,000 Egyptian workers have crossed back home through the common border between the two countries.

There have been scenes of desperation and chaos, especially on the Libyan-Tunisian border. Tunisian border guards had to open fire to control the mass of people, many of them from South Asian countries, from stampeding into Tunisian territory. The Tunisian government is just about recovering from a revolution of its own and is ill-equipped to handle an influx of this scale. Workers and their families from many Asian countries, including India, remain stranded. The U.N.'s refugee agency said in early March that the refugee situation along the Libyan border had reached crisis point. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that thousands of lives were at risk.

China, which has thousands of workers in Libya, had the foresight to charter ships to evacuate most of its nationals before the civil strife escalated.

There are an estimated 15,000 Indians waiting to get out of the country, most of them contract labourers from the southern States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The Indian government seems to be finally getting its act together. In the first week of March, ships were requisitioned and permission was sought to send Indian Air Force planes for airlifting people from Libya. Private airlines have been roped in to pick up Indians who have managed to cross into Egypt and Tunisia.

Among the worst-affected people are those from sub-Saharan Africa. Qaddafi played a key role in the setting up of the African Union (A.U.), and his dependence on labour from sub-Saharan African countries was not liked by many of his compatriots, especially those in the Berber-dominated east of the country. Now, with unsubstantiated reports of Qaddafi using mercenaries from Africa to fight for him gaining credence, the hatred against people from neighbouring countries such as Niger, Mali and Ghana has only increased. Many have been killed on the mere suspicion of being guns for hire.

An Islamic Pan African Brigade was formed by Qaddafi some years ago after he turned his back on the Arab world and focussed more on the African continent. Its members were reportedly involved in some of the bloodiest fighting so far.

Libya could be in for a protracted period of instability. Qaddafi has given enough indications that he will not go down without a fight. Western governments have conceded that even a weakened Qaddafi continues to have the support of critical government institutions and large sections of the army and the air force.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor