America’s Libyans


Libya was not fated for an Arab Spring. As Aijaz Ahmad once put it, “every country gets the fascism it deserves.” In that spirit, every country gets the rebellion it deserves. Libya did not deliver the uplifting spactacles of Tunisia or Egypt. Its rebellion had a history that stretches back a hundred years, and one that was not so easy to shake off. That east-west divide smothered any attempt by the working-class in the western cities to rise to their full potential. Zintan was lost to Qaddafi briefly, but he took it back easily and then crushed the rebellion.

The upsurge from below enthused the lower orders of Qaddafi’s army in the east. They defected to the Benghazi rebels. Popular councils emerged in the cities and towns of the east. The east had sent a disproportionate number of its young to fight in Iraq. They did not go solely for the purposes of jihad, or only because they had admiration for  al-Qaeda. A U. S. embassy official reported in 2008 (thank you Wikileaks) that the young men who went to Iraq did so in part because they could not effectively protest against Qaddafi.. The official went to Derna. Upon his return to Tripoli, he filed this memorandum for his superiors (08TRIPOLI120),

The Benghazi council chose as its leader the colorless former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil. Jalil’s brain is Mahmoud Jibril, a former head of the National Economic Development Board (NEDB). A U. S. embassy cable from May 11, 2009 (09TRIPOLI386) describes Jibril as keen on a close relationship with the U. S. and eager “to create a strategic partnership between private companies and the government.” Jibril’s NEBD had collaborated with Ernst & Young and the Oxford Group to make the Libyan state more “efficient.” Jibril told the ambassador that “American companies and universities are welcome to join him” in the creation of new sectors outside hydrocarbons and that “we should take him up on his offer.” His Ph. D. in strategic planning from the University of Pittsburg is useful in this context.

With Jalil and Jibril are the February 17 movement’s men. They take their name from an uprising in Benghazi on February 17, 2006 that was crushed by Qaddafi. These men (Fathi Boukhris, Farj Charrani, Mustafa Gheriani and All Ounes Mansouri) are all entrepreneurs. Gheriani told Jon Lee Anderson that they are “Western-educated intellectuals” who would lead the new state, not the “confused mobs or religious extremists.”

In December 23, 2010, before the Tunisian uprising, Boukhris, Charrani and Mansouri went to Paris to meet with Qaddafi’s old aide-de-camp, Nuri Mesmari, who had defected to the Concorde-Lafayette hotel. Mesmari was singing to the DGSE and Sarkozy about the weaknesses in the Libyan state. His man in Benghazi was Colonel Abdallah Gehani of the air defense corps. But Gehani would not be the chosen military leader. The CIA already had its man in mind. He would soon be in place.

By March 14, the military wing of the Benghazi rebellion had been turned over to an ex-Colonel of the Libyan army, Khalifa Heftir and to the former interior minister, General Abdel Fateh Younis. Heftir made his name in Qaddafi’s war against Chad in the 1980s. At some point in that conflict, Heftir turned against Qaddafi, joined the Libyan National Salvation Front, and operated his resistance out of Chad. When the US-supported government of Chad, led by Hisséne Habré fell in 1990, Heftir fled Chad for the United States. It is interesting that an ex-Colonel of the Libyan army was able to so easily gain entry into the United States. Also of interest is the fact that Heftir took up residence in Vienna, Virginia, less than seven miles away from Langley, Virginia, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. In Vienna, Heftir formed the Libyan National Army. In 1996, Heftir’s Army attempted an armed rebellion against Qaddafi in the eastern part of Libya. It failed. But that did not stop his plans. History called him back fifteen years later. In March 2011, Heftir flew into Benghazi to take command of the defected troops, joining Younis whose troops had been routed from Ras Lanouf on March 12. They faced the advance of Qaddafi’s forces toward Benghazi. It was in this context, with the uprising now firmly usurped by a neo-liberal political leadership and a CIA-backed military leadership, that talk of a no-fly zone emerged (Resolution 1973 went through the Council on March 19, and the bombing began immediately). The U. S. and France provided crucial air support for the rebels.

With the hands on the political and military tiller firmly in the U. S. camp, it is no surprise that the armed response has escalated. UN Resolution 1973 (March 19) created a no-fly zone to protect civilians. Within hours it was clear that the no-fly zone was used to provide air support for the rebel army. The U. S. and France said that no ground forces would be used. Technology has rendered the idea of “ground forces” redundant. The U. S. brought its AC130 gunships and A10s into operation over the skies of Libya. These are not designed to help patrol the sky, but are capable of hovering in the sky and firing at ground troops and at heavy machinery with its cannons (including a 40mm Bofors cannon) and machine guns. The AC130 is essentially “boots in the air,” and its presence shows that the U. S. arsenal (even under NATO command) is no longer patrolling the skies, but is actively engaged against the Qaddafi forces on the ground. In addition, the U. S. inserted a phrase in Resolution 1973 that opened the door to eventual arms provision to the rebels (the phrase is notwithstanding paragraph 9 of 1970, which essentially means that Resolution 1973 will allow member states to “take all necessary measures” including arms delivery, notwithstanding the arms embargo of Resolution 1970).

 On March 26, White House spokesperson Jay Carney told the press that the resolution provided the U. S. with “flexibility within that to take that action [supply military equipment] if we thought that were the right way to go.” In other words, the arms embargo is flexible. On March 27, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told NBC’s David Gregory that on the question of arms supply, “No decision has been made about that at this point.” Escalation is on the horizon.

The troops of Qaddafi and of the rebels swing back and forth between Ras Lanuf and Ajtabia like a pendulum. U. S. and French air strikes have degraded the forces of the regime, but they have not yet destroyed them. The civil war continues. If the U. S. and France start to supply the rebels, it is likely that in the long haul Qaddafi’s troops will dissolve into an insurgency. In which case, Libya is likely to enter a protracted period of deep instability. The figures in place in Benghazi from the political and military side would hope to ride into Tripoli on their own tanks, but under NATO air cover. They have many to whom they owe much. People like Mahmoud Jibril and Khalifa Heftir will be more accountable to their patrons in Paris and Washington than to the people of Libya, whose blood is being spilled on both sides for an outcome that is unlikely to benefit them.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu 





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