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Losing Libya’s Revolution

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Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images
The aftermath of an explosion in Benghazi that killed Youssef Ali al-Asseifar, the military prosecutor for western Libya, August 29, 2013

In Tripoli, an Islamist businessman invited me to join him for dinner with one of Muammar Qaddafi’s oil men and an investor long exiled in Connecticut. “In the new Libya green tahalub [or seaweed, the rebels’ name for Qaddafi’s cronies] and rats [Qaddafi’s name for the rebels] all dine together,” explained my host, with that peculiarly Libyan talent for self-deprecation. Only through mockery, perhaps, can Libyans fathom how Africa’s richest state—endowed with oil and the Mediterranean’s appealing beaches and untouched antiquities—could appear so broken and bleak.

Were Libyans not such defeatists, they might have cheered some hints of an approaching return to normality. Many Libyans now sleep undisturbed by gunfire. In contrast to the kamikaze-style driving of a year ago, cars in Tripoli stop at traffic lights. Much of the revolutionary litter of martyr iconography has been blown away. “Libya is beautiful, keep it tidy” declares the digital message above a traffic light, before flashing, “Seatbelts save lives.” The courts function, more or less, and Benghazi’s scarred courthouse, the launchpad of the revolution against Qaddafi, has had a facelift. Near Tripoli’s Ottoman citadel, I joined the families watching hang gliders painted the colors of Libya’s flag descend through the brilliant sunshine. From a podium, a speaker hailed a return to civilian rule and called on the militias—called thuwwar, or revolutionaries—who had taken up arms against Qaddafi to disband.

It almost seemed plausible, until the evening news of June 8 reported that just over six hundred miles away, in Benghazi, a similar rally against the militias had ended in carnage. Across the road from a children’s theme park called Boadicea, protesters had gathered outside the base of Libya Shield No. 1—once the foremost of ten predominantly Islamist militias that Libya’s fledgling government had authorized. Many of the protesters were tribesmen, seeking vengeance for the killing of one of their kin by a Libya Shield patrol. Both sides were armed, some with rocket-propelled grenades, and as protesters pushed at the gates of the base, both sides began firing them. As the casualties mounted, al-Saiqa, a special force set up under Qaddafi, intervened on the side of the protesters, and by early evening it had succeeded in forcing the militia to flee. After an afternoon of fighting, doctors counted 35 dead and 120 injured. Politicians dubbed the killings “Black Saturday.”

The Islamist militias who fought against Qaddafi consider Benghazi their citadel. Their revolution began there on February 16, 2011, and from there it spread. For their leading brigade to be chased from its base by aggrieved tribesmen and forces from the Qaddafi era was a telling loss. Militiamen put on a brave face, insisting that they had fled with their weapons and were still a force to be reckoned with in the future. But some wondered whether, as in neighboring Egypt, the old order was using popular frustration with the Islamists to overthrow them. Much like Egypt’s army in February 2011, al-Saiqa had abandoned its despot, nominally siding with the revolution. But after months on the sidelines, it now seemed bent on recouping its power.

Despite sniping and firebombing by militiamen, al-Saiqa had tentatively reopened police stations in Benghazi and parked its cars and tanks at key intersections. Next to the international bus station it had cleared the vegetable market that traffickers of guns had turned into an arms fair and torn down the black flags of jihad hanging there. Some of the thuwwar revolutionaries warned that, as in Egypt, they were facing a military coup.

Many books have been published on Libya since Qaddafi’s killing in October 2011. Most highlight his quixotic megalomania and the way Western leaders pandered to it in his last decade, reducing the forces and interest groups that grew up around him to bit players at best.* And yet Qaddafi was not quite the one-man show he is often portrayed as being. Not only have the personnel and the beneficiaries of the old regime outlived him; they have managed to retain much of their power since his death. The old regime still runs the bureaucracy in the capital, wields power in its former strongholds in the provinces, such as Sebha, and dominates the ranks of the former Qaddafi security forces such as al-Saiqa.

Within two days of seizing the militia base, al-Saiqa’s commanders were celebrating the dismissal by the Tripoli government of the old army chief of staff, Yusuf Mangoosh, who had co-opted the militias into the ten Libya Shields. During a chaotic news conference at a Benghazi base, the current al-Saiqa commandos acted as hosts for Mangoosh’s replacement, Salim Ghneidi, a forgettable man with thick glasses whom they clearly had under their control. “No one denies that the leaders of the [Islamist] brigades played a role in the revolution,” declared Ghneidi to a room filled with more soldiers than journalists. “But that mission is over.”

He denounced his predecessor’s plans to assemble a parallel national guard, or gendarmerie, made up of Islamist militiamen, insisting instead that the thuwwar either give up their arms or be folded—“as individuals”—into the existing army. Libya, he said, had no need for two armies. And though he stopped short of accusing the thuwwar of associating with al-Qaeda or the killing on September 11, 2012, of the US ambassador Chris Stevens, whom they had promised to protect, he indulged in demonization. As he spoke, he fondled a land mine that he said militiamen had devised; it was cloaked in a gelatin wrap of nuts, bolts, and nails and held together with cardboard and black masking tape. “Peasant,” he said, “go back to your fields. Now is the time to hand over to the army and police.”

I found al-Saiqa soldiers—practically all former members of Qaddafi’s special force—burying their dead from the June 8 battle in Benghazi’s Hawari cemetery. Their trucks careened around the graves, appropriately enough, perhaps, for what had been a racecourse equestrian club until Benghazi at the height of the war ran out of space for its dead. A burst of heavy artillery guns followed the graveside volley of rifle fire. Steeped in Qaddafi’s corrosive paranoia, fighters jostled around me as I tried to interview their commander. “Spy, spy, CIA,” someone chanted.

The commander told me that he was fighting the same jihadis whose rebellion against Qaddafi he had suppressed in the Green Mountains above Benghazi. He held the thuwwar responsible for killing his general, Abdel Fatah Younis, Qaddafi’s interior minister, who had been sent to suppress the February 2011 uprising, but had decided—to many militiamen’s chagrin—to lead it instead.

Later some of the commander’s fighters, their suspicions allayed, took me on a tour of the city they now claimed to control. Wooed by arms and money from abroad, the thuwwar miltitias, they said, had become the servants of foreign interests. They were not Libya Shield, one corrected me. They should be called “Qatar’s shield”—for Qatar had contributed much to the war against Qaddafi.

The Islamist militia leaders I spoke to vowed to fight on. Ismail Salabi, the emir of “February 17,” the thuwwar’s leading Islamist brigade, was in Tripoli negotiating with Prime Minister Ali Zeidan for the release of a further installment of the salary payments the government had promised each militiaman in an attempt to co-opt them. Wanting to get in touch with him, I went to the electrical supply store he ran at the back of a Benghazi soccer stadium. Surrounded by boxes of vacuum cleaners, I spoke with him over the phone. “The thuwwar will be a greater threat if we are chased underground,” he told me. He was appealing to Zeidan to purge Qaddafi’s fighters such as al-Saiqa and rely on the thuwwar to protect him instead. His fighters-cum-shop-assistants assured me that though the thuwwar had lost one base in Benghazi, they had forty-nine more, with parking spaces for their three thousand armored cars. “We can raise 140,000 men by mobile phone within minutes,” I was told by a large burly fighter who moonlighted as a taxi driver outside my hotel.

Initially a spontaneous uprising of electricians, shopkeepers, plumbers, and car mechanics against Qaddafi’s four decades of tyranny, the forces of the thuwwar have long since drowned their innocent idealism in blood and the acquisition of spoils. Militias first protected the country’s installations, like airports and oil fields, and then turned them into smuggling rackets. Many scoffed at restoring the old law and order, sanctimoniously citing the cause of applying sharia law instead. In mid-June, a week after the new government succeeded in reopening the courts in the eastern town of Derna, militants shot dead a judge. In August another was gunned down in Benghazi. And inside the base from which Qaddafi’s Libya Shield had fled, a scavenger showed me the toilets the thuwwar had turned into cells. Iron bars had been welded onto the cubicles, and inmates had etched the passing days on their walls. One had reached 147. “We got rid of one Qaddafi and spawned a hundred more,” said the scavenger.

Pincered between the two forces of old revolutionary and new revolutionary Libya, Libya’s government of technocrats and émigrés is too weak to harness either. Seemingly emphasizing how threatened they feel, many ministers stayed in well-guarded hotels. But even there they are far from safe. Rockets have flown past the upper floors of the Corinthia, a Qaddafi-era luxury hotel, where Prime Minister Zeidan has taken up residence, entertaining visiting diplomats, businessmen, and journalists in the executive club on the fifteenth floor. On the ground below highwaymen rammed and looted the convoy carrying European Union officials as they left the hotel. Guards stood by and watched.

Initially the white-collar leaders of the revolution appeared beholden to the thuwwar fighters who handed them Libya’s government. But after shifting their headquarters from Benghazi to Tripoli, their reservations about the unruly revolutionaries grew. Increasingly they leaned on bureaucrats who had formerly served Qaddafi, without whom they could get nothing done. Worryingly, procedures or the lack of them appeared unchanged. Visiting journalists waited for visas from Qaddafi’s men, who were determined not to issue them. And after a brief flurry of transparency, the General National Congress, Libya’s postrevolutionary parliament with a prerevolutionary name, pulled the plug on broadcasting its sessions live and unedited, fearful of exposing its humbug. Unable to report on their supposed representatives, reporters waited in one of Qaddafi’s opulent anterooms, sparkling with oversize chandeliers and polished marble.

I visited the Congress on the day it held an emergency debate on Black Saturday—that fateful June day when thuwwar and the Qadaffi-era special forces shot at each other—and found only two reporters present. Two congresswomen drifted in and out. An al-Jazeera correspondent arrived and interviewed a congressman, who removed a gun from inside his jacket before bemoaning the dangers of weapons proliferation.

Another congressman, a former appellate judge, proposed that Qaddafi’s intelligence agencies be recalled. “Had we had a secret police,” he told me, “we could have rounded up all the trouble-makers.” Keen to shed their revolutionary alliances and reestablish their ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states opposed to regional change, Tripoli’s police repainted their cars—adorned in the maroon-and-white of the flag of their donor, Qatar—a royal blue. Unabashed by comparisons with the former regime, ministers began staging events in the monumental Ouagadougou conference hall that Qaddafi had built in Sirte, his hometown, where, surrounded by enthroned African heads of state, he proclaimed himself “King of Kings” of the USA, the United States of Africa.

Western power brokers, who view Libya primarily through the lens of al-Qaeda’s fortunes, cheer on the fragile restoration of anti-Islamist forces in the underbelly of Europe. Following the loss of the American ambassador and three diplomats to jihadi violence a year ago, some look back with nostalgia to the colonel’s last years, when he helpfully interrogated the Islamists Western intelligence agencies sent to him from abroad. Looking to reestablish a similar relationship, Western governments offer training. Whitehall reportedly has a plan to deploy British troops from Afghanistan to Libya’s wide-open southern borders. They could yet form a complement to French forces who in January 2013 routed jihadi forces in Mali, and blocked their seepage into Libya.

At an international conference held this summer in Tripoli, Western contractors were similarly pressing to resume business as usual. They appealed for the restoration of the old economy and the revival of $100 billion of state construction contracts that Libya’s revolution interrupted. With the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, an English financial expert listed the projects, from the Great Man-Made River extension to new university campuses that, he said, are only a ministerial order away from resumption.

Had Libyans not revolted, chimes in a veteran businessman, Qaddafi might have been remembered as the great modernizer. The English moderator predicts that Libya will again “be a country producing $15 billion per year of projects,” and as lucrative a destination for Western contractors as one of the Gulf’s absolutist sheikhdoms. And the chairman of AECOM, an American management agency hired by Qaddafi’s cronies to oversee construction, takes to the podium to celebrate the revival of his contract. Lost in the applause is the hope that the state might release its stranglehold on the economy, as on everything else, and allow the private sector to grow.

  1. *

    Of these the best are Lindsey Hilsum’s highly entertaining Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution (Penguin, 2012), Alison Pargeter’s scholarly Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi (Yale University Press, 2012), and Ethan Chorin’s personal account, Exit the Colonel (PublicAffairs, 2012).

    Also worth mentioning is The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future, edited by Jason Pack (Palgrave, 2013). Unlike the others, which all put Qaddafi on their front cover and reduce coverage of the revolution against him to their last pages, this compendium alone focuses on the forces determining Libya’s future. 

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