We did it guys! We did it! We dragged an old man from a sewer and beat him to death while he pleaded for his life, and then left his body in a shopping centre for people to gawp at! Victory for human dignity and human rights! Gaddafi’s a gaddaver! The Colonel’s a corpse! Muammar’s going mouldy! A human being died, and isn’t it fucking brilliant!
We know it’s fucking brilliant because Gaddafi was a Scary Bad Man, and we know he was a Scary Bad Ban because that’s the narrative the media has shat into our eagerly cupped hands. How could he not be? He was a dictator who mistreated his own people and brutally massacred them when they tried to protest. Except he wasn’t, not exactly. Back in the early days of the revolution, before it broke out into full-scale civil war, every day brought another shocking revelation: the death toll from the crackdown was running into the tens of gazillions, Gaddafi was using anti-aircraft guns against peaceful demonstrators, he was sending fighter planes to attack protest camps, he was issuing his soldiers with Viagra to keep them raping into the small hours, he bit the head off a newborn infant and sucked out its spinal fluid like it was a Capri-Sun, every night he snuggled up under a quilt made from the scalps of bright-eyed young democracy activists, he wore sunglasses and had a strange beard and slept in a bedouin tent, the utter bastard. But then in June, by which time NATO jets were already pounding Tripoli and attacking anything flying the green flag, Amnesty International released a report demonstrating that there was no evidence rape had been used as a weapon by loyalist forces, no evidence that anti-aircraft guns had been turned on protesters, no evidence for anything like the level of atrocity claimed. And meanwhile, it emerged that the saintly rebels had been deliberately feeding false stories to foreign news organisations, that their uprising had been violent from the start (not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with violence, but it doesn’t sit easily with the peaceful protester/psychotic dictator dichotomy we were presented with) and that they were systematically lynching and detaining sub-Saharan Africans on the grounds that they were all Gaddafi mercenaries.
We were brought into a war under false pretences. We got duped again. And in contrast to 2003, most of the Left bought into it. I did too. As the tanks rolled towards Benghazi I was hoping for a UN resolution authorising intervention; I was even prepared to support NATO provided no civilians were killed. I didn’t expect the humanitarian intervention to metamorphose into an all-out campaign to unseat Gaddafi by any means necessary. Really, I should have known better. The words were never used, but it was a pre-emptive strike as dubious as that which overthrew Saddam Hussein. We intervened based on what the Libyan army might do if it recaptured Benghazi. We were told that if the city were taken, it would be the site of a mass extermination. As Richard Seymour points out, its previous conduct doesn’t necessarily support this unquestioned assumption. And it’s something of a stretch to imagine that a canny operator like Gaddafi would have carried out such an atrocity with the world’s media swarming the city’s streets. Not that it’s OK to indulge in just a little massacre every now and then, but a potential massacre of indeterminate size is far from a reasonable casus belli. Needless to say, the West didn’t really care all that much about Benghazi – they just seized any excuse to finally get rid of Gaddafi, that perennial thorn in their sides, even after Libya’s supposed reintegration into the international community. We acted with the kind of capriciousness and unpredictability that would have seen a smaller nation branded a rogue state.
The rebels didn’t win the war. NATO did. The interminable stalemate was just a matter of the rebels hanging skittishly along the front line, ducking in for the odd offensive and being pushed back while British, French and American air power neatly sliced up Gaddafi’s supply lines and battered any troop concentrations. And yet the war still dragged on for months, without any significant gains by the rebels before the big sudden push that took them to Tripoli. How come? Why didn’t the Libyan masses see that their dictator was fighting a losing battle and rise up to overthrow him? That thought police security apparatus must have been pretty scary, huh? Or, maybe, a lot of Libyans – in the west of the country, at least – actually still supported Gaddafi.
How could they? It’s rarely mentioned, but Gaddafi actually did a lot of good for Libya. He forced concessions from foreign oil companies, demanding a $113m fee for each contract – some of which, admittedly, went into his private investments, but much of which was reinvested in the country. He extracted reparations for colonialism from the Italian government – the only time any European state has been made to make remittances to a former colony. He presided over the creation of the Great Man-Made River, the largest irrigation project in the world, built without the help of foreign nations or world banks. Before the war, Libya had the highest Human Development Index in Africa, and the 53rd highest in the world, better than European nations like Bulgaria or Serbia. On average, Libyans live longer than Hungarians or Lithuanians. The revolution was not the mass outburst of a long-oppressed nation, but a manifestation of the east-west rivalry that has always been a factor in Libyan politics. Of course, Gaddafi was far from perfect. He was murderous and nepotistic, he inflamed tribal divisions, he promoted a frankly weird personality cult. But he wasn’t a cartoon villain either.
The rebels, meanwhile, are much more likely to follow the kind of economic policy the West prefers, to the detriment of the people. During the messy infancy of the revolution, when it was still fighting for its existence, the rebels nonetheless had the time to set up a new central bank, ensuring that there could be no question as to their allegiance to the forces of capital. In an unambiguous statement of solidarity with imperial interests, NTC chairman Omar al-Mukhtar has defended Italian colonialism in Libya – the same fascist colonial regime that murdered up to one third of the population of Cyrenacia in concentration camps.
What will happen now? It’s unlikely that we’ll see an Afghanistan-style Islamic Emirate emerge, despite the hysteria of the Right wing. While the various armed militia are already starting to squabble over positions in the new government, the core leadership of the NTC is probably strong enough to prevent Iraq-style social disintegration. Even so, it doesn’t look good. I hope I’m wrong, but for a lot of Libyans life is probably about to get a lot worse. They were shielded from the worst of neocolonialism by Gaddafi’s welfare state and his readiness to extract hard concessions from the West. Now our puppets are in control, and they know exactly who they’re beholden to. Sure, we might see a couple more five-star hotels sprouting up in Tripoli. There’ll be more luxury cars on the roads, more glossy malls, more channels on the televisions. But at the same time there’s every chance that shanty towns will start to spring up around the major cities, that food and education and healthcare will suddenly become cripplingly expensive, that working-class neighbourhoods will continue to echo with gunfire long after the supposed cessation of hostilities. I could be wrong. When a government is overthrown there’s always a power vacuum, an open space which can be expanded into something genuinely new. If they are to have a chance, the Libyan people should stay on the streets and be on guard against any attempt to impose a merely procedural democracy. They must make sure the NTC doesn’t sell them out to to Western interests. The excesses of the Gaddafi era are in the past now, but the future is likely to hold just as much danger.