Libya: Dignity, Democracy, Development

, by Rene Wadlow

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Libya: Dignity, Democracy, Development

Along with Tunisia and Egypt, the People’s Revolution is on the march in Libya.

In the words of Henry A. Wallace, then Vice-President of the USA in 1942 “The people’s revolution is on the march. When the freedom-loving people march — when the farmers have an opportunity to buy land at reasonable prices and to sell the produce of their land through their own organizations, when workers have the opportunity to form unions and bargain through them collectively, and when the children of all the people have an opportunity to attend schools which teach them truths of the real world in which they live — when these opportunities are open to everyone, then the world moves straight ahead…The people are on the march toward ever fuller freedom, toward manifesting here on earth the dignity that is in every human soul.”

While the People’s Revolution in Tunisia and Egypt was largely non-violent, the revolution in Libya may turn more violent as the last of the palace guard circle around Colonel Qaddafi, his family and a small number of people with tribal ties to him.

Somewhat too late in the day, the U.N. Security Council demanded on 26 February an embargo on arms sales to Libya. However, the country has more arms than it can use. The Security Council also requested the International Criminal Court to investigate if there have been war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Libya. The Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo has started to look into the gathering of evidence. The Security Council also called for freezing the foreign bank holdings of the Qaddafi family. Other steps are still under discussion, but everyone is watching to see how the situation in Tripoli evolves.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, like the Commission on Human Rights, had been silent on human rights violations in Libya for years. In fact, the then Libyan Ambassador, Najat al-Hajjaji, a former wife of one of the Qaddafi sons had chaired the Commission on Human Rights in 2003. Libya’s human rights record had been reviewed in 2010 by the working group on the Universal Periodic Review which is to study the conditions of human rights in States member of the Council. The exercise consists largely of the friends of the State in question praising the achievements and the working group saying “continue the good work, but you might try harder in some matters.” The pattern held for Libya. Non-governmental organization representatives have no direct input into the Periodic Review process although some circulate a more critical analysis to government representatives, usually with no immediate impact. Now, there is discussion of expelling Libya from the Human Rights Council, however the Libyan representatives in both New York and Geneva have resigned in order to join the opposition. At this stage, Colonel Qaddafi is not interested in diplomatic symbols.

On 25 February, the Human Rights Council held a one-day Special Session on the human rights situation in Libya. The High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, introduced the debate saying “The crackdown in Libya of peaceful demonstrations is escalating alarmingly with reported mass killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of protesters.” saying “The crackdown in Libya of peaceful demonstrations is escalating alarmingly with reported mass killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of protesters.”

At the Special Session Jose Luis Gomez del Prado, Chair of the Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries spoke on behalf of all the Special Mandate holders of the Human Rights Council. He did not, however, raise in detail the use of mercenaries by Colonel Qaddafi’s regime. Yet mercenaries have played a key role in the power of Colonel Qaddafi. As he feared a possible military coup against him, he has kept the army divided along tribal lines and relatively weak. He has had a strong palace guard for his close protection, and in the early 1980s created the Islamic Legion and recruited militiamen from lands as far apart as Mauritania and Sudan in his efforts to annex part of northern Chad. Within this Islamic Legion Qaddafi developed an Arabist ideology called the “Arab Gathering”. When Qaddafi’s Chadian interests faded at the end of the 1980s, the Islamic Legion was left to look after itself.

The Islamic Legion was used by the Government of Sudan to fight against the Darfur insurgency as most of its regular army was still directed to the civil war in the South and concentrated on the edges of the southern war zone. The Islamic Legion made up a good percentage of the Janjawiid — the pro-Government tribal militias — of the Darfur conflict. The Government of Sudan gave the Janjawiid air support by bombing villages. However, the Government did not pay the Janjawiid but told them to pay themselves off the land. Thus, the Janjawiid destroyed village after village, taking all that could be moved and destroying the rest, including the entire agricultural infrastructure; wells were filled with sand, and grains needed for new planting were deliberately destroyed. Rape of women and young girls was widely practiced both as a means of terror and as a ‘reward’ for the fighters since they were not paid.

As the level of fighting in Darfur has diminished, and the regular Sudanese Army is less involved with the South, the Islamic Legion could return to south Libya, but now wanting ‘cash in hand’ for its military efforts.

There is a real danger of revenge killings against the mercenaries once Colonel Qaddafi falls. The mercenaries are not protected by the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war, and the new Libyan Government is unlikely to send them to Cuba.

The representatives of the European Union are worried, especially of a possible migration of Africans through Libya towards Europe. Some European officials have spoken of a “biblical exodus” of Libyan refugees or of others coming via Libya. Recent scholarship has indicated that the “biblical exodus” was of relatively few Jews who left with Moses, perhaps 2000, but the image of a vast movement has become part of the historic myth. Colonel Qaddafi had signed an agreement that he would try to control migration through Libya toward Europe, and he had been given speed boats from Europe to help him in his task. The Europeans are also worried about energy supplies from Libya, although Libya represents a very small – some 2 per cent- of energy to Europe, easily replaced from other sources. However, revolution in Libya and unrest in other parts of the Arab world has moved oil prices upward, and they are not likely to go down soon. NATO planners are meeting, reflecting the same worries as those of the EU officials.

The EU and US officials remind one of the aristocrats watching the French Revolution from safety in London or Belgium. They had not seen that the people were getting tired of the contempt in which they were held, nor that there was a rise of an educated middle class that could take care of itself without the nobles and the clergy. Likewise many in the Arab world can do without the kings and tribal chiefs, without the higher military officers who played a role of nobles and without the preaching of the Islamic clergy.

Today’s People’s Revolution, like that of France in 1789, is the victory of an educated middle class bringing along with it in its current a mass of the unemployed, small merchants, regular soldiers often from the rural farming milieu which has little prospered from modernization.

How will the young and educated middle class in the Arab world be able to structure a new society based on relative equality and justice? In each country, there are remains of the old society with some power, some skills, and a continuing sense of their own importance. We have seen in Tunisia how some of the old structure wanted to continue in power though this was met with continuing street protests.

Creation of new structures in a society is never easy. Both Tunisia and Egypt face an influx of workers fleeing Libya. Just as the French Revolution did not have only friends abroad, the People’s Revolution of the Arab world has more sceptical observers saying “what next?” than friends.

The governments, such as those of Algeria, Morocco and Jordan where only the first shocks have been felt are promising “reforms” or “bread and circuses” but probably too little and too late.

The People’s Revolution is just that, the rise of a new people, not yet structured into a real social class. It has some leaders but rarely on a national level, and interest groups are only partly structured. This is not chaos except in the sense described by the classical Greek thinker Hesiod who saw chaos, creativity, and transformation working together. For Hesiod, chaos was not confusion but a richly creative space which flowed from the dual cosmic forces of heaven and earth or as in Chinese philosophy, from Yin and Yang. From this chaos comes new and more mature organization, one with more complexity and greater adequacy for dealing with the challenges of life.

Thus we need to find ways to support the People’s Revolution, to keep an eye open for counter-revolutionary activities and to watch closely as the next structures are put into place.

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