Libya: The Rebels and their Prospects

Sep 2, 2011

Libya: The Rebels and their Prospects

Update from AIJAC

Sept. 2, 2011
Number 09/11 #01

This Update deals further with aftermath of the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and particularly the prospects for the rebel “Transitional National Council” (TNC) to effectively rule the country and establish the “pluralist democracy” they claim is their aim.

First up is former Middle East academic expert turned policy adviser Dr. Walid Phares, who makes a number of predictions; first that regardless of their policies, the new TNC rulers of Libya will face a lingering insurgency from pro-Gaddafi forces. But more importantly, he takes issue with the claim often heard that “we don’t know the rebels”, saying that we do know a lot about them, and while they are a mixed bag, the Islamist forces are the strongest and largest organised militia. He argues that they therefore pose a considerable threat of an Islamist takeover if liberal forces are not supported. For all of Phares’ valuable analysis, CLICK HERE. An interesting report exploring the views of a number of experts, including Phares, on Islamism among the Libyan rebels is here.

A much more sanguine view comes from noted Middle East academic expert Prof. Fouad Ajami. He argues that there are lessons to be learned from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and that these lessons are being successfully applied – and that Libya’s location and ethnic mix make it less amenable to outside meddling and internal civil conflict.  He concludes that, compared to Iraq, it appears that “fair winds attend this Libyan venture.” For the rest of what Ajami has to say,  CLICK HERE. A much more pessimistic view on Libya, emphasising the Islamist danger, comes from Canadian columnist George Jonas.

Finally, noted Israeli academic expert Bruce Maddy-Weitzman calls attention to an important but largely ignored element of what is happening in Libya – the growing importance and assertiveness of the country’s Berber minority. He explores the role of Berbers in elements of the rebel campaign to overthrow Gaddafi and what they hope to achieve in a new Libya in terms of recognition of their separate culture and language. Moreover, he explores how the events in Libyan may affect the considerably larger Berber populations in countries such as Algeria and Morocco, and the growth of Berber demands for recognition across North Africa. For this look at this neglected element of events in Libya and neighbouring countries, CLICK HERE.

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After Qaddafi– Insurgency, Democracy or Jihad?

By Walid Phares

, Published August 23, 2011

By seizing most of Tripoli and fighting what’s left of the pockets of resistance of Qaddafi forces, Libyan rebels have now almost dislodged the old regime and are expected to begin building their own government.

The most pressing question within the international community and in Washington is about the immediate to medium-term future of the country. Will the Transitional National Council swiftly install its bureaucracies in Tripoli and across the country? Will Qaddafi’s supporters accept the new rule or will they become the new rebels? And most importantly, are the current rebels united in their vision for a new Libya?

The following are a few projections based on past statements, known behaviors and geopolitical realities:

1. The Transitional National Council (TNC) Will Logically Move to the Capital and Try to Assert Its Power Over Most Cities and Towns in Libya.

The rebel “operation” in Tripoli revealed that a number of officers serving in the Qaddafi armed forces have betrayed their command and ordered surrender to the advancing rebel forces.

This fact could lead to future revenge actions by Qaddafi loyalists, and thus a cycle of violence may well erupt between the new regime and the supporters of the defunct regime.

Hence the first challenge the TNC will have to face is the need to stabilize its own security grip on the country and its institutions in the near future.

Even if the TNC forms a government, the new regime will be assaulted by a Qaddafi insurgency, regardless of the dictator’s fate. Strongholds such as Syrt on the coast or Sebha in the southern desert will be to the new government what the Sunni Triangle was to the post Saddam Hussein government in Iraq.

2. The TNC has a Plan, At Least According to Its Leaders.

They will dispatch bureaucrats to run the ministries and dispatch their forces to seize and protect state institutions and oil installations.

The interim authority will try to show the world that it is a credible force committed to the country’s international commitments. They will continue to sell oil at a decent price, at least for a while.

Europeans, particularly the French, will get their reward for supporting the rebels.

But expect that Qaddafi loyalists, after four decades of undisputed reign over Libya won’t vanish easily. They will become the next “insurgents” and will try to destabilize the new TNC government. With thousands of soldiers and security elements on the run or in the hiding among their tribes, these Qaddafi remnants will conduct revenge strikes for a period of time.

3. Libya’s Citizens, After Years of Oppression, Torture, and Folly From Qaddafi, Will Enjoy Wider Freedoms and Pluralism. They Will Also Have a Window of Opportunity to Develop a Democracy.

The TNC’s statements have been consistent in promising a “pluralist democracy” once Qaddafi is removed from power. Abdel Jalil, the head of the interim authority, has been diligent in assuring that the rebels are bent on removing a dictator so that the country can become a haven of freedom.

But the window of opportunity may not be wide open endlessly. For another challenge to Libyans –aside from vengeful actions by Qaddafi supporters– will undoubtedly be the rise to power of Islamist militias within the next government. And add to that the ripple effect from the penetration by jihadists of Libya’s institutions and defense institutions.

The dominant assessment in Washington and Europe since the beginning of the Libyan uprising has been that “we don’t know the rebels,” and thus can’t predict their future moves.”

In fact, we do know who the rebels are and can somewhat anticipate their next major moves: The Transitional National Council (TNC) was formed in Benghazi at the onset of the upheaval by almost all the organized Qaddafi political opposition forces. The TNC includes former diplomats, bureaucrats, military officers from the old regime. It also includes politicians and leaders from movements and groups from the political left, Marxists, Socialists, Arab Nationalists, liberals and Islamists.

The TNC’s real composition can be viewed as secularist and Islamist, the latter being the largest organized group — read militia — across the country. Tribal affiliations are important in the build-up of the new government, but the ideological divide will also be a determinant in projecting the future of the country.

Over the past months, we’ve seen the chief mentor of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Jazeera ideologue, Sheikh Yusuf al Qardawi blessing the “rebels,” particularly their Islamist forces.

Almost all interviews with local commanders on the ground, from inscriptions on their vehicles to war chants, to the narrative of the militiamen, have been unmistakably Islamist, and have had, in many cases, a jihadist, identification.

The minister of information of the TNC is a sophisticated Islamist intellectual who sits on Al Jazeera’s board of governors. — Abdelhakim Belhaj, the military commander of the rebels in Tripoli said “we will only follow what is consistent with Sharia.”

All indications are that the TNC has a dual ideological identity: secular and Islamist. And we know all too well what the long term agenda of Islamists is: establishment of an Islamist state — an emirate on the way to a caliphate.

But the Libyan Islamists, as with their counterparts in Egypt and Libya, are savvy and also understand political tactics. At first, they will walk the walk of a “pluralist-democratic” agenda under the TNC, until the Qaddafi remnants are totally crushed and until ministries and educational and military institutions are secured by their militants.

Oil will flow to the West at a good price to keep foreign pressures at bay. But when the power is solidly in the hands of the new government and the Islamists are well-entrenched in it, the push against the secularists will begin, a national election would be won by the most organized forces, and the building blocks of an Islamist Libya will rise.

As in Egypt and Tunisia, the Obama administration and European governments stood with the rebels in the uprising against the tyrant of Libya. It was the right thing to do. But as in the previous revolutions we’ve seen in this region, the West abandoned the secularists, liberals and minorities and partnered with the Islamists.

If this repeats itself in Libya, we would have replaced one devil — the traditional authoritarians — with a new devil: the Islamist authoritarians.

Walid Phares. Ph.D., is the author of “The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East” and an adviser to members of Congress and the European Parliament. For more, visit www.walidphares.com.

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From Baghdad to Tripoli

In stark contrast to the challenges faced by Iraq, fair winds attend the Libyan venture


Wall Street Journal, AUGUST 31, 2011

On the face of it, the similarities of the undoing of the terrible regimes of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi are striking. The spectacles of joy in Tripoli today recall the delirious scenes in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003—the statues pulled down, the palaces of faux grandeur and kitsch ransacked by people awakening to their own sense of violation and power, the man at the helm who had been full of might and bravado making a run for it, exposed as a paranoid and pretender, living in fear of his day of reckoning.

In neither case had the people of these two tormented societies secured their liberty on their own. In Baghdad, the Baathist reign of terror would have lasted indefinitely had George W. Bush not pushed it into its grave. There had been no sign of organized resistance in that terrified land, not since the end of the 1991 Gulf War and the slaughter that quelled the Shiite uprising.

Libya offered its own mix of native resistance and foreign help. A people who had been in the grip of a long nightmare saw the Arab Spring blossom around them. On their western border, the Tunisian kleptocracy had fallen and the rapacious ruler and his children and in-laws had scurried out of the country. Ruler and ruled in Libya saw themselves in the Tunisian struggle, for Gadhafi had been an ally of the Tunisian strongman.

But it was Egypt, the big country on Libya’s eastern frontier, that shook the Libyan tyranny. In February, after a popular insurrection that held the Arab world enthralled, Hosni Mubarak bent to his people’s will and relinquished power. Six days later a spark caught fire in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. A reluctant American president was pulled into the fight. Gadhafi’s fate was sealed—NATO would function as the air force of the rebellion.

Fast forward to last week. No sooner had the notorious Gadhafi compound of Bab al-Aziziyah fallen than the Obama administration claimed that its policy of “leading from behind” and its “multilateralism” had proven more effective than George W. Bush’s campaign in Iraq. This was to be expected, and in the nature of political things.

But Libya is not the historical knot that Iraq was, and for all the surface similarities, Gadhafi was never the menace that Saddam had been. In stark contrast to the challenges faced by Iraq, fair winds attend this Libyan venture.

Begin with Libya’s “easy” borders and immediate neighborhood. Algeria excepted, the countries contiguous with Libya are at peace with the victory of the rebellion. Indeed, Libya’s two most important neighbors—Tunisia and Egypt—rightly see the new order there as an extension of their own rebellions. Realism prevails in both Tunis and Cairo; Libya is seen as vital to their own economic prospects, a magnet for their surplus labor.

To Libya’s south, Niger and Chad—places where Gadhafi had bought loyalty with his abundant treasure—have signaled their acceptance of the new order, as has Sudan to the east. The Algerian opposition to Libya’s rebellion is of little consequence. The military regime there is bereft of any meaningful legitimacy and is seen as just another despotism whose leaders sullied the honor of their country by their dealings with Gadhafi. The welcome mat rolled out in Algiers for Gadhafi’s wife, vengeful daughter, and two of his sons is further proof of this.

The Iraqis should be envious. Their new order, midwifed by the Americans, had been delivered into a hostile environment. The neighborhood was treacherous. To the east bulked Iran, presumably a Shiite sister republic of the new Iraq but in truth a spoiler determined to thwart the American project there. Those in the know understood that the Shiite faith could never bridge the Arab-Persian divide, and that Iran would be a burden on post-Saddam Iraq and its leaders.

To the West, there was the Syrian regime. There but for the grace of God go we, the Syrian rulers thought. Syria presented an exquisite illustration of political cynicism—an Alawite tyranny providing a conduit into Iraq for Sunni jihadists from all Arab lands drawn by the thrill of battling and killing American soldiers and Iraqi Shiites. To divert attention from itself at a time of its own panic and vulnerability, Syria’s regime did all it could to set Iraq ablaze.

Everywhere Iraqis looked there was trouble. The Turks had schemes of their own and proxies in Iraq (the Turkomen community), and they were keen to monitor and limit the aspirations of the Kurds. Jordan was hostile. Saddam had long been a hero in that country, and the Sunni pan-Arab doctrines had long held sway among Jordanians and Palestinians alike in that binational state.

Nor were the two most influential Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, favorably disposed toward the new Iraq. To the rulers in Cairo and Riyadh, the jumbled mix of freedom and tumult, and the defeat of the Iraqi Sunnis, were heralds of trouble. Iran was pushing ever deeper into Arab affairs, the balance of power in the region was being altered. There had been uncontested Sunni primacy in Arab lands, but Baghdad—a city of great meaning and consequence in Arab-Islamic history—had fallen to the Shiite stepchildren, and the Americans had brought it all about.

Libya is blissfully free of the poison of that primitive Sunni-Shiite schism. The deranged ruler who had tormented the Libyans had shown Islam no regard—he was thoroughly irreligious. He fought the religious class and offended the faithful in every way he could. His hallucinatory Green Book—understood to be ghostwritten by a hired Lebanese writer—was seen by him as the scripture of a revolutionary society cut off from its past.

But the birth pangs of the new Libya are far from over. The hunting down of Gadhafi and his two closest sons will be a boon to the new government. On the run, Gadhafi can’t ignite an insurgency in the way the Baath remnants did in Iraq, and there is no large community invested in Gadhafi as Iraq’s Sunnis were in Saddam. Still, the damage of four decades in a claustrophobic society terrorized by “revolutionary committees” and a rotten system of informers will take time to repair.

“We don’t want to repeat the example of Baghdad,” Mahmoud Jibril, the No. 2 man in Libya’s National Transitional Council, said last weekend as he sought funds to keep the country afloat, to restore services, to pay civil servants. Fair enough. The Iraqis did not perform brilliantly in the aftermath of their liberation. And the American regency should have handed over power earlier to the Iraqis to run their own sovereign affairs. But for all its troubles, who in good conscience can deny that a better, more humane order holds in that country today?

The Libyans are lucky. They have wealth and a favorable location close to Europe. And, for what it’s worth, they have the Iraqi example of what works and what doesn’t once the tyrant and his statues have fallen.

Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and co-chairman of Hoover’s working group on Islamism and the International Order.

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Libya’s Berbers: The New Factor in Post-Gaddafi Politics

Can an oppressed minority finally find peace in a new country?

by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman

Pajamas Media
August 26, 2011
Libya’s six-month-long rebellion against Muammar al-Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship may have overthrown the old regime. But what factors will determine the new one? A surprising force in the revolt’s success, and thus one which bears watching in the post-Gaddafi order, is the country’s Berber (Amazigh, literally, “free men”) minority.

Their determined battles against the regime’s forces in the country’s western highlands of Jebel Nafusa created a second front, cutting an important strategic road to Tunisia, and ultimately helped produce the conquest of the crucial Zawiyah oil refinery 50 km from Tripoli, heralding the beginning of the end for Gaddafi.

Berbers are North Africa’s original indigenous population, there since the beginning of recorded history. Organized along traditional tribal and familial lines, and speaking various dialects of a single language, they interacted with conquerors and traders since the time of the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians. The Arab-Muslim conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries and subsequent influx of Arab tribes from the east resulted in the Berbers’ Islamization, and partial Arabization. The mostly unwritten Berber dialects were preserved mainly in North Africa’s Atlas mountain zones and oases. 

The Arabizing and anti-Berber policies often followed by post-independence governments steadily brought down the percentage of Berber speakers in the last half-century. Generally accepted figures place the proportion of Moroccans who speak Berber at 40 to 45%; Algerians, 20 to 25%; Libyans, 8 to 9%; and Tunisians, 1 to 5%.

Spurred by the decline in language proficiency and, more generally, by the independent states’ failures to recognize their culture and help them develop, an Amazigh movement has arisen in recent decades viewing this people as a modern ethno-national group. This movement has not challenged the existing national boundaries or sought a pan-Berber state. Instead, it has promoted with some success Amazigh rights in the four countries where Berbers live.

For example, Morocco’s newly ratified constitution recognizes Tamazight as an official language of the state, alongside Arabic, and supports its teaching. This was a real achievement for Berber activists there, despite the fact that many still doubt that the authorities are truly committed to real equality for their language.

Libya’s Berbers, being smaller in numbers and living in geographically remote locations, were initially less affected by this rethinking about identity. In addition, the Libyan regime’s militant pan-Arab ideology viewed all manifestations of Berber language and culture as threatening and to be harshly repressed. In regions where Berbers lived, the privileges went to Arab supporters of the government.

Still, Libyan Amazigh, at least those living outside of Libya, were influenced by expanding Amazigh activism in Algeria and Morocco. In 2000, they established the London-based Libyan Tmazight Congress, demanding constitutional recognition of Tmazight as an official language alongside of Arabic.  In 2005 and 2006, at a time Gaddafi was seeking international legitimacy, he and his son Saif al-Islam began a dialogue with Amazigh activists, acknowledging for a while that blanket denial of Amazigh existence in Libya was no longer an option.

But the thaw did not last. The regime returned to its view that Berbers were actually Arabs, only divided from them by colonialism. Militant Amazigh activists retorted that the pan-Arab rulers were colonizers of North Africa. Among some, particularly in Morocco, this view even helped produce attitudes sympathetic to Jews and Israel. (For centuries, Jewish communities lived more or less harmoniously with their Berber Muslim neighbors throughout North Africa, including Libya.)

Emboldened by the sudden breakdown of Gaddafi’s iron-fisted rule, Libyan Berber communities not only joined the battle but also asserted their “Berberness” in public for the first time. Libyan opposition broadcasts from Qatar, a major supporter of the Libyan uprising, included news in Tmazight. The Benghazi-based Libyan Transitional Council, which is now recognized in the West as the country’s legitimate government, includes Berber representatives.

Its draft constitutional charter for post-Gaddafi Libya provides explicit acknowledgement of the country’s diversity, including its Amazigh component. However, Arabic remains the only official language of the state and the Shari`a is the main source of legislation, points which have already aroused the ire of Amazigh militants outside of Libya.

The transition to a post-Gaddafi order in a country awash with weapons, oil, and tribal interests but lacking in institutions and a deep-rooted national identity promises to be difficult. Will the newly empowered Berbers find their place within the new order in exchange for some concessions, or will Libya’s next leaders revert to marginalizing policies, and thus push the Berbers to seek greater autonomy or even to challenge the government? This is going to be one of the important new questions that will determine whether post-Gaddafi Libya can be a more stable, pluralist, and even unified entity.

The author is Marcia Israel Principal Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University. He is the author of *The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011).

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