imperialist intervention in libya: continuing the debate

This article by Mark was originally posted as a comment in our previous post.

'Topple the Tyrants' occupation at Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's house

I just want to say something about one of the reasons that has been used to advocate for either neutrality or support for western intervention and the no-fly zone. This justification is that by helping the rebels this will help the working class even if they are as yet unorganised, by creating a democratic space in Libya which can be used to further working class politics. However, after doing a little research, I’m sceptical that the rebels in the east of the country will allow much autonomy for working class politics.

First of all, it seems that the initial rebellion has been consumed by a tribal civil war. Libya has a weak national identity with tribal allegiances in the western and eastern parts of the country locked in struggle over control of the state. The Libyan elite around Gaddafi is based on allegiance to the Qadhadhfa tribe, which is why many of the individuals in government or who have political influence are family members or childhood friends. This tribe has dominated Libyan politics since the revolution of 1969, although it has until recently been able to count on alliances with other tribes such as the Warfella, which now seems to have gone over to the anti-Gaddaffi camp. This revolution was carried out against the Sanusi monarchy which was declared in Benghazi in 1951 with Idris al-Sanusi as king. The Sanusi order emerged in the nineteenth century as a religious movement preaching an austere vision of Islam. It had its roots in the tribal structures of Cyrenaica, but was seen more broadly as part of the identity of the eastern part of the country. The 1969 revolution put an end to the political dominance of the eastern tribes and the Qadhadhfa have been in a protracted political conflict with them ever since, particularly with the Sa’adi confederation. Gaddafi’s ideology based on “The Green Book” has been seen a challenge to the more conservative version of Islam entrenched in the east. So it is no surprise then that the flag of the rebellion is the old monarchist one. This tribal conflict has meant that Gaddafi’s regime has systematically deprived the eastern part of the country of economic development. This deprivation was intensified after the Islamist rebellions in the 1980s and mid-1990s, of which the current one seems to be the latest in a long line. What would be interesting to research would be how tribal identities cut across class lines or whether they are less relevant amongst the lower classes, workers, sub-proletariat, peasantry etc.

Secondly, the rebellion is likely to have been coloured by a conservative Islam which has deep roots in the east. In recent decades this has taken on a more political and militant hue. Interestingly, this conservative and political Islam has found fertile soil in first generation migrants to the urban and semi-urban areas. Often arriving as students from rural areas many joined Islamist movements as a response to the disruption of traditional social relationships found in the urban areas and then reimported this militant version of Islam back to the villages from which they had originated, but as part of a rural middle class. Alison Pargeter mentions that different neighbourhoods of Benghazi have differing versions of Islamism: ” in some, such as Ben Younis or Slmai Sharqi, the Muslim Brotherhood dominated, while others, such as Majuri or Borghdaima, were known for being home to those of a more militant bent.” (Pargeter 2009: 1041-2) There are parallels here with militant working class migrants to the urban areas of Western Europe which sometimes took on a socialist and communist politics, but here in Libya it has been heavily influence by religion. However, there are parallels in England which saw the influence of Methodism amongst workers in the nineteenth century. What we have yet to see is independent working class organisation and activity or at least there have been either little or no reports of it.

The east has seen protests and rebellions against Gadaffi in the past, most recently in 2006 when violent protest broke out in Benghazi in response to the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but which soon took on an anti-government character. More seriously, in the mid 1990s the regime faced a militant Islamist movement centred around the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Activists who were to form this group had been active in Afghanistan in the war against the Soviet Union. However, this movement, including more moderate Islamists, were crushed by brutal repression and by 1998 this opposition had been more or less wiped out. The cadres and the bedrock of support for militant Islamist groups within Libya has come from the eastern cities of Benghazi, Derna and Ajdabia.

However, the east is also renowned for a militant anti-imperialist identity which harks to the Ottoman empire but more recently to the resistance against Italian colonial rule, a resistance symbolised by Omar al-Mukhtar, who was executed by the Italians for leading the a guerrilla war against them. Such is the admiration for al-Mukhtar that his portrait is to be seen everywhere in Derna (Pargeter 2009) and the groups which originated in fighting the US in Lebanon in the 1980s named themselves the Omar al-Mukhtar Brigades. However, this symbol of al-Mukhtar is not confined to radical Islamists but has appeared across the Middle East where people have been fighting imperialism, most notably as a symbol of resistance during the Palestinian intifada (Nassar and Boggero 2008). However, in the east of Libya this anti-imperialism is often expressed as a defence against foreign cultural values, particularly in relation to attitudes towards women, and for which Gaddafi is seen as too influenced by the West. The narrowness of the elite and its distance from the lives of the deprived masses in the east reinforces this conservative and politicised Islam. Most of those Libyans who fought in Iraq have come from the east and Pargeter mentions that “following the death in custody in May 2009 of the militant Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi, who had been handed over to Tripoli after his capture by US forces in Pakistan in 2001, thousands of mourners attended the funeral service held for him in his eastern home town of Ajdabia.” (Pargeter 2009: 1044). It is going to be interesting to see how the West will try and control the political orientation of this rebellion. But they have been there before in the support of the jihadists in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and in their the support of the conservative Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. Conservative and even politically militant Islam are not necessarily in conflict with Western imperialism.

So I think it is probably accurate to say that this rebellion has all the hallmarks of a tribal civil war, whatever its initial impetus, and which probably is deeply coloured by a conservative Islam. It’s dependence on Western intervention is likely to provide some interesting and contradictory factionalism within the Islamist camp. Whether the working class in the oil fields and the major cities can provide an alternative has yet to be seen but the call for western intervention on their behalf seems to be based on little understanding of the likely character of the rebellion. While I can’t claim that this is an accurate portrayal of the situation of Libya, given I have no expertise in this area, I hope that I have demonstrated that any political position we take must be based on at least some analysis of what is going on the world. One of the things not covered is the role of migrant workers in the Libyan economy which seems substantial. For example, in 2002 it was estimated that there were 2.5 million migrants, “one immigrant for every two Libyans” (Young et al. 2007). If we are to understand the possibility of independent working class politics in Libya then we need to understand this dynamic between migrant and indigenous workers within the economy. Does someone else want to take this up?

In what I have written I have relied heavily on some of the following:
“Libya – tribes”,,
Nassar, Hala Khamis and Marco Boggero (2008). “Omar al-Mukhtar: the formation of cultural memory and the case of the militant group that bears his name”, Journal of North African Studies, 13: 2, 201-217.
Pargeter, Alison (2006). “Libya: reforming the impossible?”, Review of African Political Economy, vol. 33, no. 108, pp. 219-235.
Pargeter, Alison (2009). “Localism and radicalization in North Africa: local factors and the development of political Islam in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya”, International Affairs, vol. 85, no. 5, pp. 1031-1044.
Young, Helen, Abdalmonium Osman and Rebecca Dale (2007). “Darfurian livelihoods and Libya: trade, migration and remittance flows in times of conflict and crisis”, International Migration Review, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 826-849, Winter 2007.