The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged #feb17
Omar Mukhtar, icon of the Libyan uprising

Omar Mukhtar

This is a first contribution by Arabist reader J Hammond.

On social media associated with the Libyan uprising of 2011, two images have become ubiquitous. One is the pre-Qaddafi flag of the Libyan monarchy. The other is the image of Omar Mukhtar, a guerrilla leader killed by the Italians in 1931. For Libyans, Omar Mukhtar has become what Mohamed Bouazizi symbolized for the Tunisians or Mohammed Khaled Said for Egyptians.  

Such a powerful symbol is Omar Mukhtar that 79 years after his execution both the protestors and the Qadddafi regime have battled for his legacy. Qhaddafi mentioned Omar Mukhtar during his rambling hour and half speech on February 21st. Qhaddafi’s first address on September 16th, 1969 was deliberately held on the 38th anniversary of Mokhtar's death. Qhaddafi also financed a major Hollywood film about Omar Mukhtar titled “The Lion of the Desert” and starring Anthony Quinn. The film was released in 1981 and portrays Omar Mukhtar as an honorable fighter and hero. The film was banned the following year in Italy and not shown on Italian television until Omar Ghaddafi’s official state visit in 2009.  A 2009 Vanity Fair article points out that Qaddafi pinned an image of Omar Mukhtar to his uniform when meeting Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi.

Italians wrested Libya from the Ottomans in the 1911-1912 Italo-Turkish War.  Italian control however was nominal beyond Libya’s coast. That changed a decade later when Mussolini came to power. After brutalizing democrats and communists in Italy, he turned his attention to building an empire. To return to Italy’s control territory that had not been ruled by Rome well, since Roman times. The situation in 1922 has odd echoes to today: a dictator with delusions of imperial grandeur launches a brutal “riconquista” on the Libyan people.

The Italian’s put General Grazani in charge of “pacifying” Cyrenaica the area of Eastern Libya now the center of the anti-Ghaddafi revolt as well.  Graziani described the Bedouins in the most insulting terms available to a citizen of Mussolini’s fascist Italy: Freedom loving. Graziani once wrote of the Bedouin: “Anarchist, lover of the most complete liberty and independence, intolerant of any restraint, headstrong, ignorant, unconquerable and boastful (bluffista) hero, it is sufficient that he possesses a rifle and a horse; he often masks, under the pretence of necessity of moving his tent, the desire of gaining the end of withdrawing himself from every governmental contact and control.” 

Of the various Senussi resistance figures in Eastern Libya, it was Omar Mukhtar who rose to become the most prominent guerrilla leader using terrain and local support to his advantage. To which Grazani responded with a gauntlet of brutal tactics: concentration camps, a 300 kilometer wall of barbed wire, and aerial bombardment. Yet, resistance continued so Marshal Bagdolio wrote to General Grazani to extend his brutality  “by now the course has been set and we must carry it out to the end, even if the entire population of Cyrenaica [Eastern Libya] must perish". Angelo De Boca, the leading Italian historian of the Colonial period called the effects of concentration camps a small genocide. In total some 40,000 Libyans perished and 20,000 were sent into exile in Egypt during the nine years of war.

As the pressure tightened, a wounded Omar Mukhtar was captured on September 11, 1931. Following his defiant refusal to retreat to Egypt. After a brief show trial, Mukhtar was sentenced to be hanged. During his three days of captivity the prize prisoner acted with dignity throughout his ordeal. The elderly Mukhtar was brought to the gallows on February 16th, 1911 and hanged before thousands of his fellow Libyans. His alleged last words were a were a reflection of his career as a Qu’ranic teacher: “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un” to “To God we belong and to Him we return”.

Yet Mukhtar’s Senussi religious background is not what matters most to the Libyan protestors of today. Above all it was his example as an unbending resister to heavy handed rule of authoritarianism in the face of harsh military force. As a recent Libyan protestors organizing via twitter have asked “Please pray for the people of Omar Mukhtar.

If the tide turns: some pros and cons of military intervention in Libya


In the last few days there have been a number of calls for international intervention to try to stem the atrocities that the Qaddafi regime is carrying out against Libyan civilians, including military measures such as the imposition of a no-fly zone. (Sanctions and other steps have also been proposed, but I doubt that they would have much impact on a regime fighting for its life).

We might be past the point where the declaration of a no-fly zone would make a major difference -- the Libyan air force (that part which has not defected) does not appear to be terribly effective and airlifted mercenary forces in the east seem to be contained. The city of Tripoli and several other towns on the west coast do appear to be at the mercy of loyalist mercenaries and militias, and are suffering terribly, but there is probably little that could be done militarily, short of a massive and prohibitively problematic amphibious invasion, to rescue them. Rebels in Benghazi are reportedly beginning to mobilize to move west, so it's quite likely that Libyans will be able to complete the overthrow of Qaddafi without outside help.

However, dictators have come back from the brink before: Saddam in 1991, for example, although his hold on the country was probably never as tenuous as Qaddafi's is right now. If there is any chance Qaddafi were to stage a major turnaround, and bring major rebel-held cities like Benghazi or Misrata under siege, then the United States and other powers capable of intervention in Libya should consider what might be done to prevent a terrible humanitarian disaster.

Here are a few thoughts, both for and against intervention, mostly extrapolated from my experience in Iraq. I have focused here on the likely local impact on Libya, as opposed to issues of legality or sovereignty, of precedent, or of any larger strategic or historical picture.

1) Little is known about what would emerge from a post-Qaddafi Libya, but a Qaddafi victory would be absolutely dismal. Firstly, the behavior of regime loyalists in Tripoli suggests that there would be terrible reprisals. Secondly, it would probably many dark years ahead for the people of Libya. A people who have been crushed once tend not to rebel again, at least not in the form of mass urban uprising, for some time -- a decade, perhaps for as much as a generation. (Prolonged guerrilla warfare is different, but that has all kinds of other nasty fallout).

The world could not possibly return to business as usual for Libya after a Qaddafi victory, but ironically treating a nation as a pariah frequently only appears to strengthen the regime in place. The public begins to resent the outside world, while elites begin to scale their ambitions to what the regime can provide locally. This removes an incentive in future crises to remove an oppressive leader so as to remain international citizens in good standing. (I am thinking Saddam's praetorians contrasted with Mubarak's, here).

2) A no-fly zone would probably not suffice to prevent major assaults on rebel-held cities, should they materialize. Maybe aircraft flying threateningly overhead would be enough to deter regime assaults. But if it doesn't, then even a small number of tanks and artillery pieces can make it very difficult for defenders to hold ground, and we don't know if rebel armor is operational. An intervention force would probably need to be prepared to strike ground targets, like the Bosnian Serb artillery positions hit in 1995, to provide any sort of guarantee for the defenders of rebel-held cities. This could lead to any number of terrible errors -- it might be extremely difficult to judge from the air, from context, whether any given vehicle column were moving to attack a rebel-held city, or moving to its relief.

3) Iraq is doubtless what comes to mind when one contempates Western military intervention in the Arab world. But intervention in Libya would not necessarily be a repeat of Iraq, or rather, it would not be Iraq 2003. Rather, it would be Iraqi Kurdistan in the summer of 1991, or Bosnia in 1995. An invasion that comes at a time of relative calm, on the invader's timetable, is terrifying even to those who loathe the incumbent regime. An intervention that targets an imminent threat, which alleviates fears rather than triggers new ones, may be seen very differently.

4) Any foreign incursion into Libyan land or airspace risks tainting the rebellion as foreign-backed. Most battalions in the Libyan military do not appear to have committed to either side. Some units may see international aircraft overhead, conclude the jig is up for Qaddafi, and commit to the rebels. But that's an optimistic view. Libyans troops in uncommitted battalions might be very isolated at this point. Their perceptions of what is going on right now might be very different from the international narrative. Some officers who deeply desipise Qaddafi might nonetheless fight against any transgression of national sovereignty -- perhaps calculating, as Iraqi officers did after 2003, that participating in a national struggle was a better investment in their political futures than "collaboration." (Some officers who have defected to the rebels have cited Qaddafi's use of mercenaries as a decisive factor). Also, a regime which falls completely due to the efforts of its own people, rather than to the work of foreigners, would be more likely to lead to its moral collapse -- ie, you would be less likely to have Qaddafi revanchists threatening other Libyan factions in the future.

Lejan fi kul makan

Reports from liberated east Libyan cities suggest an impressive level of organization on the part of the populace, with most basic urban functions up and running. One wonders if Qaddafi's ideosyncratic jamahiriyan ideology, roping people into participating in rubber-stamp "Basic People's Congresses" to create a facade of direct democracy, has in fact formed the provided the institutional template for a countrywide insurrection against him.

Qaddafi's bloody counterattack


An excellent crowd-sourced map on Google on the uprising in Libya has been created by one Arasmus, here. It's useful in trying to sort out all the various reports, to get a sense of the ebb and flow of control. Here's what seems to be happening: the eastern cities are protester-controlled, but Tripoli has at least temporarily been bludgeoned into submission and is saturated with pro-regime forces (update, the NYT reports barricades still up in some neighborhoods), other western and central towns are reportedly under attack by military units, and now Qaddafi is contemplating how to regain control of the east before his authority completely unravels. The regime seems to have a shortage of reliable forces, as the army is reportedly divided along tribal lines. (My very uneducated reading of a list of Qaddafa and allied officers in Mansour O. El-Kikhia's Libya's Qaddafi, pub 1997, suggests that they were then concentrated in about six or seven of the army's 45 armor and infantry battalions, although it might not be a comprehensive list).

A few units (maybe Khamis al-Qaddafi's 32nd brigade?) appear to be loyal, a few units (in the east) have mutinied, but the rest are presumably in limbo -- they have not actually mutinied but the regime does not want to commit them, as they may well mutiny as soon as they are ordered to fire on civilians. Libyan opposition websites are confidently predicting the defection of entire tribes, which may be an exaggeration, but the diplomatic defections do suggest that there is a major breakdown of the regime's legitimacy. Hence, Qaddafi needs to supplement his loyal units with mercenaries recruited from sub-Saharan Africa, although probably they would need to be backed by some Libyan armor. The mercenaries are reportedly being flown into airports outside major cities like Benghazi, with the intention of marching on the center. There are unconfirmed reports of mercenary attacks on the smaller eastern cities of Darna and al-Bayda (Ben Wedeman from CNN, coming from Egypt, seems to have made it as far as Tobruk as of 12 GMT without encountering any pro-regime forces - Darna and al-Bayda lie between Tobruk and Benghazi). This suggests that the regime might be trying to subdue the rest of the country before tackling Benghazi. If the protesters in Benghazi have obtained enough heavy weapons and organized a serious enough defense, they may be able to hold out for some time. Syria in 1982, with a much larger and more ideologically and ethnically cohesive regime defense reserve, took weeks to subdue the similarly-sized city of Hama.


The question now is whether or not an international body (NATO, the UN) can declare a no-fly zone. Given the size of Libya, the fragility of the regime, and the apparent dependence of the government forces on air supply, this may not be as toothless as it first sounds. A no fly ban (if it is enforced) could complicate the assemblage and the supply of mercenary forces, and avert an offensive against Benghazi that might lead to tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Even a few more days of respite for Benghazi might see more tribes (and more military units) drift into the anti-Qaddafi camp -- one presumes that if the repression is anywhere as near as brutal as it sounds, many officers will soon be hearing of the deaths of close relatives. On the other hand, any sort of foreign intervention would reinforce a regime narrative that Libya is under attack by outsiders -- the Egyptian experience suggests that that xenophobia is the embattled despot's best friend -- and could lead to many unforeseen complications, particularly if Libya slips into a prolonged civil war. 

Libya gets ugly #feb17

It's almost certain that the death toll in Libya has passed 200, with thousands more wounded. Protestors are said to have taken control of some cities, others are under siege and running out of supplies. Airfields across the eastern part of the country have been sabotaged to prevent airplanes with sub-Saharan African mercenaries from landings. Major oil companies are said to be preparing an evacuation and one major oil-load port in Tobruq is said to have been shut down.

Live Blog - Libya | Al Jazeera Blogs

Excellent continuously updated page — follow it for the latest.

Libya protests: 'foreign mercenaries using heavy weapons against at demonstrators' - Telegraph

"Tanks and helicopter gunships full of foreign mercenaries are fighting gangs of demonstrators. At least one dead man had been hit by an anti-aircraft missile, while other bodies are riddled with heavy machine gun fire."

Libyan Muslim leaders tell security: stop massacre | Reuters

(Reuters) - Libyan Muslim leaders told security forces to stop killing civilians, responding to a spiraling death toll from unrest which threatens veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi's authority.

Some notes on Libya #feb17

Things in Libya are getting ugly:

  • Human Rights Watch: "(New York) - Government security forces have killed at least 84 people in three days of protests in several cities in Libya, Human Rights Watch said today, based on telephone interviews with local hospital staff and witnesses."
  • The internet has been cut in large parts of the country, making it difficult to upload the videos to Youtube that have been a major source of information.
  • Journalists are not allowed in for the most part - see What If Libya Staged a Revolution and Nobody Came? - By Najla Abdurrahman | Foreign Policy. I understand that some of the correspondents for the Arab satellite channels were pro-regime anyway — it was the only way they could get into the country in the first place. Because of this the picture of what's really happening is not detailed, we have tidbits here and there. Diaspora Libyans in the US and UK are doing much of the work of getting word out. Enough Qaddafi (whose great website is unfortunately still down after being attacked) noted on Twitter: "catch 22 in libya. You spk 2 media you could suffer, and if you don't get word out by spk 2 media u could suffer#Feb17 the result is that we can generally understand what's happening, but the details that describe magnitude of events are virtually impossible to confirm.its frustrating for pple on ground and those that want to report"
  • Mercenaries have been employed by the regime.
  • There are reports of divisions within the regime on how to handle the uprising. For now one of the main tools used has been the Revolutionary Committees controlled by Qadhafi. I am not sure where the army has been doing though. 
  • Audio recording by a protestor: Audioboo / LPC: Detailed on the ground account of violence in Benghazi moments ago!! #Libya #Feb 17
  • The heart of the revolt appears to be Benghazi, long a town critical of the regime and where politics have been dominated by Islamists. But several other cities have fallen out of government control.


Libya's protests, #feb17

My gut feeling is that the most important protests now taking place in North Africa are those in Libya. I say this with no disrespect to those in Algeria, where the regime certainly deserves to be brought down, or my own native Morocco, where the palace and Makhzen need a wake-up call that the status quo (and indeed, the regression of the last few years) is not acceptable.

But Libya shares something important with Egypt and Tunisia: an aging leader (41 years in power) faces a looming succession crisis in which the leading candidates are his own sons. I simply don't think that's an acceptable outcome for any republic in the 21st century, and was a key aspect to the revolt against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia (with the rumored heir apparent being his nephew). Of course there are also differences: the Libyan regime is much more brutal, more tribalized, more totalitarian than Egypt or Tunisia. The country is split along an east-west axis, with the east kept systematically poorer and discriminated against, along with older historical grievances. That's why it's not surprise Benghazi saw the first and biggest protests, particularly since core organizers were relatives of the victims of the Abu Salim prison massacre of 1996.

The second reason that Libya's regime appears in some respects more fragile (at least in parts of the country) is that it is the worst in the Middle East — basically the region's North Korea. Except that it's not protected by China, and is situated in a region of the world that is historically globalized. Libyans may have been cut off from the rest of the world by the sanctions, but they share an Arab and Mediterranean culture with over 300 million people and know that there is better than Qaddafi out there.

Some good reporting / blogging:



I won't comment here further on the details, except to say that Libya's diaspora is playing an important leadership and communications role in this uprising. Sites like Enough Qadhafi and the Khalas movement are doing an amazing job on the web, as are many activists on Twitter.

One phenomenon we've seen in recent days is young Libyans addressing Qadhafi directly via emails, open letters and Youtube. My favorite has been this one, which was translated and published on the Enough site (which currently appears to be down.) I am republishing it below. (Note: Thawra is Arabic for revolution — in this text the "revolution" of 1969 when Qaddafi deposed King Idriss)


Raes Lbled*

I am from a generation that has been denied our due of education and our fill of milk and oil and tomatoes and eggs as a result of the Thawra…because I was born in a period in which the Thawra was worshipped, and everything else ignored.  No one was permitted to request anything of the State.  They could not even think to make half a request, for those who direct the Thawra cared to protect it more than they cared for the Libyan people and more than they cared to respond to any civil or legal requests or more than they even cared about people’s stomachs or about their need to clothe themselves and protect their dignity.  All these things were considered attacks on the Thawra.  We have been forced to spoil** this Thawra rotten, until its eternal ‘coming of age’ is complete.
Hunger itself became an accusation [against the Thawra], as did illness and poverty, except for when the afflicted remained silent and expressed complete loyalty and obedience to the Thawra and its codes of conduct.  The wisdom being that whoever had the tiniest sliver of the Thawra needed nothing else but bread and water.
Children’s programs were described as ‘Thawri’ (adjective form of Thawra)…the news was ‘Thawri’ …commercial ads ‘Thawri’…the Imam of the mosque was ‘Thawri’…the teacher was ‘Thawri’…the principal was ‘Thawri’…the sanitation worker was ‘Thawri’…the farms, ‘Thawri’…the shepherd in the pasture, ‘Thawri’…the cows and the sheep, ‘Thawri’…the bulls ‘Thawri.’  If you pronounced two words without modifying one of them with the word ‘Thawra,’ your speech was invalid.
In the year that I began attending school (1987), I did not need the Thawra as much as I needed a book bag.  In that period, the Thawra had reached the apex of its mischievousness, so I substituted a pillow case for a book bag so that I would not disturb the bliss of our great Thawra.
Those who despised the conditions brought upon by the Thawra wondered when this continuous state of upheaval would end.  After all, life is normally organized and protected by the laws of the state.  Revolt, when it occurs, is an active moment, not a postpartum state that lasts 40 nights*** or 40 years.  I still cannot believe the price that I have paid for this innocent question, and the heavy price that thousands of Libyans have paid for courageously challenging the Thawra.
Then, when the sanctions were lifted, the punishment for making demands of the State was lightened.  Instead of being lynched or liquidated in the streets, we now are merely stabbed with knives or beaten with batons in public, for all to see.  Recently, the potential has emerged to create an actual state, which must be subordinated**** to the Thawra or face the constant threat of resorting to [old] Kalashnikov-type methods to resolve conflicts.
The Thawra has been like a case of chronic diarrhea, dehydrating Libya’s organs and extremities and exhausting it to the point where if one sees Libya from the air, it appears as though you are standing over a corpse shriveled up by hunger.
We asked a minimum of the State—that it breathe some life back into what’s left of that corpse.  Many Libyans, across a range of political and ideological perspectives, have requested the establishment of a refuge [from the tempestuousness of the Thawra], for what remains of Libyans.  These demands were used to uphold the project of bequeathing the Thawra to newer leadership in what is known as the ‘Project of Reform.’
The bratty Thawra returned, destroying the Project of Reform but maintaining its program to bequeath the Thawra to a new generation.  Libyans returned to lying prostrate at its feet so that perhaps it will be pleased after all that we have exerted in giving and giving again.
The New Year saw the region abound with uprisings.  Within the first month, our Thawra sat between Tunisia’s uprising to the west and Egypt’s to the east.  Our Thawra should have cheered those peoples and have been overjoyed to see the end of its years of solitude, [as the sole revolutionary state in the region] stuck between two traditional republics.  It should have allowed its people to outwardly express the spirit of revolution—like its neighbors—instead of continuing the habit of murmuring secretly.
Instead, we were begrudgingly surprised when this entity that used to call itself ‘Thawra’ began deploying security officers throughout what is left of Libya.  ‘Thawra’ transformed from a thing to be adored and worshipped to a word that should not be uttered.  And those that used to call for the Thawra began to talk about safety, security and stability.  They borrowed words from God to make holy and to sanctify words like calm and ease.
All the above binds me, by moral duty, to direct the following to Mr. Muammar Gaddafi, the supreme and only authority in Libya.
I know that I am from a generation—which composes 75% of Libya’s population—who have grown weary of the brattiness of the Thawra, which has transformed (in reality) into something that has no resemblance to the uprisings next door.
And I know that the assurances that your security advisors give you regarding the stability of the current situation and the supplications the people make, asking God to give you long-life, resemble the same assurances and supplications that Ben Ali and Mubarak heard before they saw the people in the streets.
And I know that those who surround you swear allegiance to you and promise you that they will destroy all who dare to take to the streets.
And I know that you are surrounded by an apparatus that cheers and lauds you with all means of hypocrisy such that it blinds you from the truth.
Libya has not yet slipped into the whirlwind of its neighbors.  As one of my generation and the product of a poor neighborhood, I say to you that Libya is on its way down a similar path, and that whatever happens in Libya, foreign powers will ride its momentum to prove to the region that they are champions of freedom and democracy.
Mr. Muammar Gaddafi, I place in front of you an historic decision, to allow Libyans to exercise their rights towards the establishment of their government, to provide civil liberties, to allow them to form parties and to prepare for elections that will clear the path for an easy transition into a national representative government.
These measures will minimize the spilling of Libyan blood and will credit you with transitioning Libya into real stability and security.
It remains that I mention to the fact that my imprisonment or incarceration or murder or expulsion will not change the current situation.  It might, in fact, exasperate it.
* This title, which is an address to the ‘leader of the country,’ references the Tunisian rap song directed to the ousted Ben Ali, for which the artist El Génèral was arrested.  To listen to the song, click here.
** The author uses the image of a spoiled child to describe the Thawra, as it demanded complete attention, was unwilling to share and often broke out in fits when it did not get its way, the subtlety of the language is often difficult to relay in translation, but I have done my best here to convey the message.
*** Author is alluding to postpartum practices in Islamic societies, in which women are relieved from certain religious duties for 40 days after giving birth.
**** Author literally says ‘under the shoe of the Thawra,’ which suggests not only subjugation but also humiliation.