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.