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In a letter printed last issue, Martin S Gilbert questioned our earlier article about Libya (PN 2537), asking: ‘If it was a coup, how could western “spooks” have gained control?’ and ‘how could this popular revolution be turned into a coup?’ He suggested that: ‘This was the Spanish civil war of our time, an event that could have stopped Hitler.’ He criticised the approach of the Socialist Workers’ Party, which he characterised as: ‘if it’s American and NATO, it must be bad’, and he called for flexible thinking ‘not tied to formulas’.
We quite agree that our thinking should be flexible and appropriate to the facts. When we look at the facts, there were three quite distinct forces involved in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi, the former leader of Libya. There were the western military forces organised largely though not exclusively through NATO; there was the somewhat fractious rebel leadership in the national transitional council (NTC, now ruling Libya); and there were the popular movements who took to the streets as part of the 17 February uprising, and who formed local self-governing committees in many areas.
The popular movements were a grassroots phenomenon, not as nonviolent or as universally supported as in Egypt or Tunisia, but the authentic representatives of much of the Libyan people.
The NTC, on the other hand, was dominated by defectors from the Gaddafi regime, including Abdul Jalil, who resigned as Libya’s justice minister days after the uprising began, and Mahmoud Jibril, who resigned (or was removed) from the top-level national planning council in 2010. Throughout the last year, there have been clear signs of tension between the grassroots militias and local committees on the one hand, and the NTC on the other.
The NTC headquarters in Benghazi was stormed by protesters on 21 January 2012, after weeks of protests demanding the sacking of Gaddafi-era officials and more transparency about how the NTC is spending Libyan assets.
The preservation of Gaddafi’s officials was predicted in our article published at the end of November: ‘what is clear is that the rebel leadership and their western backers have no problem in principle to those who have served or even led the regime’.
Our article, ‘The coup against Gaddafi’, was not about the popular uprising, but about the machinations of the western powers, and their collaboration with the NTC and with new defectors from within the Gaddafi regime.
The main argument of the article was summed up in this sentence: ‘It has been clear for a very long time that western leaders are seeking in Libya not a democratic revolution, but something resembling a coup.’ The focus was on the intentions and activities of the west, not on the grassroots activity of the Libyan masses.
In terms of the fall of the regime, this was not the product of a spontaneous revolutionary uprising. As foreshadowed in an NTC planning document (mentioned in the article), the fall of Tripoli was a three-pronged affair. It involved hundreds of local young men trained and armed by western special forces, and re-infiltrated into the capital. The targets they could not overcome with their light weapons were destroyed by airstrikes guided by western special forces on the ground.
The crucial role, however, was played by Gaddafi’s trusted commander Mohammed Eshkal, head of the Mohammed Megrayef brigade, charged with defending Tripoli’s gates. Eshkal’s betrayal amounted to a classic ‘palace coup’, from which Gaddafi could not recover.
It appears that the NTC is attempting (with varying success) to domesticate and dissolve local grassroots committees and people’s militias, and replace them with the traditional bureaucracy of the Gaddafi regime (but without the Gaddafi cult). If that effort is successful, it will eradicate the ‘popular revolution’ element of the uprising, and this will be another case of ‘leadership change, regime stabilisation’.
To oppose this is not to engage in kneejerk anti-Americanism, but to support the authentic Arab awakening.