The Libyan war: a geopolitical perspective

It is very difficult to understand the real contours of current events in Libya. In spite of rebels’ bold claims, too often supported by the uncritical attitude of Western media, Colonel Gaddafi seems still able to control certain parts of the country, or at least to challenge his enemies’ massive offensive, sustained by the bombing campaign of NATO air forces. He’s certainly defeated, and it is quite obvious that his regime will not be able to survive the next phases of this brutal civil war. Anyway his undeterred stubbornness and the internal divisions of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi – composed by an uneasy alliance of Islamists, democrats, and political opportunists – could prolong military operations for several months, even compelling the deployment of international troops to guarantee the peaceful reconstruction of the country. And, far from creating a new stable democracy in North Africa, this occurrence could also generate other serious problems, including the development of a violent anti-Western guerrilla similar to that experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last decade.

In a recent statement to the public, British PM David Cameron said that NATO decision to support the Benghazi rebels was “necessary, legal, and right”, preventing the slaughter of innocent civilians and bringing the Libyan people “closer to their dream of a better future.” A broader geopolitical view of the situation completely dispels such idealistic rhetoric, questioning instead the wisdom of the politico-military strategy employed by the West to oust Gaddafi from his forty-two years old power position. Indeed, when the conflict began last February with the armed uprising of Benghazi and other Cyrenaica cities, it was immediately clear that the rebels had not the organizational unity and technological know-how to fight Gaddafi’s army, risking even their complete demise in a couple of weeks. At the same time a large segment of the Libyan people, mainly concentrated in Tripolitania, continued to support the old regime, seen as a source of protection against the ethnic and religious ambitions of their eastern “brethrens”. Contrary to certain popular narratives, who have presented the Benghazi insurrection as a mere replica of revolutionary unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, the Libyan situation was complex and intricate since the beginning of the anti-Gaddafi campaign, due to the unique geographical and demographic structure of the country. Traditionally divided in three large regions (Cyrenaica – Tripolitania – Fezzan), Libya is in fact inhabited by Arabs and Berbers along the coast, while its arid interior is the kingdom of legendary nomadic peoples like the Tuareg and the Toubou, who also live across the borders of other neighbouring states, including Niger and Burkina Faso. This incredible mosaic is still complicated by subtle religious divisions: the majority of Libyans are Muslims, but they are divided among Sunni Islam and Ibadism, while the coastal cities host small but conspicuous Catholic and Coptic communities. And last but not least, there is the Senussi order in Cyrenaica, which mixes Sufism with more orthodox practices, partially inspired by the Salafi doctrine of Sheikh Mohammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the religious father of modern Saudi Arabia. A powerful movement since the early nineteenth century, the Senussi dominated the region for almost two hundred years, even defying European colonial powers during World War I. Led by King Idris I (1889-1983), they later established a political and religious hegemony over the country, interrupted only by the military coup of 1969 which brought the obscure Colonel Gaddafi to power. It is among them that the recent uprising began, maybe with the tacit support of Western and Arab governments.[1]

Ras Lanuf

Ras Lanuf and Libyan Rebels (8 March 2011). Photo by شبكة برق | B.R.Q

However, the insurrection was presented by popular news channels like Al-Jazeera and CNN as a vast national uprising against a bloody tyrant, reinforced by dubious stories of civilian massacres and brutal African mercenaries. Such partisan perspective – based on the simplistic struggle between “good rebels” and “evil Gaddafi” – has then gained momentum among Western public opinion, obscuring the legitimate reasons of those ethnic groups still loyal to the Tripoli government and paving the way to the NATO military intervention of March 2011. Sanctioned by UNSC Resolution 1973, this intervention is a masterpiece of political ambiguity, due to the strong opposition of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) to any military invasion of Libya and to the necessity of Western governments to present the aerial campaign as a “humanitarian” action: the Resolution, in fact, authorizes “regional organizations or arrangements” to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians on Libyan territory, but it excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form” on it and calls for an “arms embargo” towards the belligerents, even if this measure seems to refer mainly to the forces of Colonel Gaddafi, without any clear position on the rebel authorities of Benghazi. Thus the UN ambiguous declaration has been used by NATO countries to justify Operation Unified Protector, with the massive bombings of Gaddafi’s military structures and a naval blockade of the Libyan coast. It is interesting to note that the operation has also been supported by Arab countries like Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which participated to the campaign with a consistent group of fighter jets operating from Greek and Italian bases. Among them, Qatar – the home nation of Al-Jazeera – has even contributed with billions of dollars to the armament of the rebels, probably trained and assisted by French and British Special Forces during the conflict. All this support of the Middle East conservative monarchies to the Cyrenaica uprising represents a clear contradiction to the “democratic” narrative of the war, and it betrays instead a desire to control the political development of post-Gaddafi Libya, replacing a quasi secular state with a more religious one. Of course, the huge oil and natural gas resources of the country – largely exploited by Italian ENI in recent years – also offer a strong incentive to schemes of “regime change”, and France’s deep commitment to Unified Protector (six frigates, one aircraft carrier, one nuclear submarine, several Rafale and Mirage fighters) suggests the informal pressure of corporate giants like Total Fina on President Sarkozy to obtain new energetic sources in North Africa. Indeed, due to the weakness of its position during the early weeks of the war, it is very difficult that the Italian government would be able to maintain the past monopoly over Libyan wells, losing a key economic asset in a period of serious financial instability. Something recently recognized by several Italian business groups, who lamented more than 100 billion Euros of losses and attacked PM Silvio Berlusconi for his ineffective defence of their North African interests.

In spite of all these military efforts, however, Gaddafi seemed able to preserve his stronghold in Tripolitania until mid-August, thanks to the loyalty of the desert tribes and to the diplomatic support of several countries of the African Union. Among them South Africa has probably been the most outspoken against NATO actions, refusing to recognize the rebel government and asking instead for a negotiated solution of the conflict. President Jacob Zuma even visited Gaddafi last May, claiming to have reached a “roadmap” for a peaceful ceasefire, but the scheme failed miserably in a few days, leaving a bitter polemical trail within the Pretoria government. At the same time Zuma’s line of action – inspired by the strong ties established by Tripoli with the African National Congress (ANC) during the apartheid era – has been targeted by several opposition parties, who fear the international isolation of the country and the loss of promising business opportunities in the new post-Gaddafi Libya. These concerns have dramatically increased after the chaotic events of the last days, with the fall of Tripoli in the hands of the rebels and the definite defeat of the old regime. Then it is highly probable that the incoming African Union summit in Addis Ababa will try to define another attitude toward the Libyan crisis, gaining some tangible asset over the country’s reconstruction.

Therefore, contrary to the propagandistic assertions of Mr Cameron, the Libyan people seem quite faraway from any sort of “better future”, due to the intricate geopolitical game over the future of their nation. And Unified Protector seems more a modern re-edition of the disastrous Iraqi adventure of 2003 than a “necessary, legal, and right” crusade in defence of oppressed “democratic” civilians. Indeed, the NTC is bitterly divided within its ranks, giving ample space to the double threat of sectarian violence and Islamist takeover: in this sense, the recent assassination of former General Abdul Fatah Younis, an influential nationalist member of the Benghazi government, represents an ominous warning on the rising power of extremist religious groups in Cyrenaica, including the obscure Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) attached to Al-Qaeda. Last but not least, Gaddafi is still free, and if he follows the politico-military strategy of his old hero Omar Al-Mukhtar (1862-1931), leader of the Senussi resistance against Italian colonialism in the 1920s, he could unleash a bitter guerrilla campaign in the desert, compelling NATO to a direct intervention on the terrain and further jeopardizing the frail structure of the entire Sahara region. It’s a frightening prospect, especially considering the fact that this part of Africa hosts the main migration fluxes of the continent, with hundreds of thousands of people trying to reach Europe through the Maghreb every year. The same Libya hosts over one million of sub-Saharan Africans on its coastline, who live often in very precarious conditions: a persistent conflict in the country could be a humanitarian catastrophe for these people, pushing them towards the shores of Italy and Malta with serious social unrest for an economically stagnant European Union.

Maybe Western media declared victory too soon. The real troubles in Libya, with all their dramatic consequences, still need to begin.

Simone Pelizza, University of Leeds

[1] The Senussi involvement in the rebellion is quite explicit in the adoption by the Benghazi government of Idris’ old royalist banner as the new flag of a “democratic” Libya. At the same time the NTC actions have been officially sanctioned by Mohammed El Senussi (b. 1962), the legitimate heir of King Idris, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.


About perspectivesonafrica

Research and news about Africa
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