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When People Taste The Wind

Gaddafi may hang on by his fingernails still. But the longer he stays, the worse for Libya.

When People Taste The Wind
When People Taste The Wind

I should make a disclosure before I write on the tragic situation in Libya, a country I have visited frequently and have a special affinity with. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi espoused the political ideology of African unity that was first mooted by my father, the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah. Millions of Africans from south of the Sahara—comprising 48 countries and together described as Black Africa—flocked to Libya in search of jobs. Today, as Libya is embroiled in a civil war, Africans residing in Libya are being used as cannon fodder and mercenaries to thwart the uprising of the Libyan people against the Gaddafi regime. The Libyan air force has flown in Black African soldiers of fortune, who are reportedly beating protesters to a pulp as the regime charges dissenters with treason, a capital offence—something Gaddafi did not tire of saying repeatedly on TV.

Yet the eastern half of the country, including Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, has fallen to the anti-Gaddafi protesters. The pre-Gaddafi red, black and green tricolour with white crescent and star has been hoisted over the liberated cities of eastern Libya. Fierce fighting has commenced in the western cities of the country, including the capital Tripoli. Many Libyans have lost their livelihoods. Thousands are living in tents and makeshift housing on the edge of the bombarded cities. Hospitals are close to running out of basic medicines. A humanitarian disaster looms large.

Forget the battle for Benghazi, the struggle for control of the corridors of power in Tripoli is of the essence at the moment. Political Islam will no doubt make substantial inroads as the secular but autocratic regime of Gaddafi teeters. For all the anti-imperialist rhetoric he thundered, and for all his claims to ushering in socialism and social justice, Gaddafi has betrayed his people. He ordered pilots to bombard his own people by warplanes purchased from Western powers. Some of his own armed forces refused to obey his commands, surrendering to the protesters in eastern Libya and joining forces with them. At least two pilots fled to neighbouring Malta, seeking political asylum.

The history of the Libyan people is littered with too many incompatible dreams, too much heartache. As a story, the Libyan revolution spearheaded by Gaddafi in 1969 has been misunderstood, stereotyped and exploited by all and sundry for decades. To get it right, pan-Africanists decided to become stakeholders in the revolution even as Gaddafi downplayed his Arab and Islamist credentials in favour of African unity. Libya’s vast oil wealth ensured that Gaddafi provided his people with the basics—employment, free healthcare and education. Libya once boasted the highest standard of living in Africa.

Last rants? Gaddafi vows destruction

Libya’s political stability in the past four decades was based on the assumption that economic growth is assured. That didn’t happen because of Gaddafi’s profligacy and his desire to extend political patronage to all of Africa. He squandered the country’s lavish resources in toppling governments. But for his ambitions, a country flush with oil and having a population of just six million should have had a standard of living rivalling Switzerland. Instead, the country grovels in poverty; its quality of healthcare and education has progressively declined. The unemployment rate has remained 30 per cent for years, fraught with dangerous consequences in a country where the young comprise 70 per cent of the  population.

Moreover, Libyans lacked freedom of expression and association. Gaddafi, who this week described the rebels as rats and germs, drug addicts and drunkards who needed to be eradicated, was not prepared to extend to his people the basic freedoms enjoyed by people in the West and even in those African nations that have a much lower standard of living. It’s they who took en masse to Twitter and Facebook to give a boost to the revolutionary zeal that the authorities sought to curb by cutting off the internet. Further, to appease the protesters, the secretary general of Libya’s ruling People’s Congress, Mohamed Bel-Qassem Zwewi, promised greater civil liberties, a new constitution and democracy. It was too little, too late.

Gaddafi himself has pledged revenge. His son and heir apparent, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi,  threatened the people of Libya in a TV broadcast: “We are neither Tunisia nor Egypt. We, in Libya, are a nation of tribes and clans. There will be tribal warfare and a bloodbath.” Indeed, Saif’s was an insightful observation—tribal groupings and elders still exercise tremendous power in the political and social arenas. Gaddafi has bolstered his regime chiefly through a policy of divide and rule among Libya’s tribes, belonging as he does to the numerically insignificant group of Ghadafa.

Libya’s main tribal groups claim Arab descent. However, several of them are also proud of their Berber, or indigenous Amazigh, origins. It’s difficult to ascertain precisely what percentage of the population is purely Arab. Most Libyans, though, uphold both Amazigh and Arab ethnic-cultural roots. The country’s eastern region, known as Cyrenaica, has a greater proliferation of tribal groupings than what exists in the western and southern regions, which still happen to remain under the control of the regime, at least superficially.

The tricolour with crescent and star, the pre-Gaddafi flag of Libya, has become the symbol of revolt against the dictator’s repression.

Gaddafi has the loyalty of the Magariha, the largest and arguably the most politically influential tribe of Libya. Its support for him was reinforced because he successfully managed to secure the release of Abdel-Baset Al-Megrahi, a Magariha who was incarcerated in Scotland for allegedly masterminding the infamous downing of the Pan-Am airliner over Lockerbie. Key members of the Magariha occupy senior government posts and also oversee the state security apparatus. And though some young members of the Magariha are suspected to be among the anti-Gaddafi protesters, the tribe itself will largely remain loyal to Gaddafi.

The Bani Hilal tribe is the largest of tribes in western Libya, as is the Bani Salem in Cyrenaica. Other major eastern tribes include the Kargala, the Tanajeer and the Ramla. The Abdiyat and the Masamir dominate the far east, particularly in and around the city of Tubrok, which has been liberated by anti-Gaddafi protesters. The Misurata, among Libya’s most numerous tribes, occupy a huge swathe of territory from in and around the western city of Misurata (one of the formidable pockets of resistance to Gaddafi) to the eastern metropolis of Benghazi.

It won’t be wrong to say that the eastern tribes have opted to back the anti-Gaddafi forces while the western ones remain uncertain about their political leanings and loyalties. However, it must not be forgotten that an estimated 15 per cent of Libyans do not have any particular tribal affiliations and are mostly urban dwellers. There is also an obvious generation gap—younger members of the tribes exhibit less tribal loyalty than their elders, and it’s difficult to tell whether they would follow the diktat of their elders either in backing the Gaddafi regime or joining the popular uprising. Gaddafi will keep trying, even as he fights his last stand, to play one tribe against another.

In this scenario, what must not be forgotten is the agenda of the West: the US and the European Union. Libya is one of the world’s most important exporters of oil and natural gas. Any disruption of energy supplies will cause economic havoc worldwide. This may well be Gaddafi’s trumpcard. The West also fears that the secular regime of Gaddafi will be supplanted by a militant Islamist government. Already, Islamist emirates have been declared in several liberated cities in eastern Libya, such as Derna, Al-Bayda and Benghazi. If the country’s oil wealth falls into the hands of Islamists, the West’s economic interests will be negatively impacted.

It’s this fear of the West that Gaddafi  kept harping upon in his latest TV speech at the time of writing, on February 24. He blamed Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden for instigating the rebellion against his regime, promising, in his characteristically florid speech, to crush them. But it looks like the West, at least the US, wasn’t really taken in by his rhetoric, and anti-Gaddafi forces were said to be steadily bringing the country under their control.

Africans and Arabs must lance the Libyan boil together. Gaddafi must be forced into publicly accepting democracy. Or, he must now consider stepping down, after having ruled Libya with an iron fist for the past 42 years. And though Gaddafi is a survivor and cannier than he looks, the political picture in Libya is patchier still. It is not clear whether Gaddafi will hang on to the western and southern parts of the country, leaving the eastern region to languish in chaos. Whatever the outcome of the popular uprising rocking Libya, there are few advantages for it to have the beleaguered regime of Gaddafi to linger around.

(The writer is international editor of the Al-Ahram weekly.)

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