Understanding Libya, Dispelling the Myths

By Shafiq Morton

There are many things that are misunderstood about the so-called ‘civil war’ raging in the sands of Libya. Even if Gaddafi is stopped tomorrow and there is ceasefire, my fear is that the false impressions will remain.

Firstly, the term “civil war” is misleading, because in reality “civil war” means that a nation is at war with itself. And having spent time in Libya in March with the Gift of the Givers Relief Organization, I can vouchsafe that Libya is not at war with itself.

Libya is at war with one man, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a tyrant whose 40-year dictatorial rule has been characterized by terror and the barbarous oppression of any dissident voices.

Libya is an oil rich country that should be as well-heeled as any Gulf state. Yet away from Tripoli and Sirte (Gaddafi’s home town) its rudimentary rural hospitals, unpaved roads and lack of development are not in any way commensurate with its wealth.

Secondly, Gaddafi’s response to nationwide protest against him during February was to turn on his own people. Unlike Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who abandoned power, Gaddafi felt that his old fall back – terror – would be enough to bring his people into line.

As mutinies festered in his army, Gaddafi called on 20,000 foreign mercenaries. Their clumsy efforts to put down the uprising – street executions and crowd dispersal with anti-aircraft guns – stirred Libyans enough to lose their fear, and to destroy every symbol of Gaddafi’s power from east to west. 

The point is that those who’ve been forced to take up arms to defend their towns and cities in response to Gaddafi’s scorched-earth response are not “rebels”. They are a resistance – an alliance of Libyan citizens united in their opposition to Gaddafi’s arbitrary and inhumane rule.

Their yearnings are for freedom of speech, democracy and a fair distribution of the country’s wealth.

The resistance – given the situation – is relatively organized. The interim resistance council leader is former Justice Minister, Mustafa Abd ul-Jalil, and his “cabinet” is thirty elected representatives – people who’ve had to remain largely unseen so that Gaddafi will not assassinate them, or intimidate their families.

Too few reports have mentioned the thousands that have already died on the battle front and in the streets of Libya’s cities and towns.

In spite of the resistance having superior numbers on the ground it has been an uneven struggle. The resistance armed itself with old AK 47’s, LMG’s, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns plundered from Gaddafi’s armories in February.

The resistance forces fighting Gaddafi’s professional soldiers were initially chaotic with no lines of communication, let alone battle strategy. Only recently have defecting army commanders and units managed to instill discipline.

From day one Gaddafi hit back with tanks, heavy artillery and aerial bombardment. In the middle of March the resistance had captured four Russian Migs, whilst Gaddafi had over 100 fighter planes at his disposal.

One of these Migs was deliberately crashed into his Zawiyyah HQ in Tripoli, reportedly killing his son, Khamis. Interestingly, I can remember nobody in Libya speaking of it being a “suicide mission”.

Libyans are a conservative, warm people; their Islam is proudly main-stream, its ethos determined by the Sanusi Sufi Order, something that would send a shiver down the spine of any aspirant Salafi-Wahhabi ideologue, or Al-Qa’idah operative.

The call for a no-fly zone – not seen favorably in all quarters –was initiated by the resistance, and not by NATO. Its political subtleties are not my brief here. But suffice it say that resistance fighters told me that if Gaddafi’s air force and artillery were given free rein, hundreds of thousands of Libyan civilians would be dead in the country’s streets by April. 

“We don’t want occupation, or political interference. Stop Gaddafi’s planes and give us arms to fight him. We’ll do the rest,” said a medical doctor to me in Benghazi’s Harawi Hospital.

In spite of the casualties and the real prospect of being overwhelmed, anti-Gaddafi forces expressed a joie de vivre by firing their guns in celebration, or anger, for 24 hours a day. This meant that determining whether the fire was friendly or not, was difficult.

The front line could also shift hundreds of kilometers a day, with Gaddafi usually first attacking from the sea and bombing from the air before his ground forces would move in.

Most of this bombardment was not very accurate, and with the open terrain, there was never any place to hide. In fact, journalists became one of Gaddafi’s targets. His forces assassinated Al-Jazeera’s Ali Hasan Jaba, gave a BBC team a mock execution and captured four New York Times staffers.

In the eastern town of Ajdabiya, Gaddafi warned on TV that any journalists caught behind the lines would be treated like “Al-Qa’idah”. The panicked manager of the Amal Africa, the hotel we were staying in, responded by asking all journalists to check out.

Our lack of accommodation never really became a problem, though, because the front shifted from Brega to 10 kilometers outside Ajdabiya in the following 16 hours. As we also had South African-based Libyan doctors with us (who, if caught, could be tortured and killed by Gaddafi’s men) we fled to Benghazi.

That Gaddafi will enjoy the company of despots such as Saddam Hussain, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe in history books is beyond doubt. His schizophrenic megalomania is easily their match.

Reports of his removal of blood from Tripoli’s blood banks; his disinterment of corpses from their graves in Zawiyyah and their disappearance to disprove body counts; his harassment of civilians in Tripoli’s hospitals (and their rumored executions by mercenaries) are but recent examples.

In addition, his well-chronicled shooting at field hospitals on the front, his bombings of hospitals at Brega and Ajdabiya, and his attacks on ambulances, are all breaches of international law.

In any case, my experience of the above is beyond anecdotal: Gaddafi’s forces bombed Ajdabiya hospital only hours after we South Africans had left it, claiming it had housed an arms cache. The town was teeming with resistance fighters, but I can vouch that there was never an arms cache at the hospital.

However, our discoveries in Benghazi of darkened dungeons, underground pits and further revelations of public hangings, prison massacres and countless, stomach-churning instances of human rights abuses, speak of a ruler who must be made accountable for his deeds.

That, above all else, should be the demand of the international community. The Gaddafian myth of eccentricity and benign cheque-book diplomacy needs to be finally put to rest.

– Shafiq Morton is a presenter at Voice of the Cape radio station. He was South African Vodacom Community Journalist of the Year in 2008 and was recently voted amongst the world’s 500 most influential Muslims by the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategies Study Centre headed by Prof John Esposito of Georgetown University. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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