From Civil Unrest to Armed Rebellion

Just as Muammar Qaddafy's troops were approaching Benghazi, the hitherto hesitant Western allies urged the UN to hastily legitimize military intervention on humanitarian grounds. Although reportage from Libya itself has been sketchy at best, it seemed as though the armed rebellion that has broken out mainly in Libya's East in the former Emirate of Cyrenaica was about to be put down by Qaddafy's forces.


Initially the protests that broke out in Libya in the wake of similar revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, where long-standing despots were successfully deposed, were thought to be of a similar nature: there was a tyrant long past his due date, and the people were rising up to get rid of him. There were even the usual declarations of the protesters that they were none too keen on Western intervention in favor of  their cause.

Then Qaddafy struck back, in quite a brutal manner – bombing civilian protesters from the air, so the press reports. This then segued seamlessly into an armed rebellion. Civilians? Armed rebellion?

At this point it should have become clear to most people how little most of us actually know about Libya. How can there be an armed rebellion all of a sudden? Apparently parts of Libya's army deserted and went over to the rebels, but why? This being a region of Berber tribes, the men are traditionally armed, which partly explains the ubiquity of guns.

However, it is no coincidence that the rebellion was most pronounced and most successful in the East.


An Artificial State

Libya, the state, is a modern-day invention, and its inventors were the Italian fascists under Mussolini who were the first to put the three separate regions Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan together to form modern-day Libya.

These were former provinces of the Ottoman empire, which had taken them over in the 16th century, when the Ottoman fleet admiral Yakupoglu Hizi  Khair ad-Din, better known as Barbarossa, took Tripoli from the Maltese Knights in 1538. However, Ottoman rule over the so-called Barbary States, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis was an on-and-off affair. They were loosely directed regencies where pirates were given free rein – the Ottomans shared in the booty in return for letting the pirates use the ports of the Maghreb region. The Ottomans appointed a Pasha and dispatched their Janissaries to help him rule on their behalf over the region. In the early 18th century, an enterprising Ottoman cavalry officer, Ahmed Karamanli, took power and erected the Karamanli dynasty that lasted for 124 years.

The Barbary States should be well-known to Americans, since the US fought two wars against them. The US had been paying a tribute to the Pasha of Tripoli and other Barbary states since 1796, which ensured that the pirates would leave US merchant ships alone. Pasha Yusuf Karamanli then delivered the casus belli leading to the first Barbary war in 1801: He wanted more money. The US had lost protection from the Barbary pirates with the declaration of independence, and while an agreement with Morocco was struck fairly early on in 1786, negotiations with the remaining Barbary states dragged on, while the pirates held more then 100 US sailors captive. In the end, the captives were released for the then princely sum of over $ 1 million – 1/5 of the budget of the federal government at the time.

The Americans decided they had had enough of the Barbary pirates when Yusuf sought to once again raise the tribute and erected a naval blockade around Tripoli. In fact, if Yusuf had paid any attention, he might have noticed that the US department of the Navy was founded in 1798 (the navy had been recommissioned in 1794), with the principal goal of dealing with the Barbary pirates. By 1800, the annual tribute continued to eat up about one fifth of the US budget. Jefferson and others had been arguing for several years that giving in to the tribute demands would only lead to more demands. Yusuf apparently also failed to notice that Jefferson, who was inaugurated as president of the US in 1801, had been the most forceful voice in support of military action. When Yusuf tabled Tripoli's higher tribute demand, Jefferson refused and decided to intervene militarily. The war included the first deployment of US Marines in the harbor of Tripoli, when Stephen Decatur and his men stormed the beached Philadelphia that Tripoli used as a gun battery to defend the harbor. A treaty with Yusuf that included an exchange of prisoners and a ransom payment of $60,000 ended the war in 1805. The war of 1812 and the concurrent Napoleonic wars in Europe encouraged the Barbary pirates to going back to attacking US merchant ships and ransoming their sailors. In 1815, the second Barbary war led by veterans of the first war, Decatur and William Bainbridge, finally put an end to the tributes. A final blow to the Dey of Algiers was delivered by the British in 1816, after some back and forth, including a successful bluff (after a day of heavy bombardment, the Dey failed to realize the British had run out of ammunition and accepted terms).

Subsequently Tunis and Algiers became colonies of France, while the Ottoman empire asserted full control over Tripoli again in 1835.

The three provinces Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan were organized along ethnic and historical lines and were always regarded as distinct entities, until Italy took the provinces from the crumbling Ottoman empire in the 1911 Italo-Turkish war, with the official cessation of the territories signed by the Ottoman sultan in the treaty of Lausanne in 1912. For the next 30 odd years, the Italians would fight one uprising after another in the territories, with a particularly brutal suppression of rebellion occurring in the early 1930's under Mussolini. In 1934, the Italians united Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan into a single entity called Libya (the name Libya had already been in use in Herodotus' time).

Previously, in 1920, Italy had recognized the sheikh Sayyid Idris as-Senussi, the leader of the Senussi Muslim Sufi movement and allowed him to exercise political authority in the Cyrenaica region, confirming an earlier British recognition of Idris as Emir of Cyrenaica. In 1922 he became Emir of Tripoli as well. You won't be surprised to learn that Benghazi, the city in which the rebels of 2011 held out the longest, was the capital of the Emirate of Cyrenaica.

Idris would relive the events of the early 1920's after World War II. He first proclaimed the independent Emirate of Cyrenaica in 1949, but was then urged to also become Emir of Tripolitania, and again accepted. In 1951, the Kingdom of Libya was thus founded, with King Idris I as its head of state. That year, the French also ceded control over the sparsely populated (by Tuareg nomads) Fezzan desert area to the new Libyan state, effectively restoring the Libya the Italian fascists had founded.



Emir Idris as-Senussi (left) with the government of the short-lived Emirate of Cyrenaica in 1949.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


Idris was a pro-Western ruler, inviting both Britain and the US to erect military bases in Libya in the 1950's. In 1959, Esso (today Exxon) discovered oil in Cyrenaica, which as is so often the case, turned out to be both a blessing and curse for the country.

The rise of Gamal Abd el Nasser to power in Egypt and his brand of nationalism struck a chord with many Libyans in the 1960's. Idris was uncomfortable in Tripoli and  tended to spend more and more time in Tobruk at the Cyrenaican coast. Indeed, Idris derived much of his authority from his role as Emir of Cyrenaica and ruler of the Senussi sect.



The Flag of the Emirate of Cyrenaica (1949-1951)

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)



The Flag of the Vilayet of Trablus, or Tripolitania (1864-1911)

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)



The Qaddafy Era

In 1969 Idris went to Greece and Turkey for medical treatments, leaving his designated successor, crown prince Hassan ar Rida in charge as regent. Idris had already planned to abdicate in favor of Hassan later that year. A young army captain, then 28 year old Muammar al-Qaddafy used Idris' absence for a coup d'etat before the official abdication in favor of Hassan could take place.  Qaddafy led the so-called Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) of the Free Officers Movement, largely comprised of officers of the Signal Corps. The coup started in Benghazi and moved from there to Tripoli, with more and more army units declaring for the coup leaders. Since the coup was actually welcomed by the population at the time, it was bloodless and over quite quickly. Idris had attempted to quell popular resentment over the distribution of the country's oil wealth and rising nationalistic sentiments by expelling some of the Western military units based in Libya in the 1960's and instituting various halfhearted reforms.  It was not enough. The RCC declared Libya an Arab Republic, and Hassan soon publicly renounced his aspirations to the throne vacated by the now exiled King Idris.

The RCC appointed a cabinet led by prime minister Mahmud al-Maghrebi, who presided over the council of ministers, which had six civilian and two army members. However, the cabinet was to implement the prescriptions of the RCC, where real political power resided. Captain Muammar Qaddafy was promoted to colonel and made the chief of staff of Libya's army. The names of the other members of the RCC were not made public until early 1970, but it was clear from that moment that Qaddafy was effectively Libya's new head of state. The RCC continued the prohibition of political parties that had obtained since 1952 and instituted a nationalistic form of Islamic socialism (it did not erect an outright communist state as communist atheism wouldn't fly in Libya).

Over the next few years, Qaddafy would cement his authority, fighting off several real or imagined coup attempts which allowed him to consolidate power by incarcerating potential rivals.

What's interesting about this early period of consolidation of power and  counter-coups is the identity of some of the alleged plotters. Abdullah Abid Senussi, a distant relative of Idris and members of the Seif an Nasr clan of the Fezzan region were among the accused, which shows that Qaddafy was acutely aware of the regional tribal associations. The RCC also disbanded the Senussi order in coming years, deposed regional tribal leaders and drew new administrative boundaries that crossed through tribal areas.

In the following years, Qaddafy implemented various changes to the administration of Libya, which resulted in him removing himself ever more from power officially, while remaining the de facto dictator in his function as the chief of the armed forces. For a while he was chairman of the 'General Peoples' Congress' that replaced the RCC in the mid 70's, but later he relinquished this post as well, henceforth to be simply known as the 'Leader of the Revolution'. Qaddafy imagined himself a great social and political theorist, and produced a 'political bible' for Libya known as the 'Green Book', a bizarre collection of Qaddafyisms. One particular quote is especially interesting in light of Qaddafy's well-known eccentricity and tendency to issue contradictory statements.

“While it is democratically not permissible for an individual to own any information or publishing medium, all individuals have a natural right to self-expression by any means, even if such means were insane and meant to prove a person's insanity."


Qaddafy has evidently made plenty use of his own advice. Many passages of the Green Book are laugh-out-loud funny, but not so much if one considers their implications for the people under the rule of its author.

In 1977 Qaddafy introduced the Jamahiriya, which introduced so-called 'Basic Peoples' Committees', in which every adult has the right and duty to participate, as well as so-called 'revolutionary committees'. These committees are/were little more than a method to keep Qaddafy well-informed of grassroots opposition to his rule.


The freshly promoted colonel Qaddafy with Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1969.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)



It should be noted that while Qaddafy's economic reforms practically forbade private property in Libya in accordance with his specific Islamic socialist system (one is officially only allowed to privately own a single dwelling), which effectively nationalized all enterprises under a form of syndicalism, Qaddafy and his family and various other recipients of goodies under his nepotist system somehow managed to grow unimaginably rich. This is a parallel to Egypt's former dictator Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben-Ali. Much of the Qaddafy fortune is sequestered in the West, where numerous governments have now frozen most of these assets.

It should be no great surprise that the rest of the country, chafing under the restrictive and inefficient socialist economic system, came to resent this nepotistic highway robbery on Qaddafy's part. As is always the case when the 'people' are prominently mentioned in a country's name, the promised equality consists of a large mass of equally poor who have no rights, lorded over by a tiny minority that is characterized by unparalleled greed, using the coercive powers of the state to acquire its riches essentially by force.

Qaddafy's well-known history as a supporter of terrorism need not be repeated here in detail. However, it is a proven fact that he ordered the assassination of opponents to his regime both inside and outside of Libya, supported some of the worst dictators of the world, such as Idi Amin of Uganda (whom he even supported militarily against Tanzania), Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the 'Central African Empire', and Mengistu Haile-Mariam, the Soviet Union's man in Ethiopia, author of the 'Red Terror' there, who now lives in Zimbabwe and was convicted of genocide by Ethiopian courts in absentia. Libya's direct financial and logistical support for terrorism is a matter of record.

The 'mad dog of the Middle East' as Ronald Reagan referred to him, decided in the early 2000ds that there was a chance for redemption, spurred possibly by the US invasion of Iraq in search of the fabled non-existent WMD's. Libya by contrast to Iraq actually did have a nuclear program at the time and surrendered it voluntarily. It also took responsibility for the Lockerbie incident and various other terrorist acts and paid compensation to the families of victims. Thus the former 'mad dog'  became well-liked again in the West, often mildly derided for his continued displays of eccentricity.

He even became a 'very good friend' of Italy's prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, in part due to the historical ties and the considerable commercial ties between the two countries, although it is a good bet that Berlusconi was also duly impressed by Qaddafy's all-female bodyguard.



(Photo via



Qaddafy as we know him today, wearing various colorful outfits. He seems to be waving goodbye in the first picture.

(Photo credit: Reuters)



Silvio Berlusconi is evidently a fan of Qaddafy's bodyguards.

(Photo via



There is one reason why the possible sudden end to the careers of both Qaddafy and Berlusconi  (the latter is facing a trial over paying a minor for sexual favors) is slightly disappointing. These two had great entertainment value, and as anyone who observes politics knows, the best we can usually hope to get out of politicians (there are rare exceptions) – whether they install themselves via coups or are democratically (s)elected –  is precisely that: their entertainment value.

It is the one valuable service that some of them undoubtedly provide.  Naturally, we fully understand why many Libyans may think their leader's entertainment value is a poor deal all things considered.


The Intervention

As noted above, the UN resolution for enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya was fairly quickly obtained, so as to prevent Qaddafy's military gains against the rebels to turn into an outright victory. The support of the Arab League was apparently a decisive factor in getting the resolution, but the League is already complaining about the implementation (see further below).

It is to be noted here that no similar resolutions are in the works yet for Yemen, where 'at least' 46 protesters were recently shot dead by security forces, or Bahrain, which Saudi Arabia has invaded and where both Bahrain's own police and military forces as well as the Saudi soldiers are shooting at demonstrators, while resistance leaders have once again been jailed. As usual, if one wants to connect the dots, one word immediately springs to mind: oil. In addition, the despots who are trying to keep themselves in the saddle in Bahrain and Yemen are either regarded as 'bulwarks against Iran' (Bahrain) or 'important allies in the fight against Al-Qaeda' (Yemen's aging dictator Abdullah Saleh).

In these cases, the humanitarian considerations have so far led to diplomatic cables containing somewhat friendly worded admonitions to please desist from murdering one's compatriots, but no consequences whatsoever are threatened or implied. 

Not surprisingly, US president Obama is said to have been reluctant to intervene in Libya, and was ostensibly bullied by the more eager France and Britain and some people in his own cabinet into agreeing to the intervention (we can imagine the 'there's no time to lose' arguments that were brought to bear). To everybody's vast surprise, Russia and China simply abstained from voting, and so failed to provide a plausible excuse for not going for it. Since the resolution basically legalizes the attack, the attack is now duly underway.

There are several problems with this that once again no-one seemed to take the time to consider.

Firstly, there can be no aerial attack that does not end up harming civilians. Even though our media are usually protecting us from seeing any untoward images of dead bodies and rendered limbs produced by the 'good guy' bombs, rest assured, they are being produced. Admittedly, since Qaddafy's military is likewise producing lots of dead bodies, this presents a difficult moral dilemma. However, the question is then, where does it end? There is no shortage of locations on the planet that look similarly deserving of intervention after all. And as Amir Moussa of the Arab Leage noted via the AP:

“The Arab League's support for a no-fly zone last week helped overcome reluctance in the West for action in Libya. The U.N. authorized not only a no-fly zone but also "all necessary measures" to protect civilians.

Amr Moussa says the military operations have gone beyond what the Arab League backed. Moussa has told reporters Sunday that "what happened differs from the no-fly zone objectives." He says "what we want is civilians' protection not shelling more civilians.”


One might as well ask Mr. Moussa why the Arab League didn't just do the job itself given that it was so eagerly supporting it at the UN. It is not for lack of weaponry, that much is certain.

Secondly, and that was the point in presenting Libya's complicated history, it appears 'we' have no idea whom we are actually supporting. Given that the rebellion is strongest in the former Emirate of Cyrenaica, where most of the oil happens to be situated, one must assume the unnamed rebels to likely belong to the local tribes and what is left of the Senussi sect.

Similarly, Qaddafy's support is likely largely coming from his own tribe (as well as those parts of society that profit from his nepotism).

We don't believe that breaking up Libya along the historical boundaries of its formerly quasi-independent parts is on anyone's menu. However, if the Cyrenaican rebels march on Tripoli and succeed in deposing Qaddafy, it will be back to square one in the sense that one group with specific tribal affiliations will lord it over the other tribes.

The only slight consolation may be that the Senussi sect belongs to the Sufi branch of Sunni Islam, the mystical doctrine that is most closely associated with the Golden Age of Islam during which science and art both flourished immensely. And yet, the idea of who it actually is that we now support seems rather vague (they don't really look like mystics). Aside from the rebels' wish to depose Qaddafy, nothing is known about their further aims. By helping them, 'we own them', as Justin Raimondo remarked at, in fact 'we own' whatever becomes of Libya, just as 'we' now 'own' Iraq and Afghanistan.

This incidentally raises questions beyond the obvious moral and realpolitik dilemmas, primarily the question of affordability. Western governments are no longer the bastions of solvency they were once thought to be after all – and if we have learned one thing about the economics of war, it is that it involves both economic regimentation and inflation, neither of which are conducive to wealth creation.

Lastly, there is the problem that governments as a rule usually worsen most if not all of the problems they attempt to cure by intervention. The unintended consequences usually don't wait long to put in an appearance.

Some of the inconsistencies inherent in this most recent intervention have even been noticed by the mainstream press. For instance, the NYT notes: 'Target in Libya Is Clear; Intent Is Not'

“All the deliberations over what military action to take against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya have failed to answer the most fundamental question: Is it merely to protect the Libyan population from the government, or is it intended to fulfill President Obama’s objective declared two weeks ago that Colonel Qaddafi “must leave”?

“We are not going after Qaddafi,” Vice Adm. William E. Gortney said at the Pentagon on Sunday afternoon, even as reports from Tripoli described a loud explosion and billowing smoke at the Qaddafi compound, suggesting that military units or a command post there might have been a target.

That was a vivid sign that whatever their declared intentions, the military strikes by Britain, France and the United States that began on Saturday may threaten the government itself.

But there is also the risk that Colonel Qaddafi may not be dislodged by air power alone. That leaves the question of whether the United States and its allies are committing enough resources to win the fight. The delay in starting the onslaught complicated the path toward its end. It took 22 days from the time that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces first opened fire on protesters in Libya for the United Nations-backed military assault to begin. By the time American cruise missiles reached Libyan targets on Saturday, Colonel Qaddafi’s troops, reinforced by mercenaries, had pushed Libyan rebels from the edge of Tripoli in western Libya all the way back to Benghazi in the east, and were on the verge of overtaking that last rebel stronghold.

But the strike, when it came, landed hard, turning the government force outside Benghazi into wreckage and encouraging the rebels to regroup.

“I hope it’s not too late,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said on the CNN program “State of the Union” Sunday. “Obviously, if we had taken this step a couple of weeks ago, a no-fly zone would probably have been enough,” he said. “Now a no-fly zone is not enough. There needs to be other efforts made.”


Now, McCain never met a war he didn't like, but his assertion that 'other efforts' are now needed leads back to what we said before: 'we' are going to 'own this', lock stock and barrel, most likely.

Tony Caron in The National remarks to this point:

“Listening to the US president Barack Obama and his European colleagues setting out the limits of their military engagement in Libya, it's worth remembering the famous warning by Prussian General Helmut von Moltke that "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy".

As US cruise missiles destroyed Libyan air defence batteries and French fighters took out four tanks attacking the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Mr Obama told the world that he had no choice but to launch "limited" military action to prevent Colonel Muammar Qaddafi realising his brutal intentions. But Mr Obama's key message was aimed at Americans: "We will not – I repeat – we will not deploy any US troops on the ground." The New York Times reports that Mr Obama had also insisted to his aides that US military involvement must be over within "days, not weeks".

Following a summit in Paris of the nations involved in the military campaign authorised by last week's UN Security Council resolution 1973, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that "regime change" was not the goal of the air campaign, and that "the door of international diplomacy" would open to Col Qaddafi once he ended his attacks on rebels and their supporters.

Western leaders have made no secret that they want Col Qaddafi out, with Mr Obama, Mr Sarkozy and the British prime minister David Cameron all having declared unambiguously that the Libyan strongman had lost his legitimacy. But their military campaign was adopted as an emergency response to the intolerable probability that without foreign intervention, Col Qaddafi could sack the rebel capital of Benghazi and exact vicious reprisals on an epic scale.

Optimists in western corridors of power hope that the "shock and awe" effect of their air campaign prompts the regime's collapse amid mass defections. But optimism is the opiate of the interventionists, and western leaders would do well to prepare for some nastier contingencies.”


It remains unpredictable what will in the end come of the intercession of the Western allies – but it seems likely that an engagement 'lasting a few days' won't be seen as sufficient. We certainly sympathize with everyone's desire to see Qaddafy go, but there can be no assurance that whoever follows in his wake will be an improvement or that no plethora of unintended consequences ultimately results. Looking back at modern-day Libya's history, it would probably be most conducive to peace if the country were to split up again along its historical lines, instead of being kept as the artificial union the Mussolini government once made of it and that was unthinkingly adopted by the allies post WW2. Naturally, many Libyans not within hailing distance of the country's oil fields may well disagree – and as noted above, we don't think anyone else is giving this serious consideration either at this point.



The three provinces that made up modern-day Libya prior to administrative reforms enacted in 1963 and that were quasi-independent entities before Italy unified them in 1934.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)



(Photo credit: Reuters)



Various things go up in flames in Libya following coalition air strikes. We're not sure yet if the guys in the truck will turn out to be friendlies, but one can always hope.

(Photo credit: Reuters)




1.    Japan


There has been some progress in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant crisis in Japan, according to the press. A good overview of the current state of affairs is provided by the BBC here.

This is a case where any scrap of good news is a great relief, even though the situation remains beset by uncertainties. We would however note that it is definitely a good sign that things haven't gotten any worse. The more time passes without a complete meltdown, the less likely it probably is that one will occur. Specifically, the fact that the pools of spent fuel rods appear now to have come back to acceptable temperatures is a big step toward resolving the crisis. Given the damage to reactor cores in several units, the final fate of entombment in concrete likely still awaits the plant.

As a general remark, while we are all for progress and accept that nuclear power is likely here to stay, there is one nagging question that has e.g. recently been a focus of debate in Germany, namely what to do about nuclear waste. Many countries have evidently problems with coming up with truly safe permanent storage solutions (Germany is one of those). This is probably no less of a problem in Japan – the 'land of volcanoes' (10% of the world's 840 active volcanoes are in Japan). The waste meanwhile continues to pile up.


2.    How to Spell Arabic Names


The transliteration of Arabic words and names into the Latin alphabet is quite difficult. This is especially so as Arabic dialects differ from region to region. Newspapers therefore usually use transcriptions, and Qaddafy's name is found in numerous spellings (allegedly 112 different ones so far). None of them are 'right' or 'wrong'. They're fine just as long as reading them out loud produces something that sounds more or less like his name.




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3 Responses to “Shock and Awe in Libya”

  • Bearster:

    I don’t understand what US interest is to be gained by war in Libya, much less the half-assed let’s-go-get-Gadaffi-without-admitting-it kind.

    That said, I don’t think US (or any country’s) sovereign interests or policies gain their legitimacy from international opinion.

  • White eagle:

    Excellent informations!
    I would like to add one crucial point: France has officially recognized ‘the government in Benghazi’ and Gadafi will have to defeat France if he wants Cyrenaica back as a milking cow. Additionally, he will have to kill or expel, as he promised just before France intervened few days back, all local population. Those people are fighting for their survival, not only freedom.
    As you noticed as well, Gadafi is clearly a mentally challenged person.
    No-fly zone, naval blockade, land blockade on the side of Tunis and Cyrenaica and let them eat their beloved Gadafi family alive.
    Additionally, it is not unimportant sign, that France is military defending city of Benghazi and now systematically cleaning Cyrenaica of Gadafi expeditionary corps, while USA and the British are pounding Gadafi in his native stronghold on the west of Lybia. I am sure there is sense of desperation in Rome right now.

    Mamma mia!

  • Indeed, haha, it’s a shame that the two biggest clowns are going..

    With regards to the structure of Islamic Socialism; there was a fantastic lecture posted on about the historic (but rejected) liberalism in Islam:

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