The Libyan Revolution and the Arab Spring

The Libyan revolution began as did most revolutions in the Arab world, with protests against a cruel dictator. The protests grew large by mid-February and were especially large in Tripoli.[i] What quickly distinguished Libya from the rest of the Arab world was the brutality of the dictator’s counter attack and the response of the protesters.

By early March the democratic protest movement had transformed into a civil war. Exactly how and why this happened is still not entirely clear. Muammar Qaddafi’s repression was deadlier than that of Syria’s Assad, or Yemen’s Saleh.[ii]  Protesters in several cities responded to Qaddafi’s repression by finding arms and fighting back. In Benghazi armed protesters battled Qaddafi agents, eventually driving them from the city.[iii] Several cities and towns in both eastern and western Libya were soon liberated.

The decision to launch a territorial battle with the regime does not appear to be made by anyone. Key defections in the Libyan military made it possible for the rebels to hold most of the cities in the east. By early March Qaddafi had suppressed most of the protests that had emanated from the plebeian districts of Tripoli and recaptured most, although not all, of the territories in the west. The revolutionary protests turned into a revolutionary war but there is little evidence anyone planned it that way.

Regionalism? Tribalism?

This turn of events has left many commentators, including many on the left, to conclude the conflict in Libya is not a revolution but a tribal or regional civil war. Such analyses, however, are based less in fact than in prejudices about the Arab world.

Leftists should be particularly hesitant to embrace arguments that the current conflict is a reflection of Libya’s tribal divisions. The view that Arabs are more tribal than national is, after all, a key component of Orientalist mythology. Libyan writer Alaa al-Ameri argues that Libyans’ sense of nationality has been stronger than tribal or regional loyalty for most of the 20th and 21st centuries. She explains how Qaddafi used his patronage system as a method of fomenting tribal divisions. Now, however, Libyans are rising up, not against rival tribes but against the regime. Western leftists should take her plea seriously. “By labeling us as ‘tribal’ you effectively dismiss the notion that our uprising has anything to do with freedom, democracy or human dignity. Do you place narrow regional loyalties above these values? I'm sure you would reject any such characterisation, and naturally so. Please do us, as Libyans, the courtesy of allowing us the same human characteristics you attribute to yourselves.”[iv]

The argument that the Libyan revolution is essentially a regional struggle is equally problematic. When the uprising began it spread to numerous cities in the west, the most famous of which is Misurata. As of April 2, 2011, however, government forces have still failed to recapture Misurata or Zintan (south west of Tripoli). Nor do any of the rebels’ political demands have a regional quality. The Transitional National Council calls for a united, democratic Libya with Tripoli as its capital.[v]

Who are the rebels?

This question has been hotly debated both within the mainstream press and also on the left. The fact that it is difficult to answer that question with any precision is evidence of the revolutionary character of the current conflict. As of now, no one individual or group is in control. Within Benghazi there is the Transitional National Council. It consists mostly of elite forces, some of whom were recent defectors from the Qaddafi camp. Their control appears to be limited. They do not seem to direct the military campaigns, nor do they even control Benghazi. The new Benghazi city council operates independently. And it is unlikely that the TNC has any influence over revolutionaries in Misurata or Zintan.[vi]

Limited in number, the rebel fighters have mainly been untrained volunteers. According to Jon Lee Anderson “[t]he hard core of the fighters has been the shabab—the young people whose protests in mid-February sparked the uprising.” There are many religious fighters among the volunteers as well but there is little evidence that their goal is a theocracy. There is no method of compelling any of these forces to fight. They do so because they believe in their cause and like most protesters throughout the Arab world they consider life under the dictator no longer tolerable.[vii]

The volunteer nature of the rebellion makes the fighting more chaotic and, on the rebel side, deadlier. These shahab show little evidence of knowing how to fight, or use weapons. Soldiers appear to race to the front lines in their personal vehicles with minimal coordination or secure escape routes. Press reports depict scenes of rebels firing missiles in the wrong direction and of failing to secure mortar cannons to the ground before firing them, making proper aim impossible. The TNC reported that some rebel soldiers fired wildly into the air on April 1, 2011 thus provoking a NATO strike which killed several rebels.[viii]

The chaotic nature of the rebellion also provides grounds for hope. The Libyan revolt has swept into motion masses of protesters and volunteer fighters who are not under anyone’s control. Even the early protests in Tripoli appeared somewhat spontaneous, with few identifiable banners or clearly planned march routes. If they succeed they will have confidence in their own abilities to organize and struggle, opening space for more progressive political developments. If they are defeated such hopes will be snuffed out. While the NATO powers will undoubtedly attempt to influence the politics of the rebels, there is little evidence they have succeeded thus far.[ix]

The diffuse character of the Libyan revolution so far should not surprise us. The constellation of contradictory forces is typical of most revolutionary processes. The Egyptian revolution of January25 to February 11 brought together varying social forces whose only unifying demand was embodied in the revolution’s principal slogan: “the people demand the end of the regime.” The protests initially united capitalists frustrated by rampant government corruption and youths and professionals who wanted an end to the police state. Hossam el-Hamalawy’s description of people getting out of their Mercedes Benz cars to distribute water to protesters is telling.[x] During those heady days at Tahrir Square western media attention focused on the roles of Mohammed el-Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet neither of them proved capable of controlling events. Only in the last three days did a strike wave break out which ultimately forced Mubarak to step down. The aftermath of February 11 has brought a military regime led by former Mubarak generals. They have set up an electoral system which favors traditional, more conservative parties. On the streets violence against women continues, as does anti-Coptic violence.[xi] And the military’s first priority appears to be to break strikes and institute a counter-revolution. What is important, however, is that the protests and strikes are continuing. Independent unions and left organizations have formed. By defeating the dictator Egypt’s revolutionaries have opened the door to new possibilities. Exactly where it will lead is impossible to predict.

The Rebels and human rights

On March 31, 2011 Wolfgang Weber published an article entitled,“Libyan rebels massacre black Africans.” The article appeared on numerous websites simultaneously. As the title suggests, Weber alleges that rebel forces have engaged in repeated massacres of black Africans. He provides no footnotes or other citations. He alleges that his primary source of information is an article by the German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn from the March 22, 2011 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. A search of that newspaper’s website yielded no such article, although several other Heinsohn articles on unrelated topics did appear. Nor did repeated google searches  produce evidence of such a Heinsohn article. And I have found no other references to it, which is strange because Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is a world-reknowned newspaper.[xii]

When dealing with difficult subjects like this we need to be careful. We should be open-minded enough to accept facts which may challenge our assumptions. At the same time, it is irresponsible to engage in rumor mongering. From the scattered bits of reliable evidence we can piece together a story that is not pretty. But nor does it confirm the wild allegations promoted on numerous pro-Qaddafi, or anti-rebellion websites.

Like many petro-dictators, Qaddafi has relied on immigrant workers who come to Libya for employment opportunities. They come from eastern and southern Asia, the middle east, and northern Africa. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center estimates that sub-Saharan workers constitute as much as one-third of Libya’s active workforce.[xiii] Estimates vary, however. Precise demographic data is difficult to come by in a police state. Under Qaddafi’s rule immigrant workers had no legal rights and were barred from joining even the legally-constrained trade unions.

As is often the case in countries with large numbers of migrant workers, there have been periodic waves of anti-immigrant violence. Human Rights Watch has tracked cases of mob violence against sub-Saharan Africans in Libya since 2006.[xiv]

The outbreak of civil war in late February had particularly devastating effects on immigrant workers. Entire cities have been vacated. Production in many areas has shut down. HRW reports that thousands of migrants have been attempting to flee Libya since the beginning of the conflict. Those whose home countries have been willing to send rescue ships have been the lucky ones. Many others have been trapped in refugee camps, living in terrible conditions.

Within the camps several sub-Saharan workers have reported being victimized by mob violence. So far the reports do not make clear who the mobs were, or whether they have any connection to the rebel organizations. Nor, from the limited number of reports, can we estimate how many have been killed. [xv]

There is some evidence that some rebel fighters and authorities are guilty of racial profiling and racial violence. Included among the testimony provided to Human Rights Watch are accounts of beatings at the hands of rebel fighters. In reaction to Qaddafi’s widely-reported use of mercenaries from Chad and Niger[xvi], some Black Africans in Benghazi have been arrested on spurious evidence of collaboration with the regime. Again, it is difficult to tell how widespread this is. Most reports refer to a single event in Benghazi involving fewer than ten people. But it would not be surprising if it occurred more frequently, given the chaos of civil war, the primitive character of revolutionary justice in general, and the racial bigotry which is undoubtedly still common-place.

A March 29, 2011 Toronto Globe and Mail article provides some details of the above-mentioned events. It also indicates that the human rights situation has improved since mid-March. The TNC has appointed human rights activist Mohamed el-Allagi as its new Minister of Justice and has welcomed the involvement of HRW and the Red Cross to improve its human rights record. Whether this is more PR than reality, and whether el-Allagi will actually have power over anything is yet to be seen.[xvii]

We should be critically open-minded about these events. It may be that some rebel forces have  engaged in reprehensible attacks. And we should have no illusions that a successful revolution will end such attacks, any more than the Egyptian revolution has ended religious or gender violence. What we can say with confidence is that if the Qaddafi regime prevails it will reinstitute all of the racist policies that have made immigrant workers second-class citizens, and created the conditions for racial and ethnic conflicts. If the revolution succeeds, there is at least the possibility of new political forces emerging which can envision a different kind of social order.

Imperialism and the rebels

By mid-March the Qaddafi regime had recaptured the offensive. Outnumbered and poorly equipped the rebel armies were abandoning territory in central Libya and government forces were closing in on Benghazi. A massive counter-revolutionary assault, implying possible defeat for the rebel forces and a potential humanitarian catastrophe was imminent.[xviii]

At this point rebels in Benghazi loudly demanded a “no fly zone” to protect them from Qaddafi’s air assault. On March 17, 2011 the United Nations Security Council established a robust no fly zone under Resolution 1973. Someday the documents of all the frantic discussions that must have occurred within all the capitals of the great powers will shed light on the complex set of motives that led the great powers to intervene. From outside the halls of power several motivations seem probable: fear of a large flood of north African refugees into southern Europe, a desire to influence rather than further alienate the Arab revolutions, fear that civil war would disrupt oil flows out of Libya. Gilbert Achcar suggests the United States and the Europeans also feared that a massacre in Benghazi would pressure them to impose sanctions on Qaddafi, cutting off their supply of Libyan oil. One commonplace assumption does not make sense, however. The imperial powers are not in this in order to seize Libyan oil. Western corporations have had lucrative oil contracts for years and there was no evidence of corporate pressure to oust Qaddafi before the revolution began.[xix]

This situation produced a gut-wrenching debate on the left. Leftists have correctly been suspicious of the motives of the great powers, and skeptical that they have any interest in promoting a democratic revolution in Libya. However, in the third week of March the only options left were a victory of Qaddafi’s counter-revolution or the prevention of that victory by western air strikes.[xx]

Trying to find a way out of the conundrum of supporting the revolution while opposing imperialist intervention some leftists proposed alternatives, none of which were plausible. Achcar explains that providing weapons to the rebels, while desirable, would not have avoided the problem. The time frame was very short. And anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry require training. In fact, to be effective, western arms would have to have come with trainers and advisors. And they would have been targeted to those rebels the great powers most preferred. In short, it would have been no less an imperialist intervention.

British socialist Kevin Ovenden proposed that instead of western military intervention, leftists should have demanded Egyptian intervention. In his response to Achcar Ovenden argues that the Egyptian military, pressured by radical mass sentiment in Cairo, could have played a revolutionary role in Libya. You only have to picture Egyptian flags,” Ovenden writes, “of the kind that fluttered in Tahrir Square, being waved in Benghazi rather than the Tricolor and Union Jack to appreciate what the difference would be.” It is a beautiful image. It was also a fantasy. The Egyptian military, preoccupied with checking the growth of the newly independent and militant labor movement, was unlikely to attempt to internationalize the very revolution it is determined to stop. Left forces in Egypt who raised those demands were more than justified. And they may have contributed to political education within Egypt. But it was never a practical solution to the crisis in Benghazi.

In this context, however, it is worth noting one alternative that may not have been able to relieve the pressure on Benghazi but would have been politically useful. Had Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez expressed direct support for the Libyan revolution they could have impacted the political balance of forces within the rebel camp and within the middle east. Cuba and Venezuela, instead of France, could have been the first countries to recognize the TNC. Instead of Qatar, they could have been the first to open trade deals. They probably could have offered arms and trainers, even if they couldn’t provide a no fly zone.

Instead they offered equivocal statements. They opposed western intervention, supported vague conceptions of Libyan self-determination, and never once supported the Libyan revolution. Castro recounted Qaddafi’s allegedly progressive history and how he had been repeatedly victimized by imperialism. Chavez doubted the reports of Qaddafi’s brutality.[xxi] In short the two most prominent figures who claim to be revolutionaries and socialists made it clear to the Libyan revolutionaries, and to revolutionaries throughout the Arab world, that they were not on their side. [xxii]

By refusing to support the Libyan revolution Castro and Chavez have done yet further damage to the image of socialism in the Arab world. This is especially destructive because Qaddafi’s repeated use of socialist rhetoric has already associated socialism with tyranny and corruption.  Their verbal intervention has made the work of socialists that much harder.

Libya and the Arab spring

So far the demands of the protesters in every Arab country are limited. They want an end to the dictatorship and political freedom. In Bahrain, the protests began demanding a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy. In Syria, most activists originally called only for legal reforms, but more and more have now demanded an end to Assad’s rule. Only in Egypt has a mass workers movement erupted. But there is not yet a significant section of that movement raising socialist demands.

What makes these revolutions exciting is that masses of people are in the streets. They are creating in practice the democratic reforms they demand. To the extent they can force open their societies, break the power of the dictators, they create new possibilities. In that context masses of people learn how powerful they really are.

The Libyan revolution began in much the same way. Unfortunately, it has taken on a military character, which makes mass protests difficult. But the massive plebeian character of even the rebel military is apparent from all reports. If Qaddafi is victorious it will put an end to the revolutionary potential of this moment in Libya. That will have a devastating effect on the masses of Libya and a demoralizing effect on protesters throughout the Arab world. If Qaddafi can be overthrown, however, then there is potential for a revival of mass movements.

[i] For a video of one of the Tripoli protests of February 28, 2011 see

[ii] Human Rights Watch has documented the number of oppositionists disappeared under Qaddafi. See

[iii] Robert F. Worth, “On Libya’s Revolutionary Road” New York Times Magazine, April 3, 2011

[iv] Alaa al-Ameri. “The myth of tribal Libya.” Guardian. March 30, 2011. Zionist leaders have similarly emphasized and attempted to exacerbate tribal, clannish, and confessional loyalties among Palestinians in order to blunt Palestinian nationalism. See Hillel Cohen, Good Arabs. (2010)

[v] On the question of regionalism see the debate between Juan Cole and Vijay Prashaud.

The New York Times runs an interactive map of the Libyan rebellion which shows how widespread it originally was in western Libya. For the demands of the Transitional National Council see the recent essay by Gilbert Achcar:

[vi] For a description of relations between the TNC and other authorities see Worth, op cit.

[vii] Jon Lee Anderson, “Who are the rebels?” New Yorker, April 4, 2011. For a more analytical description of the rebel forces see Nicolas Pelham’s “Libya in the Balance.” MERIP, March 15, 2011.

[viii] There is evidence that discipline may have improved over the past week:

[ix] Marwan Bishara, “Libyan Karzai? Chalabi? Forget It.”

The recent TNC ceasefire offer is also interesting in this regard. It requires that Qaddafi withdraw his military from the central cities and allow peaceful protests. It does not suggest a power sharing agreement. Qaddafi, not surprisingly, refused. See Phyllis Bennis’ opinion essay:

[x] “The Egyptian Elite and the Egyptian Revolt: Video Interview with Hossam el-Hamalawy.”

[xi] On anti-Coptic violence see Malik’s analysis of the complexities of women’s roles in the Arab revolutions is worth reading:

[xii]For the Weber article see: If anyone can find a link to the Heinsohn piece please post it in the comments section.



[xv] The International Business Times of March 1, 2011 had some fragmentary information. Al-jazeera also produced a video report on some of the victims of racial violence:

[xvi] Worth interviewed some of these mercenaries. Op cit.

[xvii] .

[xviii]On March 17, 2011 HRW warned of an imminent threat to civilians.


[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] For an example of one of Castro’s statements see

For a video of Chavez’s infamous “No me consta …” speech see On the same site is an earlier speech in which Chavez compared Qaddafi to Simon Bolivar. 

[xxii] While their statements do not explicitly endorse the counter-revolution, they have created the impression throughout the middle east that they do. Castro and Chavez have now had six weeks to correct that impression and failed to do so.