Written with: Susan Webb
Eight months ago, Libyans, swept up in the fervor of the Arab Spring, rose up against the regime of Col. Moammar Gaddafi. With the announcement of Gaddafi’s death on Wednesday, it was clear that this uprising had entered a new phase.
Mystery still surrounds the events of Gaddafi’s death. A convoy he was riding in fleeing his hometown of Sirte was reportedly hit by a U.S. drone and a French warplane, but officials said that strike did not injure Gaddafi himself. Early reports indicated that he had been wounded and then captured by Libyan rebel forces, and it was later confirmed that he died of shotgun wounds. Shaky footage taken by cellphone camera seems to show Gaddafi soon after capture, his face bloodied, and surrounded by those who said they had been victims during his 42-year tenure. The UN is officially investigating the killing now since it seems clear from video evidence that he was captured alive (but injured) and then shot in the head while in custody.
The Libyan uprising began in February of 2011, in the city of Benghazi. Government troops began firing on protesters, killing 500-700 people in February alone. The protesting Libyans became rebels when they began to fight back with arms.
When Libyan troops threatened to enter Benghazi a United Nations Security Council resolution last March authorized action by member states to protect Libyan civilians.
But the U.S.-NATO actions soon far exceeded what the UN resolution called for, quickly morphing into an arm of some of the rebel fighters on the ground and turning into a regime-change operation. The African Union and others objected strongly to this new phase in the conflict.
Many in the region and elsewhere have found it unseemly to see Libya’s former colonial occupiers Britain, France and Italy sending war planes out of supposed concern over the plight of Libya’s people, and calling for Gaddafi’s ouster. It is not lost on many that British and French oil interests would welcome a freer hand in oil-rich Libya.
As for the United States, which took over the dominant capitalist power role in the region after World War II, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it is viewed with deep suspicion by many. President Obama’s and Secretary of State Clinton’s condemnation of Gaddafi and involvement even in a “support role” in military intervention, while continuing to support repressive regimes like that of Saudi Arabia, suggests double standards dictated by oil politics.
Gaddafi came to power in 1969 in a coup against Libya’s King Idris. Gaddafi borrowed ideological points from Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism. This was attractive to the people of Libya in the early years, but Gaddafi mixed in authoritarian policies.
Although a great drinking water line was installed for the people on the coastal cities, and as oil revenue rose the people enjoyed an increase in living standards, what also followed was political and social repression, including jailing and killing of political dissidents.
Political parties were banned in 1972 and independent nongovernmental organizations were suppressed. No trade unions are known to exist outside of the government-linked National or General Trade Union Federation.
Gaddafi agents were implicated terrorist actions in other countries including the 1988 bombing of a PanAm airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. In 2003, after years of U.S.-British sanctions Gaddafi began to work with the U.S. and other Western nations on “counter-terrorism” and opened up Libya to Western oil companies.
Progressives have varying takes on the situation. Vijay Prasad, an international relations professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., commented:
“Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution was an important break with the past, and for the next fifteen years, the experiments in Libya were important for the well-being of the Libyan people. By the 1980s, Gaddafi had come to terms with capitalism and imperialism, and had moved to privatize society and to become a full partner in the emergent war on terror.”
What will the new revolution make of this different aspects, asks Prasad. “The death of Gaddafi closes a chapter in Libyan history, but it does not settle many open questions for the Libyan people. What … will be the character of the next Libyan epoch?”
Ali Ahmida, a Libyan political scientist at the University of New England in Maine, and a supporter of what he says is a broad-based Libyan opposition, responded this way to news of Gaddafi’s death: “This is an end of era. It’s unfortunate that he was not arrested and tried in a fair way. But he continued fighting, really leaving no other option. The challenges now are substantial: How to build a new democratic order, fix the infrastructure of the country. It’s a militarized society that just basically had a civil war – what’s most needed is reconciling and resisting the temptation for revenge.”