Friday's Sermon: Mar 19/21
On the ten year anniversary of the NATO-led intervention in Libya, we reflect on the collapse of a country into open air slave markets.
“We came, we saw, he died,” then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says with a casual laugh during a CBS interview filmed on October 20th, 2011. She is referring of course to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi. Though it was only rumoured at the time, reports soon confirmed that Gaddafi was in fact killed, brutally murdered on that same day by US backed Libyan rebels during the First Libyan Civil War. Clinton may have been laughing then, but somehow I doubt many Libyans are laughing now.
It is now ten years ago to the day - March 19, 2011 - that NATO began actively intervening in Libya. The year 2011 is perhaps mostly known for what is now called the Arab Spring, a collection of anti-government uprisings by people in various countries in the Middle East. In Libya, the rebellion began on February 15, 2011, with the anti-government protestors buoyed having witnessed the fall of sclerotic autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt just days prior. Protestors clashed with police, and what began as a disorganized protest movement soon evolved into a full scale civil war.
To understand the opposition to Gaddafi, I think it is important to delve into Libya’s modern history. For several hundred years, Libya was a province of the Ottoman Empire and was known as the vilayet (Ottoman term for province) of Tripolitania. With the Ottomans defeated in WW1, Libya was colonized and eventually fully annexed by Italy. Benito Mussolini, the interwar leader of Italy, had long viewed Libya as part of the resurrected Roman Empire, and so turned it into an Italian colony with fascist ally Italo Balbo as governor. Libyans, however, resisted colonization, and an organized resistance movement coalesced around a Sufic religious-political order known as the Senusiyya. Led at the time by Idris as-Senussi, the Senusiyya launched a guerrilla war against the Italians and during WW2 fought alongside the British and French Allies against the Italians and Germans. For his contribution to the Allied cause, Idris was rewarded by being crowned king of the newly independent Kingdom of Libya as Idris I.
All good and not good things come to an end eventually. On September 1st, 1969, King Idris I was overthrown by a secret cadre of officers in the military known as the Free Unionist Officers Movement. Led by a charming young Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi, the officers established the Libyan Arab Republic. Within a few years, however, Gaddafi consolidated power and launched a radical and expansive project to reform and modernize Libya. To reflect this change, Libya was renamed the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and adopted the plain green banner as its flag. Gaddafi used the ample wealth of Libya’s oil resources to establish a robust welfare state with universal healthcare, free education, housing assistance, and subsidized essential goods. Gaddafi also secularized the country, banning child marriages and polygamy and implementing strong women’s rights laws like equal pay for equal work, equal rights in divorce, and freedom to pursue higher education.
As Gaddafi pushed forward with his vision of a secular socialist Libyan republic, not everyone was pleased. Opposition rallied around Islamist factions like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. It is important to note here that Gaddafi never identified himself as a secularist. In fact, he embraced an idiosyncratic version of Islam that encouraged gender equality while also holding on to elements of tradition. In that sense, Gaddafi openly decried communism and Marxism as being godless and atheistic, and must be opposed on those grounds. Despite his promulgations of Islamic credentials, opposition to Gaddafi revolved around what his detractors saw as increasing secularization and a lack of Islamic values in Libyan society. To that end, Libyan Islamist groups launched several small insurgencies in the 90’s that were swiftly crushed but caught the attention of the ever-creative US intelligence apparatus.
Gaddafi has been persona non-grata to the US government since Ronald Reagan called him the “mad dog of the Middle East”. Attempts to soothe relations following 9/11 did not last long, and Gaddafi became a favourite target of both mockery and paranoia of the US imperial establishment and their mouthpieces in the press. In 2011, as protests bled into Libya, the US saw its chance at eliminating a geopolitical rival of its empire.
Within days of the initial protests, the Libyan uprising became a full blown Civil War. Opposition factions seized control of major eastern cities like Benghazi and Misrata at the end of February. By early March 2011, the Libyan Armed Forces rallied and launched a counterattack, taking back Misrata and reaching the outskirts of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. At this point, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton succeeded in pushing US President Barack Obama to implement a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace. With Gaddafi’s government on the offensive, Obama relented on the 18th of March 2011 and authorized military intervention. On March 19th, 2011, the US launches air strikes against LAF targets and begins implementing a no-fly zone. Like any good playground bully, the US does not act alone. Instead, it brings its friends in the form of NATO, and soon Canada, the UK, and France were all undertaking sorties against Libyan targets. At the same time, the coalition grew to include countries like Italy, Norway, Qatar, and Spain who all provided logistical support and maintained a naval blockade of Libya’s coast. Thus, with Gaddafi’s forces no longer able to rely on their aerial superiority, the tide of the war turned as the rebels now pushed them back towards Tripoli, and on August 20th the city fell to the rebel National Liberation Army and its political overseer, the National Transition Council.
Having fled Tripoli, Gaddafi was captured in the city of Sirte on October 20, 2011. Rebels tortured him, sodomizing him with weapons before executing him and his son and bodyguards. In other words, March 19th, 2011 marked the turn of the war and the beginning of the end for the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. In its place, the NTC took control and established a General National Congress to govern Libya. Unsurprisingly, this GNC collapsed in 2014 into a Second Civil War between the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives with their ally the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar.
And so Libya went from having the highest Human Development Index in Africa to a country ravaged by war and anarchy. Sub-Saharan Africans attempting to cross Libya to immigrate to Europe are often kidnapped by Libyan militias for ransom. Some refugees are sold in open-air slave markets for as little as $200. For American readers, the Joe Biden stimulus checks of $1400 could afford you seven slaves at a Libyan slave market.
When Hillary Clinton laughed off the interviewer’s question about Gaddafi with the aforementioned quote, she knew exactly what that meant for Libya. She just didn’t care. It was not benign ignorance or an honest error in judgement that drove Clinton to push for military intervention to topple the longtime leader of Libya. Rather, it was cold, calculating imperialist logic. For Clinton, as for the rest of the US Empire, a destabilized Libya with roving Islamist jihadi militias is a far better alternative to a Gaddafi-led Libya with its oil nationalized and the income used to support a welfare state. In any just world, Clinton would be in a dock at the Hague for Libya alone. Every child murdered, every human enslaved, the blood of all of Libya is on her hands.