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Bad Times in Libya

20 November 2013

Bad Times in Libya

By Gwynne Dyer

A little over two years after the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was captured and killed by rebel militiamen outside the town of Sirte, the Libyan state is teetering on the brink of collapse. A dozen different militia organisations have more authority than the central government, and if ordinary civilians protest at their arbitrary rule they get shot.

That happened in Benghazi, in the east of the country, in June, when 31 peaceful demonstrators were shot dead and many others wounded while protesting outside the barracks of the “Libyan Shield Brigade”.

It happened again in Tripoli just last week, when a militia brigade from Misrata that has been roosting in the capital for the past two years used heavy machine-guns on unarmed civilians who were demanding that it go home, killing 43 and wounding hundreds.

In between, there have been some eighty assassinations of senior police and government officials. Last month the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped by gunmen of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room group. Almost all the east and the south of the country are controlled by militias who have seized the main oilfields and ports.

Oil exports, the country’s only significant source of revenue, have dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day last summer to only 200,000 bpd. Deprived of most of its income, the government will run out of money to pay its employees next month – including the militias that harass it, for it pays them off too. And once the militias are no longer getting their protection money, things may get even worse in Libya.

That’s the bad news in Libya, but it all follows logically from the nature of the five-month war that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011. It was not the militias that defeated him; it was NATO’s air power, which relentlessly bombed his troops and strong-points. But since the Western countries, haunted by their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, had no wish to put troops on the ground, it was the militias who collected the victory.

The militias now have 225,000 members in a country of only 5 million people. Only about one-tenth of the militiamen actually fought in the war, but in a country with 40 percent unemployment it’s the best job going, so they do not lack recruits. And from the beginning what passes for a national government in Libya, lacking any army or police of its own, hired the militias to enforce its authority. As a result, they have become the real authorities.

What government there was at the centre has now largely disintegrated. There was a reasonably free election in 2012, but most of those elected represented tribal, ethnic or regional interests, and they have now mostly withdrawn from the national Congress in disgust, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant influence in the government even though it lacks broad support in the country. So the disintegration continues.

The eastern half of the country, Cyrenaica, with 80 percent of the oil, is now in practice a separate entity, run by militias that demand “federalism” but really mean independence. Prime Minister Zeidan warned in August that “any vessel not under contract to the National Oil Company that approaches the (oil) terminals (in Cyrenaica) will be bombed,” and so far none has dared to – but that means nobody gets the income. It is a truly horrible mess.

Could this have been avoided? Probably not. After forty-two years of Gaddafi’s brutal rule there was no civil society in Libya that could support a democratic government and effectively demand respect for human rights and an end to corruption. Foreign occupation might have supplied some of the necessary skills to run a modern state, but would have been violently rejected by Libyans. Besides, there were no foreigners willing to take on the job.

You have to start from where you are. Libya is taking much longer than the optimists expected to get to where it needs to be: a democratic state that respects its citizens and enforces the law impartially. At the moment it’s not even heading in that direction: Prime Minister Zeidan worries that it might become “an Afghanistan or a Somalia”.

Probably not. The country’s oil wealth can only flow, whether to the warlords or to the citizens, if there is a reasonable degree of peace and order. That is a powerful incentive to cooperation, even if much of the negotiation seems to be done with guns. And there is a kind of civil society emerging in Libya now: those crowds of protesters that the militias massacred were actually evidence that it exists.

It will be years more before the Libyans manage to sort themselves out, but in the end they probably will. They will probably remain a single country, too, although a highly decentralised and federalised one. But it’s very bad now, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“That’s…victory”; and “What…continues”)

 

The African Union and the ICC

14 October 2013

The African Union and the ICC

By Gwynne Dyer

Surprise of the week: the club of African presidents (aka the African Union) has held a special meeting and declared that African presidents should be immune from prosecution for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes while they are in office. They are taking this step, they say, because the International Criminal Court is unfairly targeting Africans: all eight cases currently under investigation are about crimes committed in African countries.

“We would love nothing more than to have an international forum for justice and accountability, but what choice do we have when we get only bias and race-hunting at the ICC?” said President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya (who by a strange coincidence is currently under indictment by the ICC). “The ICC…stopped being the home of justice the day it became the toy of declining imperial powers.”

The AU is not demanding perpetual immunity for its presidents. It only wants to reject the evil meddling of Western imperialists, and to keep African heads of state free from prosecution while they are still in office. What could be more reasonable than that?

So Uganda’s Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Sekou Toure of Guinea and other African mass murderers who actually died in office would have been liable for prosecution as soon as they retired, if they ever had retired and if the ICC had existed at that time. Their victims would have had justice at the last, if only posthumously.

If the AU gets its way now, the victims of current African leaders who commit crimes against humanity will only have to wait until they retire to see justice done. True, some African leaders stay in power for a long time – e.g. Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (32 years), Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola (32 years), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (31 years), and Paul Biya of Cameroon (29 years) – but Africans are patient people.

Except that they may not be that patient any more. Twenty years ago the accusation that the ICC is just an instrument of imperialist oppression and Western racism would still have played well in Africa, but the audience has got a lot more sophisticated. The AU’s modest proposal has been greeted with an outcry all over the continent, from Africans who know that their leaders can be just as cynical and self-serving as leaders anywhere else.

The most eloquent protest came from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 82-year-old hero of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. “Those leaders seeking to skirt the (ICC) are effectively looking for a license to kill, maim and oppress their own people without consequence,” he said. “They simply vilify the institution as racist and unjust, as Hermann Goering and his fellow Nazi defendants vilified the Nuremberg tribunals following World War II.”

So is the ICC really a racist organisation that unfairly targets African states? The fact that all eight cases currently being prosecuted involve African countries certainly sounds suspicious. So does the fact that three of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which has the right to refer cases to the ICC, have not accepted the court’s jurisdiction themselves. But things are more complicated than they seem.

One hundred and twenty-two countries have already ratified the Treaty of Rome that created the ICC in 1998, including two-thirds of the countries in Africa and all the countries in Latin America except Cuba and Nicaragua. The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC is an African (Fatou Bensouda of Gambia), as are five of its eighteen judges.

The anomaly of Security Council members that have not ratified the treaty themselves (China, Russia and the United States) voting to initiate prosecutions before the ICC is definitely a problem. But only two of the eight current cases, in Libya and Sudan, were started by a vote of the Security Council, where Western influence is relatively large.

Four of the eight cases now before the Court (Uganda, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Central African Republic) were referred to the International Criminal Court by the African countries themselves. Two were begun by the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor (Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire). And only two of the seven new cases now under consideration (Afghanistan, Georgia, Guinea, Colombia, Honduras, Korea and Nigeria) are in African countries.

This is not a conspiracy against Africa, nor is the AU defending African rights. It is an exclusive club of African presidents that is attempting to get its own members, the leaders of Sudan and Kenya,off the hook, and to protect the rest of the membership from any future legal proceedings.

As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, it would be a “badge of shame” for Africa if they get away with it, but they may not. They can easily dismiss the opinions of the “international community” (whatever that is), but they may find it harder to ignore the indignation they are arousing among their own citizens.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“So…posthumously”; and “The anomaly…large”)

 

Richard III

6 February 2013

Richard III

By Gwynne Dyer

You can hear them shouting it in the horrible mobile-phone footage of the mob killing the wounded, befuddled Muammar Gaddafi: “Not the face, don’t touch the face.” They weren’t feeling sorry for the dying dictator of Libya. They just wanted to make sure that his corpse was recognisable. A lot of people would not feel safe, and some other people would not give up fighting for him, until they were sure he was really dead.

They probably yelled the same thing while they were killing King Richard III on a battlefield near Leicester in 1485. He had only been on the English throne for two years when Henry Tudor came back from exile and overthrew him in the Battle of Bosworth, but it was essential that many witnesses saw and recognised his corpse. Otherwise there would be endless rebels claiming to be Richard and trying to overthrow the new king.

In fact, we can be pretty certain that the men who killed Richard III were indeed ordered to spare his face, because they have now found Richard’s remains under a car-park in the centre of Leicester. His face is pretty much intact, even though the rest of his skull is a mess. You have to be sure that the old dictator is dead before you give your allegiance to the new dictator.

They initially suspected it was Richard III because they were digging up the car-park to examine the foundations of the medieval Church of the Greyfriars, which is where he was buried. They were further persuaded because the skeleton’s spine was twisted by scoliosis in a way that would have made him look hunch-backed, as every account says that the last of the Plantagenet kings did.

Then they did a computer reconstruction of what the skull would have looked like with flesh on it, and used 3D printing to built up a plastic model that closely resembles near-contemporary portraits of the king. And finally they matched up his mitochondrial DNA with that of Canadian Michael Ibsen, who is descended from Richard’s sister, Anne of York. Yup, it’s Richard III – and here’s how he died.

There is a fist-sized chunk gone from the base of the skull where a heavy, sharp-bladed weapon, most likely a halberd (basically, an axe at the end of a pike) had sliced right through the bone and into the brain. Just below it is a smaller hole, probably made by a sword, that penetrated the bone and entered the brain. Either wound would have killed him in less than a minute.

There are about a dozen other wounds, most probably inflicted after he died, but only two small ones on his face. A mob of foot-soldiers – the people who killed him were using infantry weapons – enthusiastically took part in the slaughter, but they left him recognisable.

It all fits with the accounts that he was unhorsed in a cavalry melee and then surrounded and killed by Tudor infantry. “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” William Shakespeare has him cry as they close in, and that has the ring of truth.

So Henry Tudor became Henry VII, to be succeeded by Henry VIII, the closest that English history has ever come to a Stalin figure, and then by “Bloody Mary”, and then Queen Elizabeth I (“Good Queen Bess”), while Richard III became Shakespeare’s most monstrous villain, plotting and murdering his way across three of the Bard’s best-known plays.

It was all pro-Tudor propaganda: Shakespeare, who wrote his plays during Elizabeth’s reign, was not fool enough to question the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty, or to praise its enemies. We don’t know whether Richard III was really as bad as Shakespeare painted him, but he was undoubtedly pretty bad, because they all were: medieval politics was ruthless and bloody.

The temptation is to say that nothing much has changed. Gaddafi was also a monster and a killer, and he died in about the same way (except for the horse). History just repeats itself in different clothing, and things are as bad as they ever were.

The temptation should be resisted. Violence still works the same way it always did, but there is far less of it around. Even allowing for the great wars of the last century, the proportion of the population that dies violently now is ten times lower than it was in medieval times.

Tyrants still get overthrown violently, but more of them are removed by non-violent means, and there are fewer of them around anyway. Nor are they just succeeded by other tyrants. After Gaddafi’s death, Libya held free elections, and it now has a normal civilian government. One that has a lot of work to do to restore order in the country after 42 years of Gaddafi’s tyranny and incompetence, to be sure, but it is making progress.

There’s that dirty word again: “progress”. We’re not supposed to believe in that any more. What about terrorism? What about the “structural violence” of capitalism? “Progress” smacks of cultural imperialism, and even worse, it’s naive.

Okay. You go and live in the 15th century. I’ll just stay here and hold your horse.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They…died”)

 

Insulting Muslims

16 September 2012

Insulting Muslims

By Gwynne Dyer

One of the first scenes in the ridiculous but thoroughly nasty film “Innocence of Muslims” shows angry Muslims running through the streets smashing things and killing people. So what happens when a clip from the film dubbed into Arabic goes up on the internet? Angry Muslims run through the streets smashing things and killing people.

It’s as simple as that: press the right button, and they’ll do what you want. Some Christian extremists set out to provoke Muslim extremists into violence that would discredit Islam in the eyes of the West – and it worked, of course. As the US consulate in Benghazi burned and the American dead were carried out, many people in the West thought to themselves: “The Libyans are biting the hand that freed them.”

Wrong conclusion. It wasn’t “the Libyans” who broke into the Benghazi consulate and murdered the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens; it was a heavily armed band of Islamic extremists. “The Libyans” recently voted in their first real election ever, and they elected a secular government. The film just gave the fanatics an opportunity to undermine that choice.

Maybe the Christian extremists don’t understand that their film serves the purposes of those who want to overthrow the moderate, democratically elected governments, both Islamic and secular, that have come to power in the “Arab spring”. Or maybe they do realise that, and hope that the violence that they are stirring up will bring Muslim extremists to power in those countries. After all, it’s easier to mobilise Western opinion against outright fanatics.

The grown-ups try to keep the situation under control. Grand Mufti Sheik Abdel-Aziz al-Sheik, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, said that Muslims should denounce the film, but without anger: “Muslims should not be dragged by wrath and anger to shift from legitimate to forbidden action, (as) by this they will, unknowingly, fulfill some aims of the film.”

Exactly so, but the leaders of the Arab world’s post-revolutionary governments have to walk a fine line, denouncing both the film and the violent protests against it. Moderate Islamic governments like that of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi have a particularly tricky task, since they are competing with the Muslim extremists who are organising the protests for the support of the same pious and socially conservative bloc of voters.

“We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet,” Morsi said last Thursday, “but at the same time we firmly say that this cannot be taken as a justification to assault consulates or embassies and cannot be taken also as a justification for killing innocent people.”

It was not a sufficiently robust condemnation of the violence for US President Barack Obama, who said on the same day: “I don’t think that we would consider (Egypt) an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.”

Obama has his own right flank to protect, and cannot afford to acknowledge in public that elected Arab leaders are in competition with Islamic fanatics for popular support, and so must choose their words with care. Most American voters are not sophisticated enough to understand the intricacies of Arab politics, or patient enough to care.

Similarly, most Arab voters do not want to hear about the American constitution, which guarantees free speech and means that the US government cannot just ban crude attacks on Islam by American citizens. The elected Arab leaders will certainly have had this fact explained to them in private by their political advisers, but in public they must demand that the US government suppress the film and punish its makers.

It’s not the United States that has attacked Islam, or even “Hollywood”; just a handful of Americans with a political and religious agenda. It’s not “Egypt” or “Libya” that has attacked American and other Western diplomatic missions in the Arab world, but small groups of Islamic extremists with a political agenda of their own, supported by a larger number of pious dupes.

Indeed, the film in question passed without notice when it had its single public screening in the Vine Theatre in Los Angeles in June; only a dozen or so people showed up, probably mostly friends of the producer. It attracted little more attention when a shortened version was posted on YouTube at the beginning of July.

It only took off when the religious Egyptian television channel al-Nas broadcast scenes from it on September 8, and then posted a clip online with an Arabic translation. That got hundreds of thousands of views in a matter of days, and the violent protests began almost at once. The Christian fanatics and the Muslim extremists are, in the old Marxist phrase, “objective allies.”

This is not a “turning point” in Western relations with the Arab countries or the broader Muslim world (as some excitable commentators have suggested). The whole thing will blow over after a little while, just like the violent protests against Danish newspaper cartoons about Muhammad did six years ago. It is a tempest in a teapot.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 12, and 13. (“Wrong…choice”; and “Indeed…allies”)