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Dispelling Libyan myths

Dispelling Libyan myths

By Anne Marlowe
2 July 2011

In the two weeks since I returned from Free Libya, I’ve been amazed at how many people I talk to repeat the same misapprehensions about the country, the revolution and what the US is doing there.

I hear that Libya is “tribal”, that what is going on is a “civil war”, that we “don’t know anything” about the people currently governing eastern Libya. The average person I have talked to thinks that the free Libyan forces are either a bunch of Al-Qaeda or Islamists at best, or savage tribesmen. And everyone believes we are involved in training and supplying the free Libyan forces, with a fair number of people somehow having got the notion that we have special forces working on the ground.

So, a quick clarification is in order.

An urban society

Libya is probably less “tribal” than Italy is regional. It is a much more urban society than most Americans suspect, which has been part of the problem of the free forces: Benghazi kids are less likely to have camping, hiking or hunting experience even than New York kids. I saw only one outdoor goods store in Benghazi, a city of 800,000, and (a bit incongruously) one scuba equipment store. It is also a geographically dispersed society. There have been large movements of Libyans from one part of the country to another in the last 40 years, both for employment and for education (the Free Libyan capital, Benghazi, has the country’s oldest, biggest and most prestigious university). I met dozens of people in eastern Libya who had close relatives in Tripoli or Misrata or both. I didn’t meet anyone with relatives in the Nafusa Mountains, which seems more self-contained, like our Appalachia. Tribes, I’ve been told, serve a social function and adjudicate land issues in rural areas. But they no more have militias than, say, an American country club does.

Gaddafi versus the people

The war in Libya is often termed a “civil war”, but it is not. Civil wars pit two parts of the population against each other. But there is no discernible part of the population that supports Colonel Gaddafi actively, even in Tripoli. Where are the Gaddafi supporters? Where are their militias? The war is one of Gaddafi and his army against the people of Libya.

True, about 30 per cent of the population was at one time enrolled in Al-Lijan al-Thawriyyah, or “Revolutionary Committees”. These were part neighbourhood watch organizations, part death squads. Some joined to advance their careers, some due to blood ties to important Gaddafi regime figures, some out of conviction or bloodthirstiness. (There are certainly criminals and twisted souls in Libya, as anywhere else.) There will be big issues in re-integrating the true believers in Tripoli – but if they are numerous, they are certainly keeping a low profile now.

A word about Gaddafi’s army. From what I understand, Gaddafi dismantled the Libyan army that he inherited in 1969 when he took power. He threw officers of field grade or higher in jail if they were suspected of being loyal to the deposed king, or tossed them out. He installed his own army buddies in high positions. And in recent years, Gaddafi’s ambassadors to Niger and Mali are said to have offered Libyan passports to men willing to enlist in the army. They are not quite mercenaries, but they are not Libyans with roots in the country, either.

Interim National Council

What about the Libyan Interim National Council? (INC) Its members are definitely inexperienced, often bureaucratic – there are a lot of lawyers on it – but neither mysterious nor Islamist. I have heard criticisms of the council, and some are credible. The most grave is that they are not taking the management of the war seriously enough, that when asked to supply the free forces with one thing or another, they say something like, “We will study it.” (More on this later.)

Another complaint against the council, which will need more attention once Gaddafi goes, is a lukewarm commitment to women’s participation in governance. Libya has no tradition of this – there were no women in its very short-lived 1950s parliament – though Gaddafi did succeed in getting women equal pay for equal work. There are only two or three women on the 40-member body, and only one on the new 16-member Executive Office.

But it is worth noting that it is not clear that the INC will in fact be the governing body of a free Libya, once Tripoli falls. There is a much larger group in eastern Libya called the “Committee to Protect the Revolution of 17 February”, and it might evolve into a governing group. Many people ask why the free parts of Libya don’t hold elections. The answer is invariably that doing so would constitute a de facto splitting of the country.

“A tiny and frighteningly ill-equipped force”

Finally, the myths about the war: as I reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, the free Libyans in the field are a tiny and frighteningly ill-equipped force. In the Western mountains and near Misrata, the current front lines, the whole male military age population is mobilized, and the women provide food and treat the wounded. But the uniformed forces are very small – their deputy commander, an American-educated computer entrepreneur named Mustafa Sagezli, told me there is just a company in Misrata, a company in the Western Mountains and 1,200 men in the stalemated area between Adjabiya and Brega. (There is also one company in Jalou, near the oil fields, and three companies each in Tobruk, Benghazi and Kufra, in the deep south.)

We are doing next to nothing to help the free Libyan forces on the ground: no trainers, no non-lethal aid besides useless Meals-Ready-to-Eat (civil society groups feed the fighters), no weapons (Qatar has given assault rifles to the Libyan volunteers).

Who are these fighters? A broad range of Libyan men, from the poorly educated and unemployed to university graduates from rich families, men from Benghazi and men from Kufra, deep in the desert. I’ve met very religious volunteers and very secular ones. They are as diverse a lot, perhaps, as our own army – though there’s another mythology about that, of course. But enough for one day.


Anne Marlowe is a New York-based writer and visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. She publishes frequently on Afghanistan’s politics, economy, culture and the US military intervention there.

A version of this article was originally published in World Affairs.

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