The Libyan Conflict: Peaceful Demonstrations to Armed Struggle

In a previous article(The Libyan Uprising: A View from the Middle East), I argued that the unrest sweeping North Africa and the Middle East has posed unprecedented challenges to the Western Empire–to which it has begun to respond with some fairly dramatic shifts in its political strategy, notably in the “hypocrisy game” that has always been a cornerstone of the West’s international and domestic policy.

Why does the Empire’s political strategy in the Middle East matter to the Canadian Left–or to the Left at all? Because the Middle East lies at–no, is–the very heart of the Western Empire. Without the Middle East, Western capitalism dies: it really is that simple.

And it matters because the Empire has adapted with amazing alacrity to the new political realities in the region. We in the Left must also adjust–in historical terms, very rapidly–or lose our relevance to one of the most important series of political events in recent years.

The true nature of the Libyan conflict

Once we recognize how crucial it is to the West to support “stability” (read: “the current dictatorships”) in the Middle East, we need also to understand the precise nature of the conflicts raging in the region, beginning with the struggle in Libya. This means debunking many of the key assumptions that we find in the liberal press concerning this conflict, some of which are contained in Murray Dobbin’s March 19 blog (Libya: No End of Western Hypocrisy): most importantly, the assumption that the conflict in Libya should be characterized as a civil war rather than as a popular uprising and armed struggle; and the apparent assumption that the rebels precipitously and unjustifiably abandoned peaceful protest, Cairo-style (i.e.“good resistance”), in favour of an armed struggle (“bad resistance,” for many in the liberal camp).

To begin, we need to review a brief timeline as to how the Libyan conflict started, and what it now represents. Inspired by the fall of Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt, February 11, 2011, Libyans took to the streets peacefully, February 17, in the eastern Libyan city of Bengazi and other eastern towns, to demand the resignation of Muammar Gaddafi. They were attacked by Gaddafi snipers and by gunfire from helicopter gunships. Al Jazeera English TV (essential viewing for progressive coverage of events in the Middle East) estimated that 14 people were killed that day alone.

In the following days, protests grew rapidly in size, and spread to other cities, including Tripoli. Fearing that his own police would not comply with orders to fire on protesters, Gaddafi began hiring mercenaries from neighbouring Chad to attack the growing demonstrations. Where Mubarak had used tear gas and hired thugs to disperse the crowds in Cairo, Gaddafi use artillery, helicopter gunships and antiaircraft missiles to fire on the demonstrators in the eastern part of the country, and in Tripoli, Gaddafi supporters began shooting at demonstrators from cars and running them over. By February 19, Human Rights Watch had already estimated the number of dead protesters at over 100.

February 21 marked a critical day in the revolt. Two Libyan air force pilots were ordered by Gaddafi to fly Mirage F1 fighter jets over Bengazi and bomb the city from the air. Upon reaching Bengazi, however, both pilots felt unable to carry out orders, and instead flew their planes to Malta, made an emergency landing and defected. Hearing the news and realizing that Gaddafi would stop at nothing to quell the demonstrations, residents of Bengazi stormed local munitions depots and began arming themselves to resist not merely the expected police repression but also a probable military assault. Other towns and cities quickly followed suit, entire army units defected to the rebels, and by March 6 the pro-democracy forces controlled virtually every town and city in the country, with the exception of Tripoli.

One might therefore mark February 21 as the day peaceful demonstrations turned into an armed struggle. In less than a week it had become abundantly clear that Gaddafi would never allow peaceful protests, Egypt-style, to oust him from power, as the Libyan dictator began using his air force to bomb rebel towns into submission. Faced with not just police brutality but with a military assault, by land and from the air, the resistance was faced with a simple choice: fight or surrender. They chose to fight.

Why the Libyan struggle is not a civil war

Understanding the origins of the Libyan uprising is crucial in helping us understand the precise nature of the conflict. First, events on the ground show clearly that the opposition protests started peacefully, and that the current military option was forced on the demonstrators by the extraordinary brutality of the Gaddafi’s Special Forces.

Secondly, we can see from events that the ensuing uprising was at its core a civilian revolt (not, for example, a revolt within the army). It is certainly true that numerous army units chose to join the resistance, bringing with them many of the weapons that the rebels now use. But the entire resistance is decidedly a civilian, not military, operation. (Check out the on-going coverage on Al Jazeera English and Al Arabia.)

Finally, it should be patently clear that the current conflict was first a demonstration, which turned into an uprising of the underprivileged poor, and which then rapidly morphed into an armed struggle aiming to overthrow a Western-backed dictatorship. It is emphatically not a civil war. As a result it behooves the Left to place its support unequivocally on the side of the resistance and the armed struggle.

The need to support the Libyan struggle

Now, none of this is to assume that the Libyan resistance will necessarily transform Libya into the kind of revolutionary society that most of us might hope for. The Libyan rebels are a disparate group of fighters and other supporters, lacking the type of clear political leadership enjoyed by some other revolutionary movements. But we need to remember that the Cuban Revolution, for example, did not have a clear political direction either, in the early days of the Cuban struggle. And the Libyan resistance contains within it many progressive tendencies, which could well mature over time. In any event, in a conflict of this type, there are only two sides and the liberal media’s tag of “civil war” is designed to blur the distinction between the oppressor and those resisting the oppression. Let’s be clear that the Libyan conflict represents armed resistance to oppression. And we should support that resistance.

Western intervention in Libya, and the so-called no-fly zone, is another issue. I’ll address that issue in another upcoming article.