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Hijacking Libya: A Tale of Two Ideologues

Libya’s revolution has, indeed, been hijacked –not by Taliban-styled Salafi radicals, or the tentacles of insidious Western imperialism, but by ideologues eager to project pre-packaged hypotheses (be it democratization towards the utopia of secular modernity or entrenchment in global neo-liberalism with conservative fascism proves the rule of the day). The July 7th elections appeared to break the wave of Islamists surging to power in the wake of the Arab Spring. With the announcement that the liberal Alliance Coalition took a strong lead, rather than the much-discussed and terribly feared “Eastern Al-Qaeda hordes,” it seems many commentators may eventually (or should) be forced to eat their words. Misguided assumptions and faulty predictions concerning Libya result from a conjunction two primary factors: Gaddafi’s purposeful isolation of Libya and subsequently, the black hole of information concerning the nation’s history and internal political dynamics.

The “tribal thesis,” for example, is often invoked to explain Libyan politics, and makes “great hunting ground for the opportunist expert. Learn the names of a few tribes and where Gaddafi is from and you’re good for a three-minute talking head slot on most of the major news channels” (West 2011: 289). West’s sardonic comment here proves applicable to Libyan history on a general level. Of the controversies surrounding the 2011 Libyan revolution, perhaps the most tragic is the hijacking of Libya – not by Qatar, in a shady alliance with Mossad; neo-liberals; the United States; but rather, by ideologues with little to no background on the country. Gaddafi’s intentional isolation of the nation for such an extended period of time has in many ways, in the aftermath of the revolution, created an intellectual black hole: any conspiracy theorist or regional theorist seems entitled to project onto the country a host of preconceived notions neatly tailored to his or her ideological outlook. It is not a question of Libya, but a question about Libya: a key and critical difference. Consequently, this is not a book review about books, but a discussion about the broader trend they represent.

An academic colleague recently asked me to compile a bibliography on the Libyan revolution. He sought, however, theoretical assessments of the conflict that have yet to be produced— owing, again, to the pre-revolution difficulty of obtaining in-depth knowledge of Libyan history and internal politics. Extant texts on the Libyan revolution run the spectrum from the accounts of parachute journalists, relying heavily on sensationalist, or the rare, well-researched and straightforward accounts of journalists with in-depth experience of the country on the ground. I discuss here two publications typical of the divergent and predominant “thought” on the Libyan revolution—selected specifically for the manners in which respective authors assume ideologically-opposed frames of reference, but nonetheless mirror one another in superficial assumptions. Vijay Prashad’s Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and Bernard Henri-Levy’s La Guerre Sans l’Aimer are useful texts- not for what they reveal about the Libyan conflict itself – but rather, as a symbol of the role which the Libyan Revolution has come to play in public political discourse. In neither case does the reader obtain an understanding of realities on the ground, local opinions, or the emotions of a people in struggle—never a question of Libya but about Libya.

Vijay Prashad has amassed a wealth of support among leftist intellectuals, due in no small part to copious publications on subaltern studies, the failures of capitalism and global imperialism. Although Prashad is a respected voice on South Asia, his publications on the Arab Spring – and Libya, more specifically—begin to appear in Counterpunch, a website that defines itself as “muckraking with a radical attitude.” Counterpunch’s other Libya “experts” have included Franklin Lamb, whose curriculum vitae cannot seem to be found – anywhere. A stroll through Prashad’s credentials is instructive, and perfectly in keeping with Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. The text opens with an assessment of the Arab Uprisings, in which Prashad lauds the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions against a background of dire predictions for the future of post-Gaddafi Libya. Leaving aside the fact that the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes lost figureheads, but managed to retain the structural underpinnings of their former autocracies, Prashad’s declarations seem a bit hasty, to say the least. Yet it is with his revelations on the plans of the “Atlantic Powers” and the “Arab NATO” that the true thesis of the text emerges.

The initial section of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter is heavily weighted towards a discussion of Egyptian history, and a cursory examination of other, regional uprisings in Yemen, Bahrain, and the winds of discontent in Syria. In Prashad’s view, the supposed authenticity of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions derives from the popular nature of mass uprisings, a claim which belies his fundamental ignorance of North African nations’ political dynamics. As the dust from Ben Ali and Mubarak departures settles, Tunisia and Egypt much more closely resemble military coups than “revolution,”  properly-speaking (one need only look to the current discontent simmering across Egypt). Libya, however, according to Prashad, started out with the best of intentions, yet was taken over by expatriate neo-liberal Libyans colluding with the shadowy forces of imperialism. I’ve written elsewhere about the high cost paid by expatriate Libyans, and won’t belabor the point here; nonetheless, Prashad’s dismissive comments on the nature of the opposition to Gaddafi constitute a recurrent theme throughout the text, and reveal a superficial knowledge of Gaddafi-era Libya—including the neo-imperialist machinations undertaken by the heir-apparent Saif al-Islam.

Prashad focuses on Libya after ninety pages of “Arab Spring” background. Although his thesis that the United States and the Gulf Powers colluded to crush the Bahrain uprising is certainly valid, his discussion of Libya is riddled with inaccuracies and distortions. The author paints Saudi Arabia as desperate to suppress Bahraini opposition, and joyful about the distractions provided by Libya and Syria (89). He then begins to describe the uprising in Libya, which, according to Prashad, broke out in March (90). Be it a faulty fact-checker or a real lack of knowledge, the inaccurate chronology seriously jeopardizes the thesis’ fundamental credibility. Libya rose up on February 15, two days in advance of the planned Day of Rage on February 17. Syria, however, was slower to erupt: not until did the arrest of a group of young boys for spraying anti-Assad graffiti prompt demonstrations to spread and regime crackdowns—in mid-March, a mere few days before the United Nations resolution on the Libyan intervention.
Moreover, Prashad appears to lack an understanding of the basic structures and dynamics of Gaddafi’s Libya–quite understandable, given the regime’s self-conscious isolation. The author portrays not only “tribal Libya,” but what he calls the ultimate weak-point of Gaddafi and company’s strategy: underestimating the “ultimate tribe of the regime, the army (112).” This provides another fundamental inaccuracy in Prashad’s account: Gaddafi’s Libya lacked a traditional military structure; hence, the difficulty with integrating various militias we continue to witness. Rather, the paranoid “Brother Leader” created a splintered military structure with various, unconnected brigades—in order to prevent an army coup.

In short, Prashad’s assessment of Libya is riddled with inaccuracies that betray not only a lack of in-depth knowledge concerning the country under Gaddafi (and before) but also betray ideological convictions all too easily projected onto the intellectual void, the blank space of an
unknown nation. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, we find Bernard Henri-Levy, the supposedly expired-type known as a “public intellectual.” Levy’s La Guerre sans l’aimer: Journal d’un écrivain au cœur du printemps libyen (2011) constitutes a steadfast argument in
favor of the international intervention –which, if we are to fully credit the author, he nearly entirely orchestrated. For all his self-congratulation, the French philosopher’s book is a journal recounting his “feelings” on the country—about which he admittedly knew nothing in advance. It is a text which makes no claims to predict Libya’s future, or to present an analytical assessment of the conflict. It provides, rather, the ramblings of a self-important writer, evidenced in the documentary format as well: Levy has even produced and starred in a documentary – not about Libya, of course, but about his role in the uprising. La Guerre sans l’aimer spans the course of the entire revolution, yet remains self-consciously recounted through the eyes of the author. Levy recounts and ruminates on his condescension towards the Libyan people, depicting members the Transitional National Council as meek and seemingly awestruck by the philosopher’s presence. The reader follows Levy as marches down the Benghazi
Corniche, directing rebels to remove anti-Israeli graffiti and gives lectures on women’s emancipation to gathered crowds. Insufferable and paternalist, decidedly—at least he’s honest.

From one side, it’s Levy’s insufferable harangues about the compatibility of religion and democracy and the fear of political Islam, and from the other, Prashad’s deconstruction of insidious “Atlantic Powers” and dark “Arab NATO,” with shadowy puppet masters yanking international strings. Because Libya was ignored by the outside for so long –much of this originating in Gaddafi’s own isolationist policies—it is a convenient and simple slate on which to project imperialist (and anti-imperialist) fantasies : by thinkers both left and right. A sad truth about Libya under Gaddafi: one had to care. Those who did not had plenty of company—not many on the international scene and in the academy did. Did Libyans live through a stunningly brutal historical legacy—from Italian fascist occupation, corruption under the Idrissid monarchy, the false-promises of Gaddafi’s 1969 coup and his slide into full-throttle despotism, and so much more—only to see a courageous uprising hijacked? The leftist discourse of Prashad is no less paternalistic than the condescending democratization rhetoric it supposedly seeks to combat. You see, Libyans, it doesn’t matter that the vast majority of citizens take pride in the February 17th Revolution, and the electoral process. Nor does it matter that your population, in an unprecedented move, begged for the imposition of a No-Fly Zone—particularly from the eastern region where Benghazi is located (and where the memory of Italian concentration camps and earlier “Western help” still looms large).

Ideologues with superficial historical knowledge and faulty sense of time forget that Libya has only been free from Italian fascist colonial occupation for barely sixty years; Gaddafi’s reign is not yet even three years behind us. Let us be clear: the aftermath of revolution is brutal; it
is ugly. It is complicated. But one thing Prashad and Levy demonstrate. For intellectuals of all stripes, “’We’ in the ‘West’ still claim to know best.” Sadly, when it comes to Libya—most of usknow nothing at all.

Amanda E. Rogers is a PhD candidate and Arabic lecturer at Emory University. She can be
found on Twitter under @MsEntropy.  This review was initially written in July 2012. It was rejected for publication elsewhere on the grounds that the authors’ review proved too inflammatory. In the interest of open dialogue and free exchange of ideas, she thanks Kifah for a forum to publish this opinion piece.

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