The nation still remembers the old days of real sovereignty it had before 2011
By Mustafa Fetouri, Libyan academic and award winning journalist and analyst
FILE PHOTO: Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, April 10, 2011 © JOSEPH EID / AFP
Twelve years ago, the so-called Arab Spring visited Libya, ending Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and plunging the country into chaos, leaving it divided along tribal and regional lines. Gaddafi himself was murdered at the hands of Western-supported militias.
NATO’s disguised military invasion of Libya
What started in February 2011 as a small and limited civilian demonstration against the Gaddafi government in Eastern Libya turned out to be Western-supported regime change endeavour involving military intervention by NATO disguised as “protection of civilians.”
The UN Security Council was forced by the US, UK and France to adopt Resolution 1973, which opened the door for the use of force against Libya simply because Western powers wanted to depose Gaddafi in a blatant violation of the resolution itself. The rest is history.
Confused Libyans were told that democracy, prosperity, and freedom were just around the corner. However, once they turned that corner they discovered that Gaddafi may have disappeared but, in a way, he took Libya with him.
Years later, the country is at a stand-still with little progress towards freedom and stability. Many of its sovereign decisions are made by others, while armed militias dominate the country, acting as proxies for foreign powers.
Why Libyans feel their country is under occupation
Most Libyans feel that their country has lost its independence and fallen under a new form of occupation. Politicians can hardly decide on anything without foreign input. The same countries that destabilized Libya over a decade ago are impeding its progress now.
National sovereignty and independent domestic and foreign policies were the two important pillars of Gaddafi’s rule. During his four decades as leader of the oil-rich North African state, he managed to make them part of the Libyan national identity. As a result, Libyans became wary of all kinds of foreign interference in their country’s affairs, suspecting almost everything that comes from the West, in particular, Italy, the US, Britain and France. These four countries have played a sinister role in Libya’s history, much of which is not forgotten. All of them stand accused of violating Libya’s sovereignty.
Prior to the 2011 Western-forced regime change and the ensuing civil war, Libya used to celebrate four annual holidays, each marking a turning point in the country’s proud history and reminding the younger generations of the importance of being an independent sovereign nation. Foreign dignitaries, sometimes even heads of states, attended these symbolic national events to further emphasize their importance.
Proud old Libya
For example, March 28 marks the expulsion of British forces who used to occupy a strategic airbase in Tobruk in Eastern Libya. In 1970, just six months after taking power, Gaddafi ordered all foreign troops to leave the country, or face a public uproar. On June 11 of the same year, American troops evacuated their huge military base just outside Tripoli. Wheelus Air Base, given its size and the services on offer was nicknamed ‘Little America.’ It had the largest military hospital outside the US, a multiplex cinema, a bowling alley and high school. At its peak, it sprawled over some 50 square km on the Mediterranean coast, from which Libyans were banned! Wheelus was home to about 15,000 military personnel and their families. Pilots had access to five shooting ranges in nearby Al-Wytia in the Libyan desert. Today, Wheelus has been turned into Mitiaga Airport.
Up until 2011, Libya also used to celebrate October 7 as the anniversary of the expulsion of some 20,000 Italian settlers in 1970. They were the civilian face of Italy’s occupation of Libya starting in September 1911. At one point, they owned or controlled almost the entire trade of major commodities, repair shops, and small mills. In Eastern Libya, they owned the most fertile land on which Libyans were merely cheap laborers. Many of them were paid in food and shelter instead of money, while the settlers owned handicraft workshops that employed local craftsmen but paid them a pittance.
What happened with the foreign military bases was repeated with both the banking and oil sectors. Before Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution, the banking sector was dominated by the Italians and British. As of December 1970 all foreign banks were nationalized as per law Number 153 adopted that year. The same model was applied to the oil industry. First, all oil companies operating in the country were given Arabic names and in 1973 the new Oil Law was passed nationalizing most oil exploration, production, and exports.
The former regime made it its duty to remind Libyans of their proud history of fighting the colonial powers that have invaded their country, particularly the Italian colonization, which killed nearly half a million Libyans between 1911 and 1943, including the leader of the resistance, Omar Mukhtar, who was captured and hanged in 1931.
After years of pressure and negotiations, Libya managed to do what no other country has done: compel Italy to apologize for its colonial brutality and pay reparations. In 2008, Tripoli and Rome signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership settling their colonial period grievances while setting anti-colonial example. Under the treaty, Rome committed to pay Tripoli half a billion dollars over a period of 25 years in the form of development projects including roads, hospital, railway network, educational scholarships for Libyan students and return of stolen artefacts.
The no longer proud new Libya
The new Libya is not keen to remember, let alone celebrate, either “its distant or recent history,” says a Tripoli-based historian who wishes to remain anonymous. He added that “history is an integral part of national personality” that is built over time through “educating the young and informing the old” about their country’s past. His colleague Milad, also fearful of revealing his surname for fear of reprisals, agrees, adding that “one of the big legacies of the Gaddafi era was making Libyans proud of themselves through honoring past national events.”
Since October 2011, not a single national commemoration or celebration has been observed in the country. Even worse, Libya’s politics, including election issues and economic affairs, are being managed by foreign countries or through their local proxies.
Libya today is home to more than some 20,000 foreign troops, mercenaries and armed groups supporting different local factions fighting for power and influence. To many Libyans, this is “unimaginable,” said Ali Mahmoud from Tripoli University. Mahmoud wondered “how could Libya become host to foreign troops decades after kicking them out?”
The majority of Libyans are unhappy with the presence of foreign forces at Libyan bases in Misrata, Benghazi, Al-Watya, southwest of Tripoli, and other locations. They see it as a form of occupation.
Feeling of hidden occupation
In the eyes of ordinary Libyans their country is indeed under indirect occupation both “militarily and politically,” said Samia Al-Hussain (not her real name), a Benghazi-based lawyer. The planned 2021 elections were indefinitely postponed because the US and UK ambassadors did not want presidential elections with Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar’s son, as the frontrunner.
The younger Gaddafi still enjoys wide support across the country and, in 2021, was cleared by the courts to run for president after initially being banned. If elections had taken place, as planned in December 2021, he would have been the inevitable winner. To prevent such an eventuality, both the former UK ambassador, Caroline Hurndall, and her American counterpart, Richard Norland, publicly spoke against his nomination.
Faced with public anger, the parliament, as opposed to the Foreign Ministry, was forced to declare Hurndall persona non grata specifically because of her comments on the elections. Yet, in another indication of the hidden occupation, she never left the country until her term ended last October. Norland was not even reprimand by the Libyan Foreign Ministry as would have been the case in other countries. Why? Because he is America’s ambassador.
Despite being in the anti-Gaddafi camp, Al-Hussain pointed at the recently exposed secret meeting between the now-fugitive former Foreign Minister, Najal al-Mangoush, and her Israeli counterpart in Rome last August. She asks: “What Libyan interests would such normalization serve, and why would any Libyan official think of meeting a representative of the Zionist state, if not ordered from outside?” She added that Libya “takes enormous pride” in having supported Palestinians throughout its history. Hundreds of Libyans volunteered to fight in the first Palestine war in 1948. Al-Hussain also feels that Libya’s reaction to the Gaza war is “less than what is expected” from a country where Palestine is a sacred cause. Most Libyans think that their country should do more despite the government donating some $50 million dollars in aid to Gaza.
Musbah Adokali, a law student in Bani Walid, a Gaddafi stronghold, thinks Libyan leaders are receiving orders from outside and acting against the will of the people. He points out what happened to Libyan citizen Abu Agila Mas’ud, who was kidnapped and taken to the US to face charges of participating in the bombing of Pan AM Flight 103 35 years ago. The student said “this was done upon the orders of the US,” otherwise it would not have happened. “If this is not occupation, I do not know what is,” Musbah concluded.