As the commitment of French, British, Danish, Canadian and US military assets to Libya draws near, the fundamental question of the rebels’ identity has not yet been seriously addressed. The international face of the revolt are former Qaddafi officials such as Abdul Jalil. It is, however, also clear that the conflict has been started and sustained by a mass uprising. (It is not a coup d’etat and most of the state apparatus has remained loyal.) Behind it all, who are the people on the ground, and what motivated them to revolt?
The facts are well documented, and at odds with wishful thinking. This is no Solidarnosc movement. The revolt was started in Benghazi on February 15-17th by the group called the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition. The protests had a clear fundamentalist religious motivation, and were convened to commemorate the 2006 Danish cartoons protests, which had been particularly violent in Benghazi.
The NCLO web site (Arabic) carries a document (Arabic; Google Cache; legible in automatic translation) dated February 15th (the day the protests began), which clearly spells out NCLO’s objections to Qaddafi’s rule. The main points of “Qaddafi: Islam’s no. 1 enemy” are as follows:
- Qaddafi has closed an Islamic university and a seminary, has forbidden some Islamist publications, and has thrown thousands of Islamist activists into jail.
- Qaddafi has urged to put the Qur’an on the shelf, as no longer appropriate for this age.
- Qaddafi has made fun of the Islamic veil, calling it a “rag” and a “tent”.
- Qaddafi has dared to say that Christians and Jews should be allowed to visit Mecca.
(The last claim involves a curious episode. At one point, Qaddafi declared himself a follower of the “Qur’an alone” movement, which rejects orthodox Muslim punishments, like stoning for adultery, death penalty for homosexuals etc. This got him into some serious trouble. An international committee of scholars went to discuss the issue with Qaddafi. After being told that “if he did not repent and take back his statement, he would fall under the law of renegades and infidels [...] which would force true Muslims to kill him”, Qaddafi “repented and took back his statement”.)
None of this is surprising. The leaked State Department memos describe Eastern Libya (2008) as an area of fervent Islamic sentiment, where “a number of Libyans who had fought and in some cases undergone ‘religious and ideological training’ in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the West Bank in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s had returned [...] in the mid to late 1980’s”. There they engaged into “a deliberate, coordinated campaign to propagate more conservative iterations of Islam, in part to prepare the ground for the eventual overthrow by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) of Muammar Qadhafi’s regime, which is ‘hated’ by conservative Islamists”. While Qaddafi’s position was perceived to be strong, the East Libyans sent jihadis to Iraq, where “fighting against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq represented a way for frustrated young radicals to strike a blow against both Qadhafi and against his perceived American backers”.
It is these same religiously and ideologically trained East Libyans who are now armed and arrayed against Qaddafi. Qaddafi’s claim that all his opponents are members of Al Qaeda is overblown, but also not very far off, in regards to their sympathies. Anyone claiming that the Eastern Libyans are standing for secular, liberal values needs to overcome a huge burden of proof. First, what is the social basis of such a movement, when neutral observers have been characterizing East Libya as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism? Second, if the revolt has started on religious grounds, when and how exactly has it radically changed its character?
These hard facts are not counter-acted by Abdul Jalil’s statements of liberal, democratic purpose. As head of the National Transitional Council, he is the West’s favorite partner in dialogue (and recognized by France as Libya’s legitimate head of state). His reliability and control are, however, questionable. As Qaddafi’s Minister of Justice until last month, Abdul Jalil’s democratic credentials are dubious; he has not participated in the initiation of the revolt, has latched onto it when it seemed likely to succeed, and his organization’s control over the rebel forces is unproven. Overall, the participation of former Qaddafi officials is no reason to assume that the character and aims of a revolt that started on fundamentalist religious principles have changed to liberal, democratic ones.
In conclusion, the Western leaders seem to be rushing to replace an already bad regime with one that is likely to be even worse. The French embarrassment with getting the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts wrong (and subsequent change of foreign ministers) and the British embarrassment with close ties to the Qaddafi regime (including the award of a PhD from the prestigious London School of Economics to Qaddafi’s son) have caused these two countries to jump in, trying to remedy their perceived previous failings. However, lack of cool reasoning and ignorance of the facts on the ground are only likely to make the remedy (should it succeed) worse than the disease.