Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, July 2011
Dispelling Myths About Libya
By Anne Marlowe
Redress, Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, July 4, 2011
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.
Interim National Council
What about the Libyan
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.)
“A tiny and frighteningly ill-equipped force”
Finally, the myths about the war: as I
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.)
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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