Palgrave Macmillan has published what is probably the best analytical account of the 2011 Libyan Uprising currently available. The text is edited by Jason Pack – a researcher in Libyan history at Cambridge University and regular contributor to African Arguments. Pack provides us with a lengthy introduction and co-writes 2 other chapters. The book also includes contributions from several notable scholars and analysts of contemporary Libya including George Joffe (also an AA contributor), Ronald Bruce St John (author Libya: from Colony to revolution) and Noman Benotman (a former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and now head of the Quilliam Foundation).
Pack’s fundamental argument revolves around the role of ‘the Centre’ and ‘the Periphery’ within the Arab Uprisings. His contention is that whilst in Tunisia and Egypt a strong, centralised state meant that popular uprisings led to a swift decapitation of the regimes (‘popular coups’) something different happened in Libya. This can be attributed to the country’s peculiar national history under former leader Muammar Qadhafi, whose ‘theory’ of government – the Jamahirriya – prevented the development of strong state structures or institutions.
The Libyan revolution was thus formed by a series of local uprisings which began with the lawyers and civil society activists of Benghazi, but was taken to its conclusion by a multiplicity of local militia who eventually ousted Qadhafi. Pack argues that in Libya, unique among countries that experienced the ‘Arab Spring’, the periphery did actually conquer the centre.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) – later replaced by the General National Congress (GNC) – developed during the uprising as an umbrella organisation representing the various groups fighting the Qadhafi regime. However, its power was soon overtaken by that of the militias fighting the Libyan armed forces and assisted in this by the No Fly Zone (NFZ) implemented by Western powers (including the UK and France).
In post-Qadhafi Libya the antagonistic relationship between centre and periphery remains with, as Pack argues, “attempts to centralize authority consistently rejected by certain sectors of the population.” Pack goes on to state that in post-Qadhafi Lbya “local notables, tribal groups and militias all vied to keep the NTC from extending its authority into their fiefdoms.”
Whilst Libya is generally viewed under the aegis of Middle Eastern politics it has many characteristics and associations that tie it more closely with sub-Saharan Africa than its fellow Arab Spring countries of Tunisia and Egypt. Qadhafi’s desire to look south and consequent bankrolling of the African Union (and various governments and liberation movements – many of them less than salubrious) means that The 2011 Libyan Uprisings has much in it to interest the follower of sub-Saharan African politics. This includes sections on ‘the south’ and on ‘tribal politics’ (both often ignored in accounts that focus on events in key coastal centres of Tripoli, Benghazi and related hinterland). The Libyan Tuareg, whose cousins in Mali gained a degree of infamy in the last year following the uprising in Northern Libya – which enabled Islamists groups to gain a foothold until their repulsion by French forces – are also examined, particularly their role in the Libyan armed forces.
Libyan Islamists are covered in detail and in this regard the input of Noman Benotman is of particular value. Benotman (a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group [LIFG]) played a central role in attempts to depose Qadhafi in the 1990s and establish an Islamic state. In conversation with this writer, Benotman stated that Libya plays an important role in jihadist networks in North Africa and the Sahel. Mokhtar Belmokhtar – former AQIM commander and perpetrator of the terrorist attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January 2013 – spent time in Libya in 2011 and established an effective network, even in the North of the country, channelling funds through Libyans sympathetic to the cause.
Benotman estimates that pre-revolution there were around 50 Libyans fighting as part of AQIM, and asserts that many ended up in northern Mali. When the French-led operation Serval displaced Islamists from Northern Mali many ended up in Niger and Libya – easily crossing over the region’s porous borders. There are also rumours that the remaining French hostages in AQIM hands are currently in southern Libya. However, Libya’s Islamists are arguably weaker and more disunited than those in Egypt and Tunisia – the greatest threat from Libya being the capacity of ‘freelance jihadists’ to use the country’s ungoverned spaces to recruit and project their power through North Africa and the Sahel.
Finally, Pack’s volume deals relatively harshly with the role of African Union (AU) in diplomatic efforts to find a negotiated solution to the uprising (for another view see Alex de Waal’s ‘African Roles in the Conflict of 2011’). South African president Jacob Zuma was personally involved in unsuccessful attempts to get Qadhafi to compromise with the NTC and militias and a diplomatic offensive was launched by the US, UK and France to persuade AU leaders of the seriousness of the human rights violations perpetrated by the Qadhafi regime. The book suggests that African leaders may have still felt instinctively uncomfortable about military intervention from former colonial powers and assumed (correctly) that the new leadership of Libya would cease to bankroll some AU operations. There may even have been residual loyalty to Qadhafi, particularly in South Africa, where Libya was a long-time supporter of the ANC during the apartheid era.
Magnus Taylor is editor of African Arguments.