Nicolas Pelham: The Battle for Libya

Roundup: Media's Take

[Nicolas Pelham is a senior consultant, based in Jerusalem, for the International Crisis Group. He is the author of A New Muslim Order: The Shia and the Middle East Sectarian Crisis. (April 2011)]

...After the successive attempted coups in the 1970s, Colonel Qaddafi sent the army into Chad, and in the rout that followed, thousands—senior officers among them—were abandoned and, according to still seething soldiers, disowned. Another purge followed in 1993 after generals from the Warfala tribe botched a coup. After that the colonel pretty much ditched his army. Instead, he formed paramilitary brigades, the most powerful of which were led by his sons. “He cut off our supply of arms and spare parts for our tanks,” complains a Chad war veteran, “and gave them to Sirte [i.e., Qaddafi] and his sons.” The navy, which also defected in the current uprising, suffered similarly. “I would rather go to sea in a dinghy,” said an observer with close ties to the National Council’s military committee.

Following the army’s failed attempts to gain control, Islamist groups emerged as the prime challengers, only to be similarly beaten down. In the mid-1990s, a group of jihadists returning from Afghanistan formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the Green Mountains around Beida. Claiming to be the heirs of the Beida-based Sanussiya religious order that fought a twenty-year jihad against Italian colonial rule, they waged war on Libya’s modern infidel. Hundreds of Islamists were rounded up, including many who had nothing to do with violence, and subjected to gross abuse. Students who had memorized the Koran recount being stripped naked and dumped with dogs trained to rape them. When they complained to the prison governor, they were told, “You are here to die.” In response to a riot in Tripoli’s political prison, Busalim, in 1996, Qaddafi’s guards shot 1,270 prisoners dead—all but thirty of them Islamists.

Paradoxically, the killing designed to liquidate Qaddafi’s opposition may turn out to be a cause of his demise. Collective outrage at the 1996 slaughter at Busalim prison further fostered ties between the elitist revolutionary and mass reformist strains of Libya’s political Islam, as well as smaller liberal groups. “Every prisoner from Busalim was pushing his people to move,” says Mohammed Busidra, an Islamist leader sipping a macchiato in the red-patterned protest tent Busalim survivors erected beneath the courthouse after Qaddafi’s forces fled the city. He spent twenty years in prison, and only saw his wife, who was forced to divorce him, the day he was released. “Absence only made my love grow stronger,” he says.

The Busalim survivors and others had prepared for the protests for weeks. In mid-December 2010, they set a date for February 17, 2011, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of an earlier Benghazi protest the authorities suppressed; and they found further inspiration in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In fact, they were preempted two days earlier by the fourteen lawyers, protesting against the detention of a fellow lawyer, Fathi Turbil, who represented families of the Busalim victims seeking the return of their bodies. Seizing the moment, Mohammed Busidra and other preachers issued fatwas declaring nonparticipation in street protests a sin. Under pressure from their young people, local tribal sheikhs echoed the call, declaring that anyone who suppressed the protests would lose tribal protection. A few bold army commanders in the east publicized their defection....

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