Lindsey Hilsum’s Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution is a journalist’s account of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, from its relatively sedate beginnings in the late-1960s to its bloody, chaotic end in the autumn of last year.
Hilsum, the highly-regarded international editor of the UK’s Channel4 News, weaves together the experiences of Benghazi dissidents, childhood exiles, regime loyalists and Islamist activists, blending history, reporting and memoir, to build a narrative of a country which has suffered more than its fair share of drama, tragedy and farce over the last 40 years.
The image Hilsum presents of Gaddafi himself – compulsive, vain and easily provoked – is familiar. His more absurd moments include lobbying the United Nations for the abolition of Switzerland (he took umbrage at the decision of the Swiss to prohibit the construction of minarets in their cities) and attempting to persuade the late Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin to put on a pair of specially selected green shoes before she interviewed him.
Generally, though, the Colonel’s behaviour was authoritarian and sadistic. Inmates at the notorious Abu Salim prison would be held without charge, tortured or sentenced to life then suddenly executed. Families of opposition activists were regularly harassed by the police. Plotters were hung live on television. For the best part of four decades, all this was routine, and Hilsum documents it in rigorous detail. But her writing is at its most compelling when she is describing the uprising – Libya’s contribution to the wave of democratic revolutions which began to sweep across North Africa and the Middle East at the start of 2011.
The foundations of the Gaddafi regime had begun to disintegrate long before the revolt actually began. Perhaps the most significant factor in its eventual collapse was the economic ‘modernisation’ programme spearheaded by Saif Gaddafi, Muammar’s son, during the early years of the 21st Century, which stripped the last vestiges of legitimacy from the Gaddafi family.
Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Gaddafi maintained his authority through a combination of political repression – enforced by an extensive state security apparatus – and lavish public spending projects fuelled by revenues from Libya’s huge reserves of oil and gas. This period saw the development of an universal healthcare system, improvement in the rights and freedoms of women, a rise in the literacy rate to 88% and an increase in the average per capita income to $12,000.
Despite an uncompetitive economy and international isolation due to the regime’s sponsorship of various revolutionary movements throughout Europe and the Global South, Gaddafi’s pseudo-socialist experiment, which included the ‘collective ownership’ of all major industries and resources, was more than just a qualified success: it transformed Libya into one of the most socially advanced countries on the African continent.
Nevertheless, towards the end of the 1990s, as the sanctions imposed on Libya in response to its perceived involvement in the Lockerbie bombing began to bite, Gaddafi grew tired of his status as an international pariah. He wanted back into the geopolitical mainstream.
With the encouragement of Saif, the regime announced a package of political and economic reforms to be rolled out gradually over a number of years, aimed at making both the government and the economy more transparent, open and ‘Western’. Central to these reforms would be the liberalisation of the Libyan energy market. Hilsum describes the excitement this provoked in corporate board rooms the world over:
“As soon as UN sanctions were suspended in 1999, European, Russian, Turkish, and Chinese companies rushed into Libya. There were opportunities in banking, accounting, construction, hotels and shipping, but the biggest draw was energy. In 2005 oil and gas companies, including US majors Exxon Mobil and Chevron, Occidental and the Italian company ENI, bid for exploration rights.”
In some respects, the reforms were successful. By 2007, the Libyan economy was growing at a rate of 9% per annum, the country had a budget surplus of nearly 40%, and oil and gas exploration deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars were being struck left, right and centre. Yet living standards for the majority of Libyans were not improving and the national infrastructure, which hadn’t received significant investment since the 1970s, was crumbling. What‘s more, although the regime claimed it had made meaningful political concessions, Gaddafi maintained an iron grip on power.
Libyans were thus at a double disadvantage. The potential for social development offered by state control of the economy evaporated as foreign capital increased its influence over Libyan industry. And at the same time, the rigid structures of repression which had smothered Libyan democracy for 40 years held firm.
The Libyan example discredits one of neoliberalism’s central conceits: that liberalised markets are fundamentally linked to democracy. As in Egypt, rapid growth created the illusion of widespread prosperity but only the elites really benefited. Ordinary Libyans watched as the profits from natural resources flowed into the pockets of the Gaddafi family, its supporters and, increasingly, out of the country altogether. The political reforms promised by Saif barely materialised, and where restrictions on opposition activity were relaxed, they were done so slowly and grudgingly.
The last of Saif’s democratic credentials were shredded on February 20, 2011, when, in a rambling, finger-wagging address, he instructed protesters in Benghazi to go home or be crushed. They chose the former, and his fate – along with that of his father’s – was sealed.
Given the relative structural weakness of the Libyan state by the time of the revolt, it would have been reasonable to assume that, faced with a determined and ferocious opposition, it would rapidly collapse. But there was another crucial element to the longevity of Gaddafi’s rule: the system of bribes and financial inducements he used to secure the backing of certain tribes.
In particular, many members of the Warfalla – Libya’s largest tribe – were beneficiaries of Gaddafi’s patronage, the most loyal among them were rewarded with heavily remunerated government and military posts. When the Benghazi uprising began therefore, the Warfalla leadership had incentives to stick with the status quo. This provided Gaddafi with an additional layer of defence, significantly extending the lifespan of his regime.
Yet, the decision of the UK, France and the United States to commit force to the Libyan conflict in April more or less guaranteed the success of the rebels. The official justification for their intervention given by the NATO powers was humanitarian: Gaddafi’s threat to cleanse Libya of its rebel elements “inch by inch, house by house, alleyway by alleyway” raised the spectre of a Srebrenica-style massacre, a prospect British, French and American governments said was intolerable. In reality, Western commercial interests were also a crucial motivating factor.
Hilsum recounts the scale of American and European private investment in Libya. To name just a few: BP had a $900 million exploration contract (the largest in its portfolio) with Libya, signed in 2007 during the second of Tony Blair’s two reconciliation visits to the country; the Libyan Investment Authority – the nation’s $65 billion sovereign wealth fund – employed HSBC and Goldman Sachs; Libya spent hundreds of millions of dollars on French Mirage fighter jets and anti-tank missiles; and in 2009, $165 million worth of ‘communications and other equipment’ was purchased from General Dynamics UK in 2009.
Under normal conditions, London, Washington and Paris might have been content to allow Gaddafi to put the rebellion down to safeguard investments. But the recent popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, coupled with Gaddafi’s tendency to turn against his allies at the drop of a coin, made the circumstances exceptional. Washington in particular had already come under heavy criticism for dithering over whether to support the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo aimed at the overthrow Hosni Mubarak, one of the US’ longest-standing allies in the Middle East. Failure to back a democratic revolution in Libya would have brought President Obama’s efforts to rebuild America’s global image following the foreign policy and PR disasters of the Bush years to a premature end.
When it was finally agreed, the official remit of the NATO-imposed no-fly-zone over Libyan skies was to protect civilians, not to topple Gaddafi. But it soon became clear that NATO’s true goal was to tip the balances of forces in favour of the rebels, now operating under the direction of a formal provisional authority, the National Transitional Council (NTC). NATO jets destroyed Gaddafi’s limited aircraft and tank capabilities and decimated his communications networks. By August, the NTC had taken Tripoli. By October, Gaddafi was dead.
With Gaddafi gone, the French and British governments immediately started lobbying on behalf of Western companies for even greater access to Libyan resources, ostensibly as a form of reparation for the costs incurred by the West’s military engagement. In October, UK defence secretary Philip Hammond said that because Libya was a “relatively wealthy country with oil reserves” he expected “opportunities for British and other companies to get involved in the reconstruction of Libya…British companies should be packing their suitcases and looking to get out to Libya”. Similar sentiments were expressed by then French defence secretary Alain Juppe. The NTC, which ultimately owed its victory to NATO, seemed willing to accommodate.
Hilsum refrains from offering a conclusive judgment on the rights and wrongs of the intervention. It’s likely that without NATO support either the rebellion would have failed or the civil war would have dragged on for many months at the cost of thousands more lives and, at the end of which, Gaddafi may well have still been in power. But the rebels themselves were guilty of numerous acts of extreme brutality. Hilsum relates the stories of those she calls “the losers of the Revolution”:
“Six thousand Tawergha – men, women and children – who had been driven off their town by the Misrata brigades, were camped (outside Benghazi) in warehouses and workers’ quarters … In Misrata (one man’s nephew) had gone to buy food for the family … on his return the fighters had made him run laps. Then they shot him dead.”
Hilsum is equally equivocal about the actual outcome of the revolution. For most Libyans, Gaddafi’s death was liberating. Despite the not insignificant social advances they enjoyed under his rule, Gaddafi was, at base, a violent and perverse leader. But what replaced him contained a chaos of its own:
“Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, Libya had never even had an approximation of democracy … It had no electoral law, no electoral system, no safeguards against rigging and no experience in how to establish the mechanisms needed … By December, 20,000 Benghazi residents had established tent protest camps to draw attention to the lack of transparency on the part of the NTC and the new government. What decisions had been made? By whom? What was the process? Who was consulted?”
Further, it proved difficult for the NTC to disarm or pacify the militia groups it had fought alongside against Gaddafi. Cities and towns became militia fiefdoms, with scores of heavily armed young men staging pitched battles with one another in the streets. The failure of the NTC to establish a strong central government also allowed federalists in the east to start campaigning for autonomy from Tripoli in the hope of reviving the system of regional devolution which existed for a while after Libya first won its independence from Britain and France following the Second World War. The NTC’s belligerent response – threatening to defend Libyan national unity militarily if necessary – suggests the beginnings of a conflict which may rumble on well into Libya’s future.
Sandstorm is a vital account of one of the defining events of the early 21st Century. Drawing on some of the key moments in Libya’s complex political history, it provides an engaging – and often dispiriting – analysis of a revolution which turned sour. Hilsum raises more questions than she answers. But when it comes to Libya, it is more or less impossible to do anything else.
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