Monday, 24 October 2011

Libyan Rebels On a Killing Spree

When Muammar Gaddafi was dragged out from his hiding place, it was perhaps expected that the rebel group who had captured him would flaunt his capture as a trophy moment. Parading him for their camera's, his pleas for mercy were far removed from the rambling and disconnected speeches he gave on television and radio, where he referred to the rebels as "rats" and "vermin", who were acting under the influence of drugs - that they were either taking by choice, or that they had been duped into taking while drinking laced coffee etc. At the same time he had accused them of being Al Qaeda infiltrators, Islamic militants bent on destroying Libyan unity, and promised to hunt down the rebels from "house to house" using the phrase "zenga-zenga" which was later made into a song. As he quoted from his green book, he reasserted that he was not the leader of Libya, and that the leadership was in the hands of the people - he had given power to the people long ago, in 1972. It was a grand example of the doublespeak that propagandists of all kinds utilise to retain power, "the power is with you, I am just your vessel". In this brand of monarchy, the 'divine right' to rule is granted by the people - but the people don't vote on it, so the irony is difficult to avoid. It creates the preconditions for two realities to co-exist at the same time; a spoken reality, and an unspoken reality.

Despite the noble, self-aggrandizing shows of 'people power', in reality, Libya was still under his vice, however, and his hold on power was undoubtable. His sons Khamis and Moutassim controlled two feared army brigades of their own, which were far better equipped and trained than the regular army. Moreover, his son Saif El Islam Gaddafi, who bears a PhD from the London School of Economics (that was retracted when the Libyan uprising began, and followed by high profile resignations at the school when it as revealed that they had accepted large sums of Libyan funding to set up an african student exchange programme) was the designated heir to the Gaddafi throne. Saif El Islam Gaddafi was widely touted as a reformist, an art lover and patron, and cut the profile of a Saudi prince of sorts, well-heeled, moneyed and benevolent. Yet when the appeals for elections and democracy arose, and the rebels began to fight the Libyan army in the streets, Saif stood by his father, repeated the claims that the rebels were drug addled Islamic militants who disguised their true ambitions under the appeal for democracy. It was the turning point at which Saif could have changed the course of history and assumed a leadership role in the peaceful transition of Libya to a democracy. Yet it must be emphasized, that he refused to play any such role. That much is visible to anybody who cares to watch the interviews he granted to journalists in Tripoli. It was strange, if not disturbing, to see the unelected, unappointed son of the Brother Leader fielding questions from the press instead of the formal government. Very quickly the formal government of Gaddafi's Libya began to unravel, with high profile defections almost daily, followed by defections from the general army and special forces. The defections included people who had worked alongside Gaddafi for decades, and people who had been with him during the bloodless coup that brought him to power. The defected appeared on television in press interviews, revealing their detailed explanations for defection, and repeated their calls for their former leader to stand down and to allow the transition to democracy to unfold.

Many have written rather romantically about Gaddafi's role on the African continent - that he financed large developmental projects and efforts to improve the plight of Africa as a whole, championing the formation of a "United States of Africa". He supported the ANC in their struggle against Apartheid and almost singlehandedly funded the raising of the first African telecommunications satellite. Further away he supported the IRA in Ireland, Charles Taylor in Liberia and FARC in Columbia. To many on the left, he was a quirky but unshakeable symbol of rebellion against the west, the loyal brother leader who was unafraid to openly take on the forces of global hegemony. Citing the high standards of living and state funded support and opportunities available to Libyans, Gaddafi is presented as a latter day Che Guevara, who stood with the downtrodden people of the Global South against the exploitative powers in the west and created a country that provides of exceptional social services to its people. Yet with this adulation, the more unsavoury factors of his rule go unacknowledged - including mass executions of political prisoners, the exploitation of Libya's oil resources for personal gain, and the creation of a state security apparatus and government media machine that only Stalin could be proud of.

Instead, the left wax lyrical about the 'criminalisation' of the Libyan government that has been conducted by the mainstream global press. This, despite the fact that Gaddafi found no support amongst his Arab neighbours, and that the Libyan press was a state organ. Moreover, despite South Africa's attempts to employ the same 'quiet diplomacy' tactic that clearly failed in Zimbabwe - and voicing support for Gaddafi - they nonetheless voted in favour of imposing a no-fly zone in Libya at the UN. If Gaddafi posed no real threat to Libyans at that stage, then why didn't South Africa vote against the no fly zone? Likewise, why didn't Russia veto it? Their messages of solidarity don't match their actions - their actions show that they did fear that Gaddafi would conduct a violent purge of the Libyan people. The only other real support Gaddafi has obtained has been from Hugo Chavez, who himself has embarked upon the road to dictatorship by seeking to change the Venezuelan constitution to allow him to stay in power (and Nicaragua, who has received large financial support from Gaddafi). It is a duplicitous game that South Africa and indeed many other African states have played in this affair, attempting to hedge their bets both ways to guarantee the flow of Libyan cash to their countries (and perhaps, it must be stated bluntly, even to their personal bank accounts).

The left have detailed how a global conspiracy against Gaddafi has been engineered by the press to "criminalise" him and his government, yet it was not second-hand accounts of Gaddafi that we received. He was given more airtime on news channels for his speeches and interviews than any other global leader, more than Obama could ever hope for, even if he managed to win the next election and surprise everyone again. His press representative also had a clear and open line to the press and repeated claims to legitimacy, and of foreign interference in Libya without any interruption. If the threats Gaddafi and his son made, live on tv, were not real, then the international media have engineered the most spectacular media manipulation we have ever experienced. It was clear, from the words of Gaddafi, and his son Saif, that they were preparing for a fight to the death. That much cannot be denied by anybody. They saw themselves as having an undeniable right to leadership in Libya, and that much can be understood directly from the words that emerged from their very own mouths. They were also convinced of their support base, and were prepared to go the route of warfare. It is not just the rebels who were willing to go down the path of warfare and destruction to achieve their ends. The Gaddafi camp were also bent on retaining power at all costs. To be fair to the National Transitional Council, they were keen to negotiate with Gaddafi and to find a compromise that would see him leave with dignity (this was repeated by many defectors in the media), yet their calls for Gaddafi to step down were met with an unflinching obstinance. Nobody was going to dictate anything to him - he was the only one who had the right to dictate!

Not unlike Robert Mugabe, the beleaguered president of Zimbabwe who refused to vacate his post when he lost the elections, Gaddafi was undoubtedly a dictator. If he is not, then the term will scarcely find application to anyone else in the world. When a country's main decisions and power bases are in the hands of one man and his sons, either he is a king or a dictator. Yet for those who look only to his external actions and his larger than life role in Africa (dubbing himself the King of Kings in Africa), tend to ignore the fact that Libya was an oil rich country - oil is what enabled Gaddafi to play an especially magnanimous role as a funder of revolutionary groups elsewhere, while still providing the Libyan people with a relatively high standard of living, basic services and education in Africa. His friends included many African dictators who robbed their countries blind and rendered them dysfunctional. He was the mr moneybags in Africa, and he enjoyed his largess and his self-appointed role as the king of Africa. Meanwhile, at home, Libyans were not free. No matter what the statistics on basic services and government support for Libyans shows on paper, Libyans did not possess the freedom to determine their future, or to exercise control over their resources. In this, Gaddafi was not unlike other oil rich monarchs in the region, who also have relatively high standards of living, education and basic services provision in their countries. Freedom, however, is not the freedom to eat, work, learn, obtain healthcare and the like. That is, freedom cannot be bought or paid for. When someone buys your freedom you are still a slave, you have just transferred ownership. Freedom is the freedom to act in concert with others to change what needs changing in a political system, without fear of recrimination or exile.

Yet it is difficult for anyone with a genuine claim to compassion, however, not to feel pity towards the deposed Gaddafi, begging for his life amongst the former 'rats', now appealing to them, begging for his life, "you are my sons". Very quickly it became clear that Gaddafi was executed by the rebels. It seemed the rebels had no regard for his human rights, or his rights as a prisoner of war. Having torn up pictures, posters and effigies of Gaddafi for many months, his capture seems to have led to a similar frenzy ... as mobile phone footage of his lynching seems to indicate. He was paraded about briefly, beaten upon, humiliated and somewhere along the way he was shot. Footage has also recently emerged, of a man claiming to be the one who executed him, celebrating his role in history amongst other rebels as water is poured over his head. It will take some investigation to uncover the actual sequence of events, as many will make claim to the greatest 'trophy' in the war.

Gaddafi's son, Moutassim, who commanded a feared brigade and was responsible for his fathers security, was also captured. A video of him smoking a cigarette and swigging from a bottle of water has been posted on the internet. He also seems to have been executed by the rebels, even though they have claimed that his injuries led to his death. Khamis Gaddafi is also dead, and Saif El Islam Gaddafi has managed to escape the clutches of the rebels once again. His whereabouts still remain unknown. The Gaddafi family has been hounded out of power, their lives have been taken, and those who remain of his family have left the country to seek exile in Algeria.

Indeed, when people have been brutalised the potential to respond in kind is always great. If one takes even a cursory glance at other revolutions in central and southern Africa, it is undeniable that when the violence eventually breaks, it breaks like a Tsunami, consuming everyone and everything in its path. This should not surprise us. Neither should we be quick to relegate the rebels to the classification of 'thugs' or 'animals'. Even when the violence broke in colonised African countries, the colonisers were quick to dismiss rebellion under the same terms. They were loathe to accept their own role in creating the 'savage monsters' that rose up against them - i.e. through centuries of slavery, violence, abuse and dehumanisation - in very much the same way the Gaddafi regime has refused to accept any criticism of the Libyan government in any measure. It was a big mistake to execute Gaddafi and his son, as seems to be the case. Executing them rendered them outside of the realm of the law. They do not have to answer for their actions and decisions, and they escape the judgement of society as they cannot defend themselves. Instead, it allows for them to be hailed as martyrs who 'fought to the end'. It has made the task of the rebels more difficult as their absence in death may loom larger than their presence in life would have in a court of law, where they could be put to trial and forced to answer for their crimes.

Yet the killing, it appears, did not stop there. Human rights watch has announced that the bodies of 53 Gaddafi loyalists were found, with their hands bound behind, them having been shot in the head. The rebels have themselves begun to look very much the same as the Gaddafi loyalists, who also left scores of executed prisoners in their wake as they fled Tripoli. They have failed to uphold a moral highground, and have failed to guarantee the human rights they claim to be fighting for, to their opponents. This is not a trivial development, as the real test of one's belief in human rights is the ability to extend those rights to one's enemy. The post-Gaddafi Libya, now awash with weapons and ammunition, and rebels who have come to know battle and murder is a precariously balanced situation that might disintegrate yet even further into violence. As the Egyptian revolution has shown, the myriad interests and conflicts that emerge in the post-dictatorship power struggle can prove to be the undoing of the original aims of the revolution itself.  

It was the Gaddafi regime who originally characterised the rebels as less than human, unworthy of negotiating with on any matters, and they maintained this view despite the fact that the Libyan government was defecting more and more rapidly to the rebel's side. However, the rebels have now shown themselves to be equally brutal, and have transgressed the basic conditions upon which human rights are founded. Extra-judicial executions, conducted by rebel groups, can only lead to further a further descent into hell for the people of Libya. If what follows the revolution is a bullet fueled purge of any and all opposition to the rebels, then the old Libyan government and the new Libyan government will in effect be the same. Revolutionary movements, whether led or fragmented, often come to mirror those they fight against. It is their responsibility to break the pattern and establish a new history. Otherwise, they offer no improvement on what existed before them, and the sacrifices that were made to obtain freedom would have been made in vain. Their cause will not be recognised as just unless their actions are equally just, and nobody should overlook the executions and massacres that are being perpetrated by the rebels in their campaign. Freedom cannot be established through executing ones enemies. It begins when one forgives ones enemies and embraces them. Only then can the past be reconciled and a new future emerge. Should the killing continue in Libya, it will be torn apart, and Gaddafi would in the end be proved correct, that Libyans needed a dictator such as himself to hold them together. 

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