Some Unsolicited Advice for the Libyan Rebels

I have been watching the uprising in Libya with a fair amount of interest and excitement. It is exciting to watch people toss off a such a horrific and vile government. I’m cheering for the rebels, and I hope they do manage — in the end — to get the Brother Leader and make him swing from the tallest lamp post in Tripoli. (Such a fate should also have been Manuel Noriega’s in Panama.) My excitement is tempered somewhat by the knowledge that they will, in the end, create another government. But there’s no real alternative to that. Whatever they build (and it will have all the flaws any coercive power will have), it will be hard-pressed to be worse than what they are currently trying to (and generally succeeding) in tearing down.

But generally I am rooting for the rebels. I pray for them, and wish I could do more. I know, here in the middle of rural northern Illinois, I cannot. I won’t ask my government to do anything — I don’t trust my government and the power it wields. I cannot and will not advocate it act. That would make me a hypocrite.

I’ve had a run-in with a representative of the Libyan government, their UN ambassador in the late 1990s, Abuzed Dorda. He was at Georgetown not long after I graduated, and he threatened a former classmate of mine who comes from a fairly prominent family of Libyan expatriates. It was something along the lines of, “We don’t punch people in the nose in Libya, and anyone who says otherwise gets a punch in the nose. Is so-and-so your father? Because we know how to deal with troublemakers in Libya. We punch them in the nose.” It was that kind of thing.

On the other hand, some years before, I worked for a small African American newspaper publisher in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco, Muhammad al Kareem. He was a member of the Nation of Islam (yes, wrap your head around his employing me for a moment) and there were two things in the world he was proudest of: the picture he had taken with Lewis Farrakhan at a Savior’s Day commemoration when Muhammad was a member of the Fruit of Islam, and a photo Muhammad had taken with Muammar Qaddafiy the day the U.S. bombed Libya in 1986. (It just occurred to me how few degrees of separation there are between me and Qaddafiy.) Muhammad was in Tripoli that night, and if you think I have a bad attitude toward the U.S. government, you ought to have heard him tell that story. (I have some fun stories of my time with Muhammad, but that is neither here nor there right now.)

So, I’ve seen a couple of sides of this. Still, the world will be a better place without Qaddafiy ruling Libya. Better he could take an early retirement on Montserrat, or join the deposed sons and grandsons of Idris at the roulette wheel in Monaco, but Qaddafiy is not the retiring kind. From his cold dead hands…

I’ve tried not to despair over the recent news out of Libya. I want the rebels to win, I want them to win quickly and with a minimum of bloodshed. That won’t happen, and it looks like the fighting in Libya could go on for a while. I also want them to win without international intervention — I really like the idea of a people rising up and toppling their own government without outside help. But that idea may meet the reality of a government that cannot be made to go quickly and rebels who simply don’t have the power to make the government go. It is still early, and as one Middle East analyst noted to the BBC today, the generals who defected are only beginning to organize their forces in the east of the country. The rebels have every incentive to create a real, highly motivated fighting force that could liberate their country. I hope they do. I hope they eventually get the dictator.

Anyway, I have a couple of thoughts. Some suggestions, ideas which may or may not be worth anything.

  • Form a government already. I really love this “leaderless” uprising, but the time has come for the rebels and the exiles to get together and create a government. The “international community” which has, for the most part, sided with the rebels rhetorically, needs a put-up-or-shut-up moment, and with many of Libya’s diplomats having defected, now would be the time to have a council of some sort claim to be the legitimate government of Libya and make an appeal for international recognition. Now, I understand from a Radio France International report that there was a meeting in Benghazi on Sunday for just that purpose and this is good. I get that it is one thing to run an ad-hoc rebellion, and another to actually cobble together a government, and I also get that no one person may have the standing to be a face for a new regime. (I also get y’all may have very good reasons for not wanting a single leader.) But you need something — a National Salvation Council, a Committee For the Restoration of Decent Government in Libya, the Rotary Club of Greater Benghazi, anything — that will present a real and effective alternative to Qaddafiy. Even if you have to struggle to make nice for the cameras, a group of well-spoken exiles and Qaddafiy defectors sitting at a table for a press conference asking the governments of the world to recognize them, to help with refugees and eventual reconstruction as well as simple moral support would do wonders. Make all those flags mean something.
  • Don’t Support Half Measures. (Here’s where I feel like a hypocrite.) Don’t agitate for a no-fly zone. It won’t get you what you want — international military support without actual intervention. A no-fly zone is intervention, and all have, at some point, resulted in actual intervention. No-fly zones are ways for politicians to assuage their guilty consciences and say “we’re doing something!” without actually having to wage real war. Only they end up becoming real war eventually. And you won’t have any control over how or when international military action will be taken. (Exhibit A: Srebrenica.) Don’t simply limit a request for help to what you believe you can get. If you have to ask for the West to help, ask for effective help: an air campaign that will wipe out Qaddafiy’s air force, supply lines and command and control. You may even want to ask for ground support. This will require that the nations “helping” have some people on the ground to coordinate the air support (forward observers to target, for example). This will an easier sell if you have a government in place, but probably the hardest thing for a government to agree upon. But the rebellion itself was not a half measure, and if any group of people get that, it’s you. Like the man from az-Zawiya told the BBC on Sunday: “We will fight until we win or we die. There is no choice.”
  • Appreciate the nature of Western “help.” You are going to be used. I suspect, however, the Libya’s rebel leaders — both defectors and exiles — are cynical enough to appreciate that. I also suspect that whatever change of regime takes place in post-Qaddafiy Libya, it will be a state that will more or less fit in to the neo-liberal order (that’s what happens when your brightest minds all attend and then teach at elite universities!). Some in the West will help because they truly believe in your cause. Some will help because they are embarrassed they did business with Qaddafiy and hope to do business with you folks someday (this is why no one should ever get a photo shaking hands with of kissing a dictator). Some will help because they want some control over how the events in your country play out. Figuring out who is who (especially the third group) will be a task but I think you are all up to. And while you are at it: use them back!
  • Someone’s going to lose. This is obvious, but is also means that whoever wins, the country will remain divided. The original hope was probably that a quick popular uprising would push the institutions of the state to topple or kill Qaddafiy (Exhibit B: Romania). That did not happen. The Brother Leader has been able to mobilize some kind of support, and it likely isn’t all at gunpoint or paid for. Whoever wins, some portion of the country will be governed against its will. This is now unavoidable. Make sure it isn’t you.
I have no idea how much any of this was worth. Not much, I suspect. May Allah subhana wata’ala be with you all and grant you all quick victory.