As troops aligned with the Libyan interim government continue to advance on the few remaining strongholds of Gaddafi loyalists — such as Bani Walid (where the tribal elders are refusing to surrender) — much debate is still raging over Libya’s future. Will the country emerge as a stable liberal democracy, will it be torn by ethnic and tribal divisions, or will it transform into an Islamist state?
Of course, there is always a degree of uncertainty in prediction here, but some signs appear to have emerged that strongly discount the first, desirable outcome. To begin with, despite the assurances of the National Transitional Council (NTC) that there will be a focus on reconciliation to avoid punishing all those associated with the Gaddafi regime and thus not repeat the “mistakes of Iraq,” it is not at all clear that these soothing words are being put into practice.
Indeed, recently concerns have been raised over the treatment of blacks residing in Libya at the hands of forces loyal to the interim government, and even outlets like the New York Times are starting to pay attention. It is true that a few of these blacks have been employed as mercenaries by Gaddafi, but the overwhelming majority are simply innocent migrant workers imported during Libya’s oil boom for construction and menial work. Yet blacks are being targeted by anti-Gaddafi insurgents as though they are all mercenaries guilty of the crimes of the Gaddafi regime.
In fact, as the Wall Street Journal noted, in one town called Tawergha, a brigade of anti-Gaddafi troops that describes itself as dedicated to “purging slaves” and “black skin” has engaged in ethnic cleansing of blacks in the town, and has vowed that in the “new Libya” all remaining blacks in Tawergha would be denied access to health care and schooling in nearby Misrata, from which all blacks have already been expelled.
Similarly, the BBC recently showed a video of hundreds of bodies found in the Abu Salim hospital in Tripoli, but failed to mention, either through genuine neglect or a deliberate intention to mislead, that most of the corpses were those of black people, who had obviously been killed by anti-Gaddafi forces when the city was taken.
The “blacks are mercenaries” myth has been useful to those wishing to downplay the idea that Gaddafi could be receiving support from any native Libyans, and portray the entire conflict as “Gaddafi vs. the people.” However, if collective punishment is the way the rebel forces are going to treat those suspected — rightly or wrongly — of links to Gaddafi’s regime, on what grounds should we presume that there will be no punitive measures implemented against native Libyan groups who have backed Gaddafi during the conflict, including many of the rural Arabized tribes of southwest Fezzan? As I predicted, the rebel forces have recently been giving the Berber Touareg in the far south this kind of harsh treatment.
Clearly, the horrific treatment of blacks is not only a result of racism but also part of an attempt to dismantle anything associated with Gaddafi’s legacy (the importation of Africans was one aspect of Gaddafi’s eccentric turn towards notions of pan-Africanism and a vision of a “United States of Africa” after 1998).
In any event, it is worth recalling that the Iraqi Shi’a politicians and public figures who pushed for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (e.g. Ahmad Chalabi, who is the first cousin of my aunt’s husband in Baghdad) repeatedly affirmed that their sole interest was in creating a genuinely free and democratic Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Yet once in power through the interim Iraqi Governing Council, whether for reasons of ideological conviction or political expediency, they effectively turned the de-Baa’thification process into “de-Sunnification” in the hope of creating a majoritarian Shi’a democracy. This only aggravated sectarian tensions and culminated in the civil war around Baghdad in 2006.
Even so, it is also evident that there are deep tensions within the anti-Gaddafi forces. In particular, there is good reason to expect a forthcoming conflict between the Amazigh Berbers and the Islamists. The Amazigh Berbers, denied civil rights for decades by Gaddafi and forbidden to speak Tamazight, played a key role in the fighting in the western Nafusa Mountains that eventually led to the successful push towards Tripoli. Quite rightly, they are keen to assert their rights to celebrate their Berber culture and language, and will undoubtedly take further inspiration from the success of Berber activists in Morocco, which has now given Tamazight the status of an official language alongside Arabic.
Meanwhile, the Islamist presence among the anti-Gaddafi forces is now something that cannot be ignored. As Barry Rubin points out, Abdul al-Hakim al-Hasadi has just been named commander of the Tripoli Military Council. This man was formerly head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qa’ida, and although he claims to have disavowed his record of extremism, many rebel fighters around Misrata are highly suspicious of him. It does not follow from this that Libya will necessarily become an Islamist state, but as the experiences in Algeria, Sudan and Iraq show, Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa despise any assertion of a non-Arab identity and aim to suppress it by instilling terror through indiscriminate attacks.
I sincerely hope that I am proven wrong and that the post-Gaddafi government will promote liberal democracy (nor do I believe that it was wrong to stop Gaddafi’s forces from taking Benghazi back in March). Nevertheless, idealistic wishes cannot obscure hard evidence on the ground. At best, NATO can now only make it clear to the NTC that any Islamist aggression originating from Libya will be met with severe retaliation.