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Anger in Benghazi
Frontline article by Simon Assaf, February 2012
Libya has erupted once again in protest. In January an angry crowd of some 2,000 people stormed the offices of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution. NTC leaders were planning to announce the publication of the new electoral law that evening but were forced to transfer the announcement to Tripoli.
The Benghazi crowds smashed computer equipment and refused to allow NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil to address them. They then torched his armoured Land Rover. The immediate impact of the protest was to force the resignation of NTC number two, and former Gaddafi-era minister, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga.
Behind these protests, and mounting discontent, is growing disillusion with the NTC and its attempts to limit and stunt expectations that emerged during last year's uprising. The NTC is seen as corrupt and riddled with nepotism, and is widely perceived as trying to create a new patronage system based on regional and tribal interests.
Anger has focused on the new electoral law. The publication of the draft law ended any lingering illusions in the direction the NTC was taking the country.
The draft law dropped a minimum quota for representation of women in a new parliament, set at 10 percent of the 200-strong assembly. It declares that any candidate must have a "professional qualification", a provision that carves out the majority of those who made the revolution. And those it deems "criminals" would not be allowed to vote, even if they were convicted under the old regime. Furthermore Libyans holding dual citizenship would also be barred from the elections, despite many of them being forced into exile by the old regime and returning to take part in the uprising.
Many Libyans now openly talk about how the NTC has "hijacked the revolution" while delivering very few real improvements on the ground. The clearest indicator of the intentions of the NTC was exposed immediately after the fall of Tripoli last August. The Amazigh (Berbers) who had fought an effective insurgency in the mountains south of Tripoli (which opened the door to the rebel advance on the capital) were carved out of cabinet posts in the new interim government. The Amazigh discovered that despite the central role they played in the uprising, their lot would not be fundamentally different from that under the old regime. This was widely seen as a betrayal of the aspirations of a long-oppressed people.
The NTC also made it clear that it would not abandon the neoliberal economic policies unveiled by Gaddafi in the 1990s, despite the vast potential wealth brought by oil, an industry now back on its feet, recovering production lost during the uprising. Instead the vast oil fortunes swilling around Western banks in the form of the Libyan sovereign wealth fund are being eyed up for rich pickings by cash-strapped European economies. Nato has also taken its cut, as Libyans have discovered that they have to pick up the bill for the air campaign.
It is worth remembering that the Libyan revolution was not launched to hand the country over to the West, or to a new unelected and unaccountable cabal. It was a popular revolt inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and like those revolutions, very few of the expectations that grew out of the uprising have been realised.
The 17 February uprising had the potential to place the country under popular control. The body that grew out of the uprising, the NTC, at first represented these aspirations. But the scale and ferocity of the regime's counter offensive forced the revolutionaries into a reluctant alliance with outside forces. By March 2011 the revolution, now an armed rebellion, slipped out of the control of the mass popular movement into the hands of those in the NTC with close ties to the West and the Gulf oil kingdoms.
Despite their weakness at the time, the Libyan revolutionaries who called for the "no-fly zone" refused to allow in Western troops. This gave Western powers control in the air, but little real influence on the ground. That was left to their new allies inside the NTC. For many who made the revolution this was an alliance of convenience. Nato warplanes acted as the rebel airforce and covered the advance of armed civilians, while special forces from the West, Qatar and the UAE provided some training and logistical backup. But the bloody business of war, the battles for towns and cities, was carried out by those who launched the uprising. It is they who control the streets.
Western support came at a heavy price as the NTC sought to limit the scope of the revolution. Many saw this popular movement as melting away with the Nato intervention and a war for control of Libyan oil.
But this was not primarily a war about oil. Despite its rhetoric, the old regime never broke its ties to Western oil companies. These ties were reaffirmed in the infamous "meeting in the desert" between Gaddafi and Tony Blair in 2003. Western powers also ensured that the incoming government would not alter these, or any other, Gaddafi-era contracts. Western powers saw an opportunity to place themselves in between the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and take control of the revolution in Libya.
But the re-emergence of popular protests is a reminder that this is far from certain. Despite massive setbacks, the popular aspiration that grew out of the revolution remains alive and unfulfilled.
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