The colonel is dead. Long live the king.

The dark hypocrisy that lurks at the heart of the Libyan revolution

So, Colonel Muammar Qadhdhafi – crafty tyrant, political funster and would-be leader of Africa – is dead, and Libya is entering a new era of hope. Hope that its people will live in a more open society in which they are free to determine their individual and collective fates, to talk about politics, to disagree with each other and with the government, to challenge their leaders, to engage with the rest of the world, and to prosper economically. As someone who has spent some time in Libya (some six months in total, between 2000 and 2006), I share this hope. Wars are always horrific, and civil ones often especially so, but I can’t be the only one who has seen the TV footage of plucky, cheerful rebels espousing broadly secular, democratic values in good English and thought, “these guys are, for want of a better way of putting it, pretty cool.” With Qadhdhafi out of the way, the National Transitional Council (NTC) should be free to propagate freedom and democracy throughout the country, so that Libyans can bask in the blossoming of the Arab Spring. It’s a heady prospect.

However, a dark hypocrisy lurks at the heart of the Libyan revolution, or at least at the heart of the NTC. Those who have been following the conflict closely will be aware of the reprisals against black sub-Saharan Africans wrongly labelled as mercenaries (although by all accounts Qadhdhafi did employ some hired guns from the other side of the Sahara). They may also be aware of the reprisals against ordinary Libyans who for reasons of politics and historical tribal loyalty supported Qadhdhafi, or were seen as Qadhdhafi sympathisers. However, few will be aware of the potential implications of Libya’s revolution for the outcome of another conflict 2000 km to the west, and for the futures of the Sahrawi people living under military occupation and oppression, or in exile as a result of the theft of their land by an aggressive expansionist neighbour. These implications are not what you might think, given all the lip service paid by the NTC and its supporters to freedom, democracy, and the need to overthrow autocratic regimes.

Back in 1975, around the time of publication of Qadhdhafi’s Green Book, Morocco was busy invading and laying claim to Western Sahara, which had been governed by Spain during the colonial period. This was despite despite having had its “historical claim” to the territory rejected by the International Court of Justice, which had examined the issue of sovereignty over Western Sahara at Morocco’s behest. The Polisario independence movement of Western Sahara, having fought Spain for independence, now turned its guns on the invading Moroccans (1). War raged until 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire and installed a peacekeeping force (MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire and organise a referendum on self-determination (which has never happened, and looks increasingly unlikely). Since 1991 Western Sahara has been effectively partitioned by a series of defensive walls, often collectively referred to as the Berm, stretching across the entire territory of Western Sahara for some 1500 km, with Morocco controlling the majority (some three quarters) of the territory to the north and west of the Berm, and the Polisario controlling the remainder.

In the early days of the conflict, Polisario was supported by a number of countries, principally Algeria, which still plays host to five vast refugee camps now housing anything up to 200,000 displaced Sahrawi, as well as the Polisario government-in-exile – the government of the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), recognised by dozens of countries and a member of the African Union. However, another big supporter of the Western Saharan independence movement was Libya, which for a time was Polisario’s primary supporter, before Algeria gave its full backing to the independence movement when Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975. In the early days of the conflict Libya supplied Polisario with arms, with support peaking between 1979 and 1982. In 1980 Libya formally recognised the SADR, after some vacillation by Qadhdhafi. However, active Libyan support for Polisario ceased in the 1980s, with Libya signing the Treaty of Oudja with Morocco in 1984, in which Libya agreed not to challenge Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara (2). Although King Hassan of Morocco revoked the Treaty of Oudja in 1986, active Libyan support for Polisario did not resume (2). Nonetheless, until recently Libya remained one of the few countries in which Sahrawi could travel on their SADR passports, and a number of Sahrawi went to Libya for schooling, although Sahrawi colleagues of mine complained in the 2000s that Libya’s support was minimal and increasingly lukewarm.

Even that lukewarm support seems likely to vanish now, in the new democratic Libya. Seeing an opportunity to change Libya’s position on Western Sahara, Morocco was quick to dispatch its foreign minister, Taeib Fassi Fihri, to Benghazi in August to meet with Libya’s NTC. Presumably grateful for this early recognition of its legitimacy, the NTC in turn was quick to cosy up to Morocco, with NTC spokesman in London Guma al-Gamaty reportedly stating on regional television in Laayoune, occupied Western Sahara’s principal town, that “The future of the Sahara can only be conceived under the sovereignty of Morocco.” (3)

Of course politics is all about horse trading, and a rebel organisation battling an entrenched autocratic regime is going to be eager for support, and will take it where it can get it. That’s certainly what Polisario did, in the face of invasion by a powerful neighbour supported and encouraged in its aggression by even more powerful players, namely the United states and France (2). However, it is rather unedifying to see the liberators of Libya supporting Morocco’s unelected monarch and its illegal military occupation of Western Sahara. For the self-styled champions of freedom, democracy, and the right of Libyans to determine their own future free of autocratic interference to support the suppression of these same principles elsewhere in North Africa is deeply hypocritical.

There may also be an element of sour grapes in the NTC’s favouring of Morocco. It has been reported that Algeria – bête noir of the Moroccan regime for its long-standing support for Polisario – has been holding out on the nascent Libyan regime, refusing to recognise the NTC until it forms a government and pledges to combat al Qaeda, based partly on Algerian fears about the role of Islamist militants in the Libyan revolution. Global Security News reported that Algeria voted against the Arab League’s resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011, apparently fearing the break-up of Libya and the exploitation of such a scenario by militants with their own agenda. Algeria has a long history of combating such militancy, and conflict between Islamists and security forces in the 1990s turned into a brutal and dirty civil war that cost many tens of thousands of lives, so Algerian sensitivity – some might say paranoia – is understandable. Of course Algeria is also likely to be wary of any movement that seeks to overthrow unaccountable anciens regimes in North Africa, given its own problems of political legitimacy.

While Algeria’s relations with Qadhdhafi’s Libya were hardly smooth, they were certainly more cordial than its relations with Morocco, which were poisoned by Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and Algeria’s support for the Polisario.

The NTC has accused Algeria of supporting Qadhdhafi’s forces, accusations which Algeria has denied (see last link). All this suggests that there is an element of playground politics in the NTC’s support for Morocco and its occupation of Western Sahara – supporting Morocco on the basis of that old tribal cliché that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in order to punish Algeria for not giving the Libyan revolution the support it wanted. As usual, the Sahrawi and their reasonable and legitimate demand for self determination have fallen victim to the geopolitics of the region.

Now that Qadhdhafi is out of the way, the NTC is free to move forward with its ostensible project of creating a free and democratic Libya. The new Libyan regime has widespread support, not least from powerful energy-hungry nations desperate to get their hands on Libya’s oil and gas fields. The NTC is not desperate for friends in the face of an existential threat, as the Sahrawi were back in the 1970s (and still are in many respects). It can afford to have some principles. Instead it has betrayed the very principles it claims are its heart, even before it has extended its mandate across the nation it hopes to govern. This is a bad start, and does not bode well for effective, principled, inclusive government in Libya under the new regime.

Deposing a dictator only to offer your support to a foreign king and his colonial aspirations is not good for your revolutionary, or democratic, credentials. Come on Libya – you can do better than this.


(1) And also on Mauritania, whom Morocco had persuaded to join the invasion on its behalf pending a carve-up of Western Sahara. The Polisario successfully countered the Mauritanian incursion in the south of Western Sahara, Mauritania withdrew, and cordial relations were established between Polisario and Mauritania.

(2) Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy, 2010. Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution. Syracuse University Press.

(3) Quote from Morocco World News (Gaddafi’s fall strengthens Morocco over Western Sahara), which appears to be relatively impartial on the issue, at least insofar as it discusses it in terms that are quite far from the usual partisan discourse emanating from the official Moroccan press and organisations sympathetic to Morocco’s position. [Qualifying statement, 23.10.2011. Morocco World News talks about “Western Sahara” and recognises the conflict as one between Morocco and the Polisario, whereas official Moroccan propaganda generally talks about the “Moroccan Sahara” or just “the Sahara”, and casts the conflict as one between Morocco and Algeria in order to marginalise and delegitimise the Polisario as a party to the conflict. However, other Morocco World News articles are quite close to the official Moroccan propaganda line in some respects, for example in their generally positive coverage of Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan”, and their reference to the “population held against their will in the Tindouf camps” – a common theme in Moroccan propaganda (and one that is not borne out by the high degree of movement in and out of the camps or by my experiences in the camps and interacting with Sahrawi exiles). I would tentatively suggest that, while Morocco World News does not appear to be an official organ of the Moroccan state, it appears that much of the official Moroccan orthodoxy on Western Sahara is reflected in Morocco World News articles, although these are not simple representations of the official Moroccan line. The name “Morocco World News” does remind me of the wonderfully culture-centric book title “A Basque History of the World”.]

I’ve gone with Zunes and Mundy’s transliteration of “Qadhdhafi”, as they’ve already thought about how best to render the Arabic into English. There is an extensive menu of possible spellings, and I can be a bit of a purist when it comes to Arabic-English transliteration.


2 Responses to The colonel is dead. Long live the king.

  1. nickbrooks says:

    Diaspora Saharaui – you’re very welcome, and thanks for both your kind words and the translation. Good job, and appreciated!

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