Libya: a reader

A collection of the best writing and reporting on Libya.

Sholto Byrnes examines the life of Colonel Gaddafi and his curious relationship with the west in this profile, published last year in the New Statesman.

Gaddafi is the last of that generation, and while others who cloaked themselves in the rhetoric of Nasser have fallen, failed or died, it is the young man once praised by the Egyptian president who now appears to be becoming the kind of Arab leader with whom we can, and with whom we wish, to do business.

Throughout the Nineties and Noughties, Gaddafi transformed from a tyrant to a laughable autocrat in the eyes of the west. He was a bit weird, but he was a man we could do business with, seemed to be the gist of it. And the west did a lot of business with him, something that could prove the final straw for the struggling Silvio Berlusconi, according to James Ridgeway at Mother Jones.

The press struggled to see past the female bodyguards, which was part of Gaddafi's plan, according to Ben Macintyre in the Times (£).

Gaddafi's female bodyguards have kept the tabloids salivating for years, but they too are part of the act. Unlikely tales of repeated assassination attempts foiled by the "killer virgins" help to maintain the illusion of permanent danger, of a nation under threat. From time to time the "Guide of the Revolution" has announced that he is standing down, his mission completed, only to be called back to power by staged rallies of adoring Libyans.

As Gaddafi strutted across the international stage, life in Libya remained a struggle. The New Yorker contains this rather eloquent description of it.

Here's a story they tell in Libya. Three contestants are in a race to run five hundred metres carrying a bag of rats. The first sets off at a good pace, but after a hundred metres the rats have chewed through the bag and spill on to the course. The second contestant gets to a hundred and fifty metres, and the same thing happens. The third contestant shakes the bag so vigorously as he runs that the rats are constantly tumbling and cannot chew on anything, and he takes the prize. That third contestant is Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, the permanent revolutionary.

Hopes for reform lay briefly on the shoulders of Gaddafi's son Saif. His PhD expounded on the role of civil society in democratisation (you can read it, here). Unfortunately, these words did not translate into action, according to Andrew Solomon of the New Yorker, who argues in this blog post that the protests stem from a lack of reform, endemic poverty and – that worldwide phenomenon – discontented youth.

If the causes of the unrest are unclear, however, the actual events are even murkier. With few mainstream media outlets in Libya, reports are based around grimy, unclear clips, often taken on mobile phones.

The following video appears to show government troops opening fire on protesters. [Warning: extremely graphic images]


After reports – spread by, of all people, William Hague – circulated that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela, the Libyan leader appeared on state television last night and, in a bizarre public address, said:

I am satisfied, because I was speaking in front of the youth in the Green Square tonight, but the rain came, praise to God, it is a good omen.

I want to clarify for them that I am in Tripoli not in Venezuela. Do not believe these channels – they are dogs. Goodbye.

Throw in the apparent defection of two Libyan pilots and the situation becomes even more of a confusing morass. To try to keep abrest of the events in Libya, follow this Twitter list.

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Why I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party

There’s a lot to admire in the direction Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party – perhaps it’s time to get involved.

Why I'm leaving Labour”, as Owen Hatherley remarked a few days ago, appears to be the new “why I’m leaving London”. However, aside from a few high(ish) profile departures, the bigger story is the net increase in membership of 90,000 that Labour has enjoyed since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Indeed, the last few weeks have got me seriously considering whether I should add to these impressive numbers and join the party myself.

For me, one of the most cheering pieces of news since Corbyn’s victory was the convening of an advisory committee to shadow chancellor John McDonnell, including policy and academic heavyweights such as Mariana Mazzucato, Ann Pettifor, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty. It was a clear indication that some fresh and serious thought was going to be put into the creation of a plan for remaking and rejuvenating the British economy. The early signs are that Labour will be offering a dynamic, high-tech economy of the future, with good pay and job security at its heart, which will stand in sharp contrast to the miserable Randian dystopia George Osborne has been pushing the country into during his time at the Treasury.

Also refreshing has been Corbyn’s use of Prime Minister’s Questions to give a voice to those affected by austerity. Given that our media and political class is disproportionately populated by people from privileged backgrounds, it’s really important that an extra effort is made to ensure that we hear first-hand from those bearing the brunt of these policies. It’s right in principle, and it turns out to be good politics as well. Because apparently many Conservative MPs are too stupid to realise that responding to the concerns of working class people with loud, derisive braying merely provides the public with a neat and powerful illustration of whose side each party is on.

Corbyn has taken a lot of flak in the media, and from MPs on the Labour right, for his response to the Paris attacks. But as someone who researches, teaches and writes on British foreign policy, Middle East politics and security issues, my admiration for the Labour leader has only grown in recent days.  

In the atmosphere immediately after a terrorist atrocity, a discourse emerges where caring about the victims and being serious about dealing with the threat are taken to be synonymous with advocating military responses and clampdowns on civil liberties, irrespective of the fact that fourteen years of pursuing this approach under the “war on terror” has only served to make the problem far worse. At times like these it takes a great deal of courage to articulate a careful, cautious approach emphasising non-military forms of action that address root causes and whose effects may be less dramatic and immediate. Many people were simply not in the mood to hear this sort of thing from Corbyn, but his policies are objectively more likely to make us safer, and I admire him for not being intimidated into silence despite the gallons of vitriol that have been poured on him.

In general, on national security, there is something heavily gendered about the narrative that casts the alpha male Cameron keeping Britain safe versus the dithering milquetoast Corbyn who doesn't understand the harsh realities. We reached the nadir of this stone age machismo during the last election campaign when Very Serious Jeremy Paxman put it to Ed Miliband that he couldn’t have Vladimir Putin in a fight.  After the disasters of the last decade and a half, the time is right to articulate a more intelligent, sophisticated alternative to the expensive, counterproductive militarism of the Conservative Party and the Labour right wing.

The question of whether Corbyn can win an election is certainly one that preoccupies me. He will struggle to attract voters to his right just as Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall would have struggled to win back votes Labour lost to the SNP and the Greens. Enthusing and rallying the perhaps 30 per cent of the electorate who are broadly on the left is one thing, but adding the other 6-7 per cent that you need to win an election is another challenge altogether. Corbyn and his team have been on a steep learning curve since their shock victory in September, and they urgently need to clarify their message and improve their media strategy. Almost all the corporate press are bound to remain hostile, but there are ways to provide them with as little ammunition as possible.

More importantly, Corbyn’s team need to find ways of connecting directly with the public and bring them actively into what he's trying to do. In the current anti-politics mood, an opposition party based on a genuine, engaged mass movement could be a formidable force. Initiatives like “Momentum” will need to make quick and substantial progress.

Fundamentally, Corbyn’s Labour has to do what everyone concerned with genuine social progress has had to do throughout history: articulate points of view that go against prevailing orthodoxy, and do so in as persuasive a way as possible. By definition, these are battles against the odds. But you can't win them if you don't fight them. And for me, and I think most people on Corbyn's part of the left, five years of austerity have taken us beyond the point where we can accept the least worst version of the status quo. That prospect has simply become too painful for too many people.

So will I join? I’m still unsure. Without doubt there will be times when the leadership needs constructive, even robust criticism, and as a writer and researcher I may feel more free to articulate that outside of the Labour tribe. But whatever choice I make, the point for me is that this isn’t really about Jeremy Corbyn so much as the wider movement he represents, demanding a real change of course on politics, economics and foreign policy. That collective effort is something I will certainly continue to play an active part in.

David Wearing researches UK-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and international political economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.