A mosaic of Gaddafi on the wall of a building in Tripoli, riddled with bullet holes, photographed on 29 August 2011. Photo: Getty
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Libya’s revolution will fail if the west does not act now

It is not yet too late. It is five minutes to midnight, but it is not too late.

In the spring of 2011, for the few foreigners present on the terra incognita that was Libya at the time, there was no doubt. Tanks were closing in on Benghazi. The inhabitants of Misrata, besieged and starving, expected to perish. The entire country hung under the threat of the rivers of blood promised by Gaddafi’s son.

The international community had two options.

It could pretend that it saw nothing. It could refuse to hear the SOS that the Libyan people, in near unanimity, were sending. In so doing, it could reinforce the Libyans’ feeling that the West was the natural ally of tyrants. And, as in Darfur and Rwanda, as it soon would do in Syria, it could allow the war to reach the end of its terrible logic, exacting, week after week, tens of thousands of deaths.

Or it could hear that SOS. It could reject the scheduled massacre and, in so doing, send for the first time a message of hope to a rebellious Arab people: “You may or may not succeed. You are going to make what you will and what you can of this revolution, to which we are giving you a few keys. But it is not for us in the west to decide that some people are made for democracy whereas others are not.” And, in so saying, the west could intervene to help topple one of the most enduring and blood-thirsty dictatorships on the planet.

Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, and Barack Obama made the second choice.

And, just as the French Terror did not negate 1789, just as Vladimir Putin does not cast a retroactive pall over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet system, similarly no subsequent violence, no retrospective prophesising, will ever invalidate that choice or lessen its nobility.


The mistake – and there was a mistake – came later. Broadly speaking, that mistake was to have declared victory too early. You cannot, in a day, escape a dictatorship. You cannot, in a day, build a state worthy of the name.

And the truth is that the state whose gradual demise we have been reading about in recent days never truly existed, having never been properly organised in the first place.

One member of the coalition should have helped train a police force. Another should have supported the program of disarmament and reintegration of the former combatants, a program begun without means by young, democratically inclined rebel commanders. France should have supported the idea of a Libyan national school of public administration that was proposed by my compatriot Hugues Dewavrin, an idea that I presented to Sarkozy and François Hollande, the two major candidates in the French presidential elections of 2012. The Arab countries that joined the west in the anti-Gaddafi coalition should have taken further steps to secure the oil wells over which the militias are presently fighting.

Instead of which, we got nothing. At best, another version of the naïve “democratic messianism” that had already proven so costly to American neoconservatives; at worst, the cynical short-termism of leaders who, once the cameras are turned off, leave the stage, throwing away the keys as they go.

Look at what is happening today. Watch as the embassies close, one after the other. This disappearing act – done while writing off all of Libya as a doomed nation – is it not a fairly accurate depiction of what has been happening for the past three years?


At the same time, it is not yet too late. It is five minutes to midnight, but it is not too late.

There is still one thing I want to say on behalf of long-suffering Libya, a country for which I have very strong feelings. The militias, of course, are a fact of life. Daily killings, alas, are a reality. But no less real is that when the religious zealots killed human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, thousands of citizens defied the murderers by giving her a magnificent funeral.

No less real is that, the day after the execution of the brilliant American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, the entire city of Benghazi took to the streets to demand nothing less than “justice for our brother Stevens”. 

The reality is that an international force mandated by the United Nations would be welcomed with open arms and would have little trouble taming the death squads that presently sow so much terror while being so wholly unrepresentative of today’s Libya.

The country has held two free elections since the fall of Gaddafi. Both elections were clear-cut defeats for the Islamists. The first brought to power for sixteen months the most democratic and pro-western leader that the Arab world has produced in a long while: Ali Zeidan. The second, held 25 June, saw only 30 Islamists elected to the 188-seat legislature that has just convened in Tobruk despite calls for a boycott by the jihadist minority.

Libya, in other words, is not a country of Islamic fanatics.

If one defines civil war as a situation in which all of civil society is overcome with fratricidal hate and in which everyone chooses their side and their army, Libya, though it may be prey to militias that are holding civilians hostage, is not in a state of civil war. And that is why I say that it is not too late for the west to help the Libyan people to enter the third year of their revolution. 

Translated from the French by Steven B Kennedy.

Bernard-Henri Levy is the author of La Guerre Sans L’Aimer and Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism

This article first appeared on


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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.