The Libyan Standard of Resistance
4:01 PM, Mar 30, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Western military support for the Libyan resistance has raised urgent questions about the character of those fighting against the Qaddafi dictatorship. Barack Obama’s speech on the Libya mission on Monday night did not specifically mention the rebels, as was quickly pointed out in an Associated Press analysis, though it repeatedly invoked the Libyan people and five times explicitly mentioned “the Libyan opposition.” The president also announced “the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people.”
Qaddafi himself claims he is the victim of an al Qaeda plot, and it has been noted that a contingent of Libyans joined Osama bin Laden’s forces. One such individual, Ali Mohammed al-Fakheri, known as Ibn Al-Sheikh Al-Libi or “the Libyan son of the sheikh,” was a trainer for the terrorist network. He was captured by the United States in Pakistan in 2002, then sent to Egypt for more interviews, and finally repatriated to Libya. There he reportedly committed suicide in 2009, aged 46.
But Muslims from throughout the world have joined al Qaeda; in that, Libya is hardly alone. Libyans protested violently against the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. And the Muslim Brotherhood certainly has a presence in the country.
Are these reasons to question backing for the resistance? I think not. An examination of Libyan history, as well as of TV reportage on the resistance, provides an important indicator of the outlook of the anti-Qaddafi combatants.
It must first be noted, however, that the Libyan resistance has little in common with other movements to which the United States has provided serious military help against genocidal dictators. Unlike the Libyan rebels, Kuwait in 1991 had a state apparatus that defied Saddam Hussein. Unlike the Libyan combatants against Qaddafi, Bosnia-Herzegovina opposed Slobodan Milosevic with an organized army. And unlike the Libyans, the Kosovar Albanians at least had a recognized guerrilla contingent. Finally, the anti-terrorist forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had and have all these things—state structures, trained armies, and local irregulars opposed to jihadism.
The Libyan resistance seems to be rather the product of a spontaneous uprising inspired by the proximity of Tunisia and Egypt, and the contagious, heady lesson that autocrats can be overthrown. The demonstrations, abdication, and “soft landing” for Ben Ali and Mubarak, as well as, so far, for their former subjects, have been rendered impossible by Qaddafi, and may prove equally difficult in Syria. It may well be that this model—involving decentralized, local insurrectionaries to whom the West loans its air power, as in the Balkan wars—will dominate the rest of the “Arab Spring,” and, in addition, may prove crucial to thwarting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran.
Still, the Libyan rebels have an advantage in Western military support, but no political authority of their own, no trained army, and no single leadership for their improvised militias. What, then, do they have that offers a clue to Libya’s future?
They have a flag. People around the world have seen the Libyan fighters carrying a red, black, and green banner with a crescent and star, the classic symbols of Islam, into battle. Some journalists mention that the flag is that of the former Libyan monarchy of King Idris, who lived from 1889 to 1983 and ruled from 1951 to 1969, when he was overthrown by Qaddafi. Whether the Libyan opposition displays this symbol out of patriotism, or disgust with Qaddafi—who replaced the tricolor with a solid green scrap supposedly representing the revival of Islam in his domain—or a genuine nostalgia and will to restore the monarchy, this is not an emblem, or range of aspirations, with which al Qaeda or other jihadists would be happy. A recent online photo shows a Libyan from Benghazi carrying a portrait of the late king.