Lucinda Lavelle from the British Libyan Solidarity Campaign spoke to Sacha Ismail and Chris Marks.
There are a lot of Libyan exiles in the UK; Manchester is the biggest centre, with more than 10,000 people. But in general activists have tended to write and do things individually, in isolation from one another, with no attempt to build collective campaigns. The reason is that no one trusted anyone; and there was an element of sense to this, because the community was infiltrated by Qaddafi’s agents.
Before the start of the movement in North Africa this year, there were two issues that really mobilised people. The first was the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996, in which the regime killed 1,200 political prisoners in one day. The other was a campaign around 400 children infected with HIV at a Benghazi hospital. Some thought that this had been deliberate, a collective punishment for the fact that, essentially, Benghazi has never stopped being in revolt. But it seems more likely that it resulted from the underfunding and running down of the health system in the city, which was in itself a form of punishment.
Our campaign was established in 2006 – at the SWP’s Marxism event, believe it or not – by my husband Azeldin, myself and a few others. In terms of infiltration by the regime, we thought, what have we got to hide?
In 2007, Tony Blair went to Sirte and shook hands with Qaddafi, which is when the UK-Libya relationship began to change. After that, we felt our emphasis had to be putting pressure on the British government about its relationship with Libya.
We thought it would be an easy sell to the left. After all, Qaddafi was now collaborating with the West, helping the war on terror, we’d heard about rendition flights to Tripoli, and he was murderously policing the borders to prevent African migrants getting to Europe. But unfortunately most of left couldn’t get into its head just how repressive the regime was.
It took a lot of networking and persuading, but we managed to get a fairly large number of Libyans in Britain involved, establishing links wherever there is a sizeable Libyan community. Obviously that network has expanded recently.
Of course we wanted the overthrow of the regime, but we posed things more in terms of the fight for basic human rights.
We stepped up our activity at the start of this year, from the moment the uprising began in Egypt. We could feel that the wind was blowing a different way. At first many Libyans in Britain were still afraid to speak out in public, but as things began to move in Libya itself there was a growth of confidence.
Since the civil war began, we’ve focused on media work, which was exploded, and activist training. We also went to meet the Foreign Office, and put some demands. That included military support, weapons and training for the rebels, but no boots on the ground, as well as no strings attached type clauses, and security for aid.
So what is your attitude to the NATO intervention?
There are different attitudes within the campaign. But I’d say that very few Libyans believe NATO is acting out of humanitarian considerations, or have much trust in them. On the other hand, it’s slightly puzzling why they did decide to intervene, given their existing relationship with Qaddafi. There was huge British investment in Libya, and the regime was investing heavily in property and financial developments in London. I suppose partly they recognised that Qaddafi was very unpredictable and unstable, and could not be relied on long term. And partly, as you suggest, they reached a point of no return, where they’d backed the rebels and were left with no other option. There’s a parallel with the way the rebels, too, reached their own point of no return, where they could not back down without facing certain death.
What do you make of the argument used by some on the left that there would not have been a massacre?
It’s ludicrous. Take Misrata. In addition to the thousands killed by regime bombardment, the rebels found mass graves, and there are thousands missing. Qaddafi made it very clear in his speeches what he planned to do, and where he could he began to do it. Of course things are confused, both the regime and NATO accuse each other of being responsible for particular deaths, but the basic picture of mass killing by the regime was totally clear. I can’t think of any way to describe denying this except pro-Qaddafi.
I’d also like to stress how close the regime’s forces came to taking Benghazi. I was there when two tanks made it into the outskirts of the city!
What’s your assessment of the rebel leadership?
You have to understand that there was no real political life in Libya for decades. Take the idea that no ex-regime people should be involved in the new Libya. Of course the leaders were directly responsible for terrible crimes; such people should be prosecuted as criminals. But there were many thousands of people, mainly but not solely at a lower level, who cooperated with the regime in some official capacity because there was no alternative.
Developing out of this situation, the rebel movement, including its leadership, is very underdeveloped politically. They have vague ideas about justice and equality, but no clear, concrete notion of what kind of society they want.
Having said that, my experience of the NTC [National Transitional Council, Libya’s rebel leadership and now interim government], when I was in Libya, was not very good. My husband and I went to meet them; we had three or four meetings, and in each of them they would listen to what we said, and then sit there in silence. They were not comradely or cooperative; I think they just wanted to find out what we were up to.
There are also many instances of the leadership cracking down on grassroots initiative. It’s worth mentioning that there are demonstrations against the NTC in Benghazi’s Freedom Square, where different networks and organisations have established a tent presence, similar to Egypt. When people are dissatisfied with a decision of the NTC, they will come into the square to make it known publicly.
We are seeing the first signs of the NTC keeping power in their own hands; they’ve changed the deadline for elections from eight months to 20, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the self-imposed ban on NTC members standing is reversed. And of course many key figures are neo-liberals. They have a pro-American orientation; for instance they hosted [US Senator and Republican president candidate] John McCain. They want a free market economic system.
As a left-winger, how do you feel about that?
Obviously we would want Libya’s wealth to be distributed in a more equal way. But the question of how the wealth is generated is more complex. A lot of socialists here have asked me about socialist groups in Libya, but there aren’t any. I don’t think politics will develop on that Western pattern, necessarily. You can’t impose a socialist society on people who don’t want it.
I suppose what I’m asking is, now the regime is gone, do you think class struggle in Libya will rise to the surface, and we’ll see the development of workers’ organisations and workers’ struggles?
Look, there is not really much industry in Libya. During the war, oil production stopped completely because it was all staffed by foreign workers, and they ran away. Qaddafi would not trust Libyans with it. The Libyan economy was a sort of, I don’t want to say welfare state, a sort of dependency state, which stopped absolute destitution but kept most people on a very basic subsistence level. The economy was not developed. There was no real manufacturing. Libya has hundreds of miles of Mediterranean beaches, but there was no attempt to create a tourist industry. As in many Arab countries, there was vast unemployment, but for different reasons.
I know this sounds odd, but it’s hard to say what most people did for a living. I’ve asked Libyans about this, and they find it difficult to explain. That’s partly because everyone worked to some extent in the black economy, doing a bit of this, a bit of that, some petty trading, which of course was illegal.
Then there’s the issue of corruption. There’s a new hospital outside Benghazi, for instance, which has been a work in progress for decades! People joke that it’s been under construction as long as Dubai. I doubt more than one twentieth of the money earmarked for it actually made it to the project.
For sure, this may all start to change if the economy is developed. And of course Libyans may take inspiration from the Egyptian and Tunisian examples. Perhaps some of the fake popular organisations and committees run by Qaddafi will now develop a life of their own. But for now I don’t know of any workers’ organisations in Libya.
What is the attitude of most Libyans to socialism?
For Libyans in Libya, it’s associated with Qaddafi. Libyans in Britain have been exposed to different influences, and worked with comrades from the left, so many are more sympathetic. But I must say that the recent period had not helped in this respect.
The bulk of the left has been hostile to us. We’ve had good support on a personal level from the SWP organiser in Manchester, but as an organisation they’ve not worked with us. We asked the Stop the War Coalition to meet us, so that we could work out a common position. We’re not naïve; we expected them to oppose the intervention. We said, fine, let’s disagree on that, but can we work out a common position against Qaddafi, and then you can say no to NATO, no to the regime. In fact they haven’t even replied to our requests, and have refused to condemn Qaddafi. It’s been disgraceful.
Could you say something about the issue of what’s happening to black Africans in Libya?
It’s inexcusable. I regard racism as totally unacceptable; it needs to be stamped out wherever signs of it appear.
There have been summary executions of captured by black soldiers by rebel groups, and harassment of black civilians too. Some rebels believe that all the black Africans fighting were mercenaries, but some were just soldiers in Qaddafi’s army. And of course there are migrant workers who are just trying to earn are living. It is a tragedy of this conflict that many innocent black people have become victims of both sides. The thousands that have fled will need a lot of reassurance to return. We will need to work hard on a program of reconciliation.
Racism in Libya is a sad reflection of the divisions Qaddafi created – but the youth in Libya have a strong desire to change this. We have started workshops in Benghazi to promote anti-racism and integration, and they got a good response among youth.
What’s the role of women in the revolution?
It’s changing. Libyan women tend to be quite strong, but they live in a deeply patriarchal, male-dominated society. Quite a few of the women I’ve met have been very educated but haven’t been able to do much with that until now.
I met a group of women who call themselves the Granddaughters of Mukhtar. [Omar Mukhtar was the leader of the fight against colonisation by Italy, until the Italian authorities hanged him in 1931.] They began by organising support for rebel fighters, cooking a thousand meals a day and so on, but gradually became more and more political in their own right. They started making banners, coming up with slogans, organising demonstrations. I think they’re probably representative of a bigger trend. I was there right at the start, so I’d be very interested to see how that’s developed.
I’d also like to say something about the role of youth. There’s a real culture in Libya of deferring to your elders, which is not only a traditional thing, but the culture the regime fostered of not doing anything without approval from those above you. Even in workshops we ran, it would be mainly young people but only older people would speak. We worked quite hard to overcome this, and once the young people get going they have a lot to say. But the inertia and obstruction from above remain.
I’ll give you an interesting example. In Libya the boy scouts are quite a radical organisation, since they were one of the few spaces under Qaddafi where young people could get together somewhat independently of the regime. And in fact they’ve been in the vanguard of the revolutionary movement. One of the scout leaders in Benghazi produced a statement in support of the revolution, and he wanted to get it co-signed by the scouts and Red Crescent [equivalent of the Red Cross]. But to do that we had to get authorisation from the NTC, and despite our efforts they blocked it all the way.
Of course that’s not just about young people. It’s a more general bureaucratic culture. 42 years of Libyans not being allowed to think for themselves isn’t going to change over night, but it will change.
Can you say something about Islamist influence in the revolution?
When the uprising began, Qaddafi actually let all the Islamists out of prison, because he wanted to strengthen the Islamist element in the uprising for his own propaganda reasons. I met someone from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who had been in Abu Salim who told me this.
The regime called itself Islamic, but was actually very hostile to religious institutions, harassing mosques and so on.
I’m not sure how things will develop. Many Libyans would like more of a Western, secular culture and lifestyle, but a lot are extremely conservative. And that’s not the only division. I myself believe Libya should be an Islamic state, but not as we have seen it elsewhere. Most people in Libya are Muslim, so the state should not be separated from religion, but it should be democratic and oriented towards equality and social justice.
I guess we don’t have time to take this argument too far, but that seems to me a contradiction in terms.
I don’t think so. With every ideal, it’s a matter of implementation; all ideas can be misused and distorted. The fact that repressive regimes have spoken in the name of Islam doesn’t mean that you can’t have a democratic Islamic state.
My husband has just now been involved in setting up a new political party there, Middle Way, which is Islamic but based on social justice. It is focusing on questions such as anti-racism, and also on the environment, which is a huge issue in Libya. The oil economy developed by Qaddafi was extremely destructive ecologically. There is enough desert in Libya that you could easily put up enough solar panels to generate energy for a population the size of Europe, but it will not be done without struggle.
I’d like to say in passing that monarchism is not a serious factor in the situation. Hardly anyone really wants to restore the [pre-Qaddafi] monarchy. People respect Idris [the king overthrown by Qaddafi in 1969] because he led the first united, independent Libyan state, but Libyans do not want a king.
Lastly, what do you think activists in Britain should do about Libya?
The main solidarity Libyans need is ideas about what alternatives are available. Under Qaddafi they had no access to ideas. Now, they’re very excited about new ideas. Of course, there have been plenty of bad influences coming from the West – deals with the regime, big corporations, private security firms. Some of that will intensify. So there is an urgent need for positive counter-influences from the Western left. The more people who can get out there, take literature and get into dialogues with people the better.
In terms of solidarity from a distance, I’m not sure what the best thing to do is. I feel like I need to go back and see what the issues are, see how they’ve developed. But a campaign in the British labour movement is certainly something we’d welcome.