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Thursday, 17th April 2014

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Libya: 42 years of oppression?

Having lived and worked in Libya from 2 weeks after the Revolution (or coup, as opponents call it) of September 1st 1969 for several years up until 1980, I feel I am able to provide some testimony as to the nature and achievements of the new regime that swept away a corrupt monarchy which condemned the majority of Libyans to poverty.

Whatever may be said about Gadaffi, I cannot understand how so many are referring to 42 years of oppression when, as I recall, the new leadership was greeted with something like euphoria in 1969 especially by the young some of whom I was teaching. I clearly remember my classes being cut short by my pupils eagerly streaming out of the classroom to join massive pro-government demonstrations.
 
The new authority calling itself The Revolutionary Command Council initiated a socialist programme- first nationalising the oil companies, fixing a minimum wage, extending the welfare and health systems and slashing the obscene rents being charged by property owners. A limit was imposed on the rents that landlords could charge, fixing maximum rents at about one third of the pre-revolutionary level.  Tripoli untill then had been the most expensive city in the Middle East. Many large properties were taken over and let to the people at low rents. The vast sprawling shanty town just outside Tripoli was torn down and replaced by new workers' housing projects. The Kingdom of Libya became The Libyan Arab Republic and shortly after was re-named The Libyan Arab Socialist Jamahariyah (or State of the Masses).

Later, a law was enacted making it illegal to own more than one house. I can recall an argument in one class with a student who attacked Gadaffi for this, with myself defending the law saying it would solve the housing problem in my country.

With only about 20% literacy in 1969, by 1980 this had increased to over 90%. Education was given priority with a large proportion of the oil wealth being spent on new schools and colleges.

The new government quickly demonstrated its anti-imperialist credentials by kicking the Americans out of the huge Wheelus Air Base for which they never forgave Gadaffi as it was their key base in the Mediterranean. Similarly Britain was expelled from its military base at El Adem, and the days on which these events happened became national holidays. In the first year the large Italian community which owed its origin to the fascist occupation was expelled from the country, and the commercial life of Tripoli which Italians had dominated came under the control of Libyans.
 
Libya joined the socialist countries in giving support and aid to anti-imperialist movements, especially to the Palestinian cause and the struggle of the ANC against the apartheid regime in South Africa. It should be noted that Colonel Gadaffi was the first national leader whom Nelson Mandela visited after his release. When criticised for doing this, he countered by saying that Libya above all other countries had given the most support to the anti-apartheid movement and he wanted to thank the Libyan leader for this.
 
Gadaffi outlined his concept of government in 'The Green Book', which essentially was an attempt to establish a form of government not based on representative institutions but on Peoples' Commitees which are supposed to deliver a form of grass roots directly participatory democracy. How effective this has been is difficult to assess, but it appears to have been a genuine attempt to empower ordinary Libyans.
 
To say, as many in the media and Libyan dissidents are claiming, that Libyans have been enduring 42 years of oppression since 1st September 1969 is not borne out by my own experience of living and working in Libya. During the four years I spent there between 1969 and 1980 at different periods I never sensed any atmosphere of repression. In fact the few Libyans I did encounter who criticised the government did not appear afraid to voice their opinions and among the large number I  mixed with, including the many Libyan friends my wife and I had, most expressed their support.

There are claims that the east, particularly Benghazi, has not received equal treatment with the west of Libya and that a feeling of being discriminated against in more recent years has led to the growth of an opposition which saw the events in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt as an opportunity to rise up against the regime. This may be the case, though it seems likely that Gadaffi still commands widespread support in the rest of Libya, especially Tripoli where the majority of the population live. The army, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, has stayed largely loyal to the government and continues to fight bravely in spite of the airstrikes by NATO countries.
 
Some will say that my experience of life in Libya was 31 years ago and that a lot could have changed since then and I have to accept that my knowledge of the history of the new Libya since 1980 is very limited. But I think that we need to be very suspicious of some of the negative propaganda furnished by the Western media.

The conviction of Al Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing is almost certainly unsafe as it is far more likely to have been the work of Iran and the evidence presented was totally inadequate, which is the view of some of the victims' families. Many of the stories we read about are unsubstantiated, though it does seem that an Islamist insurgency in the 1990's was put down pretty ferociously and that a number of prisoners taken during that conflict were shot during a riot at Abu Salim prison. The figure of 1,000 put out by dissidents is no doubt a huge exaggeration. The riot as far as can be ascertained started after some prison guards were held hostage.

The assault on Libya has nothing to do with 'humanitarianism'. It has gone far beyond Security Council Resolution 1973 in taking sides with the anti-government forces in what is clearly a civil war. Now Cameron and Sarkozy are clamouring to actually arm the rebels, or should we call them insurgents, and US officials have admitted that CIA ground forces have been operating inside Libya for several weeks. This is an imperialist intervention, with the aim of regaining Western control of a Third World country.