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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And welcome to the first part of our series on the modern history of Libya. And joining us to discuss this is Ali Ahmida. He’s a professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. He specializes in the anti-colonial resistance of–and the history of modern Libya. He’s the author of The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonialization and Resistance and Forgotten Voices: Power and Agency in Colonial and Post-Colonial Libya. Thanks for joining us, Ali.


JAY: So to understand what’s going on today in Libya, one obviously needs to know the history. So let’s start with pre-Gaddafi coup. Gaddafi comes to power in 1969. Set the stage for us. How do we get to the conditions in 1969 that gives rise to the–Gaddafi’s successful coup?

AHMIDA: Okay. Let’s try to make sense of, in a few words, a complex and long, long period. What the viewers need to know is Libya had a different colonial experience. It was colonized between 1911 and 1943 by Italy, the only North African Arab country that was colonized by Italy. And it was really not like the colonization of Tunisia and Egypt or Morocco. This is one of the most brutal colonial experiences, especially under the fascists, than any other experience in Africa, with the exception, maybe, of Algeria and the Congo.

JAY: What’s an example of what you’re calling the most brutal colonialization?

AHMIDA: We know that between 1911 and 1943, half a million Libyans perished due to this colonization, including, we think, between 65,000 in concentration camps in the region that was called Surt desert. And, actually, the town of Agheila, which is being mentioned in the news quite often. And people were put–the whole civilian population of eastern Libya that’s revolting against the Gaddafi’s regime were moved, deported by ships and on foot to the desert of Surt, and they were put there for four years. The Italian did not gas them. Many of them died, including children and elderly, because they had no food, and they died because of diseases. The cemeteries that I had researched in the last ten years, every year there were horrific. So the first thing we need to realize: this is a very vicious, brutal, genocidal colonization. The consequences of this colonization did not die. Actually, when Libya was–became an independent state,you know, [inaudible] by the United Nations and the UK and the United States in 1951, they created a federal monarchy, a very conservative, very pro-West. And it had given military bases to the United States and UK. The memory, the scars, and the trauma of the Italian colonization has been suppressed. You don’t talk much about it, just in brief, and you try to [inaudible] move on.

JAY: But when was it clear, the extent of Libyan oil reserves?

AHMIDA: The oil was discovered in 1960. And then Libya became–changed from one of the poorest countries in the whole continent of Africa and the Middle East to one of the richest in the 1960s. And oil helped the monarchy create a unified state and unified Libya, the three region of Libya, Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica or Barqah in the east, and Fezzan in the south. Now, the monarchy started a tremendous modernization program, especially in education and health. But because it was very, very much conservative and pro-West, it’s really the forces of the youth that educated as Gaddafi [inaudible] as Gaddafi now, where really–were swept by the memory of their grandmothers and grandfathers, and also by the Arab nationalism, you know, advocated by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. So political parties were banned. You know, suppression of that trauma and scars of the colonial period were not really expressed much. And the junior officers in the Libyan army toppled the monarchy in September 1, 1969. And the new regime that was led by 12 junior officers from all over Libya, collective leadership that headed around 300 officers, who–within the Libyan army. They created a populist, very popular regime that called for getting rid of the military bases, introduced welfare system for middle and lower classes.

JAY: Which–what military bases are you talking about?

AHMIDA: Well, you’re talking about American and British military bases. Libya was–the monarchy in Libya was really very much a base against [communism], anticommunism, and during the Cold War. And the–also, the new, populist military regime was very popular for the first decade. It also negotiated very well with the oil multinational corporations that, according to most Libyans, abused and really exploited Libyan oil sector. So we’re talking about the emergence of a truly populist new regime with social program that geared for middle and lower classes. But above all, Paul, that’s what’s missing from our coverage, bringing Libyan society in, and not the silly idea of tribalism or Gaddafi or oil, and not [inaudible] anything about that experience. The new military regime, especially Gaddafi, expressed that repressed anger against colonialism, against the exploitation under the fascists. And that became, really, one of the symbolic cultural avenues for getting legitimacy, in addition to economic and social programs. And Libyan women began and Libyan young men began to from the countryside, from a lower-class background, began to find more chances to have a modern, basic houses, education, and health care.

JAY: So is it fair to say after the first decade of Gaddafi’s led coup, that for that first decade, the regime more or less did express the democratic or popular will of the people?

AHMIDA: Absolutely. And, actually, I would–I would go even further. The legitimacy of the regime still relies on the achievement in the first decade. Many Libyans, they really–I think now the regime is bankrupt and isolated, but up until 1980, this is–we’re talking about the Cuba of Africa. This is really a very much a progressive, populist regime, that even though it did not tolerate political parties, but was supported by large, large number of Libyans.

JAY: So what happens?

AHMIDA: What happened is that the Gaddafi regime, you know, faced dissent from within. The 12 members of the revolutionary coup d’etat that happened in 1969 split in 1975. And some, they want to focus on building Libya; Gaddafi’s faction wants to do a, you know, Pan-Arab kind of vision. And that split led to a counter-coup within the RCC [Libyan Revolutionary Command Council], and Gaddafi emerged victorious, with five members sided with him. The others were either pushed into exile or put in house arrest.

JAY: The split takes place. It sounds like it was quite–resolved in the end quite violently. What was the actual issue the split was over?

AHMIDA: There are lots of details we don’t know. What we know, because Omar Heisi, one of the members who fled to Egypt, and others who wrote about it in the media, they split about whether really to have a Pan-Arabist policy exporting the Libyan–what they–is called the Libyan Revolution abroad, or to focus on building Libya internally and having more rationalization and institutionalization of the 1969–what they regarded as the Fateh Revolution.

JAY: So more or less during this period, you’re still describing this period as primarily positive in terms of the achievements of the regime. So when do you start to see a deterioration?

AHMIDA: Okay. Now, this is very interesting, because by 1980, Gaddafi consolidated his power and began to really fear any dissent within the army. So he began to dissolve the army. And also he began to experiment with something I called pastoral socialism, based on his Green Book, which is really–led economically to the disastrous results. He tried to right economy, get rid of a lot of institutions there. And everything in term of slogan was geared toward applying the principle of The Green Book. At the same time, in term of [inaudible] he began to be really–he and the groups that supported him began to be very fearful and suspicious of the–any formal institutions. So more institutions were really undermined, and the trade unions, the student unions, the writers unions, the journalist unions, the doctors, and other members of these independent unions that grew out of the monarchy and survived until late ’70s were undermined, and he began to agitate for his own version of socialism.

JAY: Now, to put it in some global context, the Cold War is very hot. Gaddafi has been playing a role in Africa and other places, where he’s supplying arms and some money to national liberation movements, many of whom at least from a US point of view, are sympathetic to a socialist model and have sometimes links with the Soviet Union. So he’s picked a real fight, globally.

AHMIDA: He had the leverage of mobilize his own social base in Libya. And the fact that the oil revenues, I should say, allowed him to have a little bit of immunity inside Libya. It’s almost the government, you know, revenues are not coming from taxation, but basically from the rentier oil revenues.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of the interview, we’ll pick up the story from more or less a government or regime that more or less is popular amongst its people and is sharing some of the benefits of the oil wealth and taking a stand in support of national liberation movements. So how do we get from there to a government where it seems most of the population wants to get rid of. So please join us for the next segment of our series on the modern history of Libya on The Real News Network.

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Ali Ahmida is a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. His specialty is political theory, comparative politics, and historical sociology of power, agency and anti-colonial resistance in North Africa, especially modern Libya. He is the author of The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization and Resistance (1994) in addition to numerous articles. He is editor of Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in the Maghrib: History, Culture and Politics (2000).