Qaddafi’s People’s Temple

The final weeks of Muammar Qaddafi’s violent and coercive life reminded me vividly of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple Cult. It was obvious from late last August that Qaddafi had lost. The people in his own capital of Tripoli rose up against him in all but a few small neighborhoods, courageously defying his murderous elite forces.

Qaddafi had on more than one been occasion offered exile abroad, but sneaked off to his home town of Sirte to make a suicidal last stand. His glassy-eyed minions determinedly fired every last tank and artillery shell they had stockpiled right into the city that sheltered them in order to stall the advancing government troops. This monumentally stupid last stand turned Sirte into Beirut circa the 1980s, as gleaming edifices deteriorated into Swiss cheese and then ultimately blackened rubble. Qaddafi had favored Sirte with magnificent conference centers and wood-paneled conference rooms even as he starved some Eastern cities of funds, and in his death throes he took all his gifts back away from the city of his birth, making it drink the tainted Kool-Aid of his maniacal defiance of reality.

Among the attackers were citizen militias from Misrata, the city of 600,000 that Qaddafi had determinedly besieged, subjecting its civilian population to cluster bombs and tank and artillery shells, even bombing it from the air before the UNSC intervened. The Security Council strictly instructed him to cease attacking his own population simply because they had come out to peacefully protest his rule. Qaddafi’s siege turned a Tahrir-like popular uprising into a civil war, as inexperienced young civilians in the surrounded city took up arms to fight off the armored Khamis Brigades and save their parents and younger siblings from the awful ire of the dread enforcers of Qaddafi’s malevolent will.

His defiance of the UNSC order turned him into a recognized war criminal, for which he was indicted by the ICC. But of course the bomber of PanAm 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the butcher of Abu Salim prison, the aggressor against neighboring Chad, and the fomenter of wars, tyranny and strife in Sierra Leone and Liberia, had long been a war criminal when few would mouth the words in public.

It is hard to see how the UNSC desire that the civilian population be protected from him could have been implemented solely on a defensive basis. As long as he had an offensive capability he would clearly deploy it, piling up towers of innocents’ skulls. Once he besieged and murdered the non-combatants of Misrata and Zawiya so mercilessly, all bets were off. He began with 2,000 tanks, which he sent against the demonstrators. When he had almost no tanks left, he was done, reduced to secreting himself in a sewage drain.

In contrast to Qaddafi’s encirclement of Misrata for months and use of cluster bombs in areas where children lived, the Transitional National Council troops advancing in Sirte regularly pulled back to allow local residents to evacuate, attempting to convince them to join the new Libya. Qaddafi never did a similar favor to civilians in Misrata or Zawiya.

The last stand at Sirte was very like Jim Jones’s last stand in the jungles of Guyana. Jones was an American religious leader who gradually went mad, demanding more and more sacrifice and obedience from the members of his People’s Temple congregation, which then gradually became a cult. I define a cult as a group wherein the leader makes very high demands for obedience and self-sacrifice, and the values of which diverge from those of mainstream society. When the outside world seemed clearly to be pursuing the People’s Temple into Guyana, with a Congressmen showing up in Jonestown to rescue a handful of adherents who wanted to go home, Jones reacted with fury, first sending a militia to kill the congressman and the defectors, and then instructing his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. Many were injected with cyanide laced with liquids or shot. Those who would not agree voluntarily to be “translated” to the next world together with their messianic leader would be subjected to the ultimate coercion.

Qaddafi’s stand at Sirte underlined the cultish character of his politics, with the Revolutionary Committees and Khamis Brigades resembling the enforcers in Jim Jones’s encampment. The tragic episode highlights the irrationality, fanaticism, violence and tyranny of his acolytes.

It would have been better had Qaddafi been left alive to stand trial. The exact circumstances of his death are murky, but it appears that some of his loyalists may have attempted to rescue him from government troops and he died in the firefight or was dispatched lest he be sprung from captivity and serve as a rallying point for the remaining handful of cultists.

Those who expect Libya now to fragment, or to turn into a North African Baghdad, are likely to be disappointed. It is improbable that Qaddafi’s cult will long survive him, at least on any significant scale. Libya has no sectarian divides of the Sunni-Shiite sort. Almost everyone is a Sunni Muslim. It does have an ethnic divide, as between Arabs and Berbers. But the Berbers are bilingual in Arabic, and are in no doubt as to their Libyan identity. The Berbers vigorously joined in the revolution and more or less saved it, and are very likely to be richly rewarded by the new state.

The east-west divide only became dire because Qaddafi increasingly showed favoritism toward the west. A more or less democratic government that spreads around the oil largesse more equitably could easily overcome this divide, which is contingent and not structural.

Libyan identity is not in doubt, and most Libyans are literate and have been through state schools. Most Libyans live in cities where tribal loyalties have attenuated.

There will be conflicts, and factionalism is a given. The government is a mess, with only a small bureaucracy and limited pools of persons with management skills. But oil states in the Gulf facing similar problems back in the 1960s and 1970s just imported Egyptian bureaucrats and managers, and Egypt and Tunisia have a surplus of educated potential managers who face under-employment of their skills at home. Oil states most often generate enough employment not only for their own populations but for a large expatriate work force as well. Just as the pessimists were surprised to find that post-Qaddafi Tripoli was relatively calm and quickly overcame initial problems of food, water and services, so they are likely to discover that the country as a whole muddles through.

The new government already is gaining significant resources from oil production. In September, the TNC was pumping 100,000 barrels a day. It is now doing 200,000 b/d, and analysts expect it to pump 500,000 b/d by January.

The final defeat of Qaddafi and Qaddafism is a victory for the Fourth Wave of democratization that began in Tunisia and continued in Egypt. There is now a contiguous bloc of 100,000,000 Arabs in North Africa who have thrown off dictatorship and aspire to parliamentary government (Tunisia’s elections are coming up on Sunday). Those who dismiss this movement because Muslim religious forces will benefit are exhibiting a double standard. Roman Catholicism benefited from Third Wave democracy movements like those in Poland and Brazil, as did Eastern Orthodoxy. Were democracy to break out in Burma, Theravada Buddhism would benefit. So what?

The Arab League, President Obama and NATO have been vindicated in their decision to forestall the massacre of eastern Libyan cities such as Benghazi. The region’s remaining bloodthirsty tyrants, who have not scrupled to massacre non-combatants for exercising their right of peaceable assembly and protest, should take the lesson that mass murder is a one-way ticket for them to the sewage drain of history. As I told the NYT today, ““The real lesson here is that there is a new wave of popular politics in the Arab world… People are not in the mood to put up with semi-genocidal dictators.”

I saw George Friedman of the Stratfor group on Erin Burnett’s CNN magazine show rather apocalyptically predicting a Baghdad on the Mediterranean in Libya. Those with investment capital who short Libya out of such overblown concerns will only be missing a big opportunity. The Transitional National Council needs our support now, and the new, liberated Libya will remember who befriended it in these uncertain times. The bulls are running in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

61 Responses

  1. Maybe the ancient salted wound can finally begin to heal with the dilution brought by the waters of democracy.

    • He already did that in the body of the post. The term comes from Jim Jone’s command that his followers commit mas suicide by drinking poison laden Kool-Aid.

    • When it was clear all was lost, Jim Jones ordered a mass suicide of his followers. The method, poisoned Kool-Aid (an American instant drink mix).

      • In current speech, “koo-aid drinkers” refers to adherents of an ideology or policy who are resistant to any rational criticism thereof.

        • And a little unfortunate for Kool-Aide. I believe the actual brand Jim Jones used was Flavor-Aide.

        • Must be why its sometimes seen in reference to Obama

          I can’t recall seeing/hearing it prior to Obama, I thought it was linked to his preference to “shooting hoops” rather than working.

    • Unless I’m mistaken the origin of Kool-Aid drinking as methatphor lies back in the mist of 1960’s “Acid Tests,” when the LSD was put in the ‘punch.’

  2. After Israel bombs Iran, possibly early next year, a barrel of oil will hit tripile digits. Libya, and insiders on wall street, are going to make some serious coin.

  3. Juan,

    Have you had any contact with Libyan TNC leadership? Do you plan to? For a country with such a dearth of existing institutions, it seems like someone such as yourself could provide some valuable perspective. At the very least, I’m sure they’ll be offered plenty of “help” from various Western parties and institutions, and you might make an effective intermediary.

    Greg

  4. While sectarianism in Libya is not a major divisive factor as it is in Iraq or Lebanon, it’s misleading to say that “almost everyone is a Sunni Muslim.” In fact Libya’s Berber tribes and some of their Arab neighbors in Libya’s Jabal Nafusa region, southwest of Tripoli, are Ibadhi Muslims, who traditionally view Sunnis as “ingrates who deny God’s grace” (kuffār al-ni‘ma). But their theological rejection of Sunni Islam did not stop the Ibadhi tribes of the Jabal Nafusa from joining the resistance. As Juan points out, the people of the Jabal Nafusa played a key role in the overthrow of Qaddafi and his regime. In the Middle East, as in many other parts of the world (including the US), religion is an important factor in politics and society — but it does not explain everything.

  5. While I appreciate your insights about the last stand of the regime’s side, I am at the same time afraid that by focussing on that side’s action and likening them to a death-cult we inadvertently may be sidestepping the question of culpability of the other side and NATO forces and their backers in political and media circles.

  6. I would love for you to do a post on why the left should support the TNC and Libya now more than ever. There will be a political hole if we aren’t there to fill it. It will be a deep wound for us, and a self-fulfilling prophecy if we aren’t a part of their future (in some ways I think some in the left want it to happen, and want Libya to fall apart into despotism, but we cannot allow that to happen).

    The Libyan people are a good people. Thanks for following it Juan. It’s been a long ride.

    • I agree with Josh, we need some clear and articulate arguments for the Left to support the democratization process. I can’t tell you how much carping I’ve been getting about “globalist conspiracies” and “just another oil war” .. and yes, I’m disappointed to say, I’ve gotten it a lot among the Occupy Chicago crowd when I protest with them. If the American Left doesn’t stand up on this we’ll throw away an opportunity as significant as the one we threw away in the aftermath of the Iraqi Invasion/Occupation.

    • Don’t worry Josh, the New Left will be there – Putin, Hu Jintao, Erdogan, the EUSSR are already pumping.

      Given the support the Old Left gave to Gaddafi, and the support he gave to Old Left terrorist groups such as the IRA and Red Brigades it might be better if the Old Left stayed out for a change.

  7. But what about the racial divide between lighter skinned and black Libyans? I keep seeing reports that the rebels have been massacring black Libyans and that Tawergha was wiped off the map. Can you address these issues?

    • There are very few black Libyans, and some of them joined the revolution. This is not a significant divide of the sort Sunni/Shiite is in Iraq.

    • Most of the people in places like Tawergha and further south in the irrigation schemes were African migrant workers – although some had been in Libya for decades.

      A few weeks ago I saw a report (AJ I think) that claimed a lot of black African migrant workers fled into Niger & Mali, they were trying to get home to Nigeria, Ghana etc. If Libyans were Europeans they’d be accused of Ethnic Cleansing – double standards are alive and well as usual.

  8. You say that the minions of Gaddafi turned Sirte into a swiss cheese. That is clearly wrong. The Gaddafi loyalists had sniper positions in the apartments which were mortared and bombed from outside the city. Otherwise some good points.

    • No Frank. The Qaddafi forces had tanks and artillery that they fired into the city

      • so the BBC and AJ journalists were actually standing alongside Qaddafi forces when they showed guys on “technicals” firing RPGs, Grads, Anti Aircraft fire and Tank rounds and into Sirte.

        Sorry I thought they said they were “rebels”, they must have said they were “loyals”. I’m sure one of the guys waiting to fire his RPG said he was with the Misrata Forces.

        Ah well, as WC said “in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

  9. What about the economic implications in all of this? How will the IMF and western banking interests be met? Will the natural resources of Libya (ie. OIL) be distributed to the Libyans or will some other players step in and “make a buck”? Will average Libyans see a decrease in their daily caloric intake and will life expectancies decline? Lastly, I have seen some statistics which indicate Libya had one of the highest standards of living on the Continent, could this be in jeopardy? That being said, it is known that Qaddafi was vile.

    • Foreign Oil companies have played a major role in developing Libya’s Oil for some time, principally Eni (Italian), Totale (French) and Repsol (Spain), BP has a license to explore for gas off shore, China has some so far unproductive leases. Some big US oil services companies (eg Haliburton and KBR) have been operating in Libya since about 2004.

      Some oil analysts believe Libya’s oil reserves have been significantly (a couple even say massively) over estimated.

      Unlike other dictators (Mubarak, Marcos, Suharto etc) Gaddafi didn’t hide all of Libya’s oil wealth behind a myriad of trusts and shelf companies. That’s why quite a of Libya’s offshore reserves was fairly easy to freeze in US, Italy, UK & Switzerland etc – some of it has already been given to the TNC.

  10. The lesson in all this is never make peace with the Americans. They will stab you in the back. It wasn’t the ‘rebels’ who overthrew Qaddafi but NATO. (According the NY Times it was a French warplane and one of those famous American predator drones that hit his convoy thus allowing for the lynching to take place). This was regime change.

    Will the natural resources of Libya (ie. OIL) be distributed to the Libyans or will some other players step in and “make a buck”?

    The French have been promised a lot of it. It’s been widely reported in the French media and one of Sarko’s ministers has already bragged about it. Whether this will come to pass is another matter.

      • I love your response Juan. Elegantly succinct. Without the Libyans willing to risk all in full revolution, NATO’s airstrikes would just have been a precursor to a Gaddafi terrorism campaign.

    • The TNC has said several times that it will honor existing agreements. Call him what you will, but the deals Qaddafi had with the European oil majors delivered a much better share to Libya than countries like Nigeria, Angola and Sudan get. The underground river project was built without ANY borrowed money, not a single red or otherwise cent

      Sarko’s minister is bragging about something that has nothing to do with the fall of Qaddafi. Totale already has major oil concessions in Libya, along with Eni and Repsol. Eni started pumping oil to Benghazi a couple of weeks ago.

      Sarkozy’s minister wouldn’t know what he’s talking about, his motivation is to try to to rescue his boss from the jaws of defeat in next years election. That’s what NATO’s intervention was really about – Sarkozy’s re-election and Cameron being Bliar-like whilst not being like Bliar.

      Libya’s oil industry, unlike those of countries like Russia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Brazil etc is not a wholly owned state enterprise. The oil companies pay something like a resource rent tax to the government.

  11. I`m a Berber from Morocco and we have a growing number of secular Berber Fascist. They interpret all shortcomings in my country to Arabism or Pan-Arabism. Even when we are ruled by a francophone Elite with less or practically reference to Arabia.They get monetary funding from the French. Just look at several Youtube Clips which willfully portray the libyan revolution as an anti-arab revolution.

    Sorry for my bad english.

    • Hi, Fonzy

      It’s OK, I can understand you fine, but I can’t find the YouTube clips (suspect they’ve been swamped recently). Can you give some more specific pointers?

      J

  12. Not more than two hours passed after Qadaffi’s death was conformed before a whole parade of totally discredited neo-con’s began showing up on Fox News to breathlessly decry the potential pitfalls of the regime’s collapse – as they did after the people of Tunisia and then Egypt overthrew their own dictators.

    Perhaps Andy Borowitz best described the right wing response: “Former Vice-President Dick Cheney also congratulated the Libyan people, releasing the following official statement: ‘With Gaddafi gone, Libya’s right to determine its future is now safely in the hands of multinational oil companies.'”

  13. Reading Juan Cole in contrast to Justin Raimondo on this is something fascinating. Talk about having angles! One is forced to concede that the talk is talk and only time will reveal what happened and what is happening. Well, even then, reveal is too generous. Much truth will never be “revealed”. More like time will show which narrative came to dominate and carry the day. What seems to be at stake is another form of tyranny versus a possible democracy. I’ll bet it ends up (talking years here) with the window dressing of the latter but the authoritarianism of the former.

  14. Libya isn’t going to become the next Iraq, that’s true.

    It’s going to become the next Nigeria.

    Also, it’s a mistake to blow off the racism of the Libyan “rebels” and the organized persecution of immigrant communities from places like Tchad and Niger.

    The new regime is already well into its own crimes.

  15. Interesting how a UN initiative to protect innocent civilians culminated in the triumphal killing of Qaddafi. An event that that never would have occurred without NATO’s modest contribution of 26,000 air sorties. Soon after the UN initiative, it became very obvious that NATO (US included) established regime change as the objective.

    Once “protecting civilians” changed to “regime change”, Qaddafi’s demise became inevitable – if not on October 20, then at some later date and a few thousand more NATO sorties. Now starts the war for economic and social egalitarianism, a battle for which NATO and its key Pentagon member have not so much as a cap gun to bring to the fray.

    Qaddafi won’t be missed, but its better than even money that ten years from now, today’s new Libyan leadership won’t be missed either.

  16. Gaddafi was captured by government troops. He then turns up with a bullet hole in his head. So, the most LIKELY explanation is that he was killed in a crossfire from his loyalists trying to rescue him? Is that really more likely than one of his captors, having plenty reason to be vengeful, simply shot him in the head? Why is the more elaborate scenario more likely?

    • The doctor in the ambulance said there was no exit wound from the head shot. That doesn’t sound like point blank to me.

  17. If Jones had been left alone in Guyana, would his religion possibly have become in Guyana something like what the Mormons are now in the US?

  18. The major issue that everyone failed to bring up in their commentary on Libya is the crisis of unequal development within countries. It’s caused tragedies before; the Kwangju massacre in 1980 South Korea crushed a rebellion that arose from the junta’s concentration of capital in the Seoul region at the cost of places like Pusan. Many countries are ruled by an elite from a particular region, cronies of the dictator.

    The obvious solution for distributing state oil proceeds is to cut an equal-sized check for every citizen. Since Alaska has long been doing that, the US can hardly object to Libya doing the same.

    • Alaska didn’t start with a check. It started with a “Permanent Fund”, oil money socked away annually. The check came as a way of giving the people an interest in keeping the politicians from blowing the Permanent Fund. Give the people money and they will have a stake in keeping the politicians from “raiding the permanent fund.” Thus the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend.

    • maybe Kwang-ju (770+ students killed by the Korean national police) had something to do with General Chun overthrowing the government a few months earlier ?

      I was in the US Army in Korea during the riots, and I had no idea at the time what had happened. total news embargo.
      But from what is published today, I question your analysis.

  19. “…but it appears that some of his loyalists may have attempted to rescue him from government troops and he died in the firefight or was dispatched lest he be sprung from captivity…”

    That’s not critical thinking but letting your heart string tug at you. It appears that he was captured, treated vengefully and summarily executed. Of course, there may have been a rescue attempt, or an escape attempt, or other provocation from Qaddafi. But based on the video, and the bullet hole to the temple, the execution theory is most likely. And, of course, it is completely understandable which bolsters it more.

    • you weren’t there and don’t have the slightest idea what happened. At least I was working off an actual news report. You are just making things up.

      • RT Television broadcast a report in which a militiaman said that he shot Qaddafi (and took a ring off his finger too). Clearly Qaddafi was beaten and then summarily executed. His son was also taken alive, then killed. Let’s be realistic. After Iraq, “news reports” of the corporate media must be treated with deep skepticism.

        • Coming from the individual referencing the state controlled rt channel, a channel so poor that one of the “experts” that they got to explain the situation in libya was a mentally disturbed woman called Susan Lindauer.

  20. There are a few people around the world breathing a very special sigh of relief. As an exiled leader, used to compliant obedience, Khadafy would have been the houseguest fr/ Hell. His sub-Saharan remoras would have been financially hard-pressed to accommodate him in the style he’d have demanded. (And the change in the overlord–liege relationship would have been awkward!) Daniel Ortega probably wouldn’t have had the domestic political capital to shelter him. The Castros (to save face) might have had to take him and damage their (slightly) improving international standing–making them the most (covertly) grateful of all Muammar’s fellow tyrants. Chavez has the means and domestic standing, but would have tired quickly of the Libyan’s antics. And probably knows it and thanks who/whatever he may thank for sparing him his old friend’s annoying company.

    There’s bitter humor in even some of the most serious situations!

  21. Exactly right super390, the new Libyan government should set up some type of oil revenue sharing plan similar to what we have had in Alaska these past 30 years. However, I am not sure this will stop conservatives (Palin incuded) from calling it evil soshalamism.

    • Yeah, its also like what they have in Saudi Arabia, sitting down money, as I recall most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi’s.

      Give the Libyan people the opportunity to enjoy the dignity of having a meaningful job paying a reasonable wage.

      Libya should use oil revenues to develop infrastructure, educate its people, invest in a future proofing sovereign wealth fund and diversify its economy.

      People don’t want a hand out, they want a hand up – who said that, I forget.

  22. I have been reading comments about Libya at the NYT, Salon, Politico and so on. Knees are jerking wildly to the left and the right. I thought I would make a few points here because this is a more intelligent and civilized forum.

    1. OIL: This was not about oil, we could have bought K’Daffy’s* oil any time we wanted. Yes, there will soon be oil contracts signed. The Libyans want to increase production and why shouldn’t they. This is not a case of western imperialists trying to steal their oil, Lyndsey Graham excepted. Contracts will be signed on the Libyans terms and what is wrong with that.

    2. “WE DON”T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS NEW GOVERNMENT!” Correction: You don’t know anything and you don’t care to learn. Look up their interim constitution and read their bios. We have been working closely with them for many months and based on the their words and actions so far, they seem to have their heads on straight. Also, the whole “Arabs aren’t ready for democracy” thing smacks of racism.

    Caveat: The future is always uncertain but because of the way this uprising played out, I think the Libyans have a much better chance at having a stable democracy in a few years than either Iraq or Afghanistan. So far, I am optimistic.

    * I prefer the Warner Brothers spelling.

    • It might be underestimating the Arabs or it might be based on thinking that there are conditions of education and literacy, economic development and distribution, or “acceptance on the norms of compliance” which would facilitate acceptance of power-sharing and allow for those “losing” on an issue to accept the lose and continue to participate.

      it might be right or wrong, made in wisdom or foolishness, racist assumptions or simply assessing a situation based upon assumptions concerning Democracy rather more than assumptions concerning Arabs.

      crying racism sometimes is based on little more than assumptions also.

  23. Obama played it by the numbers. He got the no-fly zone, got the allies, went to the UN, and started the bombing runs because Qaddafi threatened a massacre. Above all, he acted because this was a truly popular uprising. And now the war’s over, at least the anti-Qaddafi part. It was an unqualified success for Obama–and frankly, I think the Repubs are attracting bad press for not giving him credit.

    And it was simply the right thing to do, one of those rare times (as in Serbia/Kosovo) when the US and the UN did the right thing. For the sake of the Libyan people, I’m glad they won, and I’m glad their brave struggle is over.

    Now, about that Kool Aid…

    “Drinking the Kool-Aid” is one of those American metaphors that resonates powerfully, partly because of its sinister derivation. During the 1960s apotheosis of mind-altering substances, Kool-Aid was the favorite medium for the dissemination of street LSD. (See “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe, about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.) It was supposed to set you free, create community, etc. etc. Later, however, the Kool-Aid was revealed to contain poison, when it entered the popular imagination after being administered as part of Jim Jones’ putative Last Rites.

    The lesson being, salvation rarely comes in a glass.

  24. If only people think before writing non-sense apocalyptic predictions as if they possess a magic crystal ball. If only they know history of their own nations, maybe they can get a broader picture. The French revolution did not produce democracy in one day. It took 100 years to establish the beginning of a modern state with democratic values. So if Libya becomes a democracy in a broader sense in 50 years, that is a success, but I believe it would take faster than that, given international institutions and the speed of information. The most important thing is not us, but what we can do now for the next generations to live in a better world. As long Libyans kids in 30 years remember the hardship of their grandparents, they would continue to cherish their freedom and protect their country against all types of tyranny.

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