The Coffin and Libya’s War in Chad

The Imtidad Blog has a translation of an excerpt from التابوت (The Coffin) Abdallah al-Ghazal’s 2003 novel on the Libya-Chad ‘Toyota War’. The conflict over the Azou Strip on the southern border between Libya and Chad was a major point in Libya foreign policy in the 1970s and 1980s, with several clashes and interventions from the Libyan side into Chad from 1978 through till 1987. The conflict was eventually settled at high costs for the Libyans especially who lost thousands and thousands of men and lots of materiel (although there are impressive descriptions of the Libyans troops and weapons from north to south over more than a thousand kilometres by air and ground the Libyans were melted in combat and suffered from trouble with their Chadian clients and their politics). The technical component in the war has aroused some interested, as the term ‘Toyota War’ suggests, though the role of air power has been another focus. The history is nowadays neglected, especially since Libya became closely tied to Chad’s leadership after the conflict ended. Academic books have been written on the subject and it features prominently in some works on African geopolitics or Libyan foreign policy in Africa; there do not seem to be many accounts of the fighting on the Libyan side that are easily accessible in general. It is not obscure to Africa or Libya watchers but does not always stand out in the way other African conflicts do.*

In any case, al-Ghazal’s novel is quite worth reading: this reader came across the Arabic version a couple of years ago and finished it in June or July of this year and not being a literary person he is not in a good place to judge its artistic quality. التابوت The Coffin holds attention and gives a sense of what an individual’s experience was like in one of these miserable and needless conflicts you read about in political and security literature or see caricatured in bad cinema (there is actually an awful Pauly Shore comedy (‘In the Army Now’) about a couple of dimwitted American reservists caught in the midsts of a Libyan invasion of Chad). It was worth going through in Arabic. The translated excerpt at Imtidad is decent but if the reader has a sense for Arabic the renderings that may come off as awkward or robotic do make sense and most of it does capture the style and feel of al-Ghazal’s narrative (that is not meant as criticism, given the blocky translations that go up on this site). Hopefully there will be more translations of the book at Imtidad as has been promised. Continue reading

Vandewalle on Qadhafite Reform

On 15 December, Dirk Vandewalle, the great Libya scholar, wrote in the Guardian:

In an earlier article, weeks after Saif’s infamous speech in which he vowed to help crush all opposition, Barber exhorted us to “engage with Saif’s better instincts, for Libya’s sake” (Yes, he’s a Gaddafi. But there is still a real reformer inside, 13 April). Barber, like several other western public intellectuals and well-known academic figures that were brought to Libya to help provide a veneer of respectability to the regime, never really understood what they were up against. His support of Saif – a self-appointed reformer who argued for accountability but, without accountability, spent millions of dollars of his country’s money for his personal enjoyment – was a particularly egregious example.

But nowhere is his lack of understanding of Libya’s reality under Gaddafi so apparent as when he tries to parse Saif’s role in the uprising by asking whether he was “merely a cheerleader for the regime, or … giving orders?” Doesn’t he understand that in a brutal dictatorship like Libya’s, Saif’s privileged position in effect made that distinction purely academic?

Perhaps the point is simply that everyone should desist offering unsolicited advice, and let Libyans get on with the formidable tasks they face in rebuilding a country that, in part because of Saif Gaddafi’s actions, suffered so much. Continue reading

Lacher on the Social Bases of Activity in the Libyan Revolution

Wolfram Lacher has an interesting article (‘Families, Tribes and Cities in the Libyan Revolution,’ at the Middle East Policy Council) on the role of families and tribes in the Libyan revolution, during the struggle against Qadhafi and after. Long and very interesting portions are posted below. Do read the whole thing.  Continue reading

More Links

Some worthwhile links:

An excellent series from The Atlantic on Libya’s Berbers in the wake of the revolution there. Installment one and two are here and here; a third is due Friday.

A backgrounder on AQIM from Cross the Green Mountain.

Lyes Laribi’s history of the Algerian secret services, Du MALG au DRS (in French).

Marc Lynch on ‘The Big Think Behind the Arab Spring,’ where he argues ‘the Arab peoples’ have returned to regional politics and that the Arab uprisings:

generated a marvelous range of innovative tactics (uploading mobile-camera videos to social media like Facebook and Twitter, seizing and holding public squares), they did not introduce any particularly new ideas. The relentless critique of the status quo, the generational desire for political change, the yearning for democratic freedoms, the intense pan-Arab identification — these had all been in circulation for more than a decade. What changed with the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was the recognition that even the worst tyrants could be toppled. It shattered the wall of fear.

Emily Parker on ‘Tunisia’s Election Results and the Question of Minorities,’ focused on Christians and Jews there.

The minority question is important; both in terms of non-Muslim sects and atheists (who are often neglected in questions of minorities in both predominantly Muslim and Christian society, it should be noted) and non-Sunni Muslim sects — which do exist in North Africa, especially in Tunisia (at Djerba), Libya (in Jebel Nafusa) and in Algeria (in Ghardaia). Most of these are Ibadhites though there are smaller numbers of converts to Shi’ism. This sometimes overlaps with rights for ethnic minorities, as North African Ibadhites are usually also Berbers. It will be interesting to see how minority rights issues are resolved in the countries which have recently had uprisings, especially because religious minorities are generally smaler in the Maghreb than in Egypt and the Levant (where there are very large numbers of Christians of multiple denominations), especially as Islamist parties come to the fore in government (and how secular or other non-Islamist parties treat these questions, too).

Finally there is an El Khabar article from yesterday on recent kidnappings in Mali and the Sahel, citing Algerian security sources as it warns of immanent kidnappings and describes AQIM units responsible for kidnapping foreigners and some of the politics between and within them. Below is a short listing of some of the interesting points: Continue reading

Addendum: ‘Thoughts on a Whig Approach to Qadhafi’s Death’

Your blogger outlined his general attitude toward the killing of Qadhafi before. The images and video of his capture and killing are, as others have said, in poor taste and the event is probably symptomatic of the broad challenges facing transitional Libya (in particular, as The Arabist writes, ‘the well-armed, adrenaline pumped youth who now rule the streets’). The attitude of many human rights groups won callous scorn from many people who were glad to hear about Qadhafi’s fate even as they recognized that it did not follow a legal route; and this blogger is still dubious as to its practical importance or effect going forward, as was noted last week. Still, one does feel strange having arrived at that sort of a place. In leisure reading your blogger came across this column (‘Atrocity Pictures’ from ‘As I Please’) by George Orwell from 1944, on the treatment of Nazi collaborators in post-liberation France. It seems relevant to that conversation, which is why this blogger is beating at the dead horse with this post.

Tribune, 8 September 1944

I have before me an exceptionally disgusting photograph, from the Star of August 29, of two partially undressed women, with shaven heads and with swastikas painted on their faces, being led through the streets of Paris amid grinning onlookers. The Star — not that I am picking on the Star, for most of the press has behaved likewise — reproduces this photograph with seeming approval.

I don’t blame the French for doing this kind of thing. They have had four years of suffering, and I can partially imagine how they feel towards the collaborators. But it is a different matter when newspapers in this country try to persuade their readers that shaving women’s heads is a nice thing to do. As soon as I saw this Star photograph, I thought, “Where have I seen something like this before?” Then I remembered. Just about ten years ago, when the Nazi regime was beginning to get into its stride, very similar pictures of humiliated Jews being led through the streets of German cities were exhibited in the British press — but with this difference, that on that occasion we were not expected to approve.

Recently another newspaper published photographs of the dangling corpses of Germans hanged by the Russians in Kharkov, and carefully informed its readers that these executions had been filmed and that the public would shortly be able to witness them at the new theatres. (Were children admitted, I wonder?)

There is a saying of Nietzche which I have quoted before, but which is worth quoting again:

He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.

“Too long,” in this context, should perhaps be taken as meaning “after the dragon is beaten.”


Qadhafi: Not Funny?

Your blogger is usually irritated by efforts to make humor out of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi’s clothes or speeches or whatever other superficialities he used to play the fool with foreigners (some of the ‘Zenga Zenga‘ videos were amusing in a brainless way). Such things are usually more vulgar than amusing, more profane than insightful. Saturday Night Live‘s effort at lampooninging his General Assembly speech, for instance, played into the distraction and offered virtually no satire or humor at all. An even more recent one, where Qadhafi appears on SNL’s fake news program and satirizes the rationale for the American intervention in Libya, manages to get lose its satire in a series 80s jokes and references to Qadhafi’s wardrobe (the jokes about the American domestic debate over the no-fly-zone and Hillary Clinton are so full of pained effort the viewer laughs in pity). These are objections both to the messaging (or absence of messaging) in a great deal of North American humor (supposedly) at Qadhafi’s expense and to its quality as political humor.

Political satire, like much art, is a kind of propaganda. It is best if its authors can recognize that much. When they attempt to do otherwise it damages their craft and the audience’s experience. But many of these attempts, especially SNL’s, are not merely poor pieces of political satire in their constitution; they are also unfunny and not clever as television comedy on their own, which is not a controversial thing to say about Saturday Night Live. ‘The Official Visit,’ an episode of Yes, Minister (ancient, sure)offers a fictionalized satire of western politicians hungry for African business and domestic plaudits bringing wrangling with an ideologically objectionable (though in the end pragmatic) dictator in a way that somewhat closely resembles the rehabilitation of Qadhafi. Characteristic of the series, ‘The Official Visit’ is direct in its invective and offers many laughs (some of them ethnocentric for sure) without losing sight of its political message. Too much contemporary late night political humor is aimless (or tries too hard to say a lot while communicating nothing) and pointless. In any case, unlike recent Qadhafi-humor, the clip above manages to be somewhat funny.

Continue reading

Thoughts on a Whig Approach to Qadhafi’s Death

Well meaning human rights groups and writers watched the humiliation of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi with horror. He faced no charges, stood at no trial and was dumped in a shipping container with a bullet in his head. Pity he could not have faced a trial before the Libyan people or some international authority rather than being ripped up and executed in the street. Your blogger feels this was fitting enough: Qadhafi allowed his own enemies nothing much better. It is reasonable to worry that this might set a precedent for more such revenge killings for his supporters, that this might inspire (or validate) a tendency toward arbitrary mob ‘justice’ in the new Libya. It also the case that in the course of the war there was much of this sort of revenge killing on the fly. Those and the ones which may happen now and in the future are quite significant. Qadhafi’s death itself is emotionally satisfying but politically somewhat beside the point. The ‘tide’ had turned in Libya no later than the capture of Tripoli; building institutions (which it is now commonplace to say Qadhafi left none) and monopolising the use of force is paramount now. As Paul Pillar notes, Qadhafi was not Napoleon and his elimination does not alter things for the new authorities in Libya any more than the capture of Saddam Hussein did for Americans in Iraq. Continue reading