Setting the record straight on Libya

Issue 

The continuing terror against Libya
By Fan Yew Teng
Kuala Lumpur: Egret Publications, 1993. 119 pp.
Reviewed by Pip Hinman

Apart from Jonathan Bearman's 1986 scholarly work, Qadhafi's Libya, there has been very little published about this north African country of 3 million people which has dared to thumb its nose at the West. This makes Fan Yew Teng's study especially welcome and useful.

Teng argues a convincing case that, far from being an international terrorist, Libya has been one the main targets of the terrorism of the US government. Since the 1969 revolution in which the US puppet, King Idris, was overthrown, Libya has been singled out by the West as one of the "bad" Arab states.

For 25 years the US and its allies have waged a covert and overt war against Libya. This has included a series of CIA-orchestrated assassination attempts on Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi (such as the 1986 bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in which 100 people were killed, including Qadhafi's adopted daughter), provocative incursions into Libyan territorial waters by the US Navy, the attempt to blame Libya for the 1988 disaster when a Pan Am jumbo blew up over Lockerbie in Scotland, and the 1992 United Nations decision to impose economic sanctions on Libya.

Why is the US waging war on Libya? Because, as Teng argues, not only did it kick out a puppet regime, it nationalised the West's oil companies, abolished the US and British bases and insisted on just oil prices, setting an example for the rest of the OPEC countries. Libya has (despite some inconsistencies such as Chad) supported anti-imperialist Third World movements, including the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the ANC in South Africa and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Italy colonised Libya from 1911 to 1943, during which time the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini organised a mass migration program intended to crush any nationalist resistance and ensure control over this strategic oil-producing country. Winston Churchill, before the second world war, was happy to cultivate a partnership with Mussolini, whom he described as "the great law-giver among living men for his anti-Communist stand". By 1931, more than 750,000 Libyans had been killed resisting Italy's occupation.

After World War II, Britain, France and the United States maintained de facto control of Libya. As one of the outposts for the control of north-east Africa and the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, Libya remained a strategic asset. (The US had, by that time, spent US$100 million on developing its first air base in Africa, the Wheelus airfield, on the outskirts of Tripoli.)

King Idris proclaimed Libya's formal independence on December 24, 1951. According to renowned South African author Ruth First, Libya "was perhaps the poorest country in the world. The battles of the Second World War had devastated what infrastructure had been built and disrupted the economic life of even the Bedouin communities ... there had been virtually no education system capable of preparing men for government and administrative service." This allowed the king to preside over 11 corrupt governments over a period of 17 years.

Western governments and capital had unrestricted access to Libya's bases and oil. During the Korean War, Wheelus was used by the US Strategic Air Command, later becoming a primary training ground for NATO forces. For the West, Libya was the only source of mid-eastern oil that remained unaffected by the long-term closure of the Suez Canal. By 1967, US private investment in Libya stood at US$456 million, the second highest after South Africa.

This is some of the fascinating — but rather under-publicised — history which forms the backdrop to the September 1, 1969, bloodless revolution in which the Free Unionist Officers under the command of Qadhafi took power. A few days later the new government announced it would not renew the foreign base agreements and that 51% of foreign banks would be nationalised. In 1973, Libya nationalised 51% of all oil companies, including the subsidiaries of Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, Socal and Shell. It also doubled the price of its crude oil. In 1974, it nationalised three US oil companies and announced an oil embargo of the US.

This forms the backdrop to more recent US economic and military attacks on Libya. Teng has put together an informative chronology of events and unanswered questions surrounding the Lockerbie disaster and gives some detail of the disastrous effects of the economic sanctions. He goes to some effort to detail the US hypocrisy in branding Libya a "terrorist" state and quotes from a variety of outspoken democratic rights campaigners including Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky, Basil Davidson and Ruth First.

Libya is one Arab country in which the population as a whole has benefited from oil revenue. The US, France and Britain have never forgiven Qadhafi for kicking them out, and until he is replaced by another King Idris, Teng argues, there will be no let-up to the anti-Libya campaign.

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