If ever there was a revolution tailored for today’s preferred style of foreign military intervention, it was Libya in 2011. A regime with no real allies anywhere; a proven and present danger of mass killings; a wide open landscape in which air power could reign supreme; a brutal and hated dictator of almost comic proportions (once you stopped crying); and a weak and fragmented opposition in no position to dictate terms to foreign allies. In the twelve months since Gaddafi’s death at the hand of an unruly mob of rebels in October 2011, the news from Libya seems to have been of a similar ilk: fighting among unruly mobs of rebels, sovereignty fragmented by tribes, jihadi armed groups in power, a state in name only.
As with the sectarian violence in post-Saddam Iraq, or the decade long insurgency in post-Taliban Afghanistan, the lesson seems to be that intervention has limited uses: we may be able to help depose a dictator, and in certain extremely rare cases we might even be able to do so without occupying the place; but whatever happens, we must accept that the aftermath is well beyond our control.
«as in so many other post-conflict transitions, patriarchy re-asserts itself in the name of stability»
Nizam Najjar’s thoughtful and honest video diary of the Libya revolution is testimony to these truths. Najjar, Libyan but living in Norway, briefly mentions the NATO intervention, but his focus is on the reality of life for ordinary Libyans, in particular the citizenrebels who form the Al-Gabra militia in the besieged city of Misrata. The first half of the film is taken up with the rebel movements, the fight to topple Gaddafi and the impacts of this on the people he meets.
Najjar captures many revealing moments that run the gamut of emotional moments: from outpourings of Libyan joy at liberation, to the innocence of the front-line rebels, to the grief and fear at the loss of a comrade. We see images of the destruction wrought by both government and rebel forces, we see the ubiquitous guys-with-guns, we see danger and sacrifice. Najjar successfully keeps the focus of the film on real people. There are few victims here – which is a relief from the usual heavyhanded coverage of war we are used to – and quite a bit of debate and discussion amongst fairly cheery rebels. Indeed, Libyan’s have sense of irony all their own.
But Najjar does not romanticize the violence: there is no mistaking the cost of this war in the image of militia leader Haj Sadiq quietly weeping as he prays in the wake of the death of one of his commanders; or the haunting mobile-phone video made by two Gaddafi loyalists, both boys and apparently the last of their unit, as they await death in the ultimately failed defense of Sirte. Najjar’s is a first-hand account, but through it all he strikes a balance, giving us just enough of his bewilderment to help us understand what he is showing us of the Libyans we meet, without his own presence becoming overbearing. He is just freakedout enough at times to wonder aloud “What the fuck and I doing here?” and the whole experience of return, and the emotional tensions that this causes, is a minor theme throughout.
But Najjar is careful not to navelgaze. In fact, the question at the heart of this film is exactly the right one to be asking of a country in the midst of a revolution: in what kind of society do we wish to live? The second half of the film – from November 2011 to July 2012 – focuses on people trying to adjust of a post-Gaddafi Libya. Najjar insists on recording ominous developments: the refusal of militias to disband, the internal trafficking of weapons to remnants of the regime, Libya’s first new law allows men to marry four wives. The fact that this new law is an obvious show of force by Islamist elements bent on political power is not lost on Najjar, but neither is the effect of this on women.
As in so many other post-conflict transitions, patriarchy re-asserts itself in the name of stability. In August 2011, with Misrata beginning to claw its way out from under the shelling of Gaddafi’s forces, Najjar has the presence of mind to ask Haj Sadiq about the boundaries of this new found liberty. Hajj Sadiq answers that the limits of freedom are the rights of others. But in 2012, after Gaddafi is deposed and the Islamist forces begin to assert themselves, Hajj Sadiq finds himself confronted with the newly powerful – and prominently bearded – Sheikh Khaled, who tells him the only freedoms permitted are those which do not contradict Islamic law (read: a particularly conservative reading of Islamic law).
«the problem with violence is that it trumps all political values»
Najjar insists on seeing the glass-half-full. He believes that the reactions he encounters – the arguments and disagreements, the joking at Sheikh Khaled’s expense – promise hope. At least, he seems to say, there is the possibility of debate, of difference, of democracy and perhaps of liberty, where before there was none. True enough. But that hope will not get you very far is the face of continuing violence. The problem with violence is that it trumps all political values. It is not just that people die, that there are victims, but that society seeks refuge in conservatism and in those who can guarantee security. In fact, the longer violence dictates the politics of opposition movements, the more likely it is that victory will result in the replacement of dictatorship with despotism.
The gun makes autocracy possible. Armed conflict makes it necessary. “Blade”, a former Gabra rebel commander – one who was seriously wounded and lost friends – tells us that, yes, he feels “Free, but there are many bastards making trouble.” We deposed one Gaddafi, he said, and got “a million Gaddafi’s” in his place. The way out for Libya lies in the desperate hope that the violence will end soon. At the end of the film, Haj Sadiq is reported to have gotten out of the militia business. But the choice for Libyans remains been between the guys-with-the-guns who have no real vision for how to bring stability, and the other guyswith-guns-with a plan for law and order, based on conservative social values and religion. Who would you choose?