LIBYA – HOW THE LIBYAN INTERIM NATIONAL COUNCIL ASKED FOR NATO’S HELP IN MARCH 2011
A report in the Libya Herald tells us that the man from Benghazi, Mustafa Abushagur, was yesterday elected by the General National Congress as Libya’s Prime Minster. Let us hope that he has the courage to face the reckless killers of the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, and his colleagues on the anniversary of the outrage on 11th September 2011. Perhaps the story of how the Interim National Council asked for US, French and British help when Gaddafi’s forces were about to take Benghazi will stiffen his resolve
When Benghazi was in peril the newly formed Interim National Council needed outside help. One of France’s controversial and colourful personalities arrived in a greengrocer’s van to rescue them. The romance, for that it certainly was, has gained credence in Benghazi and may become the accepted version of events.
Bernard-Henry Lévy was the hero. Lévy, or BHL as he is known in France, was a friend of Nicholas Sarkozy. The friendship was complicated by differing political views and by a connection with Carla Bruni, the current Mrs Sarkozy.
The story may be challenged in detail but it is corroborated by a number of sources. BHL had been in Egypt to cover the events following the Arab Spring uprising. He got wind of events in Libya but was called back to Paris on business. On 27th February he contacted President Sarkozy and suggested that he was travelling to Benghazi and might contact the rebels. He appears to have obtained Sarkozy’s blessing, though what passed between them is unlikely to emerge. Lévy suggests, and he is probably right, that Sarkozy was looking for a way to contact the rebels but had no idea who to talk to.
BHL chartered an aircraft and flew to Mersah Matruh, the nearest Egyptian airport to Sollum on the Libyan border. He was accompanied by Gilles Hertzog and the photographer, Marc Rousell. They found the border crowded with refugees but managed to gain entry to Libya early on 1st March. They found a van loaded with vegetables on its way to Tobruk, in which they bought or begged a ride. From Tobruk they went to al Baida and were said to have met the Chairman of the Transitional Council, with whom they travelled to Benghazi.
Lévy, Hertzog and Rousell reached the Tebesti Hotel in Benghazi, where they heard that there was to be a meeting in a private villa of the National Transition Council on 3rd March. Lévy, who implied that he was the personal representative of the French President, managed to insinuate himself into the meeting. This was, perhaps, his finest moment.
BHL addressed the meeting with a short speech and then asked if he might contact President Sarkozy. There was nothing to lose and the Council agreed. Apparently using an old cell phone, he contacted President Sarkozy personally. On 5th March Sarkozy issued a press release, in which he welcomed the formation of the Interim National Council. This was the Council’s first sign of legitimacy. The news brought hope and a number of French flags sprouted around Benghazi.
By the following Monday Lévy was in Paris and in contact with Mr Sarkozy. By Thursday National Transition Councillor Mohammed Jebril was in Sarkozy’s office in the Elysee Palace and an agreement of considerable importance was reached. Sarkozy agreed to recognise the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya. Lévy, who was present, implied that the Council was certainly not asking for troops on the ground but for the imposition of a No Fly Zone. Sarkozy agreed to bomb three key airfields in Libya, notably the one in the south used for receiving mercenaries from Chad and elsewhere.
The diplomatic agreement was announced by Sarkozy without the knowledge of the French Foreign Minister who heard it when getting off a train in Brussels on his way to a conference. David Cameron had, however, been forewarned.
Sarkozy now needed a UN Security Council Resolution in favour of intervention. For this he needed the USA to approve. He believed he had the UK on his side and he could persuade the EU, the Arab League and the Africa Union.
Good fortune played another card. Hilary Clinton was due in Paris for a G8 meeting on 14th March. She agreed to meet Jebril then. He travelled to Paris on that day and was met by Lévy at Le Bourget.
Jebril found his meeting disappointing and was very upset. He was sure he had failed to convince Mrs Clinton. He had a nervous and depressing wait in BHL’s apartment until 4 pm, when Sarkozy called to say that the USA was minded to cast a vote in the UN in favour of intervention.
On Thursday 17th March, resolution 1973 was put before the UN Security Council in New York, when France, Britain and the USA were among the ten who voted in favour of the use of all necessary means to protect civilian lives in Libya. Russia and China were amongst five nations which abstained.
On 19th March, Tomahawk missiles fired from US and UK navy vessels hit air defences around Tripoli and Misurata and French jets attacked Gaddafi’s armour near Benghazi. The city was saved but just in time. Tanks were in its western approaches and Gaddafi’s snipers were firing from buildings very close to the rebel headquarters in the court house.
Paraphrased from The History of Gaddafi’s Pariah State by John Oakes and published by the History Press in 2011
John Oakes 13th September 2012