Libyan Echoes of the Spanish Civil War

The events in the Libyan uprising over the past two weeks bear some striking similarities to the events of the Spanish Civil War.

Both conflicts pit a popular side against the side of a military regime. Of course, in Spain, Franco’s military were the rebels and the people’s side was the loyalist regime; in Libya those roles are reversed, the Gaddafi’s military is the incumbent government and the people are in revolt. (But a more careful study of Spain reveals that, in the immediate wake of Franco’s attempted coup, “the people” in many parts of Spain took power into their own hands, making them, paradoxically “pro-government rebels.”) So, who are “the rebels,” and who are the loyalists may not be that great a difference. Throughout this post, I’ll use the terms “military regime” to refer to Franco/Gaddafi, and “the people” to refer to the Spanish Loyalists/Libyan protestors.

The military regime has in Libya, and had in Spain, an immediate advantage in military organization and modern weapons. In both conflicts one can see virtually identical images from the people’s side, namely disorganized, non-uniformed volunteers rushing to the front in trucks, brandishing out-dated light infantry weapons. By the way, one must not dismiss “the people,” who are thus armed; they held off Franco for three years, albeit with tardy, but significant military aid from the Soviet Union.

In both conflicts, the military regime has brought in foreign (African!) soldiers, who showed less compunction about gunning down civilians than native troops did. In both conflicts, the African mercenaries (conscripts in the Spanish case), were air-lifted in. In the early days of the Spanish Civil War, these troops were flown in unopposed, and helped to consolidate the military regime’s hold on southern Spain. Which brings us to the next similarity …

In both cases, in the early days, the countries were broken up into a patchwork of holdings. Armed groups (on either side) were quickly able to secure isolated pockets, garrisons, and city centers. Trying to follow, for example, the NY Times’ daily maps of the Libyan uprising, is a bit maddening, because one cannot see any pattern to lines of control, any front lines, any contiguous holdings. That’s because, in fact, there are none on the ground. Unless the Libyan situation suddenly resolves itself, through some deus ex machina like an unexpected flight by Gaddafi to Nicaragua, we can expect the territories and holdings to consolidate. (Not a good prospect for the Libyan “people,” poorly equipped as they are.)

In both Libya and Spain, we also see world opinion largely supportive of “the people,” but the global institutions (UN, LofN) reduced to issuing statements of regret and condemnation.

In both cases, the military regime has immediate access to resupply of military equipment and reinforcements. While Gaddafi will not have powerful nations like 1936 Germany and Italy to rely on, he will have no problem buying arms on the global arms ‘gray market,’ and flying in mercenaries through his air bases in Sebha and other places.

Of course, my sympathies are wholly with the Libyan people, and hope they drive out Gaddafi and his cronies. But the analogies with Spain might suggest otherwise.

A big difference is that Franco and his fellow Fascist generals were all competent military men who, however ruthless and unsympathetic, were rational, well-organized, realistic guys. Gaddafi would seem to be a clueless, ranting, disconnected tyrant. Whether or not he has competent lieutenants running his military remains to be seen.

Those are the analogies I see; I hope the outcome in Libya doesn’t follow the Spanish case.