The UN Security Council’s majority decision to enact a militarily-imposed ‘no-fly-zone’ against Libya, while greeted with joy on the streets of Benghazi and Tobruk, is in no way intended to defend the Libyan revolution.
Revolutionaries in Libya may think that this decision will help them, but they are mistaken. Naked economic and political calculations lay behind the imperialist powers’ decision. It is not a lifeline that could ‘save’ the revolution, in the real sense of the word, against Gaddafi. Major imperialist powers decided that they wanted now to exploit the revolution and try to replace Gaddafi with a more reliable regime. However the Libyan foreign minster’s announcement of an immediate ceasefire has complicated imperialism’s position.
Faced with a rapid eastwards advance of Gaddafi’s forces, many in eastern Libya seized hold of the idea of a no-fly-zone to help stem this tide, but this is not the way to defend and extend the revolution. Unfortunately, the revolution’s initial drive towards the west, where two-thirds of Libyans live, was not based on a movement, built upon popular, democratic committees that could offer a clear programme to win support from the masses and the rank and file soldiers, while waging a revolutionary war. This gave Gaddafi an opportunity to regroup.
The growing support for a no-fly-zone was a reversal of the sentiment expressed in the English language posters put up in Benghazi, in February, declaring: “No To Foreign Intervention – Libyans Can Do It By Themselves”. This followed the wonderful examples of Tunisia and Egypt, where sustained mass action completely undermined totalitarian regimes. The Libyan masses were confident that their momentum would secure victory. But Gaddafi was able to retain a grip in Tripoli. This, at least, relative stabilisation of the regime and its counter-offensive led to a change in attitude towards foreign intervention that allowed the largely pro-Western leadership of the rebel ’Interim Transitional National Council’ to overcome youth opposition to asking the West for aid.
However, despite the Gaddafi regime’s blood-curdling words, it is not at all certain that its relatively small forces could have launched an all-out assault on Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, with around a million living in its environs. A mass defence of the city would have blunted the attack of Gaddafi’s relatively small forces. Now, if the ceasefire holds and Gaddafi remains in power in Tripoli, a de-facto breakup of the country could occur, returning to something like the separate entities that existed before Italy first created Libya after 1912 and which Britain recreated in the late 1940s.
Whatever the immediate effect the ‘no fly zone’, any trust placed in either the UN or the imperialist powers threatens to undermine all the genuine hopes and aspirations of the revolution that began last month. This is because the powers that have imposed threatened military action are no friends of the Libyan masses. Until recently, they were quite happy to deal with, and pander to, the murderous Gaddafi ruling clique, to maintain a ‘partnership’, especially concerning Libya’s oil and gas industries. Indeed, the day after the UN took its decision, the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal lamented that “the close partnership between the Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s intelligence service and the CIA has been severed” (18 March, 2011). The Journal reported “according to a senior US official” the previous ‘partnership’ was “especially productive”.
Now, having lost former dictatorial allies Mubarak, in Egypt, and Ben Ali, in Tunisia, imperialism is trying to take advantage of the popular uprising in Libya to both refurbish its “democratic” image and to help install a more “reliable” regime, or at least a part of Libya. As before, North Africa and the Middle East, with its oil and strategic location, are of tremendous importance to the imperialist powers.
This reveals the absolute hypocrisy of the main imperialist powers, which have shamelessly supported repressive dictatorial regimes throughout the Middle East for decades. At the very same time that they were deciding the No Fly Zone, the same powers did absolutely nothing to prevent Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies’ increasingly brutal suppression of the majority of the Bahraini population and their attempt to ferment sectarianism. Within 12 hours of the UN decision, the armed forces another regional ally, Yemeni, ally shot dead at least 39 protesters in the capital city, Sanaa. The UN was only able to take its decision on Libya because the Arab League supported a no fly zone, but of course these mainly reactionary rulers say nothing about repression in Bahrain, Yemen or other Arab countries.
Cameron and Sarkozy’s “concern” for Libya is at least partly motivated by domestic unpopularity and the hope that a foreign success will strengthen their standing. Cameron clearly hopes for a boost similar to that which Thatcher enjoyed after her victory in the 1983 Falklands war. But Thatcher achieved a quick military victory – the no fly zone operation will not will produce a similar military win. Sarkozy, after the disaster of his Tunisia policy that led to the resignation of the French Foreign Minister, needs a “success” to lift his low poll ratings as next year’s Presidential election looms closer.
Despite the imperialist powers’ recent rapprochement with Gaddafi, the tyrant always remained an unreliable ally. Throughout his nearly 42 years in power, Gaddafi zig-zagged in policy, sometimes violently. In 1971, he helped the Sudanese dictator, Nimeiry, crush a left coup that took place in reaction to the earlier suppression of the left, including the banning of the one-million member Sudanese communist party. Six years later, Gaddafi proclaimed a “people’s revolution” and changed the country’s official name from the Libyan Arab Republic to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah. Despite the name change and the formation of so-called “revolutionary committees”, this was not genuine democratic socialism or a move towards it. The Libyan working people and youth were not running their country. Gaddafi remained in control. This was underlined by the increasingly prominent role that many of his children played in the regime.
Nevertheless, since 1969, on the basis of a large oil income and a small population, there was a big improvement in most Libyans’ lives, especially in education and health, which at least partly explains why Gaddafi still has some basis of support amongst the population. Even while there is growing opposition to the Gaddafi clique, especially amongst Libya’s overwhelmingly young and educated population, there is also fear about who might replace him and opposition to anything that smells of foreign rule. The revolutionaries’ widespread use of the old ruling monarchy’s flag was bound to alienate those who do not want to return to the past and was used by Gaddafi to justify his rule. Flying the old flag also risked alienating Libyans in the west of the country because the former king came from the east and had no historic roots in the area around Tripoli.
But these factors are not a complete explanation as to why Gaddafi was able, at least temporally, to stabilise his position. While there was a popular uprising in eastern Libya, Gaddafi was able to maintain his position in the west, where two-thirds of the population live, despite large protests in Tripoli and uprisings in Misrata, Zuwarah and a few other areas.
Role of the working class
Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, the working class in Libya has not, so far, begun to play an independent role in the revolution. Furthermore, many workers in Libya are migrants who have fled the country in recent weeks.
The absence of a national focal point which, for example, the Tunisian UGTT trade union federation provided (despite its pro-Ben Ali national leadership), complicated the situation in Libya. The huge revolutionary enthusiasm of the population has not, so far, been given an organised expression. The largely self-appointed ‘National Council’ that emerged in Benghazi is a combination of elements from the old regime and more pro-imperialist elements. For example, the Council’s foreign spokesman, Mahmoud Jibril, the former head of Gaddafi’s National Economic Development Board, was described by the US Ambassador, in November 2009, as a “serious interlocutor who ‘gets’ the US perspective”.
It is easy for Gaddafi to present these people as a threat to Libyan living standards and agents of foreign powers. At the same time, this propaganda will have only a limited effect, as population’s living standards worsening and unemployment increased (standing at 10%) since from the end of the 1980s oil boom and the start of privatisation back in 2003.
Gaddafi’s use of the threat of imperialist intervention did gather some support and if the country becomes divided may gain more. How long this can sustain Gaddafi is another question. In addition to anti-imperialist rhetoric, Gaddafi made concessions to maintain support. Each family has been given the equivalent of $450. Some public sector workers have been given 150% wage increases and taxes and customs duties on food have been abolished. But these steps do not answer the demands for freedom or end the growing frustration of Libya’s youthful population, with an average age of 24, over the regime’s corruption and suffocating grip.
Around the world, millions of people follow, and are inspired by, the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. These events inspired protests against the effects of the continuing capitalist crisis in many countries. Some of those welcoming the revolutionary events in the region may support the UN’s ‘no fly zone’ but socialists argue that it is primarily made in the interests of the imperialist powers – the same powers that no nothing substantially to restrain the repressive actions of Gulf states against mass protests in their countries.
But what then can be done internationally to genuinely help the Libyan revolution? First of all, trade unions should block the export of Libyan oil and gas. Secondly, bank workers should organise the freezing of all the Gaddafi regime’s financial assets.
The ‘no fly zone’ will not automatically lead to the overthrow of Gaddafi, in fact, like Saddam Hussein, the Libyan leader could entrench his position for a time in those parts of the country he controls. As the experience of Egypt and Tunisia shows, the key to overthrow dictatorships is the movement of the working masses and youth.
A revolutionary programme
Thus the fate of the revolution will be decided inside Libya itself. Its victory requires a programme that can cut across tribal and regional divisions and unite the mass of the population against the Gaddafi clique and for a struggle for a better future.
A programme for the Libyan revolution that would genuinely benefit the mass of the population would be based on winning and defending real democratic rights; an end to corruption and privilege; the safeguarding and further development of the social gains made since the discovery of oil; opposition to any form of re-colonisation and for a democratically-controlled, publicly-owned, economic plan to use the country’s resources for the future benefit of the mass of people.
The creation of an independent movement of Libyan workers, poor and youth that could implement such a real revolutionary transformation of the country, is the only way to thwart the imperialists’ plans, end dictatorship and to transform the lives of the people.