The two 1989s in the North African revolutions

Submitted by AWL on 8 March, 2011 - 11:46

Vijay Prashad is a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut (USA) and the author of books including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World". He spoke to Martin Thomas of Solidarity about the uprising in Libya and the prospects for the democratic revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East.


This is a longer version of the interview than printed in the paper.

There's a difficulty in knowing exactly who's benefited in Libya from the last period of neo-liberal policies apart from Qaddafi and his family because there's no data. If you want to know who benefits from Wall Street, you can go and look at the information. You can study whatever information is available. When we talk about Libya, we know that the majority of the population is essentially on the “oil dole”. The majority of the population is therefore employed by institutions owned by Qaddafi, his clan, his clique or his family. But we don't have data that we can disaggregate. There's a data problem. We're talking about a vacuum and we're talking about what we believe to be true.

Having said that, there is certainly a section that has benefited. A parasitic oil middle class has emerged. It's not the same as the middle class that's emerged in other gulf states, such as Bahrain, but it exists. It has great clan features; in Libya there's very much a regional breakdown and questions of clan affiliations which have made it hard to topple Qaddafi.

Saif Islam is not an idiot. Unlike many of the children of dictators he's quite astute. He was correct in his first speech when he said “this is going to be a civil war”. There is clan support for Qaddafi. He has given a lot of advantages from the oil revenue to the western part of Libya and the east-west divide is quite important. That's why the rebels are getting repelled when they try to cross the east-west meridian and come towards Tripoli. That meridian happens to be quite near where the oil fields are. Qaddafi's support in the clans can't be underestimated.

Secondly, the military is organised on the basis of patronage. There is support there. I think the rumours about some of Slobodan Milosevic's most hardened fighters going to Libya when Milosevic fell are also true. People talk about Serbian pilots in the Libyan military. So there is considerable military support for Qaddafi which is not withering away.

There have been reports that some of the working-class areas of Tripoli are now outside of Qaddafi's control. There were reports of a recent demonstration in a working-class neighbourhood that the troops cleared out. There are certainly pockets of rebellion. In any revolutionary situation, all kinds of grievances come to the fore whenever there is a little opening. If I was a Libyan rebel, I would declare Benghazi the capital of Libya and say to the people of Tripoli “free yourselves and join us”.
There are a lot of grievances amongst oil workers, even in the western part, where they're greatly disappointed with the degeneration of the regime. I think it's wrong for the rebellion to try to take Tripoli by force; this will only result in demoralisation.

The favouring of certain groupings versus others – whether you want to call them tribes, clans or communities – has been a feature since the Ottoman period. The Italian colonisation did the same. It's only particular communities that rose up against Italian domination, and mainly in the east. It has certainly be the case that Qaddafi has favoured his own tribe. These distinctions exist, but they're not ancient and immutable. These tribal groups have been regrouped and refashioned and some groupings are much more in existence in modern times than in ancient times; their sense of self is even stronger now than it was before due to the patronage and power they've been given. But Qaddafi has very much leaned on older forms of authority and rule and protect Libya from what he thought would be an immediate occupation. There was always a fear that Europe and America would not tolerate a Nasserite revolution in Libya. He wasn't conducting a genuine socialist revolution; he was conducting a tribal consolidation with a socialist veneer. He did initially pursue policies that were generally seen as favourable by the population, but that started to undo in the 1980s.

Those initial policies mean that he still has some residual support, particularly amongst people who might not know or remember the complexity of the whole picture. That's different from Egypt, where Mubarak was always a butcher and never had that honeymoon period. It's similar to Saddam Hussein, who still commands some respect in some sections of Iraqi society because of his posturing as an “Iraqi patriot”. Qaddafi is doing a similar thing; he's using exactly the same language. The two figures are very similar.

The base of the old monarchy is not quite a clan. Their order, the Senussi, is not quite a Sufi order; you might have called them a cult, in the older sense of that word. It's much broader than a clan formation. There's a patina of divinity around the king which comes through this kind of religion which a clan doesn't have. A clan is about more mundane things – marriage, food, where to tether your cattle. But orders like the Senussi have that aspect of divinity.

It has much more of a base in the east. It emerged from there and all the basis chiefs of the old order came from the east. The current chief, Muhammad as-Senussi, was born in Tripoli and actually lives in England, but their lineage is in the eastern part of Libya. They're from Cyernaica.

The Senussis want to return to Libya on the basis of establishing a constitutional monarchy. Is that credible? During the other so-called “colour revolutions” in Eastern Europe, all the old scoundrels like the Hapsburgs reappeared and said that they'd liked to come back as constitutional monarchs. But even the more rightward-leaning new governments said there was no room for them. That's the itch of monarchs; they always want to return. There's someone sitting in Los Angeles who wants to return to the throne in Tehran. But I doubt very much that this is a possibility, unless there's a total collapse of governance in Libya and as-Senussi returns on a British warship. I don't think the people of a united Libya are going to say “yes, let's go back to a monarchy”. However it's still not clear who's claiming the rebellion in the east and such people might try to claim it; once a pretender, always a pretender. If Libya divides then it's not outside the realm of possibility but if Libya is united then it's totally unbelievable.

After 9/11, Qaddafi immediately seized on the fantasy of al-Qaeda. He really played on what I think is the total fantastical idea of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, which comes to us from the African command and the Dutch military, who have been at war in Mali and other places. They are basically dealing with trans-Saharan smugglers who have decided to upgrade their franchise. But it's not a serious branch of al-Qaeda; it's a bad fast food outlet in the middle of nowhere who have put up a sign saying that they belong to a big international conglomerate! It has suited Qaddafi, particularly after the bloodbath in Algeria, to say “Islamists are coming after me.” He gave a speech saying that if Libya falls to Islamists, they'll take over Europe. He's feeding a fear that already exists.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood has been in Libya for a very long time, especially in the east where there are links to Egypt. And it is true that since the 1980s the Libyan authorities have been striking at the Brotherhood. Every time a Brotherhood leader is identified, they're executed. The Brotherhood has basically been suppressed. But there's a difference between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda; in Egypt, the Brotherhood is threatened by al-Qaeda. There are Brotherhood groups and Islamist intellectuals in many cities and I am sure they are directly involved in this rebellion, but they're not in the lead.

I'm not convinced that the Libyan Islamists who fought and trained in Afghanistan, people like the Islamic Fighting Group, have any kind of mass base. It's true that there were a lot of people at the funeral of [Ibn al-Shaykh] al-Libi [an al-Qaeda trainer who died in jail in Libya in 2009], but there are many reasons why people go to funerals. Islamism is mainly raised as a bogie man by the regime. One of the main leaders of the Fighting Group, Abu Abdurrahman Hattab [also known as Salah Fathi Bin Salman] was killed
in 1997 and there hasn't been any major operation since then.

The experience of migrant workers in this uprising tells us a lot about the contemporary oil economy. If you go to any oil country you'll find vast numbers of unregistered workers on an international scale. It's one of the great problems of modern imperialism. Because there's no global subsistence wage, that unevenness creates problems for workers in advanced industrial countries. These unregistered workers are being brought into zones where the subsistence wage is fairly high now, due to oil profits, but they're typically paid a small margin over the subsistence wage of their own nations. So they're super-exploited workers. They often come from countries that don't even have aircraft to take them home. Britain and America can send aircraft and frigates to rescue fifteen people, but there are 3,000 or 4,000 Bangladeshis and their government doesn't have the capacity to bring them home.

Whatever happens in Libya I hope the world will take seriously the tragedy of these unregistered workers from countries who do not have the power or wealth to protect their own citizens who work abroad. In Libya, conditions are miserable. Even Egypt, which shares a border with Egypt, cannot protect its own citizens who live and work in Egypt. Instead Egyptians are fleeing up to Tunisia and the UN has to use boats to take them up to Alexandria. Why hasn't the Egyptian army just opened and the border and said “come home”? They're scared.

Assessing the possible outcomes of the whole situation is a big question. Military intervention from the United States is not on the table. Secretary Gates has said that even the imposition of a no-fly zone would be seen as a declaration of war, which I think was a very astute thing to say. NATO has also so far discouraged any talk of intervention. The Arab League and the African Union are planning a join summit; neither of them wants to take a firm position. These things are friendship networks and Qaddafi is their friend. But I would like to see the two of them acting together. This is a crisis and tragedy but there is also a huge opportunity for the good side of history. I hope in the vacuum right now, where the west looks like it doesn't know what to do, the Arab League and the African Union will be able to provide some basis for at least a conversation.

For Qaddafi, it's a fight to the death. That's very distressing and that's why, if I was to consult with people in the east, I'd warn against an armed engagement. Stand back, fortify, declare yourselves as the government of the east and call upon the people of the west to rise. To escalate the military conflict would be a huge error. The alternative now is that the eastern side declares victory and independence and asks the African Union and Arab League to negotiate an exist strategy for Qaddafi. Although those sober voices are now speaking against military intervention, history shows that whenever NATO and the US get involved they cannot resist a little bombing. That will strengthen Qaddafi, as it did in 1986.

There is no role for “liberal intervention”. Who makes the decisions about no-fly zones? Who gets to police the world? We also don't know how much of a difference the aerial bombing is making in the conflict on the ground in Libya. It seems that the rebel forces are succeeding in repelling Qaddafi's troops even though he has air power. This is not North Africa circa 1920, when the Italians were throwing grenades from planes on Bedouin tribes. The rebels are quite militarily sophisticated, so it's not all about air power. Qaddafi's ground troops are also quite sophisticated, which is why I would say “stop engaging”. It really comes down to the question of who will manage the no-fly zone. Are we going to turn to NATO and the US? Will it be the Egyptian air force? I'm not a military scholar, but I would say that there are a lot of other possible approaches.

As a socialist, I obviously want to see socialist revolution. But pragmatically I feel like we are still trying to live up to the French Revolution. The Bolshevik revolution is yet to come. In some places you take what you can get and fight the war with the army you have. I don't think Libya is anywhere near escalating. Working people don't seem as yet to have the power to escalate to a socialist phase, so the path will have to run through something else. I'm not a stagist, but I do think you need a grounding in the reality of social consciousness. Much of Europe still needs a French Revolution!

In these rebellions there are two dynamics from 1989 going on, and neither from Eastern Europe. One 1989 dynamic is Tianamen Square; the rebellions are pro-democracy uprisings and people want basic freedoms. The other 1989 dynamic is the Venezuelan Caracazo, which instigated the anti-IMF revolts. So there's the pro-democracy side, a fight for bourgeois freedoms, and these rebellions are also against neo-liberalism. One set of coordinates is positive, the other negative. We don't yet know what's possible.

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