NATO intervention in Libya has now largely come to an end. The general laziness of NATO in prosecuting its campaign had frustrated a National Transitional Council (NTC) which had clamoured for support in terminating the Qaddafi regime.
But at a decisive point it prevented the taking back of Benghazi and Misrata in a terrifically brutal fashion. This halting of genocide led to a greater amount of leverage for the rag-tag rebel militias and ultimately to the fall of Qaddafi. The rebellion would not have survived without that intervention.
For those on the left who shrugged their shoulders at massacres, thought that somehow intervention destroyed the rebellion, or felt that the rebels were proxies of imperialism, the taking of Tripoli by its own people is a wake-up call.
As evidence of this the independence of the rebels and the NTC is quickly being asserted. There has been a point-blank refusal to tolerate UN troops on the ground. The uncovering of evidence that links MI6 and the CIA with torture and rendition under Qaddafi (including that of a senior rebel leader) and the identification of dissidents clearly marks a difficult moment in the relationship between the NTC and its UK and US allies.
The hypocrisies and complicity with torture by western governments is a valid reason for us not to “critically support” an intervention which was undertaken for their own reasons as part of their coalition of interests.
Blair and the Labour Party are being fingered for this by the right-wing press; but it’s true that the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and Qaddafi from October 2005 was a clear recognition of support for the vile dictatorship including the return to torture and imprisonment of Libyan asylum seekers and dissidents including gay and human rights activists.
LGBT groups in Libya and abroad have welcomed the rebel victory. Qaddafi’s “purification” laws of the 1990s had reasserted a profound hostility to transgender and gay expressions including the banning of certain types of clothing and a blanket ban on any outside-marriage partnerships. The five-year jail sentence for this had led to many fleeing the regime to the UK only to find themselves returned to the regime by the UK government. Ironically, one of Qaddafi's sons left behind gay pornographic material as he fled as well as accounts of his affairs with men.
The formal legal rights of women under the old regime were also a complete fiction. Families were segregated according to gender and the much touted “revolutionary nuns” of Qaddafi’s personal bodyguard are now recounting stories of personal rape by Qaddafi and his sons.
On 1 September 10,000 women in Martyrs’ Square, Tripoli, demonstrated in support of the victorious rebellion — a huge watershed in the emancipation of women in Libya. Long-time feminist activist Gahida Altwati, who had been imprisoned in Abu Salim prison by Qaddafi after she refused to work with the regime, spoke to the crowd.
Of course there are contradictions: there are serious worries about the extension of sharia law, patriarchal tribal structures, and both gender and racial crime perpetrated by the rebels themselves. We should not be too dewy-eyed about what follows tyranny — there are many unsavoury strands and politics many of which are overtly hostile to workers', gay and women’s self-organisation.
And what about the workers?
The Qaddafi-approved General Trade Union Federation of Workers (GTUFW) has now collapsed. This had its origins in the immediate aftermath of the 1969 revolution. Qaddafi said at the time labour unions would not be banned but they must “truly represent their groups with a revolutionary spirit. We do not accept intermediaries between the revolution and its working forces”.
He used exactly the same argument for eliminating the idea of a free press, elections and a plurality of parties. It was a formula designed to destroy independent workers’ organisation and expression, not facilitate it.
The quarter of a million workers assembled in the GTUFW were all Libyan nationals. Migrant workers had no legal right to join a union. Sixty seven Nepalese construction workers struck last year but were subject to a lockout by state bosses and were deported in awful circumstances. A number of Bangladeshi workers also went on strike last year against bosses who hadn’t paid their wages.
International solidarity, independent observation, and financial support for the development of independent working class organisation is now a real possibility. We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of this but neither should we underestimate the challenges.
Workers, migrant and Libyan nationals, will be facing a hostile NTC and their international capitalist backers. They will have little interest in developing the economic and political power of working class representation.
But after years of dictatorship there will be a significant will on the part of the working class to use the political liberty offered by a burgeoning civil society, a free media, and a plurality of parties, to organise and challenge all of the regimes to come.
For us it means creating solidarity between the large migrant workforces and Libyan workers themselves — of every ethnic group, of every sexuality and gender — and also to create from a molecular level a relationship between international and Libyan workers’ organisations.
Confronted by the bosses, by the possibility of a reassertion of Islamism, even by remnants of the old regime unwilling to tolerate the new settlement, the red flags in Martyrs’ Square will be a long time coming. But the first necessary preparatory steps are being taken.
British Libya Solidarity Campaign
Solidarity spoke to Lucinda Lavelle about the British Libya Solidarity Campaign.
“In 2006 a few of us set up the British Libya Solidarity Campaign at the SWP’s ‘Marxism’ event, believe it or not! We thought it would be an easy sell to the left.
“After all, Qaddafi was now collaborating with the West, helping the ‘War on Terror’, we’d heard about rendition flights to Tripoli, and he was murderously policing the borders to prevent African migrants getting to Europe. But unfortunately most of the left couldn’t get into its head just how repressive the regime was...”