A year ago the Middle East and North Africa seemed a “stable” region: that is, most of the regimes had been in power for decades; and there had been very little in the way of mass popular opposition movements also for decades.
There were mass strikes in Egypt and Tunisia in the 1970s; there was the Iranian revolution at the end of the ‘70s. But since then most opposition movements had been, or had been presumed to be, “radical” Islamist in character. It had become a platitude of Western punditry that Arabs — perhaps Muslims in general — lived under authoritarian regimes because they liked them.
Now we have seen enormous opposition movements out on the streets across the region. The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have been removed, though the regimes themselves still hang on (organising elections, however: the precise composition of the parliament due to be elected in Egypt later this year remains to be seen). Other dictators cling to power, in Syria for example.
By far the most thoroughgoing “regime change” has been in Libya, where Qaddafi has finally been overthrown. This revolution was not carried out by the Libyan people alone; NATO involvement was vital to it.
There are two questions, here: why was this so — why couldn’t the Libyan people get rid of Qaddafi by themselves? And what effect will NATO involvement have on the future of Libya (a question linked to an assessment of the nature of the post-Qaddafi government, or of “the rebels”).
Qaddafi had a repressive apparatus — a series of militias largely under the control of his family — on a far greater scale than elsewhere in the region, or at least with far less scruple about murdering its own people. (A significant part of that apparatus, however, was foreign mercenaries.) Estimates of those murdered by the regime in Syria since protests started stand at something over 2,000 people — a terrible amount. Estimates of those murdered by Qaddafi even before NATO intervention, so in the first month of the rebellion alone, reach perhaps 10,000. Qaddafi was prepared to use all kinds of weapons, and for instance aircraft, in a way the other regimes have not.
The effects of this kind of barbarity — snipers on rooftops murdering people inside their houses, let alone out on the streets, etc — could hardly be overstated.
It seems there was a decisive moment in the early days — after Benghazi was taken over by the rebels — when mass protests failed to materialise in Tripoli. Again, given the level of repression this is not very surprising. But it had a long-term, knock-on effect — a protracted war.
After the initial stages, and after NATO intervention, the Western media tended to suggest that Qaddafi depended, in fact, on widespread popular support, rather than simply terror. But that seems not to have been true; and his means of terror were very formidable indeed.
Until only days before Tripoli fell to the rebels, much of the Western press was still talking about “stalemate”, as if the war might go on indefinitely.
The British government was making noises about a negotiated settlement with Qaddafi. (Presumably the motivation for this was that continued NATO involvement was expensive and politically fraught: if Qaddafi wasn’t going to go quickly, it might be easier to negotiate with him. It is unclear if Western governments would actually have preferred this outcome. Probably not: Qaddafi, even after welcomed into the Western club, was and is an unreliable maverick.)
The opposition movement in Libya was, from the beginning, very much less politically developed and sophisticated than in, for example, Egypt, across the border.
To a large extent this also is because of the degree of state repression. Egypt had elections, legal (if timid) opposition parties, even quasi-legal or “only semi-illegal” movements able to contest elections, etc. (along, of course, with a reviled and violent police force, jails, and so forth). There had been, over the past few years, mass protest movements in Egypt, including waves of strikes. So when the revolution began in Egypt we saw a proliferation of movements, coalitions, manifestos, political demands.
None of that was possible in Libya. Oppositionists had been wiped out or forced abroad. When the uprising against Qaddafi began, many “dissidents” returned; but there was nobody comparable to even al-Baradei in Egypt, or to other political movements. A lot of the leaders of what became the National Transitional Council were defectors from Qaddafi. But the movement seems also to have been — at the rank and file level certainly — “ordinary” Libyans with no political experience, educated or influenced by no particular movement. (There have been also, in Benghazi, not a small number of foreigners coming to see what’s happening or fight — and some, or a lot, of them seem to be anarchists. How influential they are is hard to judge; one imagines not very.)
It was the NTC itself which lobbied for Western involvement, the UN resolution, and NATO involvement. In part that was because much of this leadership is pro-Western; some of them favour a neo-liberal economic policy, though it is too early to say if this is the dominant current. But it was also because they felt they had no choice. Without outside assistance — crucially, without being themselves armed — they were not strong enough to defeat Qaddafi’s forces of repression. The Libyan movement remained clear throughout the war that it didn’t want “boots on the ground”; it continued to criticise NATO for failing to give them — the rebel fighters — enough arms.
There has been some Islamist involvement. The last serious opposition in Libya was Islamist — though it was crushed. Islamism does not seem to have been a major component of the rebellion, however. An Islamist group was responsible for the murder of Major General Abdul-Fattah Younis; but the NTC’s response was quick and firm.
The political programme of the Council, and its plans for forming a new government, are resolutely liberal, or “bourgeois democratic”.
NATO and the West want a new government which is allied with them — for reasons of Libyan oil and regional stability. But it is false to believe that NATO intervention can be reduced simply to this intention.
First, and most obviously, they already had a pro-Western regime with Qaddafi. Indeed, it has now been revealed that these ties were not merely diplomatic or economic: Qaddafi’s torturers were used by Western governments, including the UK’s, via “rendition”, in the War on Terror.
By far the simplest policy for the West, faced with Qaddafi’s march on Benghazi, would have been to let him win. That they could not do so was in part because of the unpopularity — with their own populations — of simply allowing a massacre to take place.
The general aim of Western governments (whatever nuances exist between them) is for stability; for an end to the “Arab spring”. But if the new Libyan government is pro-Western it is not simply because of NATO involvement: they would have been pro-Western anyway.
The leadership of the rebels and their ideology does not in itself define the revolution in Libya, any more than it does in Egypt or Tunisia. Here was a genuine, mass popular revolt against a hated tyranny. And its political evolution is not yet settled.
For sure, the chances of a democratic movement, not to mention a socialist one, and of a working-class movement emerging are almost incalculably greater now than they were under Qaddafi.
Most of the left, broadly defined, including for instance the Stop The War Coalition, opposed NATO intervention. Workers’ Liberty took the view that we could not oppose it — demonstrate against it and try to actually stop it — when the immediate consequence would have been a massacre in Benghazi and the crushing of the Libyan revolution (with whatever terrible consequences that would probably have had for the “Arab spring” as a whole).
This did not mean losing sight of who and what NATO is, or “supporting” NATO. It was an immediate, life-and-death question.
There were three arguments against this view. First, that opposing imperialism is more important than the immediate fate of Benghazi. (“The sad fact is that massacres are a chronic feature of capitalism”, as the SWP’s Alex Callinicos put it. “The revolutionary left is, alas, too weak to stop them.”) Aside from its moral repugnancy, such a view eliminates the agency of any meaningful anti-imperialism: the people who were going to be massacred.
The second is that there wasn’t really going to be (or might not have been) a massacre — an assessment which flies in the face of all facts about Qaddafi’s regime.
The third was that it would have been much better if the mass movement had overthrown Qaddafi without external assistance, as in Egypt. Indeed it would! But no movement was going to overthrow anybody if it was drowned in blood.
NATO intervention — always constrained by Western fears of being drawn into another Iraq — remained, all things considered, limited: there was no intervention on the ground, no plan for occupation of Libya (i.e., unlike Iraq). The West has some leverage over the new government — but it had that anyway, and there is, as yet, no radical “anti-imperialist” (still less socialist) movement to act as an alternative.
The overthrow of Qaddafi is a great step — for the people of Libya, and probably for the people of the region: finally, an entire regime has fallen. It is early days, and the outcome of events is not fixed. The Libyan people need our solidarity — especially any who are trying to form socialist or working-class organisations in the days to come. There are reports of an independent trade union in Benghazi. As yet that’s all we know, but we will keep readers informed as more information becomes available.