While the defeat of the last major forces defending Gaddafi’s dictatorial and increasingly megalomaniac regime was widely welcomed, the way in which it fell means that clouds now hang over the future of the Libyan revolution. There are now both opportunities and dangers facing the working masses and the youth in Libya. The combination of the absence of an independent workers’ movement, the bitterness resulting from an increasingly brutal civil war and particularly NATO’s intervention, have combined with Libya’s own history and characteristics to produce a complicated political and social situation.
In August we wrote, just after Tripoli’s fall, that it “was greeted with rejoicing by large numbers of, but by no means all, Libyans. Another autocratic ruler, surrounded by his privileged family and cronies, has been overthrown. If this had been purely the result of struggle by the Libyan working masses it would have been widely acclaimed but the direct involvement of imperialism casts a dark shadow over the revolution’s future ...
“While many Libyans are celebrating, socialists have to be clear that, unlike the ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, the way in which Gaddafi has been removed means that a victory for the Libyan people was also a success for imperialism. Without NATO acting as the rebels’ air force or the soldiers, weapons, organisation and training that NATO and some other countries like the feudal Qatar autocracy supplied, Tripoli would not have fallen to the rebels in the way that it has.” (‘Gaddafi regime crumbles’, 26 August, 2011)
Now, of course, western leaders celebrate the death of their recent friend and ally Gaddafi with a combination of hypocrisy and profit seeking. They dragged out of the cupboard the old charges that Gaddafi supported the IRA in Ireland and terrorism internationally, accusations which had been forgotten after they became allies in the “war on terror”. Of course similar charges could, and should, be brought up against those like Cameron (the British Prime Minister) who supported the Iraq war. There is also the example of the predecessors of the current crop of imperialist leaders who, in the not so distant past, funded and armed the Contra rebels in Nicaragua and the wonderfully ‘democratic’ and ‘pro-women’ Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
While some NATO leaders have used this to attempt to rehabilitate the doctrine of “liberal intervention” after the disaster of the Iraq invasion, others are more careful as they are not confident of Libya’s future. Western governments’ questioning over the manner of Gaddafi’s death is an attempt to answer some of the public disquiet at the media revelling in its images, the “death porn”; but also to give themselves some space to distance themselves from future developments in Libya should it not go the way they hope. The Obama administration is being completely hypocritical when it asks questions about Gaddafi’s killing; after all, instead of taking him prisoner, it killed Bin Laden and recently ordered the summary execution, without trial, of US citizens in Yemen by remote controlled drone attack. Socialists would have wanted Gaddafi to stand trial, before a popular court, for his crimes, something which would have exposed the corruption of his oppressive regime and his links with imperialism. But it is precisely because of these links that imperialism is openly happy that Gaddafi was killed.
Multinationals have started looking towards how they can profit from rebuilding Libya. The British government has calculated that £200 billion worth of contracts will be “up for grabs” in Libya (London Evening Standard, 21 October, 2011). So, the day after Gaddafi’s death, the British Defence Minister told British companies to “pack their suitcases” to go to Libya and get contracts. It was not reported whether he said what should be in the suitcases, but it’s a fair guess that bribes will be offered. This is the ‘normal’ way international companies do business, especially in resource rich countries. Just two days after this minister told British companies to “pack their suitcases”, it was reported his own ministry was taking legal steps to prevent a retired British lieutenant-colonel, Ian Foxely, publishing a book. The book details the alleged payment of £11.5 million in bribes to a Saudi prince in connection with a defence contract (Sunday Times, London, 23 October, 2011).
This is the norm for the imperialist powers. They have never had any qualms about backing dictatorial regimes like Saudi Arabia today and Gaddafi yesterday so long as it was in their economic and/or strategic interests. Thus it there was no problem for the US and Britain to “render” prisoners to Gaddafi’s jails.
February mass uprising
Initially Gaddafi, learning from the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak, launched a counter-offensive against Benghazi and other centres of the February revolution. These were certainly threatened, but could have been defended by mass popular defence of the million strong city alongside a revolutionary appeal to workers, youth and the poor in the rest of Libya. This could have led to both an earlier victory and no imperialist intervention. In Benghazi, at the start of the revolution in February, English language posters were put up declaring “No to foreign intervention – Libyans can do it by themselves”. But the self-appointed leadership of the uprising would not do this. Dominated by a combination of defectors from the regime and openly pro-imperialist elements, the Transitional National Council (TNC), pushing aside the initial popular mood against any foreign intervention, looked to the imperialist powers and semi-feudal Arab states for support.
The main imperialist powers seized this opportunity to step in, justifying their intervention on ‘humanitarian’ grounds to save lives. Their aim was to try to contain the revolution, rebuild their points of support in the region and increase their exploitation of Libya’s natural resources. This is the reason for their extremely selective approach to defending civilians.
The same imperialist powers that shouted about defending Benghazi did nothing to halt the Israeli government’s 2008/9 offensive in Gaza. This year imperialism maintained a virtual silence on the brutality of their close allies, the Bahraini regime and Saudi autocracy, when they moved to violently crush opposition. In a manner reminiscent of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes twenty years ago, imperialism took advantage of a spontaneous movement that knew what it was against but had no clear programme of its own. This is why principled socialists opposed NATO’s intervention and consistently warned against any illusions in NATO, stressing that Libyan working people and youth had to build their own independent, democratic movement if the revolution was really going to transform their lives.
White phosphorous bombing of Gaza school by Israeli military
Who rules Libya today?
The imperialist powers, TNC and others claim that in Libya there has been the most total of the revolutions that have erupted in North Africa this year. In a sense that is true as, despite a layer of top Gaddafi officials switching sides, much of the old state, particularly the armed forces and police, was smashed in the course of the revolution and civil war. But it is not true in sense of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt where there was a mass movement that terrified imperialism, despite the old state machines attempting to continue by sacrificing the old dictators. In contrast, in Libya, imperialism has not only accommodated itself to the revolution but has, in a certain sense, benefited from it.
The TNC is still in many ways largely a fictional national force, its power base being largely in the east around Benghazi which is where they proclaimed on 23 October the end of the civil war. It is still not certain when it will move to Tripoli, which is more than Libya’s capital. Around a third of the country’s population lives in Tripoli. The TNC leaders have not been able to appoint a new “cabinet” to replace the one that resigned after last July’s still unexplained killing of the TNC’s military commander, General Younes, by some of his erstwhile rebel allies. The TNC’s first ‘prime minister’, the deeply unpopular Jibril, has now been replaced by Ali Tarhouni. Tarhouni was the former TNC finance minister who, until the revolution, was a university economics lecturer in Seattle, USA, and whose wife is a lawyer who works for the Washington state attorney general. Indicating the size of the TNC’s problems in even constituting itself, Tarhouni has been given one month to name a caretaker cabinet.
The tragedy of the first stage of the Libyan revolution is that the largely spontaneous initial uprising did not really result in the development of the democratic, self-organisation of the working masses and youth. Despite the involvement of large numbers of Libyans in the fighting and the mass arming of the population, there are not, so far, any signs of Libyan workers, youth and poor striving to establish their own collective, democratic independent rule over society. While local, often neighbourhood, bodies have sprung up they are not linked together or systematically democratic. With no strong democratic, independent organisations in communities and workplaces, militias and mosques are taking the lead in maintaining security and getting services restarted. But these militias are not democratically run or controlled. They are divided by geographical, tribal or ethnic origin differences as well as viewpoints and their leaders have their own agendas.
In the absence, so far, of a developing workers’ movement and Left forces, Islamist groups have started to attempt to build wider support. The autocratic Gulf oil state of Qatar, which owns the Al Jazeera TV network, has been playing a key role in this by backing individual leaders and militias.
When declaring in Benghazi the ‘Liberation of Libya’ and the end of the fighting the TNC president Jalil - Gaddafi’s former justice minister - proclaimed that “as an Islamic country, we have adopted Sharia as our principal law”. Just who decided this was not clear, but it reflected the growing strength of Islamist forces. Unexpectedly Jalil went on to announce the banning of interest on loans and the abolition of a law decreed by Gaddafi requiring men to obtain permission from their first wife before taking a second one. Justifying this step Jalil explained “This is not in our Koran. We take the Koran as the first source for our Constitution and all our rules, not the only one, but the main one.”
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, President of the TNC
Imperialism, while hoping that the TNC will be able to incorporate the different elements to stabilise the situation, also has fears about how the situation could unfold.
Paddy Ashdown, the former NATO backed ‘high representative’ for Bosnia and Herzegovina, argues that elections should be held “as late as possible” in Libya. First priority, according to Ashdown, is to establish “rule of law – perhaps even martial law at first” and the “state’s monopoly in the use of lethal force” (Guardian, London, 22 October 2011). Of course, for presentational reasons, Ashdown declined to spell out who would establish this “state” in the first place. Seeking to avoid appearing too crude Ashdown skipped over the fact that he was saying that a self appointed, and imperialist backed, government should rule and any say by the Libyan people in their own future should be delayed “as late as possible”. So much for democracy!
However stabilisation will not be easy. Many Libyans, particularly the youth, now feel that they have a chance, and the power, to decide their own future. It will be difficult to immediately establish the authority of the TNC or any other government. Additionally there are fault lines among the different militias, for example between those of Misrata and Zintan from the west and those from Benghazi in the east. The Berber minority, who played a key role in the fighting in the west have their own demands while there are tensions between the various militias in Tripoli. Currently imperialism hopes that Libya’s oil wealth will keep the country together. But it can also lead to struggles, particularly between competing elites, over how the loot is doled out.
While a feeling of being Libyan has grown over the last decades the revolution and civil war have opened up fault lines of tribal, clan, ethnicity and region that could, in the absence of a workers’ movement able to unify the working masses in struggle, lead to far greater divisions in the future. These could be added to by the aftermath of the civil war. The combination of the improved living standards since 1969 and NATO’s bombing campaign helped make some fight bitterly to defend the regime or, in their eyes, to defeat the foreign invaders.
But these are still early days; Libyan workers and youth have still not put their demands on the table. A key factor in the revolution was the tremendous revolt of the youth against the Gaddafi regime’s suffocating corruption and nepotism. Thirty per cent of Libya’s 6.5 million population are under the age of 15, the country’s average age is 24 and there are nearly a quarter of a million university and college students - and they have high expectations, especially of ending a situation of 20% unemployment.
Oil and gas have made Libya a rich country. The World Bank estimates it has a $160bn foreign currency reserve. This income and wealth allowed Gaddafi to raise living standards. Education and health care were free of charge, and many basic consumer goods were subsided. Life expectancy was 51 in 1969, the year Gaddafi took power, and is now over 74. All this explains why his regime retained some support. But all these measures depend on the oil price. A renewed world economic crisis would fundamentally change the situation and threaten to plunge the country into disaster. When oil prices fell in the 1980s, Libya’s GDP collapsed by over 40%.
Now, more than ever, the creation of independent, democratic workers’ organisations including a workers’ party are vital. This is the only way working people, the oppressed and youth are able to achieve a real revolutionary transformation of the country and thwart the imperialists’ plans, end dictatorship and transform the lives of the mass of the people.
Without this other forces will step into the gap. To limit other forces and to achieve their goals a workers’ movement would need to defend all democratic rights, involve and defend the rights of migrant workers and oppose the privatisation of Libya’s assets. They would also need to demand the withdrawal of all foreign military forces and oppose all foreign military intervention, while demanding the democratic election of a Constituent Assembly and, above all, reject participation in any government with pro-capitalist forces. Instead, it would strive for a government of representatives of the workers and poor, based upon democratic structures in the workplaces and communities. Such a government would use Libya’s resources for its population. This would be the real victory for the Libyan revolution and set an international example of ending both dictatorial rule and the miseries of capitalism.
Following Gaddafi’s overthrow it was inevitable that the remnants of the old elite, overthrown in 1969, and the imperialists would blatantly rewrite Libyan history in an attempt to say once-upon-a-time, before Gaddafi, there was a ‘democratic’ period.
Throughout his nearly 42 years in power, Gaddafi zig-zagged in policy, sometimes violently. In 1971, he helped the then 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 nothing at all like genuine democratic socialism, or a move towards it. Politically the regime was similar to the former stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, but Libya, despite widespread nationalisations, had not completely broken with capitalism. Later, after 2003, Gaddafi moved to start privatising the economy. Under Gaddafi the Libyan working people and youth were never running their country. Gaddafi remained in control. This was underlined by the increasingly prominent role that many of his children played in the regime.
But to say that there was no democracy under Gaddafi is not to say it was democratic before 1969. Formally there were five elections in Libya under the British and US supported monarchy, but what was their real character? After independence in 1951, Libya’s first ever election was held in 1952 when only 140,000 “sane and solvent” males, one seventh of the population, could vote. Voting was only secret in ten urban constituencies. Despite widespread vote-rigging the opposition, the National Congress Party, won a majority of seats in Tripoli. Following protests against the rigging, political parties were banned and the NCP leader, Bashir Bey Sadawi, expelled from the country. In the subsequent four elections only individuals were allowed to stand. But in 1964, despite harassment and arrests, a number of opposition candidates were elected. However that parliament was quickly dissolved and new elections held in 1965 with increased and extreme rigging to ensure victory of pro-government candidates in this, the last ‘election’ before the monarchy’s 1969 overthrow.
Imperialism never had a particular wish to maintain Libya. Imperialism was faced with the then growing popularity in Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, of Egypt’s radical nationalist ruler, Colonel Nasser. In 1959 the US discussed that, in the event of a Nasserite coup in Libya, “Tunisia ... appropriately beefed up by the US ... should seize Tripolitania” , i.e. Libya should be partitioned.