Libyan revolution and imperialist meddling

Friday, 18 March 2011
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Yesterday the United Nations Security Council voted by 10 votes in favour against 5 abstentions to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The resolution authorises UN member states "to take all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory".

A few weeks ago in Benghazi. Photo: Al JazeeraA few weeks ago in Benghazi. Photo: Al Jazeera Gaddafi has responded – through his foreign minister – by announcing his intention to call a cease-fire. This is clearly intended to stop the airstrikes which were being prepared by NATO and other forces. He realises what he risks if he ignores the UN and simply marches on and bombs the rebel held towns. With such a ceasefire in place – if Gaddafi keeps his word and isn’t using this simply to buy time to take towns such as Misurata – the country is de facto divided into two.

This sudden about face on the part of Gaddafi may also be dictated by the fact that he has realised that taking Benghazi would be a far more formidable task than what he has achieved so far. Benghazi is a major city under the control of the revolutionary people, and these would put up strong resistance against any force sent in by Gaddafi. Thus a compromise which leaves him in control of part of the country may seem the better option.

With the revolution in stalemate, the Interim Council remains standing in Benghazi but Gaddafi holds on to the biggest city, Tripoli and several other key cities, including important oil fields and refineries.

A ceasefire means neither side attacks the other. It also means putting on hold the Libyan revolution, which is what Gaddafi’s regime wants, but also what the imperialists want. Those who lose out in all this are the Libyan workers and youth, those who actually started the revolution. In Tripoli Gaddafi will keep his grip on the situation and in the East and other rebel held areas, the revolutionary youth will be pulled back.

Let us not forget that until recently the west were doing very good business with Gaddafi. Western oil companies have been operating in the country for some time. Gaddafi was putting in place laws that would favour the development of private enterprise and the market. The IMF recently [February 15, 2011] applauded the Gaddafi regime noting that, “An ambitious program to privatize banks and develop the nascent financial sector is underway. Banks have been partially privatized, interest rates decontrolled, and competition encouraged. Ongoing efforts to restructure and modernize the CBL [Central Bank of Libya] are underway with assistance from the Fund.” Gaddafi’s son, Saif, was in fact a key promoter of “liberalisation”.

The people who sit on the Interim Council, led by Gaddafi’s former Minister of Justice, have no differences with the Gaddafi clique on this question. So on both sides of the divide the imperialists will be able to carry on doing good business. What the imperialists have been seeking is a way of cutting across the revolutionary wave in the Arab world. In Libya they have found, at least for now, a way of partially achieving that. The idea that tyrants can easily be toppled by mass movements has been brought into question by the survival of Gaddafi. The idea that outside help from the western “democracies” is required to “defend people’s democratic rights” has been added to the equation.

All this is aimed at removing from the minds of millions of downtrodden, ordinary working people, of the unemployed youth, the poor, that they have the power to rise up and take their destinies into their own hands. Egypt and Tunisia, however, are still there as examples of revolutions that have removed despots from power. The idea that revolution is possible is still gripping the minds of millions in the Arab world. And whatever manoeuvres the imperialist may come up with, this idea is not going to go away so easily. In Yemen, Jordan, Oman and many other countries revolution is on the agenda.

The role of the United Nations

In speaking at the gathering of the Security Council, Susan Rice, the US representative claimed that by passing this resolution they were defending the democratic rights of the Libyan people. Such words in the mouths of the representatives of US imperialism stink of hypocrisy. We should not be taken in by all this rhetoric. The imperialist powers hide behind such words as they proceed to defend their fundamental interests.

Let us not forget that it was only last month that the same Susan Rice vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution which condemned Israel’s settlements in Palestinian territory. Thus while in Libya people are to be guaranteed “democratic rights” the Palestinians can go on waiting for theirs. In the past two years the US have vetoed more than 30 resolutions that called for a defence of the rights of the Palestinians. On the other hand, in the past when the US sought a UN mandate to justify their invasion of Iraq, in spite of failing to get such a mandate, went ahead and invaded the country anyway.

Unfortunately, among many on the left there are big illusions in what the United Nations can achieve. There is this idea that somehow the UN is an organisation that stands above society, i.e. stands above class and national interests as some kind of “democratic” or “humanitarian” referee. It is nothing of the sort.

Gaddafi and Sarkozy shaking hands during a summit in 2007, a photo that has subsequently been removed from the president's website. Photo: Présidence de la RépubliqueGaddafi and Sarkozy shaking hands during a summit in 2007, a photo that has subsequently been removed from the president's website. Photo: Présidence de la République The UN Security Council, has within it five major powers, the US, China, Russia, France and Britain, who have the right of veto. If any single one of these feels that its national interests are at risk it can stop a resolution going through. What this means is that the UN can take a decision, when the "national interests", that is the interests of the respective ruling classes, of all these powers converge in some way.

Here we saw the spectacle of the direct representatives of Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama agreeing to intervene in Libya, the same people who at home are cutting pensions, attacking the right to free public education, cutting back on welfare in general, while at the same time defending the interests of their own capitalists. These same people have no qualms in sending the police against protesting workers and youth in their own countries, while at the same time shamefacedly decrying the lack of democratic rights in other countries.

Marxists do not fall for any of this. The interests of the capitalist class are the same at home and abroad. Their home policy is based on defending the profits and privileges of the ruling class. Their foreign policy is determined by the exact same criteria. That is why it is very unfortunate that many on the left – whether they call themselves Social-Democratic, Socialist, Labour, Left, Communist and so on – have fallen for all the rhetoric of the ruling class.

Bahrain and Libya… two weights and two measures

One has only to look at the situation in Bahrain to see the utter hypocrisy of what is going on. In Bahrain we have seen a mass movement of immense proportions. The government has responded brutally, shooting at unarmed peaceful demonstrators. Other Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have sent in troops and police forces to help the government quell the revolt. Where is the call for a UN force to defend the Bahraini people? So far, what we have is Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general expressing his "deepest concern" about what is happening in Bahrain.

The argument that the Bahraini government (which is violently repressing its own people) has called for the “help” of neighbouring countries and that by doing so legitimizes foreign intervention is grotesquely ridiculous. These hypocrites forget the very fact that the mass revolt in Bahrain has deprived the local government of any authority whatsoever to claim it represents the will of the majority.

Why do we have two weights and two measures here? Because in each situation the interests of the imperialists are different. If the revolution in Bahrain were to successfully overthrow the regime, then next in line would be Saudi Arabia, followed by the other smaller Gulf States. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world. Kuwait and the UAE also have sizeable reserves. The Saudi regime itself is not exactly an example of democracy. It is a brutal regime, and always has been.

The Saudi regime has come under some – very mild – pressure to introduce “reforms”. The result? The king is about to announce a… “government reshuffle”, an “anti-corruption drive” and promises to increase subsidies on basic foodstuffs. But where are the democratic reforms, the right to form parties, the right to organize free trade unions and to strike? We can rest assured that these will not be in the king’s speech today.

Saudi Arabia is a very important player in what is happening in the Middle East. It is a key ally of US imperialism, but in the recent period we have seen differences over how to deal with the revolutions that have been spreading across the whole region.

For example, when the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions started, the Saudis and other reactionary Arab regimes were all putting pressure, particularly on Mubarak to resist at all costs. They understood that the toppling of the Egyptian regime could open the floodgates and that they could be next.

US imperialism, on the other hand, after the initial shock of seeing millions on the streets – something they had not expected – realized that in order to maintain some degree of control over the situation, what was required was some loosening up from the top, i.e. to grant some reforms from above in order to avoid revolutionary explosions from below. That is in fact the line they are pushing now, even giving some kind advice to the Bahraini regime to follow along the same lines.

But it is one thing to pontificate from across the Atlantic Ocean; it is another to be sitting right on top of the volcano in the Middle East. These regimes realize that once you start loosening up from the top, in the face of revolutionary movements of the masses, it is only the beginning of a process that will go much further than they would like. Once the masses get a feeling that a regime is weak, that it is divided and it is making reforms only to try and stop the tide of revolution, then they are encouraged and move forward with more demands. The masses want full democratic rights, and with these they also want a solution to their burning economic and social problems.

This the imperialists understand and what they are trying to do now to make cosmetic changes while maintaining the essence of the old regimes that have either been toppled or are about to be toppled, i.e. regimes that maintain and defend the interests of the capitalist system as a whole.

It is in this context that we need to look at what is happening in Libya and why the UN voted the resolution that prepared the ground for the imposition of a no-fly zone over the country. It was evident that US imperialism was not prepared to take up on itself the task of imposing such a zone. They have had their fingers burned in Iraq and are not keen to get bogged down in another war in an Arab country. That explains why so much insistence has been placed on the fact that there is not going to be an “occupation” of Libya. Unfortunately for the US strategists, they have now been dragged into supporting such a resolution and will have to participate to some degree in imposing the no-fly zone. They see it as the lesser evil, and also have to weigh up their interests in the region as a whole. They cannot ignore the needs of the Saudi Arabian regime, which is far more important to them.

A call for a no-fly zone actually came from within Libya itself, from the Interim Council in Benghazi. The reason for this was that Gaddafi had kept control of key sections of the armed forces, as we have explained in a previous article [see Why has the revolution stalled in Libya?], in particular of the air force which could be used to bomb rebel held areas. The leadership of the Council has played an important role in all this. They dithered at crucial moments, held back the revolutionary youth, hoping more sections of the military would come over to the revolution or even that Gaddafi would be removed by people within the regime itself.

Revolutionary momentum must be regained

Once the revolutionary momentum was lost, Gaddafi was able to reorganize his forces and begin to strike back. At that point the conflict became more of a war than a revolution, and with far superior firepower, the people of Benghazi and other cities were facing the risk of losing everything they had fought for and of suffering a bloody clampdown at the hands of Gaddafi’s forces. When it seemed that Gaddafi was close to launching an offensive against Benghazi the UN decided to pass its resolution.

The reaction on the streets of Benghazi was ecstatic. Now they felt they had the big powers backing them and they feel Gaddafi can be defeated. This euphoria is understandable, but is it justified? The imperialists are not intervening to defend the Libyan revolution. On the contrary, their purpose is to strangle the revolution and divert it along safer lines. They are backing the Council in Benghazi, whose members have shown that what they want is to be on good terms with the imperialists, open up Libya to imperialist economic interests even more than has been done so far, and in the process win ministerial positions for themselves.

For what kind of regime could emerge from a defeat of Gaddafi achieved with the aid of the imperialists? Victory over Gaddafi in such circumstances would come at a price. One only has to look at Iraq to see what kind of regime it would be. Libya would have a government that would have to carry out the demands of the imperialists. That would involve speeding up the programme of privatization initiated by Gaddafi, further cuts in welfare, cuts in food subsidies and so on. It would be a capitalist regime, with a democratic façade, but none of the pressing social problems would be solved. On the contrary they would worsen.

For now, however, Gaddafi still has his armed forces intact. His attack was not mainly based on aerial bombardment, but on troops on the ground, aided by tanks and other hardware. If what is intended is to defend civilians, then a no-fly zone would not be enough. Eventually they would have to commit ground troops.

Once such a process starts then it would lead eventually to the need to send troops into Libya. From a purely military point of view, they could defeat Gaddafi, as they defeated Saddam Hussein, but at what cost? It would mean much destruction and many deaths. Precisely what they were supposed to be avoiding with this resolution.

Now that Gaddafi has accepted to hold back his forces, this may not become reality. But the alternative is one of a crystallisation of the situation as it is now and the opening of negotiations that will see the Benghazi Council, Gaddafi and the imperialist powers (under the cover of the UN) sit around a table and decide how to divide up the country’s wealth at the expenses of the Libyan people.

The real alternative for the Libyan workers and revolutionary youth will be to regain the initiative. They must explain that the revolution is not simply about removing a despot who had good relations with the imperialists and replace him with another pro-imperialist government. The Libyan people yearn for freedom and democracy, the right to express their views and aims and the right to organise to achieve those aims. It is clear, however, that the aims of those who sit on the Interim Council are not the same as those of the workers and revolutionary youth who started the revolution.

The message must be sent to the people, in Tripoli especially, that the revolution is not about, placing a few defectors from Gaddafi’s camp in government in place of Gaddafi himself. It is not about having a government that will continue with more or less the same imperialist imposed policies that Gaddafi was pursuing anyway.

The revolution is about ending all compromises with imperialism. It is about establishing workers’ control over the nationalised industries and taking back any key resources that have been privatised. For this to happen, the workers must come out with their own voice, with their own banner, and their own party. That is what is missing in the revolution. And that is what needs to be built.

The revolutionary youth and the workers will be drawing conclusions from the events that have unfolded over the past few weeks. They have been through a very bitter school. But if they do not want to see their revolution stolen from them, they must come out as an independent force.