Power is rapidly slipping out of the hands of Muammar Gaddafi, as anti-government protests continue to sweep the African nation despite a brutal and bloody crackdown. As city after city falls to the anti-Gaddafi forces his only base is now Tripoli. The East is in the control of the insurgents and most of the West has fallen into the hands of the rebels, including cities very close to the capital.
Just over a week ago the people first rose up in revolt in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. Since then the rebellion has spread to other cities with lightning speed despite all the brutal attempts by security forces to quell the unrest.
The number of victims is unknown, but it is certainly in the hundreds and Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, said there were "credible" reports that at least 1,000 had died in the clampdown. One French doctor estimated that there were 2,000 dead in Benghazi alone. But neither bullets nor bombs have stopped the movement, which is now sweeping the whole country from east to west.
Gaddafi vowed to crush the uprising irrespective of the cost in human lives. On Tuesday night he delivered an incoherent speech on television, declaring he would die a martyr in Libya, and threatening to purge opponents "house by house" and "inch by inch". He blamed the uprising in the country on "Islamists", and warned that an "Islamic emirate" has already been set up in Bayda and Derna, where he threatened the use of extreme force.
Having lost control of Benghazi, Gaddafi ordered three naval ships to attack it. Reports indicate the naval crew was torn about what to do. This behaviour is a ready-made recipe for pushing more and more sections of the military to abandon the Leader and side with the revolutionary people. This is already happening.
In a desperate attempt to crush the rebellion and create a regime of terror, Gaddafi ordered his air force to attack the people, and unleashed an army of foreign mercenaries on the population. The Guardian reports the words of a dissident Libyan army officer:
“An air force officer, Major Rajib Faytouni, said he personally witnessed up to 4,000 mercenaries arrive on Libyan transport planes over a period of three days starting from 14 February. He said: ‘That's why we turned against the government. That and the fact there was an order to use planes to attack the people’.
“Numerous witnesses in Benghazi have said that while artillery was used against citizens, air force planes did not fire on them here. They did, however, according to Faytouni, drop two bombs inside the Rajma military base to stop weapons falling into the hands of anti-government forces.
“‘The two colonels who defected in MiGs had refused orders to bomb the people,’ he said, referring to a pair of air force officers who fled to Malta in their jets on Monday. He added: ‘There were also two helicopters that flew to Tunis’.”
In a separate incident the pilots of another plane parachuted themselves out and let their plane crash rather than open fire on civilians. The Spanish newspaper El Pais claims that 17 air force pilots were executed today for refusing to fire on the civilian population. A warship which had been sent to bombard Benghazi has defected to Malta.
The armed people
The attempt to drown the rebellion in blood has failed. An Al Jazeera correspondent, reporting from the city of Tobruk, 140km from the Egyptian border, said there was no presence of security forces: “From what I've seen, I'd say the people of eastern Libya are the ones in control," Hoda Abdel-Hamid said.
She said there were no officials manning the border when the Al Jazeera team crossed into Libya:
“All along the border, we didn't see one policeman, we didn't see one soldier and people here told us they [security forces] have all fled or are in hiding and that the people are now in charge, meaning all the way from the border, Tobruk, and then all the way up to Benghazi.”
Western journalists who have now entered Benghazi report that the apparatus of the state has completely disappeared. The Guardian describes the scene:
“All around Benghazi there were indications that Gaddafi has lost control of the city. The military is no longer operating checkpoints, which are now manned only by a handful of traffic police. Every physical sign of the dictator has been taken down or burned. While there has been no violence in the past two days, angry demonstrators are driving through city firing Kalashnikov rifles into the air and demanding Gaddafi cede control and leave the country.”
The former Libyan flag, dating from the struggle for independence, is flying above ransacked government buildings on the waterfront. The buildings of the security forces have been burned, the armoury has been looted. The people are now heavily armed from the weaponry that they have removed from these armouries. The Guardian reports:
“As the first foreign news organisation to report from so-called Free Benghazi, the Guardian witnessed defecting troops pouring into the courtyard of a ransacked police station carrying tonnes of weaponry and ammunition looted from a military armoury to stop it being seized by forces loyal to the Libyan dictator.
“Soldiers brought rockets and heavy weapons which had been used in an assault on citizens in central Benghazi on Saturday as Gaddafi tried to keep control of the city. Doctors in Benghazi said that at least 230 people were killed, with a further 30 critically injured.
“There was also the clearest confirmation yet that Gaddafi's regime used outside mercenaries to try to suppress the rebellion. Adjoining the police station a large crowd gathered in another courtyard. Upstairs, the Guardian saw a number of mercenaries, allegedly flown in the previous week, being interrogated by lawyers and army officials.”
Gaddafi had to use foreign mercenaries because he could not trust his own soldiers to fire on the people. They are guilty of terrible atrocities against the people. Their fate is unknown. But at least they will be put on trial for their crimes. The people they shot down in cold blood on the streets of Benghazi had none. And gangs of mercenaries still remain at large, committing new murders, as Al Jezeera reports:
“People tell me it's also quite calm in Bayda and Benghazi. They do say, however, that 'militias' are roaming around, especially at night. They describe them as African men, they say they speak French so they think they're from Chad.”
Major-General Suleiman Mahmoud, the commander of the armed forces in Tobruk, told Al Jazeera that the troops led by him had switched loyalties. "We are on the side of the people," he said. "I was with him [Gaddafi] in the past but the situation has changed - he's a tyrant."
As in Tunisia and Egypt the revolutionary people are setting up committees to take control of the running of society. Reuter published a quote of a woman in Benghazi that completely sums up the situation: "Somayah, a housewife in Benghazi, said: ‘The city is fine now after a group of lawyers and doctors, as well as youth volunteers, formed public committees and are keeping things in order’."
Engels explained that the state is armed bodies of men. In Benghazi and other cities controlled by the rebels, the old state has ceased to exist. It has been replaced by the armed people, revolutionary militias, which Lenin said were the embryo of a new state power. According to one report, military checkpoints between Benghazi and Egypt to the east are now manned only by armed militia. The young men carrying Kalashnikovs subject a lorry driver to a desultory check. “But there is no government any more!” the driver protests. The argument strikes the young men as conclusive, and they wave him on with a smile.
The fall of Misurata
Gaddafi probably thought that he could hold on to Tripoli and the western part of the country and use this to crush the insurgent east. But events have reduced his calculations to ashes. The revolution has already spread to the west. By Wednesday the government had lost control of Misurata , the third biggest city in Libya. Army officers in the city have pledged "total support for the protesters".
Misurata is the largest city in the western half in the country to fall into the hands of the insurgents. Clashes broke out over the past two days in the town of Sabratha, west of the capital. Now Tajura, a town less than 15 kilometres from Tripoli, has fallen and the rebel flag is flying over it. The city of Zwara, also in the west, was reported to be calm after the people took control. The people have united to patrol the streets. Here also sections of the army have joined the protesters.
The masses in Benghazi are on the streets demonstrating in solidarity with the people of Tripoli. It is merely a question of time before the decisive Battle of Tripoli takes place. El Pais reports that in Tobruk the people have set up popular committees and “a mood of revolution pervades everything.”
Gaddafi and imperialism
As was the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the Americans and Europeans can only look on helplessly while the situation drifts out of control. They had hoped to arrive at a deal with Gaddafi, opening up this oil rich nation to foreign investors.
Some people on the Left claim that Gaddafi is a “socialist” or an “anti-imperialist” of some sort. This is false. As a matter of fact, Gaddafi has abandoned any pretence at fighting imperialism, made deals with the US, the UK and other imperialist powers and opened up the country to the oil multinationals.
The rapprochement between Libya and imperialism was stepped up in 2003-4, starting with the recognition of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. The British released the Libyan man accused of the bombing, to the outrage of the Americans, but the British got lucrative deals with Tripoli. As the Romans used to say, money does not smell.
Reactionary politicians like Tony Blair and Berlusconi wooed Gaddafi. For his part the “anti-imperialist” Gaddafi carried out privatizations and encouraged foreign companies to open up shops in Benghazi and Tripoli. As recently as last November The Economist published a glowing report about Libya, which it compared with Dubai. Now all these dreams are in ruins.
It was precisely these policies which destroyed the elements of a welfare state which existed previously, created a massive gulf between the obscene wealth of the Gaddafi clique and the poverty of the masses and mass unemployment developed. Any progressive features the regime might have had in the past were eliminated. This is the root cause of the present uprising.
Now there are reports that Gaddafi has ordered the bombing of oil terminals. Big foreign oil companies like BP and Repsol have had to suspend operations in Libya. Half of Libya’s oil production has been shut down. The consequences for the world economy may be dramatic. Oil prices are already soaring. Benchmark Brent futures have reached $110 a barrel. The unrest in the Arab world may yet be the undoing of the weak economic recovery, adding a further twist to the global crisis of capitalism.
Gaddafi has tried to mobilise his supporters to take to the streets and show their support for their leader. Several hundred government loyalists heeded his call, staging a pro-Gaddafi rally in the city's Green Square in Tripoli. But Gaddafi's speech has done little to stem the steady stream of defections from his side. On the same day there were reports of gunfire in the capital.
There are signs that the regime is entering into a process of disintegration. Late on Tuesday night, General Abdul-Fatah Younis, the country's interior minister, became the latest government official to stand down, saying that he was resigning to support what he termed as the "February 17 revolution". He urged the Libyan army to join the people and their "legitimate demands".
On Wednesday, Youssef Sawani, a senior aide to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Muammar Gaddafi's sons, resigned from his post "to express dismay against violence", Reuters reported.
Earlier, Mustapha Abdeljalil, the country's justice minister, had resigned in protest at the "excessive use of violence" against protesters, and diplomats at Libya's mission to the United Nations called on the Libyan army to help remove "the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi". Libyan diplomats across the world have either resigned in protest at the use of violence against citizens, or renounced Gaddafi's leadership, saying that they stand with the protesters.
Most ominous of all for Gaddafi, a group of army officers has also issued a statement urging soldiers to "join the people" and remove Gaddafi from power. As the noose tightens, there are indications that sections of the army in Libya are preparing to move against Gaddafi in an attempt to stop the country slipping further into chaos. The commander of the Tobruk region in the east is rumoured to have called for a coup against Gaddafi and set up some kind of committee to replace him and the clique around him.
This is the scenario which the imperialists wished to avoid in Tunisia and Egypt through the timely departure of the “strongmen”. Mubarak left it till the situation was already out of control. But by clinging to power in the teeth of a mass uprising, Gaddafi has pushed the situation to breaking point.
His conduct contradicts all the dictates of rational behaviour. He has ordered the military to fire on the insurgent people. He has used hired mercenaries to do the killing for him. This was intended to terrify the masses, but it has failed in its objective. On the contrary, it has enraged the people, and it has also alienated important sections of the army and the police, who have turned against the Chief.
Finally, it seems that a glimmering of reality has begun to penetrate the dark recesses of Gaddafi’s brain. It appears that a plane carrying his daughter was prevented from landing in Malta and forced to turn back to Libya. The Leader has begun to understand that the end is in sight. But he will not leave like Ben Ali. After all, where would he go? He intends to stay and fight to the bitter end, even if it means dragging the whole nation down with him.
The fall of Gaddafi is now only a matter of time. By refusing to surrender he will ensure that the ending will be of a cataclysmic character. This will send further shock waves through the states of North Africa and the Middle East already reeling from the earlier shocks from Tunisia and Egypt.
With the fall of each reactionary regime, the basis of every existing regime is weakened. The masses are watching every new development and drawing their own conclusions. The fall of Gaddafi teaches them a new message. If the Libyan regime, with its huge repressive apparatus and army of foreign mercenaries, could not withstand a mass uprising of the people, what chance does any other unpopular Arab government have?
The rulers of Saudi Arabia hated Gaddafi. Now they are praying for him to succeed. Their prayers will not be answered. The message from the streets of Benghazi and Misurata is resounding loud and clear: Tremble, tyrants