Why has the revolution stalled in Libya?

Thursday, 17 March 2011
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After taking one town after another in the early days of the Libyan revolution, now the insurgents are having to come to terms with the fact that Gaddafi has managed to hold together a significant section of his special security forces and is hitting back. How does one explain this dramatic turnaround?

March 4. Photo: Nasser NouriMarch 4. Photo: Nasser Nouri Initially Libya seemed to be going the same way as Tunisia and Egypt. The speed with which the movement took large areas of the country, indicates that the population hates Gaddafi and wants to see an end to his dictatorship. The cities that fell to the insurgents did so not through outright military victories against the state apparatus, but through popular uprisings.

The fact that in Tripoli, the initial movements against the regime failed to become a revolt on the scale of Benghazi and other cities is not an indication of massive support for Gaddafi. Control of Tripoli has in large part been provided by several well-equipped elite security brigades. Let us not forget that this is a brutal totalitarian dictatorship, which is proving it will use any means possible to crush popular revolt. No doubt the clampdown in Tripoli has been thorough and extremely brutal.

The latest events are bringing home to many people in the Arab world that toppling tyrants will not always be so easy and relatively peaceful as it was first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. Setbacks and defeats during a revolution are inevitable. They also play an important role in forcing people to think. After the seemingly straightforward way the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown, the – understandably – naïve idea developed that all one needs to do is to concentrate large numbers of people in a central square for long enough and you can overthrow any regime.

Libya is showing that that is not always enough. Now we also have the situation in Bahrain where Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have sent in troops, and the state is stepping up repression. The ruling elites of these countries have a lot to lose. They are the same regimes that were pushing Mubarak to resist at all costs. And imperialism also has much at stake in these oil-rich countries. The US have their Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.

The effect of this stepping up of repressive measures in Bahrain has pushed the youth into an even more militant stance than before. In the long run all these regimes will eventually fall. Mass opposition is evident in all of them. And a people once it has risen cannot be held down by the sword alone for ever.

For now, however, in Libya Gaddafi is holding on and fighting back. His forces have bombed towns, killing many civilians and rebel fighters, and they have successfully taken back several of these, and now they are moving towards Benghazi.

Why has Gaddafi not fallen yet?

Libyan revolutionaries. Photo: Nasser NouriLibyan revolutionaries. Photo: Nasser Nouri First we need to ask the question as to why the Gaddafi regime has not fallen and why it is able to fight back and regain some of the areas previously taken by the insurgents.

There are several complicating factors in Libya. We will look into these later, but the most serious is the weakness of the leadership that emerged in Benghazi. Also, the working class played less of a role in Libya. After decades of brutal dictatorship there were no organisations of the working class of any kind, not even of the type that existed in Tunisia, such as the UGTT which the workers used to organise through.

In Egypt what finally pushed Mubarak out was the decisive intervention of the working class. Faced with the prospect of a serious movement of the workers, the top generals were convinced that in order to stave off revolution from below it was better that Mubarak should go. In Tunisia also the workers played a key role in ousting Ben Ali with a movement of massive regional strikes.

Faced with a regime like that of Gaddafi, unless the workers put their stamp on the revolution all the potential for a generalised uprising, particularly in Tripoli, and for a mass revolt within the army and security forces can remain precisely that, potential.

The make-up of the Interim Council also has played a role in this process. All kinds of different layers have been involved in the early stages of the revolution. These include some defectors from the old regime, who decided to jump ship when they thought Gaddafi was about to fall, no doubt hoping to play the role of Ghannouchi in Tunisia.

Among them are Ali Al Issawi, Gaddafi’s former minister for economy, trade and investment and Mahmood Jibril, who served as head of the country's National Planning Council and National Economic Development Board, and who holds a PhD in privatisation obtained from the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest Romania. According to a leaked 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable he was considered as being "well-connected within the regime" and someone who was seeking more open relations with the U.S. Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the Council, was Gaddafi’s Justice Minister from 2007 until he defected last month.

These people successfully stepped into the vacuum of leadership that emerged in Benghazi when the state collapsed in the face of the revolution, but rather than strengthening the revolution, they weaken it. There are also Islamists, who can be of no appeal to working people in the cities. There are human rights activists and pro-democracy groups, whose main objective is some kind of bourgeois democracy, but who do not take into account the social and economic demands of ordinary working people. Side by side with all these there is the revolutionary youth and the working class and poor.

23 February, Benghazi. Photo: EndTyranny0123 February, Benghazi. Photo: EndTyranny01 Between the former and the latter there are clear class differences and this could be seen, for instance, when Gaddafi pretended he was prepared to “negotiate”. It was clear that the aim of Gaddafi was to cause divisions among the rebel forces. Some of the “pragmatic” leaders of the Interim Council fell for it, but had to immediately backtrack as the enraged revolutionary youth converged on the headquarters of the Council protesting at such submissive behaviour.

It is this weakness of the leadership, this limiting of their demands to “Democracy” and “Down with the dictator”, while at the same time having no programme to deal with the social and economic problems of the workers, which has strengthened the hand of Gaddafi. The only way the revolution can succeed is by uniting democratic demands with social and economic demands. Without such a programme, the revolution failed to grip the masses to the degree necessary to generalise the uprising and have a sufficient impact on the armed forces that would have made Gaddafi’s counter-offensive impossible.

The most important thing that we have to understand is that if we reduce the conflict merely to the military balance of forces, then Gaddafi is in a far stronger position. The revolution cannot win if it is simply reduced to conventional armed conflict.

Initially we did see the beginnings of a breakdown of Gaddafi’s armed forces, with significant layers refusing to shoot on the masses and passing over to the revolution, but the process was stalled. At a certain point the idea that Gaddafi could be overthrown militarily gained the upper hand on the Council. This reflects their own limited aims of establishing some “democratic” regime that would have good relations with imperialism, i.e. they want to push to its logical conclusion the self-same policy that Gaddafi and his sons have been promoting, only with a democratic façade.

Here again, we must emphasise the role of the leadership. The Interim Council that was set up in Benghazi put at its head, as we have seen, Jalil, Gaddafi’s ex-Minister of Justice! This leadership, faced with the military might of Gaddafi, instead of pushing to break down his forces politically, began to talk of foreign help, calling for a no-fly zone and so on.

This idea of a no-fly zone we will look into later, but rather than weakening Gaddafi, it has strengthened him. He has been able to use it to raise himself up as the defender of the nation against imperialist aggression. The fact that the French government has officially recognised the Council as the government for the country does not help in this. Since when has French imperialism been a friend of the Arab people?

Gaddafi has used this to portray the insurgents as agents of imperialism and even forces of Al-Qaeda. Once this had happened and the struggle was transformed from a genuine revolution to a war led by elements who came from within the regime itself, and with the idea that their victory would lead to imperialist control over Libya, the balance of forces changed in favour of Gaddafi.

Volunteers were prepared to march on Tripoli, but much less armed and untrained in combat against the professional forces of Gaddafi. In such open conflict, unless the revolution is able to grip the minds of the masses in a city like Tripoli, and unless this in turn breaks down the loyalty of the rank and file of the armed forces, then from a purely military point of view the counter-revolution gets the upper hand. Once such a process starts it also rebounds on the rebel camp, where the internal divisions widen as each layer blames the others for the mistakes they have made. Gaddafi is cunningly exploiting all this.

Defeat of revolution not inevitable

However, the defeat of the Libyan uprising is not inevitable, nor a foregone conclusion. There are a number of factors here. There is the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses which partially makes up for their military weaknesses. Gaddafi has been advancing, but it has been painfully slow, considering that he has a well-equipped army that is facing far less organised and less equipped rebel forces. It took his forces a week to retake Ras Lanuf, and Zawiya.

However, it is one thing to occupy cities; it is another to hold them down where the majority of the population is against them. There have even been reports of defections from the Khamis Brigade, during their assault on Misurata. Gaddafi’s forces were ambushed and captured in Brega.

The insurgents require a revolutionary policy, making appeals to the cities held by Gaddafi, to the ranks of his units, etc. But what have the units that went over to the side of the people been doing? According to The Economist, initially they were confined to their barracks in Tobruk and Benghazi, because some of the top officers did not particularly want to get involved in the fighting. What were they doing? Were they waiting to see which side was going to win?

An example has been Gaddafi’s former interior minister, Abd al-Fattah Younis, who defected. He had a thousand men at his disposal, but for weeks he refused to obey the orders of the Council. And the supposedly most committed of the army commanders who have sided with the revolution, Major Ahmad Qatrani held back his men with the excuse that “My forces might have been killed. Now these forces have been put at the disposal of the Council, but only after having given Gaddafi precious time to reorganise his forces and hit back.

This behaviour is tantamount to treason. What needs to be done is to transform those units of the army that have defected and put them under the control of the working people, of the revolutionary youth and remove them from the control of these untrustworthy officers. Soldiers’ committees should be organised and political commissars attached to any unreliable officers. The military command should be under the control of the organised people.

What kind of foreign help?

On the question of foreign help, the revolution may require this but this can only come from the Arab revolution itself, not the imperialists, and it can only be mustered if the revolution presents a clear class position to the masses of Libya and the other Arab countries. So long as it is led by elements such as those listed above it will not have the authority to appeal to either the workers of Tripoli or the workers of other countries.

March 4, defected special forces soldier from Benghazi. Photo: Al Jazeera EnglishMarch 4, defected special forces soldier from Benghazi. Photo: Al Jazeera English In Tunisia and Egypt, bordering on either side of Libya, revolutions have successfully overthrown the dictators. The revolutionary people of Tunisia and Egypt, surely would be prepared to help their Libyan brothers and sisters against Gaddafi. An appeal should be made to open the borders, send weapons, men, and supplies. This has partially been done in terms of humanitarian aid, but military hardware and manpower is also required.

Had the workers in Tunisia and Egypt taken power and established workers’ regimes, Gaddafi by now would probably have fallen. But in both Tunisia and Egypt, the lack of a revolutionary Marxist leadership is revealing the weaknesses of the revolutions. The Egyptian military, were it in the hands of the Egyptian masses, could play a key role in Libya. But the Egyptian military is not in the hands of the masses. On the contrary, the Egyptian officer caste is manoeuvring in order to avoid the revolution going the whole way. The same applies to the Tunisian revolution.

The best aid the Tunisian and Egyptian masses can provide to the Libyan masses is to complete their own revolutions. Successful socialist revolutions in both Egypt and Tunisia would enormously strengthen the Libyan revolution. The masses of Tripoli would respond by coming out decisively, thus ending Gaddafi’s offensive against the rebel strongholds.

And having taken power, the Egyptian and Tunisian masses could provide the help the Libyan rebels require. It is one thing for imperialist military forces to intervene in Libya – which would actually strengthen Gaddafi – it would be a completely different matter if it were revolutionary Egypt or Tunisia intervening.

Relying on the Gulf States, NATO, Sarkozy, Cameron, the UN... would be a disaster. The UN is an impotent body that can only function when all the gangsters that make it up can agree on something, i.e. when all the major powers have a common interest. As for the others, these all have their own interests, which are not those of the workers and youth of Libya. No trust must be placed in the imperialists. These are the same imperialists who did good business with Gaddafi. Any intervention on their part would be to guarantee their own economic, military and political interests. We oppose any kind of imperialist intervention anywhere. The Libyan people should trust only themselves and their real allies: the Arab revolutionary people.

Revolution in retreat, other factors come into play

Once the revolution has lost its momentum then all the other secondary factors come to the fore and appear as more important. There is the nature of the army and security forces, and the fact that only a part of these went over to the revolution. The rebels, although willing to fight, are still weak militarily. Not faced with a situation like that in Egypt where the military chiefs concluded that it was better to remove Mubarak in order to stave off revolution, in Libya the rebels are having to fight an outright war. In such a situation the lack of an air force and other more advanced military hardware is clearly a handicap. They also lack serious, professional coordination and leadership.

There is also the tribal question, which played no role in either Tunisia or Egypt, but which in Libya still has an influence in politics, especially under a dictatorship that has snuffed out any form of independent political organization.

Another factor is the position of the clique around Gaddafi. After the initial brutal clampdown and killing of civilians it became clear they had nowhere to flee to. Thus they were faced with no option but to fight it out to the end, which is what they are doing now.

Gaddafi has also stashed away huge amounts of money, reportedly much of it in the country. He did not trust the West to keep his money safely for him, and also he needed it close at hand in order to literally buy support.

Which way the conflict in Libya is going to end in the short term, no one can say. It is one thing for Gaddafi to take the cities, it is another to hold them down. With each city that he takes, his forces are stretched. Once he has taken a city he must leave some forces there to make sure the people don’t rise up again. This weakens his forces as they advance. And the closer he gets to Benghazi the more difficult it will get.

Should he eventually succeed in crushing the whole rebellion, he will impose an even more brutal regime than before. And he will only be able to hold the situation for a period by clamping down heavily. The rebels know that and that explains also why they are fighting. Now that the conflict is out in the open, the rebels have everything to fight for and also everything to lose should Gaddafi come out of this victorious.

But for how long would such a regime survive? No regime can rule by the sword alone… for long. Stability cannot be imposed with the jackboot. Any regime that is temporarily stabilized by such methods would be one waiting for the next eruption of the mass movement.

Already, even at this late stage, there are signs of cracks appearing within Gaddafi’s forces. There are unconfirmed reports of more sections of his military defecting to the rebels. The longer this conflict lasts the more the strain on Gaddafi’s forces will be felt. But this can only lead to a generalised revolt within the armed forces if the ranks see in the revolution a force that is capable of going to the very end, uniting the working people and defeating Gaddafi. Any idea that the revolution may falter can cut across this.

The key question therefore remains the role of the leadership, which fell to the Interim National Council. This body has revealed itself to be far behind the level of determination of the revolutionary youth, who were prepared to fight to the end.

What we have in the Council is de facto a situation where a genuine people’s uprising has been hijacked by bourgeois and petit-bourgeois elements who are not prepared to carry out a genuine revolution. By their actions, and with their lack of a revolutionary policy, the leaders of this Council are digging the grave of the revolution.

What is required is a genuine expression of the revolution. The workers and youth in Benghazi must take over control, break with the policies of these “leaders” and present a genuinely revolutionary face to the rest of the country.

The army and the security forces

The nature of the security forces and how they have been built up over the past decades plays a role in what we are witnessing today. A section of the army has gone over to the revolution, but Gaddafi has managed to maintain control over a sizeable force. This can be explained in part by how Gaddafi has organised and divided up the military apparatus since he came to power in 1969.

Gaddafi, having come to power through a coup, was wary of strengthening the Libyan army. He realized that in the totalitarian dictatorship he has governed over, a real threat could be posed by the army officer caste. In fact, over the years, there have been several plots and coup attempts, most of which have not been serious, but nonetheless enough for Gaddafi to take the question seriously.

There was a failed coup attempt against Gaddafi back in May 1984, which was followed by a reign of terror. In 1993 Gaddafi moved pre-emptively against a group of officers who he claimed were organising a coup. In the process the military were purged and loyal officers were put in the place of the coup plotters.

In order to weaken the regular army’s power and influence, Gaddafi has often moved senior officers around from one post to another, never leaving them in the same position for too long, while at the same time having a network of spies watching out for any dissent among the officers.

At the same time, Gaddafi placed his own personal security in the hands of forces made up of men from his own region and tribe, the Ghadafa [Qadhadhfah]. The Ghadafa tribe also has a disproportionate presence within the air force, which may explain also why Gaddafi has been able to command a certain loyalty among some of the pilots at least.

He also left the regular army ill-equipped and relatively small in size, with only about 40,000 troops, while at the same time he reinforced the militias and security brigades headed by his sons or fellow tribesmen. Control over Tripoli, in fact, is guaranteed in large part by several elite security brigades, which are well-equipped and have specialised training.

The present fighting is now being done by these special brigades, reinforced with foreign mercenaries. Thus what we have is a strong element of tribal loyalty being used to fuse together these special forces, combined with foreign paid fighters who have no qualms about shooting at ordinary Libyan people. It is not like the Egyptian army that was made up mostly of ordinary young Egyptians, the sons of Egyptian working people.

No-fly zone the answer?

In the face of such brutality, the idea of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya has been raised. This has divided the left, some in favour and some against. Among the Stalinists and ex-Stalinists there is a wing that is actually supporting Gaddafi to one degree or another, on the basis that they view him as an “anti-imperialist”. There are also some minor groups on the left, who side with Gaddafi for the same reason. They forget that Gaddafi was doing very good business with the west, implementing new laws, including privatisations and incentives to foreign investment. Gaddafi was behaving as a kind of border guard for Europe, brutally dealing with desperate poor immigrants from Africa who tried to move through Libya on their way to Europe. Gaddafi in fact has reacted to the threats of imperialist intervention as someone who feels “betrayed” by his friends, not as an enemy.

March 4, anti-aircraft gun in rebel hands. Photo: Nasser NouriMarch 4, anti-aircraft gun in rebel hands. Photo: Nasser Nouri The bulk of the reformists, including ex-Stalinists, however, have come out in support of some kind of intervention to stop Gaddafi. An example of this was the resolution recently presented to the European parliament, signed by both right-wing and left-wing Members of the Parliament, which called “on the High Representative and the Member States to stand ready for a UNSC [United Nations Security Council] decision on further measures, including the possibility of a no-fly zone aimed at preventing the regime from targeting the civilian population” and emphasised “that any measures enacted by the EU and its Member States should be in compliance with a UN mandate and be based on coordination with the Arab League and the African Union, encouraging both organisations to steer international efforts.”

The signatories to the resolution included three members of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group, Lothar Bisky, of Die Linke (Germany), who is also the president of the European Left Party, Miguel Portas, of the Bloco de Esquerda (Portugal), and Marie-Christine Vergiat, of the Front de Gauche (France). The resolution was approved by a majority vote, including 11 members of the 35 strong European United Left/Nordic Green Left, Bisky, Kohlí?ek, Liotard, Matias, Maštálka, Mélenchon, Portas, Remek, Søndergaard, Tavares and Vergiat.

The logic behind this idea is that “we must do something”. This is an understandable reaction of many workers and youth, but in such situations one has to think through the consequences of such action and also who is to impose such a zone and what would it lead to later. What may seem an attractive solution today can turn out to have dramatic and unforeseen consequences later.

Those who are backing the idea of a no-fly zone seem to think that this would serve to stop Gaddafi’s military operations and that this could be done in a nice clean manner, using so-called pin-point targeting etc. This ignores reality completely. To impose a no-fly zone one needs to hit airports, airplanes and anti-aircraft guns of any force one is trying to stop flying. This can only be done by aerial bombardment, by launching missiles from naval forces and by the use of commando forces on the ground.

The leaders of the Interim National Council understand that the presence of foreign troops on the ground in Libya would not aid their cause. On the contrary, it would play into the hands of Gaddafi who could raise the spectre of imperialist invasion. Already Gaddafi is shouting about the imperialists who want to get their hands on Libyan oil. On this he is right, but he conveniently leaves out the fact that they already had their hands on the oil via their multinationals operating in the country. He is thus cynically using the threat of foreign intervention to strengthen his position.

Let us not forget that Libya in the past has been bombed by US planes. Remember 1986, which is still used to this day by Gaddafi. That explains why the Libyan opposition, while asking for a no-fly zone, has also stated that no weapons or radar systems should be brought onto Libyan territory and, even more importantly, no foreign soldiers should be sent in.

From a strictly military point of view, this weakens any effectiveness of any such no-fly zone. Also such a zone would have very little impact on helicopters, tanks, and infantry units on the ground. You cannot stop an army solely through aerial bombardment. For this to be successful ground forces need to be deployed, and the more intelligent strategists of imperialism are saying precisely this.

The imperialists are also very wary of going down this road. They have had the experience in Iraq. Scenes of western planes and military hardware bombing Libyan towns, most likely missing most of their targets and hitting civilians, would not go down well inside Libya or among the wider Arab world as a whole.

Have those people on the left who advocate a no-fly zone forgotten about the famous “precision bombing” during the Iraq war? NATO and EU bombs were supposed to hit only specific military targets, hitting the bad guys and saving women and children and civilians in general. Let us also recall that in Iraq the no-fly zone failed to protect the Shias in the south. It failed to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In fact, back in 1991 when US forces were close at hand, just after Saddam Hussein was pushed out of Kuwait, and the masses rose up in Basra, the imperialists stood back and allowed the regime to crush the revolt.

The imperialists preferred Saddam Hussein in power to a revolutionary people taking over. It was long after that revolt had been crushed that eventually the imperialists decided to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. But precisely because he was not removed by the people, the Iraqi workers and youth have had to suffer under a puppet regime of imperialism, a regime which while pretending to be democratic, has no qualms about clamping down on, and even shooting at unarmed protesters. What the imperialists achieved was to remove from power a regime with which they had done good business in the past, and replaced it with a more pliant “democratic” regime.

They probably have something similar in mind now in Libya. They do not want to see a revolutionary Libya emerge from all this. They are desperately trying to stem the tide of revolution sweeping across the whole Arab world. In that sense if Gaddafi can snuff out the revolution they would see that as a positive step, while of course publicly making lots of speeches about human rights and so on. Once this is achieved they can either return to do business with Gaddafi, or use his brutal clampdown as an excuse to finally impose a no-fly zone, which would amount to military intervention.

The no-fly zone in Iraq turned out to be a rather more unpleasant story, than what would be led to believe, listening to the arguments being used today. Many civilians were hit in what was an outright imperialist aggression against the Iraqi people as a whole. Is this what the left is supposed to stand for? Those left Euro-MPs who have supported such calls have betrayed the very idea of what it means to be a socialist or a communist and have de facto sided with the European and US imperialists.

The problem is that these Left MPs are imbued with reformism from head to foot. They have lost any confidence in the ability of ordinary workers and youth to understand a clear class based position once it is explained fully. This is part of their general lack of confidence in the ability of the working class to change society.

Thus they call on the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League, anyone, but the workers themselves, to “do something”. Now they will have to explain the contradictory position they have put themselves in. The Arab League for example has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone. Members of this Arab League, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE – among the most ardent supporters of such a zone – now have troops inside Bahrain. What do these Left MPs think they are for? To keep the peace? They are there to aid the Bahraini regime to crush its own people!

One cannot appeal to these bodies one day for “humanitarian reasons” and then turn against them when their real class interests are revealed. Are we supposed to demonstrate one day calling on the EU and NATO to intervene in Libya and then demonstrate the next day against their tacit support for the presence of foreign troops in Bahrain? The US have conveniently stated that they were “unaware” of the fact that the Saudis were sending in forces to Bahrain. Does anyone really believe that? Oh, and of course as it was the Bahraini regime that asked for these troops to be sent in, it isn’t classed as an “invasion” so that makes it ok!

All this reveals the stinking hypocrisy of the imperialists, whether dressed in US or European clothes, whether they hide behind institutions such as the EU or the United Nations. And the left must not fall for any of their trickery.

In moments like this it is the role of the Marxists to “patiently explain” what is happening and why it is happening. We need to explain the real reasons that lie behind any action by the imperialist powers. What rules their thinking are their material interests. The same imperialist powers that are attacking their workers at home, in the USA, in Europe and beyond, are exploiting the peoples of the former colonial world.

Thus we cannot have one policy at home and another abroad. The enemy is the same in all cases. We cannot organize strikes and demonstrations against Cameron in Britain as he imposes draconian cuts while at the same time supporting his call for intervention in Libya. Our policy is always opposition to their aims at home and abroad.