Imperialist vultures and Libya’s rebels

By Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff published in MRzine.

As Saif al-Islam, the billionaire son of Muammar Gaddafi who was the neo-liberal darling of Western governments until only recently, boasted in a March 10 interview with Reuters that forces loyal to his family were now on the offensive against rebel forces, NATO decided against military intervention – for the time being.

The Gaddafi regime’s military offensive seemed to have driven rebel forces from Az Zawiyah and Ras Lanuf by March 11 and there were reports of demoralisation in the rebel ranks.

However, France has become the first government to recognise the rebel Interim Transitional National Council set up in Benghazi on March 5 and the AFP newsagency reported that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also proposed “targeted air strikes” of Libya.

The Obama Administration has not recognised the rebel government but has promised to send an aid team to the rebel-held East of Libya and to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet with rebel leaders.

Possibly partly explaining the differences among the imperialist powers on how to intervene in Libya was an blunt assessment by US National Intelligence Director James Clapper that the better-equipped forces loyal to Gaddafi were likely to prevail in the long run against the rebels, who include enthusiastic but ill-trained civilians and dissident military units.

The Obama administration rushed to qualify this assessment as not taking into account political pressure on the Gaddafi regime but it is clear there is uncertainty in Washington about which side is likely to prevail in this conflict and what the character of any post-Gaddafi regime might be.

The seemingly greater enthusiasm for military intervention by the British and French governments, which have been leading Western government calls and preparations to implement a “no-fly zone” may also reflect those governments’ greater involvement in the training and arming of Gaddafi special forces.

There have been contradictory statements by various members of the  Benghazi-based Interim Transitional National Council on the question of foreign military intervention. Some, such as its chairperson Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil (former justice minister in the Gaddafi regime who defected to the rebels on February 21) have repeatedly called for the imposition of a “no-fly zone” over Libya. On the other hand, vice-chairperson Abdul Hafez Ghoga, a Benghazi-based human rights lawyer and community organiser, has made statements opposing Western military intervention. But in some of these statements he said that a United Nations-imposed “no-fly zone” would be acceptable.

The founding statement of the Interim Transitonal National Council end with this paragraph:

“Finally, even though the balance of power is uneven between the defenceless protestors and the tyrant regime’s mercenaries and private battalions, we will relay on the will of our people for a free and dignified existence. Furthermore, we request from the international community to fulfil its obligations to protect the Libyan people from any further genocide and crimes against humanity without any direct military intervention on Libya soil.”

This sums up a dilemma for left and progressive people who support the Libyan revolution against the Gaddafi regime but who also are deeply conscious of the ruthless and exploitative intentions of imperialist governments.

1. It is clear that the imperialists don’t support the democratic rights or freedom of the people of Libya. They want to be free to exploit Libya’s oil resources and they will deal with the devil to keep doing that. We saw how the Gaddafi regime was first isolated and attacked as a “rogue terrorist state” and then turned into the imperialists’ good ally against “Al Qaeda”. The imperialists’ real interests are clear.

2. At the same time it is also clear that while the rebellion has popular support, the Gaddafi regime still has a big military advantage. In these circumstances, it is not hard to understand the rebel’s desperate appeal for international help.

The Libyan rebels are a mixed force and the composition of the Interim Transitional National Council reflects this.

At this stage the rebel leaders getting the most publicity are those who once were in the Gaddafi regime. But there are other elements, including some from various Islamic opposition groups (which were bloodily suppressed by the Gaddafi regime), more secular elements, represenatives from various tribes (the Gaddafi regime kept alive and manipulated the tribal system to remain in power), some youth and even veterans of the Sepember 1, 1969 revolution who were subsequently repressed by Gaddafi. Unlike in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, here is no discernable leftist voice in this revolution.

Some of the people that have defected from the Gaddafi regime have been the loudest voices from in the Council for a the UN to impose a “no-fly zone”. And some of these may come from the more neo-liberal wing of the Gaddafi regime (previously believed by Western governments to be headed by Gaddafi’s son, Saif.

Mahmoud Jibril, a member of the rebel Council, was decribed in a WikiLeak-ed secret US diplomatic cable from 2009 as “a serious interlocutor who ‘gets’ the US perspective”.

Ali Issawi, another Council member was described in another WikiLeak-ed US cable reported Issawi was also a member of a “shadow” committee set up in 2008 by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, which had been “charged with hammering out specifics” of a government reform program. According to the BBC: “Issawi has a PhD in privatisation from the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest, Romania. In 2005, he became director general of the Ownership Expansion Programme, a Libyan government fund encouraging privatisation, and founded the Centre for Export Development in 2006.”

The exiled opposition groups (monarchists and the once CIA-backed National Front for the Salvation of Libya) are said to have little support among Libya’s 6.5 million people.

“The current opposition movement in Libya is diverse and includes secular, nationalists, monarchists and Islamist elements,” according to Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London cited in a February 27 New York Times article. “I don’t think that any movement is in the position, in terms of resources and ideological power, to monopolise the political process.”

In an article in the New York Review of Books blog, Nicolas Pelham a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group, described what he saw in opposition-run Benghazi:

“The east now has a National Transitional Council, which claims authority over the remnants of the armed forces and which is led by the former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil. But many in the youth revolution consider the slight elderly former judge with an old-timer’s red felt hat too old-school. In the first days of their uprising, he was still in Gaddafi’s government; he defected on February 21, after protesting the colonel’s “excessive use of violence” against protesters. Aside from Abdul Jalil, all but six of the council’s members have refused to identify themselves for fear of reprisals and the council despite promises of transparency meets behind closed doors. Its first newspaper is as partisan and sycophantic as those it replaced.

“Supporters emphasise Abdul Jalil’s revolutionary credentials, but it is unclear whether he can fill the vacuum. Beyond the courthouse, government departments and schools have yet to open. And despite the council’s goading, many shops, police stations, and military bases remain shuttered, apparently because their proprietors are still hedging their bets. Though there has been little crime, frequent gunfire punctures Benghazi’s nights.”

Pelham says that secret units of Gaddafi supporters are blamed for this gunfire:

“Their fears are not unfounded. Though it has lost its buildings, Gaddafi’s internal security apparatus remains at least partially in place. Hotel receptionists subserviently field calls from a regime informer seeking information about al-Jazeera. Intruders broke into one of the very few European consulates still open here, stole its computers, and warned the consul, who had lived for two decades in the city, to flee…”

Back in Tripoli Gaddafi and his son Saif describe the situation in Benghazi as anarchy, with armed drugged youth firing the guns they’ve seized and crime rampant. Saif says he’s had phone calls from Benghazi residents appealing for Gaddafi’s forces to come and liberate them from this situation. But Pelham ppaints a different picture of the opposition in Libya’s East:

“To date, inclusiveness has been its hallmark. For such a violent revolutionary regime, revenge killings have been remarkably infrequent—at least for now. Young urban lawyers sit side-by-side with tribal elders and Islamists on the National Council. A non-Islamist lawyer serves as the council spokesman, and a staunch secularist is charged with running Benghazi’s education. The politicians have also consciously wooed the armed forces; youth protestors and the old border guards man their side of the border with Egypt together. Still, the armed forces will likely remain too fragile to safeguard the revolution during the transitional period. Tribal irregulars, not the army, recaptured the oil-rich town of Brega west of Benghazi. The army has also proved unable to ward off tribesmen raiding by the truckload huge armories of such heavy weapons as Sam-7s abandoned by the colonel’s militias.

“In cities across Libya, Islamist groups have proved more efficient at responding to the collapse of authority. While council members squabble for positions inside the courthouse, Islamist leaders escorted by followers with walkie-talkies emerge from their tents to mobilize the large crowds with sermons and open-air prayers in the square below. Mosques formerly required to close between prayer times are now open round the clock, and imams call for an armed jihad against Gaddafi in Friday sermons—where politics was previously banned. Salim Jaber, who heads the religious affairs office of the Benghazi council, has transferred responsibility for food distribution to Benghazi’s poor from the local markets to the mosques. Unlike in Egypt where the beltagiya, or street thugs,  rampaged for several days through downtown Cairo, religious injunctions against looting ensured that attacks quickly subsided. Mosques organised collections of local weapons. And sheikhs on Benghazi’s new Free Libya radio have called on their followers to take over the jobs left by departing migrant workers.”

But the broad and evolving character of the opposition is also a cause for nervousness in imperialist power circles.

A February 27 article in the New York Times referred to this worry in Washington:

“The worst-case scenario should the rebellion topple [Gaddafi], and one that concerns American counterterrorism officials, is that of Afghanistan or Somalia — a failed state where Al Qaeda or other radical groups could exploit the chaos and operate with impunity.

“But there are others who could step into any vacuum, including Libya’s powerful tribes or a pluralist coalition of opposition forces that have secured the east of the country and are tightening their vise near the capital.”

“It is going to be a political vacuum,” the article quotes Lisa Anderson, the president of the American University in Cairo and a Libya expert. “I don’t think it is likely that people will want to put down their weapons and go back to being bureaucrats.”

The fear of the unpredictabilty of a post-Gaddafi regime also was expressed in a February 28 article in the US Foreign Affairs journal by Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation who recently returned from Libya:

“In the post-Gaddafi era, the recently defected tribal bulwarks of the ancien régime — the al-Magariha and the al-Warfalla — will play a critical role in lending legitimacy and unity to a new government. That said, the weakness and fragmentation of the military and the tempting availability of oil resources highlight the very real threat of tribal warlordism.

“Tribal clout, however, is tempered by other affiliations: a strong middle class and, increasingly, religion. Among Libya’s Islamists, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, has long attracted the attention of the West because of its association with Al Qaeda. But after Gaddafi, the less visible, non-Salafi networks will matter more — namely, the Sufi orders and the Muslim Brotherhood. The revivalist Sanussiya Sufi order has featured prominently in the country’s collective memory. It provided the organizational base for the Libyan resistance to the Italian occupation and was the pillar of support for the monarchy under King Idris, who held sovereign power from 1951 until 1969.”

Gaddafi has tried to play to Western fears of Islamic terrorism as he tries to buy more time for his  embattled regime. In a long interview with France 24 TV, broadcast on March 8, Gaddafi compared his attacks on the Libyan rebels to Israel’s murderous military assaults on the Islamic “extremists” in Gaza.

“Even the Israelis in Gaza, when they moved into the Gaza strip, they moved in with tanks to fight such extremists.”

“It’s the same thing here! We have small armed groups who are fighting us. We did not use force from the outset… Armed units of the Libyan army have had to fight small armed Al Qaeda bands. That is what’s happened.”

In the same interview he boasted that his regime stops “millions of black Africans” from going to Europe.

“There are millions of black Africans who could immigrate via the Mediterranean and head Italy or France, and Libya plays a crucial role in the Mediterranean in terms of stopping that,” Gaddafi said.

Gaddafi has played this racist card before:

“We don’t know what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans,” the Libyan leader told a Rome meeting last year which was attended by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister.

“We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.”

The imperialists are worried about the broader revolt across north Africa and the Arab world — which is shaking pro-Western dictatorships. A rebel victory in Libya would give greater confidence to mass revolts against imperialist-backed regimes elsewhere in the region.

The West has been pushed onto the back foot. There is a potential an opportunity to take back the initiative — and the banner of “democracy” — by means of a military intervention in Libya.

On the other hand, if Gaddfi looks as though he has the power to crush this revolt, Western governments — whose biggest concern is a stable, pro-West regime — may be willing to let this play out.

Either way, the Arab revolts are mass movements that have popular self-determination as a key driving force. The bloody catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq are a testimony to the emptiness of Western promises to bring “democracy” from outside.

The revolution is the people of Libya’s to make.


Mixed messages from Libyan opposition: Placard at Benghazi appeals for international assistance in removing Gaddafi regime.

Younger members of the Libyan opposition are more against foreign military intervention.

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