After six long months of bloody, protracted struggle the overthrow of the dictatorial Gaddafi regime 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. The continuing battles in Tripoli and elsewhere indicate the instability of the current situation in Libya and also how the revolution that began there last February has, in many ways, been thrown off course.
Role of Nato
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. Even the capture of the Bad al-Aziziya compound in central Tripoli was only achieved after a massive NATO aerial bombardment and an assault led by Qatari and other foreign special forces.
Now, despite their fears of exactly which way events in Libya will unfold, the imperialist powers are attempting to present Libya as a success for ‘liberal interventionism’, i.e. their right to intervene in other countries on ‘humanitarian’ or ‘democratic’ grounds. Of course, this was always hypocritical as ‘liberal interventionism’ does not apply to imperialism’s dictatorial friends and allies in Saudi Arabia, Yemen or elsewhere. The NATO powers hope that, after the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, they can win justification for further interventions in defence of their own interests.
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 establishing their own independent rule over society. In fact, in a manner reminiscent of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes twenty years ago, imperialism has taken advantage of a spontaneous movement that knew what it was against but had no clear programme of its own.
Unfortunately, this overthrow of a dictator has not had the same character as the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt, or even of the early days of the uprising in Benghazi when popular committees were established and briefly were the power in that city. Tragically, Gaddafi’s ousting was not simply the result of a popular mass movement, like in Tunisia and Egypt, forcing the dictator out. The momentum of the Libyan revolution’s early days was lost and, unlike Tunis or Cairo, Tripoli did not see one mass protest after another and strikes undermining the regime.
This was not simply due to the Gaddafi regime’s brutal repression of the mid-February protests; repression has not immediately stopped the repeated demonstrations in Syria.
The Libyan regime’s brutal reaction was not accidental; Gaddafi and his coterie feared the mass movements which were then developing in North Africa. As we explained in March: “Gaddafi’s first reaction to this year’s dramatic revolutionary events was to side with the dictatorial, corrupt autocrats. Just after Ben Ali fled from Tunisia, Gaddafi told Tunisians that they had ‘suffered a great loss’ because ‘there is none better than Ben Ali to govern’. Perhaps revealing how he viewed his own future, Gaddafi added that he had hoped that Ben Ali would rule ‘for life’.” [‘Stop the bombing – No to foreign intervention!’ 23 March, 2011.]
The Transitional National Council
Gaddafi, learning from the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak, launched a counter-offensive against Benghazi and other centres of the revolution. These were certainly threatened but could have been defended by mass popular defence alongside a revolutionary appeal to workers, youth and the poor in the rest of Libya. But the self-appointed leadership of the uprising would not do such a thing. 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. But these same powers adopted a mild approach to the Syrian regime’s repression and maintained a virtual silence on the brutality of their close ally, the Bahraini regime. This simply confirmed that the Libyan intervention was based on a cynical calculation. Some imperialist leaders, like Sarkozy in France, sought to gain advantages for themselves, but their general aims were to establish a more reliable, pro-imperialist regime in Libya, seize a more lucrative share of Libya’s oil and gas wealth and, above all, intervene to seek to control the revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
This intervention by the big imperialist powers, mainly the US, Britain and France, changed the situation as they attempted to establish a client opposition leadership. Under the false flag of protecting civilians, their aircraft carried out over 20,000 attacks on more than 4,000 targets in Libya.
NATO’s intervention allowed Gaddafi to rally support against what some Libyans saw as an attempt by the US, Britain, France, and others to regain control over Libya’s assets. Against this, there can be no doubt that widespread illusions were created that NATO was acting in the interests of the anti-Gaddafi revolution, an illusion that the major capitalist powers are now using as they attempt to control developments in Libya and secure the country for further exploitation.
No alternative to Nato’s intervention?
This is why the idea that the UN decision to intervene and NATO’s actions could be supported was to accept the derailing of the Libyan revolution. The idea that there was ‘no alternative’ to NATO was already disproved in the magnificent Egyptian movement that led to Mubarak’s ousting. The imperialist powers intervened for their own reasons not in the interests of the Libyan working masses and youth. Any failure to explain this as, for example, the small British AWL grouping did when it initially uncritically supported NATO’s role in the fighting in Tripoli, politically disarms the workers’ movement, leaving it unable to warn of imperialism’s intentions. The AWL has consistently supported NATO’s bombing and it now seeks to justify this by claiming the organisation of workers will be “easier” now after Gaddafi’s overthrow, something which it is not at all certain to be the case (see also: The ‘no-fly zone’, the Left and the ‘Third Camp’). In reality this is a rationalisation of their view, shameful for a self-proclaimed left organisation, that the military assault by the imperialist NATO alliance had to be supported as Libyan workers and youth had no chance on their own of defending themselves or defeating Gaddafi.
But what will happen now is not clear. The current situation indicates that there are elements, whether for political or tribal reasons, who are continuing to fight against the TNC. At the same time, there is no real unity amongst the main elements that fought Gaddafi. The population is also becoming heavily armed. This poses the possibility, even if the current battles end, of further fighting in the future, including tribal, national or religious conflicts.
Partly in view of this, we now see, alongside the start of a scramble for contracts, the main imperialist countries stepping up their intervention, including increasing talk of a ‘stabilisation force’.
However, at this time there is undoubtedly some support within Libya for NATO’s actions but this will not last. While obviously NATO has been planning for Gaddafi’s overthrow, including learning from what are now seen as the ‘mistakes’ made in Afghanistan and Iraq after the initial military victories, events will not necessarily go the way the imperialists hope. Although the combination of Libya’s small population and its oil and gas wealth will allow at least some rebuilding and social concessions, they will not automatically resolve all the issues now coming to the surface in Libya including potential regional and tribal tensions. There are also questions over the position of the Berber minority, about 10% of the population, and those who continue to support Gaddafi or, at least, oppose foreign intervention.
The very fluid situation that has now developed is, to a great extent, a result of the way in which the revolution has been diverted from a developing mass movement, with its own organisations, debates and policies, into a purely military struggle under NATO tutelage.
Currently, the self-appointed TNC is attempting, with NATO help, to impose itself on the situation. But there is no guarantee that it can, in reality, do this. The TNC is currently largely a fiction. For a time, it appointed a ‘government’, but that was dissolved after the still unexplained 28 July ‘arrest’ and subsequent killing of Younes, Gaddafi’s former interior minister who became the TNC’s top military commander. Jibril, who is still being presented as the ‘head of government’ has generally been out of the country because “he fears for his own safety in Benghazi” [The Times, London, 23 August, 2011.] If “prime minister” Jibril does not feel safe in Benghazi, up to now the TNC’s main base, it is understandable that the TNC leaders hesitated over when to move to Tripoli.
The TNC itself, as we commented before, was “simply relying on a combination of NATO air power and the masses’ desire for change to secure victory”. [‘Defend the revolution! No to imperialist intervention!’ 30 March, 2011.] The TNC, based in the east, clearly lacked standing in the west, as was shown by the fighters in Misrata who rejected its authority. Whether it can now build its position and, if so, for how long, are open questions.
Alongside a Libyan national consciousness that especially developed over the last decades, many regional, tribal and clan loyalties remain despite the country now being heavily urbanised. Added to that is the position of the Berber minority, who played a crucial role in the battles against Gaddafi’s forces in the south-west and in the advance on Tripoli.
Libya itself is a relatively new creation, having been initially formed by Italy in the 1930s and again, this time under US pressure, in the late 1940s. A decline in the feeling of being ‘Libyan’ alongside a growth of regional and tribal tensions, or the development of fundamentalist Islamic forces, could pose the possibility of a break-up of Libya, even of a Somali or Yemen style development. Tribal tensions could develop as a result of any lengthy fighting if Gaddafi is able to follow the example of one of his heroes, Omar Mukhtar and the armed resistance to the Italian take over and occupation after 1911. However, against this there is the fact that one of the motive forces in the movement against Gaddafi, the young people who reacted against the stifling effect of a corrupt dictatorship, saw themselves as Libyan.
No trust in NATO, build an independent workers’ movement
For the Libyan masses, especially the youth, workers and poor, this revolution was for an end to oppression and the stifling, corrupt regime, and for higher living standards. But despite any immediate oil-funded concessions and rebuilding, these aims will, in the long run, come into conflict with the reality of the crisis-ridden capitalist economy. A new world recession would hit Libya in the same way as in the 1980s when its gross domestic product collapsed by over 40% as the oil price fell.
But to prevent the danger of a new collapse of the economy and to block the asset stripping of the country, a break with capitalism is required. The TNC is obviously not going to do this; on the contrary it is dominated by pro-capitalist elements.
From the beginning of the anti-Gaddafi uprising we argued: “What have been missing are independent organisations of Libyan workers and youth that could give a clear direction to the revolution in order to win democratic rights, end corruption and secure for the mass of Libyans democratic control over, and benefit from, the country’s resources.” [‘Stop the bombing – No to foreign intervention!’ 23 March, 2011.]
A programme for the Libyan revolution that will genuinely benefit the mass of the population would be based on winning and defending real democratic rights, an end to corruption and privilege, the safeguarding and further development of the social gains made since the discovery of oil, opposition to any form of re-colonisation and for a democratically controlled, publicly-owned economy planned to use the country’s resources for the future benefit of the mass of the people.
This is why Libyan workers and youth should have no illusions in NATO or put any trust in the TNC which is, in essence, tied to imperialism. This tie-up was illustrated in the TNC’s draft Libyan constitution, first published by the British foreign ministry, which declares that “the interests and rights of foreign nationals and companies will be protected”. But neither the TNC nor any other government based on capitalism will be able to meet the aspirations of the population in this period of world economic instability or prevent the development of a new exploitative elite.
The creation of an independent movement of Libyan and migrant workers, poor and youth that could rely on its own action and struggles to implement such a real revolutionary transformation of the country is the only way to thwart the imperialists’ plans, end dictatorship and transform the lives of the mass of the people.
To achieve these goals such a movement would need to defend all democratic rights, be against the privatisation of Libya’s assets, demand the withdrawal of all foreign military forces and oppose all foreign military intervention, demand the democratic election of a Constituent Assembly and, above all, reject participation in any government based on capitalism. Instead it would strive for a government of representatives of the workers and poor based upon democratic structures in the workplaces and communities.
The dangers facing Libya now is that the combination of imperialist domination over the new government and the absence of a movement of the workers and poor leads to the possibility of regionalist, tribal or religious conflicts.
However, as Tunisia and Egypt have shown, the mass overthrow of dictators is not the end of a revolution as the working masses strive to achieve their demands and aspirations. Although developments in Libya have taken a very different course, the demands of the masses have not gone away and in the struggle to win them lies the possible of building a socialist movement that can truly transform the country.
Unlike with Mubarak, Gaddafi’s overthrow has had a mixed response in the rest of the Middle East. Partly this is because he was seen by many as ‘anti-imperialist’ but mainly because of NATO’s role. The contrast between NATO intervening in Libya while doing nothing to stop Israeli attacks on Gaza and being allies of the Saudi and other dictatorships is clear to many. But a workers’ movement in Libya, Tunisia or Egypt that challenged both the old order and imperialism would receive a wide echo, offering the possibility of revolutions that open the way to a socialist future.