Libya and the Arab revolt in perspective

Imperialism has nothing to offer the Middle East

The Arab world

“From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country's battles in the air, on land, and sea.” So begins the official hymn of the U.S. Marines, setting out in one short sentence the long history of U.S. expansionism and intervention across the globe. Tripoli, the current capital of Libya, has a special place in this history because of the Barbary Wars, the first wars waged by the U.S. government in the early 1800s to protect its commercial interests in the Mediterranean Sea.

Starting in the 1940s, the Middle East and North Africa—which hold two-thirds of the world’s known oil reserves—again assumed a central place in U.S. foreign policy and geopolitical strategy. Reading statements from the State Department and the White House, one might think that all Washington cares about is peace, democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. They have continuously expressed “alarm” and “disapproval” at the incidents of violence.

A quick review of U.S. foreign policy in the region reveals that the government has never had an interest in peace, democracy or universal rights. They care not one whit about the Arab masses. Every word out of their mouths, no matter how it is sugar-coated, flows from their desire to retain U.S. political and economic hegemony. 

To maintain access to the region’s vast natural resources, the U.S. government has propped up the most violent dictatorships of all kinds, from secular to religious. It has poured in hundreds of millions of dollars to buy politicians and influence elections. It has carried out countless covert operations—sabotage, assassinations, infiltration—to undermine popular figures and movements that have resisted U.S. domination. It has armed the colonial-settler state of Israel to the teeth, allowing it to strike out against its Arab neighbors and suppress the Palestinian people’s struggle for self-determination. It has helped divide nations, artificially created new ones, fought against all attempts at real Arab unity, and worked tirelessly to prevent any strong, independent countries from emerging in the region.

Washington imposed sanctions that took the lives of over one million Iraqis, including hundreds of thousands of children before 2003. Well over 1.3 million Iraqis have died as a result of the current war and occupation. In addition, there are 2 million people displaced inside of Iraq, and 2.5 million who are refugees in neighboring Syria and Jordan.

There are no figures available for the number of Iraqis wounded, but the most conservative estimate would be twice the number killed. Altogether, nearly one in three Iraqis have been killed, wounded or displaced since 2003. The spirit of resistance has not died in the Iraqi people, but their nation has been torn apart.

A third wave of Arab revolution

What is taking place across the Middle East and North Africa is the third great wave of revolts and revolutions against colonialism, neo-colonialism, and the regimes installed and sustained by imperialism. It is a reaffirmation that there is indeed an Arab Nation divided into many countries. While there are many differences between (and often within) Arab countries, there are also powerful elements of shared nationhood: language, common territory, culture and so on. How else can it be explained that the upheaval that started in Tunisia in January has spread to at least 10 other countries in the Arab world—and none outside?

The first revolutionary wave following World War I fought the takeover and division of the Middle East by British and French imperialism. The revolts were so strong in Egypt and Iraq that the British granted nominal independence to Egypt in 1922 and Iraq in 1932, while in reality retaining colonial control of both.

The second wave followed World War II with the overthrow of the old dependent regimes and monarchies in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Libya in the 1950s and 1960s, the victorious anti-colonial wars in Algeria and Yemen in the 1960s, the rise of the Palestinian revolutionary movement in the late 1960s, and the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s, where the progressive Lebanese National Movement/PLO alliance was on the verge of victory until Syria intervened against it. There were also mass Palestinian intifadas in 1936-39, 1987-1991 and 2000-2002.

During these first two waves, the U.S. government and its allies were able to preserve the police-state hereditary monarchies in Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and, above all in their estimation, Saudi Arabia. Starting with Anwar Sadat, and especially with his successor Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. government was able to buy off Egypt and bring it decisively into their sphere of influence.

These states became strategic beachheads for U.S. imperialism, especially important in checking the influence of Iran after its popular, nationalist revolution of 1979.

Taken collectively, the protest movements and uprisings today in the Arab world have threatened this whole arrangement of power. They have proven once again—to the dismay of Washington—that it is the masses of people who make and change history. The U.S. government is not in control of events, but is desperately trying to influence them behind the scenes to guarantee the preservation of its political and economic interests.  

Yemen and Bahrain

While the U.S. government now speaks about “universal rights” and “freedom of expression” in Yemen, just last year they were bombing it with drone attacks. In 2009, special-operations commandos began training President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s security forces—the same forces now firing on protesters.

In 2010, the U.S. government pumped in $155 million in military aid to help the Yemeni president fight against two separate rebel movements. While all of this was justified under the “war on terror,” the U.S.-backed airstrike in December 2009 killed 42 civilians, the vast majority of whom were women and children. A released Wikileaks cable from 2009 revealed that Saleh gave the Pentagon an “open door” to launch bombing assaults on any person or group deemed a “terrorist” by Washington.

The absolute monarchy in Bahrain has been fully backed by Washington for its entire existence.

Bahrain was a long-time protectorate of Britain, which exerted all of its pressure to keep the country from holding democratic elections. The majority Shia population occupies the lowest rungs in the Bahraini economy and is disenfranchised in every way. Until 2002, women could not vote. All political opposition has been suppressed. But the United States has protected the kingdom throughout. Why? Because of Bahrain’s oil wealth, its increasingly important role in regional and world finance, and its location on the geo-strategic Persian Gulf.

Does Washington care about democracy in the Middle East? Hardly!

The White House declares its concern for the protesters only to protect their own image and mythology. In reality, it is an enemy of the Arab masses who have taken it upon themselves to reclaim their countries and their destinies. To the extent that the people succeed in defeating the dictatorships and replacing them with freer and more just societies, they will have to confront the Empire. It will not, and cannot, be an honest partner in this process. The Arab people, of course, know this all too well. From Tunisia to Yemen, the deep skepticism and hostility toward Western governments is well-deserved.

Western powers bring death and destruction, nothing else

This must be a starting point for activists located in the United States and Europe when it comes to the Libyan revolt.

Unlike in Egypt, where it was clear that all of society with the exception of a tiny comprador elite opposed Mubarak, there is comparatively little information about the remaining base of support for Col. Moammar Gaddafi. If it is substantial, the country could fall into civil war with a scale of violence that far exceeds that seen in Egypt. If such a tragedy ensues, a variety of political forces—from liberal to neoconservative—will begin to call for the U.S. government to “do something.” This could take the form of sanctions, U.N. intervention, or the imposition of no-fly zones.

Already some, like neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the Iraqi genocide, are advocating for such a “pro-active” approach. Sen. John Kerry, another pro-imperialist politician, is calling for sanctions, despite the horrific toll such a policy took on the Iraqi people during the 1990s.

Such threats must be absolutely rejected by progressive people. For one, the West would love to get boots on the ground in the region, with which they could influence and pressure the emerging Arab revolution. Secondly, these measures would be perceived as, and amount to, acts of war. The “peacekeeping” missions of the United States in Somalia and Yugoslavia were nothing other than bloody and destructive wars that widened conflict instead of solving it. Ask the people’s movements in Haiti or Palestine if the United Nation’s blue-helmeted occupations are any better. 

The language of “we have to do something” is based on a fundamental misconception; the U.S., U.N. and NATO militaries are not “ours” to begin with, so “we” cannot use them for progressive aims.

The Libyan revolt

The revolt in Libya appears to have started among the long-time opposition to Gaddafi in the city of Benghazi. Initial reports indicated that the movement in Libya was primarily composed of lawyers, judges, doctors and police officers. Very early on, it appeared that the defection of police and military units provided the anti-Gaddafi movement with arms. The fact that they have now reportedly “seized” entire cities in both the east and west of the country reflects a high degree of military sophistication.

Libya sits between Tunisia and Egypt, and it was only natural that the Arab revolt would draw in and inspire discontented youth in Libya. Their protest against Gaddafi undoubtedly has different roots than that of the middle-class opposition, which for decades resented Gaddafi’s formerly anti-imperialist stances. Like their counterparts elsewhere, many youth are in the streets because of high unemployment, inequality, and to demand a more open political system. The Libyan state’s military response—which, according to Al-Jazeera, included indiscriminate bombing of certain sections of Tripoli where protesters had gathered—appears to have only intensified opposition to the regime. As we write, the revolt appears to have control over broad sections of Libyan territory.

At present, the revolt has not produced any organizational form or leader that would make it possible to characterize it politically. It does not appear to be led or directed by “foreign forces.”

The National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an exile group that has been interviewed constantly by foreign media as a leading opposition force, was for decades trained by the CIA. They are loudly demanding that the imperialist countries “take action” against Gaddafi, and have appeared frustrated that the West has so far only issued statements. It is unclear what the NFSL has on the ground in Libya, and what role they are playing in the revolt.

Protesters have hoisted Libya’s first national flag, that of the exploitative, U.S.-backed monarch King Idris (1951-1969) over the areas they have seized. Some in the Libyan exile community consciously call for the return of the Idris monarchy, but it is unclear how deeply this sentiment runs among those in revolt.

Until the 1969 revolution, Libya was home to the U.S. Wheelus Air Force base—the largest airbase in the world at the time—and the average Libyan lived in dire poverty. For these reasons, there was essentially no resistance when Gaddafi and other military officers overthrew Idris. To return to such a kingdom—the goal of opportunistic monarchists in exile—could only be considered a step backward for the Libyan people, and would stand opposed to those striving for democracy.

During its leftist phase after 1969, the Libyan government used the country’s vast oil resources to carry out profound economic and social development, including in the fields of education, health care, nutrition, and a massive water project. In its proclamations, the Libyan government placed the country’s development within a radical and populist context, and promoted semi-socialist political and economic concepts.

Whereas in the 1950s over 80 percent of the population could not read or write, illiteracy was almost completely wiped out by the early 1970s. The Gaddafi government also provided significant aid to neighboring states and to national liberation movements around the world. Libya is still ranked the highest among African countries in the Human Development Index—which includes such factors as living conditions, life expectancy and education.

It was during the 1970s and 1980s that Libya was demonized, sanctioned and attacked by the U.S. government and its allies. In 1986, President Reagan ordered the bombing of downtown Tripoli in an attempt to assassinate Gaddafi. Gaddafi survived, but his infant daughter and more than 300 others were killed this murderous assault. Many more were maimed and wounded.

Although the Libyan regime appealed to the popular masses in its political program, the regime also included bourgeois forces within both the military and civilian sectors. Over time and under relentless pressure from western imperialism, these bourgeois forces—many of whom looked to the West—strengthened. In recent years, inequality has increased as the Libyan government has ushered in neoliberal reforms that have stripped social programs and subsidies for the poor and increasingly turned over the country’s oil wealth to foreign corporations.

Gaddafi is not a puppet of imperialism like Mubarak was, but he has decisively broken with the Arab popular liberation movements and has made many concessions to imperialism over the past decade. He has dismantled Libya’s weapons programs, officially supported the U.S. “war on terror,” and grown increasingly close to Italy, the former colonizer. In 2008, Gaddafi signed an accord with right-wing Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi to stop African immigrants from entering Italy in exchange for $5 billion in assistance over 25 years. While continuing to condemn Israel rhetorically, he expelled Palestinian migrant workers in the 1990s.

Gaddafi praised the popular uprising in Egypt, while also praising Tunisia’s former dictator Ben Ali after he was overthrown.

The developments in the last decade have greatly and understandably diminished his credibility among progressive and anti-imperialist forces in the region, almost all of which have declared their solidarity with the Libyan revolt.

While the U.S. media is in a particular frenzy against Gaddafi—speaking very suggestively about military intervention—Washington’s official line on Libya is at present similar to their messages regarding their puppets in Bahrain and Yemen. But as the revolt continues, taking on the characteristics of a civil war, U.S. policy may be shifting.

President Obama said about Libya on Feb. 23: “I have also asked my administration to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis. This includes those actions we may take and those we will coordinate with our allies and partners or those that we'll carry out through multilateral institutions.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed this: “Everything will be on the table. We will look at all options.”

While the U.S. policymakers dream about owning Libya outright, and replacing Gaddafi with a client regime, their main concern is now, as it has always been, stable and guaranteed control over Middle East oil resources. To the extent Washington becomes more “pro-active” against Libya, it will mean they have devised a plan—or found someone better—to do that job.

As the third wave of revolution spreads, deepens, and faces new contradictions, it is the people of Libya and the Arab world who will determine their future. For activists here, our main task is to mobilize in opposition to any and all U.S. threats against Libya and the other countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

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