THE ARAB REVOLT ROLLS ON: Today Libya; Tomorrow?

For the past two months as the drama has unfolded in the Arab world, time and again the prescient words of Bertolt Brecht have come to mind. The spectacle of the deluded Gaddafi, confined to his redoubt in Tripoli, dismissing the masses in revolt as drug-crazed simpletons manipulated by Al Qaeda, while claiming that the people love him, recalls Brecht’s pithy advice to the authorities on the occasion of the 1953 Berlin workers’ uprising:

The Solution

After the uprising of the 17th of June

The secretary of the Writers’ Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinalee

Stating that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government

And could win it back only

By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect a new one.

Tyrants and all others corrupted by power seem incapable of comprehending the forces of anger, rage and rebellion that are unleashed once the long-suffering masses have cast off their fear and committed themselves to toppling their oppressors from power. This tide of popular anger has now been unleashed in the Arab world and no-one can say with any certainty where it will end. Brecht might have been writing for those now on the march for their freedom, when he penned the following lines ‘In Praise of the Dialectic’:

But many of those oppressed now say

What we want will never be.

If you’re still living, never say ‘Never’!

What is certain isn’t certain

Things will not stay as they are

When the rulers have spoken

The ruled will speak

Who dares to say: Never?

On whom does it rest if oppression remains? On us.

On whom does it rest if its grip’s to be broken?

Likewise on us. Whoever has been struck down, rise up!

Whoever feels forsaken, fight! He who has understood his condition, how can he be held back?

For the vanquished of today are the victors of tomorrow                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  And from ‘Never’ will come ‘Before the day is out!’

What was ‘certain’ about the Arab world and the Middle East at the end of last year – a few short months ago – now isn’t certain. The supposedly careful calculations upon which governments, academic and journalistic ‘experts’ in international relations, advisers to the oil industry, the defence departments and the armaments manufacturers whose interests they promote, have been thrown into complete confusion. The response of western politicians to the toppling of the dictators with whom they were so recently doing business, has been delightful to behold. The Obama administration and the UK’s ConDem government wriggled and squirmed when faced with the plight of their close ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Clinton and Hague tried desperately to avoid deserting him, initially claiming that his government was ‘stable’. Having happily ignored the human rights abuses, the torture chambers and the unrestrained corruption of a despotic, kleptocratic regime for decades, they suddenly began to talk about the need for reform, urging the despot to facilitate a ‘peaceful transition’ to something more democratic. Former prime minister Blair, the Middle East Quartet’s special envoy, has been close to Mubarak and a recipient of his largesse in the form of free holidays at his luxury mansion in Sharm el Sheikh. He has clearly been discomfited by his friend’s predicament. Blair must also feel the present pain of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi for whom he himself recently went to such great pains in persuading the former terrorist in chief to abandon his WMDs and sign up to the war on terror. Of course, the opening up of the Libyan oilfields to the western oil giants was also a factor in the rapprochement. Just as in the cases of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Libya’s unbroken record of tyranny and repression of its own people was not allowed to stand in the way of realpolitik and a good business deal, supposedly in Britain’s ‘national interest’.

The tide of democratic revolution in North Africa and the Middle East has still to run its course and where that course will lead it is still too early to tell. The situation in Libya is at the moment on a knife edge. It is already clear that Gaddafi’s regime is proving more obdurate than the Tunisian or Egyptian regimes, and his capacity to launch a counter-offensive from Tripoli should not be underestimated. The outcome of the struggle there may depend on the balance of tribal loyalties as well as the balance and quality of armed forces. But it is becoming increasingly clear that in this case, as distinct from either Tunisia or Egypt, there is a real possibility of Western intervention, either sanctioned by the UN Security Council under pressure from the US and Britain, or, as in Kosovo, as a NATO exercise without UN backing. The enforcement of a ‘no fly’ zone over Libya would necessitate a bombardment of the airfields. This would amount to a direct attack on the country and would rightly be regarded as such throughout the Arab and wider Muslim world. At the moment, (04.March), there appears to be some reluctance in EU and US government circles to move in this direction, but the intensity of their demand for Gaddafi’s removal compares strikingly with their reluctance to abandon Mubarak. And, of course, until recently Gaddafi was a pariah to the Western powers, whose hostility towards him had little to do with his appalling human rights record or his support for terrorism. Other regimes worldwide with records as bad as or worse than Gaddafi’s have enjoyed – and continue to enjoy – good relations with those Western leaders now so incensed about the Libyan dictator. The US did not in the past threaten to indict Suharto of Indonesia, Pinochet in Chile or the Contras in Nicaragua for crimes against humanity when they were slaughtering their own people. On the contrary, they were able to commit their crimes because they were armed and actively backed in their criminality by the United States government. Despite his recent rehabilitation by his erstwhile enemies, Gaddafi is too much of a loose cannon to be accorded the degree of support enjoyed by other pro-western dictators. He is too unpredictable and is seen to have too many undesirable friends, such as Hugo Chavez, in the anti-imperialist camp.

Nevertheless, since he was brought in from the cold, the ties to his regime have become firmly established. Here for example, through his son, Saif al-Islam, the London School of Economics, where he was a research student, has become enmeshed in a web of lucrative business and academic connections with Libya. These have also involved a US based consultancy, the Monitor Group, which is responsible for a multimillion dollar contract with the regime intended to improve Gaddafi’s image in the UK and the US and to promote academic, government, and business exchanges. As a result of these disclosures, the LSE’s director, Sir Howard Davies, who is a senior advisor to the Monitor Group, has been forced to resign. Others associated with the Monitor enterprise include academic historian Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, and the prominent neo-conservative advisor to the Bush White House, Richard Perle. Saif al-Islam, who claimed last week in Tripoli, as his father’s mercenaries were firing live ammunition into unarmed crowds, that the regime would ‘fight to the last man, to the last bullet’, was, apparently regarded by his academic tutors at the LSE as a genuine liberal and democrat. He was even allowed to give the Ralph Miliband memorial lecture last year – an event dedicated to the memory of the late Marxist professor, father of the Miliband brothers, who taught at the School for many years. It is difficult to imagine any greater insult to his memory. But such are the ways of ‘competition in the market place’ for cash-strapped academic institutions, and such is the understanding of ‘national interest’, that such things are to be expected.

So where does this leave the uncompleted Arab revolution? As distinct from the largely hypocritical responses of Western and other political leaders, motivated largely by what they perceive to be their own national interests, or the interests of their global alliances, the only genuinely democratic response must be one of unqualified support for the revolutionary forces engaged in courageous struggle against oppressive regimes. There can be no tolerance for any attempt to co-opt such popular movements; no attempts to divert them or to limit their demands to accord with the interests of their own elites or the interests of international corporations, should be countenanced. Continued and determined pressure from beneath to ensure that the lid of repression is not clamped down again, can succeed. No matter from which sources they may come, all attempts to divert the mass movements into negotiations for compromises that would leave the old power structures in place, must be resisted.

Long-established power structures in the Middle East are tottering. The old canard to the effect that the Arab peoples are incapable of democratic self-government is being exposed for what it is. It is becoming clear that those who for so long have peddled this story are deeply worried at the prospect of popular democracy in the Arab world. Now that the democratic revolution sweeping the region looks likely to succeed, the Western democrats seem deeply worried by the prospect that the old authoritarian elites may be swept away by a tide that they are unable to stem. Today it suits them to support the overthrow and prosecution of Gaddafi in the hope that they will be able to control the course of events after he has gone. But tomorrow, should the tide of revolt threaten the Saudi monarchy, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the prospect of their closest ally biting the dust.