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Socialism Today 152 - October 2011

Libya’s difficult and dangerous road

The first weeks following the fall of Tripoli to rebel forces have, unfortunately, confirmed how the Libyan revolution is in grave danger of being derailed. An absence, so far, of independent organisations of workers and youth and the dark shadow of NATO’s intervention have produced a situation where scarcely a day goes by without warning signs appearing of the dangers ahead. ROBERT BECHERT reports.

WHILE THE REVOLUTION started as a popular mass uprising against the autocratic Gaddafi regime, the fall of Tripoli did not have the same character. The rebel fighters who moved into the capital, with NATO air support, were made up of tribes and members of the Berber minority opposed to Muammar Gaddafi along with fighters from towns like Misrata and were "armed by the French, trained by the British and led into battle by Qatari special forces". (Observer, 28 August)

Since Tripoli’s fall the fighting is continuing longer, and with greater ferocity, than the rebels expected. Glib explanations, like that expressed by David Cameron during his fleeting trip to Libya, that mercenaries are doing the fighting do not explain why these forces are still fighting, despite big retreats and constant NATO air bombardment. In reality, it reflects the social and tribal roots Gaddafi’s regime had, alongside fear of revenge from the winning side and hostility to foreign intervention.

While the towns where, at the time of writing, battles are continuing will probably fall to a combination of NATO air power, rebel forces and the desire for fighting to end, this fighting will leave a bitter legacy that can fuel future conflicts. The long siege of Misrata by Gaddafi’s forces resulted in the highest death toll any city has suffered so far. Clearly, prisoners have been killed by both sides. But while now the crimes of the Gaddafi regime have been highlighted by the western media, for some time they downplayed the execution of Gaddafi fighters and the targeting by the rebels of black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans.

Amnesty International, while mainly condemning the brutality of Gaddafi’s forces, also gave examples of rising racial tensions in Libya. It stated that the town of Tawergha, "home to many ethnically black Libyans in the mind of Misrata residents… is associated with the worst violations committed during the month-long siege and relentless shelling of Misrata earlier this year". (30 August) Two weeks later, after the fighting had passed through that town, the Wall Street Journal reported: "Every house, shop, school and public building in Tawergha has been ransacked since the Misrata rebels chased out pro-Gaddafi soldiers". It said that the rebels are "preventing Tawergha residents coming back". (14 September)

These developments are the background to the increasing reports of the fighting taking a tribal and racial character. At the same time, there are signs of divisions emerging along the lines of the three provinces, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan, that the US, Britain and France helped unify into Libya in the late 1940s. Furthermore, in the absence of a workers’ movement, Islamists have started to seize the initiative in opposing defectors from Gaddafi being in government and the growing influence of foreign powers.

Imperialist meddling

DESPITE THIS REVOLUTION beginning as a popularly supported movement it unfolded in quite a different way from Tunisia or Egypt. In both those countries there were already pre-existing opposition forces, especially elements of independent workers’ organisations, which pushed the revolution forward. In Libya these did not exist. The uprising had a popular character but, almost from the start, its self-proclaimed leaders were a combination of middle class, pro-capitalist elements and recent defectors from the regime.

Quickly after the revolution started, imperialist powers – Britain, France and the US especially – took advantage of the counter-attack by Gaddafi’s forces towards Benghazi and the east. Stung by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, these imperialist powers intervened as ‘protectors’ of the Libyan people and, via the agency of the self-appointed and pro-western National Transitional Council (NTC), sought to control the revolution and exploit it for its own ends. Thus the fledging democratic bodies that had begun to develop in Benghazi were curtailed and, in essence, the TNC became a NATO ally.

However, already these plans are not working out exactly as Britain and France planned. The western powers are becoming exasperated at the NTC’s difficulties as it attempts to establish itself. A western official was quoted as saying that the NTC is "completely unprofessional. It is like a backwater municipal council from southern Europe". (New Republic, 1 September)

The publication of the correspondence between Gaddafi’s security service and the CIA, British MI6, etc, has deeply damaged the west. The confirmation of the joint Libyan/US/British operation to capture, ‘render’ and torture Abdel Hakim Belhadj, the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who now heads the Tripoli Military Council, has both enhanced his standing even more and re-enforced popular scepticism towards these new ‘friends’. This is further strengthened by the confirmation that Britain exported £60,000 of weapons and munitions to Libya in February, the month the revolution began. (The Times, 29 August)

Tension and division

THE LONG DELAY in the NTC moving its base to Tripoli is a reflection of mounting tensions. The NTC’s first public rally in Tripoli on 13 September, nearly three weeks after the capital was captured, was reportedly attended by around 10,000, a small turnout to celebrate ‘victory’ in a city of well over a million. The Financial Times has reported on the continuing support for Gaddafi in Tripoli’s Abu Salim district (29 August).

The statement on 18 September of a further delay in the announcement of a ‘cabinet’ reflected the growing tensions within and towards the NTC. The western powers favour the appointment of Mahmoud Jibril. He was the chair of the first executive, which was dissolved after the still unexplained arrest and subsequent killing of the NTC’s military commander, Abdul Fattah Younis, by forces supposedly on his own side.

Jibril headed Gaddafi’s economic liberalisation policy from 2007. In 2010, Gaddafi’s government published a plan to privatise over 50% of the economy, although controls were planned to remain in the oil, gas and banking sectors. Jibril has come under attack for his links to both the Gaddafi regime and the western powers which previously worked closely with Gaddafi. Unfortunately, these attacks have not come from a workers’ movement but from Islamist forces.

Ismail al-Salabi, leader of the Benghazi-based ‘February 17 brigade’, has demanded the resignation of the executive headed by Jibril as it consists of "remnants of the old regime". Salabi, an influential preacher, is being promoted by Qatar and its al-Jazeera TV channel. Qatar, a totally undemocratic Gulf kingdom run on feudal lines, is also ‘directly’ sending weapons and financing to Islamist militias (New York Times, 9 September).

The situation is similar in Tripoli. Jibril’s 11 September press conference was twice postponed and then had to be moved to another venue. A spokesman for Belhadj said: "Jibril represents no-one. He is not welcome here. We have just got rid of one dictator, we don’t want another one".

But reflecting the growing regional tensions, representatives from Misrata opposed both Jibril and Belhadj. Abdulbasit Abu Muzairik, a Misrata military council leader, said: "We are worried about a lot of things happening politically. We have not seen Jibril in Libya, he has spent all the time we were suffering outside the country. Suddenly he is here and we have to accept he is the prime minister. What are people trying to do about it? Well, he will have to be replaced… The people who actually fought for the revolution must be allowed to have a say in how the country is now being run".

Abu Muzairik went on to challenge Belhadj by saying that he "is just in charge of fighters in Tripoli, that’s all. He is not in charge of Libya, even if he thinks he is". (Independent, 13 September) The Misrata rebels have announced their own candidate, Abdul-Rahman Sweilhi, for prime minister. Sweilhi warned of the danger of a "new dictatorship" and insisted the government could not include "symbols of the Gaddafi regime". (Guardian, 19 September)

The struggle for resources

BUT THESE DIFFERENCES are not simply over personnel and regional representation in government. Demands are growing in Benghazi for the headquarters of the National Oil Company to be moved back there from Tripoli, where it has been based since the early 1970s. A newly-formed ‘17th February Committee for Oil and Gas’ wants it moved to Benghazi on the grounds that most of Libya’s oil is in the east (Financial Times website, 12 September). Clearly, this sort of demand could develop later into separatist demands. The Financial Times reported two days later that "an uneasy feeling is evolving" in Benghazi that will focus on Tripoli and the more populous west once the government moves there.

But these are still early days. Libyan workers and youth have still not put their demands on the table. A key factor in the revolution was the revolt of the youth against the Gaddafi regime’s suffocating corruption and nepotism. Seventy per cent of Libya’s 6.5 million population are under the age of 30 and there are nearly a quarter of a million university and college students. Their voices will be heard.

Oil and gas have made Libya a rich country. The World Bank estimates it has a $160 billion foreign currency reserve equal to two years’ oil income. This income and wealth allowed Gaddafi to raise living standards. Education and healthcare were free of charge. Many basic consumer goods were subsided although, at the same time, there was 30% unemployment.

While Gaddafi’s regime had already been privatising it is probable that the pro-western leaders of the TNC will, if they are able to form a government, proceed carefully with a neo-liberal agenda. They will most likely use Libya’s oil and gas income to maintain public services and subsidies, at least for a time. However, there is already a discussion on whether the subsidies on basic items could be replaced by the ‘Iranian model’. This sees the government giving out cash directly via bank accounts, something that could be used, over time, to reduce the real value of the subsidies. But a renewed world economic crisis would fundamentally change the situation and threaten to plunge the country into disaster. When oil prices fell in the 1980s, Libya’s GDP collapsed by over 40%.

Alongside the large numbers of unemployed Libyans there are also many migrant workers. These totalled up to 2.5 million, one million of whom came from Egypt (Financial Times, 2 September). Although over 650,000 fled during the first six-and-a-half months after the mid-February uprising, large numbers still remain.

The role of the working class

GADDAFI’S SELF-PROCLAIMED position as the ‘lion’ of Africa and pretensions to lead the whole continent, alongside encouragement of migration from Africa, made it easier for some Libyans to believe that it was mainly African mercenaries who were fighting for him. This belief, which also exploited old prejudices towards sub-Saharan Africans, helped fuel the racist attacks that have taken place. These attacks, alongside the increase in tribal tensions and mass unemployment, mean that building the unity of working people and youth is now more vital than ever. Racist, tribal or religious conflicts could send the country down the path trod by Yemen or Somalia.

Now, more than ever, the creation of independent, democratic workers’ organisations, including a workers’ party, are vital. Only that could help ensure that working people, the oppressed and youth achieve a real revolutionary transformation of the country and thwart the imperialists’ plans, end dictatorship and transform the lives of the mass of the people.

Without this other forces will step into the gap. To limit this eventuality and to achieve the above goals, a workers’ movement would need to defend all democratic rights. It would have to involve and defend the rights of migrant workers, oppose the privatisation of Libya’s assets, demand the withdrawal of all foreign military forces and oppose foreign military intervention. It should demand the democratic election of a constituent assembly and, above all, reject participation in any government with pro-capitalist forces.

It would strive for a government of representatives of the workers and poor, based upon democratic structures in the workplaces and communities, and which would use Libya’s resources for its population. This would be the real victory for the Libyan revolution and set an international example of ending both dictatorial rule and the miseries of capitalism.

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