SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 163 November 2012

Post-Gaddafi Libya: still volatile and violent

JUST OVER a month since the death of the US ambassador, developments in Libya illustrate the instability, even chaos, gripping many parts of the country. With no real central government, fighting continued around Bani Walid, widely regarded as a pro-Gaddafi area, by forces from Misrata angry at the detention and subsequent death of Omran Shaban, the rebel fighter who found Gaddafi after a Nato air-strike on his convoy a year ago.

Last year, we explained that while Gaddafi, an "autocratic ruler, surrounded by his privileged family and cronies", had been overthrown, this was not the same as the earlier ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt. "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". (CWI, Gaddafi Regime Crumbles, 26 August 2011)

One of the biggest changes over the last year is that oil production has recovered. Currently, Libya’s oil revenue is roughly $1 billion every ten days, something that would go far in a country of around 6.5 million. But already new gangs of looters are settling in. In October, Le Monde Diplomatique reported that ministers are receiving salaries of $7,800 a month, while staying in $325-a-night Tripoli hotel suites. Although elections passed off peacefully in July, in reality, the General National Congress is powerless in the face of the competing militias.

This chaotic situation was not inevitable. When mass protests began in February 2011, Gaddafi launched a brutal counter-offensive against Benghazi and other centres of opposition. Benghazi, however, could have been protected by the mass popular defence of the million-strong city alongside a revolutionary appeal to workers, youth and the poor in the rest of Libya. This could have led to an earlier victory and given no excuse for foreign intervention.

In Benghazi, at the start of the revolution, English language posters declared: ‘No to foreign intervention – Libyans can do it by themselves’. But, dominated by a combination of defectors from Gaddafi’s regime and openly pro-imperialist elements, the self-appointed leadership of the National Transitional Council pushed aside the initial popular mood against foreign intervention. It looked to western imperialist powers and semi-feudal Arab states for support.

Gaddafi’s fall the following August was greeted with rejoicing by large numbers of Libyans, but not all joined in. And they were not solely the privileged elite around Gaddafi and groupings favoured by his regime. There were also elements of genuine opposition to the role of the western powers and autocratic Arab regimes, and fear of religious fundamentalists.

Each of the Arab spring revolutions had their own characteristics. In Tunisia and Egypt there were developing, or transforming, workers’ organisations. In Libya, on the other hand, the largely spontaneous initial uprising did not lead to the large-scale democratic, self-organisation of the working masses and youth. Despite the involvement of large numbers of Libyans in the fighting and the mass arming of the population, there are not any signs so far of Libyan workers, youth and poor striving to establish their own collective rule over society. Without strong democratic, independent organisations in most communities and workplaces, the militias are taking the lead in maintaining security. But most of these militias are divided by territorial, tribal, religious or ethnic origin differences and their leaders have their own agendas.

Now there is the growing involvement of religious fundamentalists and the continued existence of elements who fought alongside Gaddafi against what they saw as foreign intervention. Thus, alongside the militia rivalries, there has been the demolition of Sufi shrines by Salafist fundamentalists and four attacks on western representatives in the run-up to the 11 September assaults on the US consulate in Benghazi and on a semi-secret US intelligence base.

The 20 September protest that drove the Ansar al-Sharia militia, initially blamed for the US consulate attack, out of Benghazi was not simply a popular reaction against the militias. The protest was led by the military police who then proceeded to attack the base of the Qatari-funded Rafallah al-Sahati militia that works with the Tripoli-based defence ministry. How much this second target was part of the ongoing rivalry between leaders in Benghazi and Tripoli is not clear. These tensions continued. On 21 September the Benghazi military commander was kidnapped for six hours. Three days later, pro-Tripoli militias in Benghazi began arresting participants in the 20 September protests, including 30 military officers.

While some Libyans are still grateful for the US’s support in overthrowing Gaddafi, there is also growing opposition – mainly, at this time, of a religious character – to continued US involvement in Libya. This is likely to increase as western powers attempt to strengthen their presence. In September, the Obama administration allocated $8 million towards training a 500-strong elite ‘anti-terrorism’ force in Libya.

The feeling of liberation that many Libyans have is still important. This could provide a basis for opposition to sectarian and reactionary militias, the potential for which was seen in the protests against Ansar al-Sharia. However, that protest also showed that just going onto the streets is not enough. If the demands of working people are going to be realised it is necessary to be self-organised with clear aims, otherwise other forces can seek to profit from such movements.

Many Libyans, particularly the young, felt last year that they had a chance, and the power, to decide their own future. Now it is becoming clearer that this will require organisation, programme and struggle to unite the working people and youth in common battle, otherwise there is the risk of a downward spiral of breakdown.

The divisions between the areas are becoming wider, in spite of the glue that the oil revenue provides. Misrata, for example, is now virtually autonomous. In the oil-rich Cyrenaica region around Benghazi there are repeated demands for more autonomy, something that strikes fear in other areas. In the absence of independent, democratic workers’ organisations, other forces will make the running.

The opposition to foreign involvement, the fear of the old elite returning or a new one arising can provide the basis for different forces of populism – religious, regional, tribal, ethnic or nationalist. While Libya’s oil wealth can keep the country together, particularly when viewed from the non-oil-producing areas, struggles can break out between competing elites over how the loot is doled out or, at a certain stage, of whether this country breaks up.

The creation of independent, democratic workers’ organisations, including a workers’ party, is vital. This is the only way working people, the oppressed and youth would be able to overcome the growing divisions and begin a struggle to 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.

To achieve their goals a workers’ movement would need to defend all democratic rights, involve and defend the rights of migrant workers, and oppose the privatisation of Libya’s assets. It would also need to demand the withdrawal of all foreign armed forces, oppose all foreign military intervention and, above all, reject participation in any government with pro-capitalist forces.

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

Robert Bechert


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