Part one of a series of articles on Libya
First of all, I want to do a little bit of a Maoist self-criticism and admit that I was wrong in predicting that there would be no imperialist intervention in Libya. Clearly, a Nostradamus I am not.
My mistake, looking back in retrospect, was assuming that there was no need to invade since there was no driving economic need. Unlike Venezuela, Libya had long ago thrown its doors open to imperialist penetration. This led me to believe that imperialism would not intervene. Now there are some who insist that this is an oil war just as was the case in Iraq (leaving aside the question of how little control/ownership the USA exercises there now.) For example, Noam Chomsky told Stephen Shalom and Michael Albert in a recent ZNet interview:
Libya is rich in oil, and though the US and UK have often given quite remarkable support to its cruel dictator, right to the present, he is not reliable. They would much prefer a more obedient client. Furthermore, the vast territory of Libya is mostly unexplored, and oil specialists believe it may have rich untapped resources, which a more dependable government might open to Western exploitation.
Chomsky, who has always had a remarkable gift for finding material in the bourgeois press to support his arguments, somehow did not bother to find evidence about Western anxiety over Qaddafi who by the above description appears to be another Chavez, or worse.
Searching for “Libya” and “American oil companies” in Lexis-Nexis between the dates 2004 and 2010 presented an entirely different picture from that drawn by Chomsky. One off the top states:
Is Libya the new Iraq? When Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, an influential energy industry newsletter, posed that question recently in a comparison of investment opportunities in both countries, the answer was clear.
A vanguard of American lawyers, bankers and consultants, many of them based in Houston, has traveled to Tripoli in recent weeks to evaluate Libyan opportunities. Many of these visitors are focused on expectations that Libya plans to offer as many as 11 new oil exploration blocks this month to foreign companies, in the first opening of the nation’s oil fields available to Americans since the early 1980′s.
”The risks of entering Libya now are relatively low, in terms of politics and getting to the oil,” said Stephen Davis, co-head of the Middle East and North Africa section of Vinson & Elkins, a Houston law firm that is handling much of its Libya business through a new office in Dubai. ”There’s really nothing quite like it, since the terrain is already familiar to many American companies.”
The New York Times, July 20, 2004
I would think that a lawyer from Houston would know what he is talking about, right?
If you began studying events in Libya from March 1 onwards, you would get the impression that the armed opposition to Qaddafi was a wholly owned subsidiary of American imperialism, like the Nicaraguan contras or the gusanos who were defeated at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Without a no-fly-zone, we are led to believe, these enemies of progress would have gotten nowhere.
But if you are willing to look at news reports from day one, the pattern was clear. By late February, without any air support and without any CIA training, the ragtag volunteer army from the East had Tripoli in its sights:
The popular uprising against Moammar Kadafi expanded into an oil-rich area of western Libya long considered one of his strongholds, leaving the long-time leader increasingly isolated and in danger of encirclement as he fights for survival.
Calm was returning to a stretch of eastern Libya that has been seized by the opposition. Residents were restoring basic services in the country’s second-largest city, Benghazi, and setting up informal governing structures.
“The uprising is over. Eastern Libya has all fallen from Kadafi’s power,” said Ashraf Sadaga, who helps oversee a mosque in the coastal city of Derna.
At a rally there, one young man held up a sign addressing Kadafi: “The people have dug your grave,” it said.
But reports painted a grim picture of western Libya. Terrified residents of the capital, Tripoli, said pro-government militias rampaged through some residential areas, firing automatic weapons from pickup trucks and Land Cruisers.
The fall of Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, which is a little more than 100 miles east of Tripoli, as well as a smaller town in the far west meant that the rebellion inspired by revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt now spans nearly the length of the country.
Crowds fought loyalists in Sabratha, about 40 miles west of Tripoli.
The opposition also claimed control of Zuwarah, about 30 miles from the border with Tunisia in the west, after local army units sided with the protesters and police fled.
Kadafi’s traditional backing from powerful tribal leaders also is starting to unravel, analysts said, marking a potential turning point. Key among them is the Warfallah tribe, one of Libya’s largest, which is based south of Tripoli. Leaders announced that they were joining the movement to oust him.
Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2011
Now, as we know, all is fair in love and war. Qaddafi, whose troops fought side-by-side with Idi Amin’s in Uganda, was not one to be trifled with. After having stockpiled billions of dollars in advanced weaponry from the West, why would he lack the good sense not to use them? Who cares if he lacked a wide base of support in the country? After all, as the longest reigning non-monarch on the planet, he had to fight to preserve his legacy—whatever it was.
Part of the problem is that this was never going to be a fair fight. Additionally, the lack of political freedom in Libya prevented the kind of trade union and civic associations to take root in Egypt and that would play such a key role in toppling Mubarak, Egypt’s Qaddafi. Giving the lack of a cohesive political leadership and the lack of a strategy, the revolutionary struggle against Qaddafi would ultimately have to founder. Today’s Los Angeles Times is brutally frank about the character of the movement that is now on the run and likely to be liquidated before long:
For many rebel fighters, the absence of competent military leadership and a tendency to flee at the first shot have contributed to sagging morale. Despite perfunctory V-for-victory signs and cries of “Allahu akbar!” (God is great), the eager volunteers acknowledge that they are in for a long, uphill fight.
“Kadafi is too strong for us, with too many heavy weapons. What can we do except fall back to protect ourselves?” said Salah Chaiky, 41, a businessman, who said he fired his assault rifle while fleeing Port Brega even though he was too far away to possibly hit the enemy.
For some on the left, the defeat of people like Salah Chaiky is apparently something to be celebrated either implicitly or explicitly. In today’s Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn reminds his readers that Qaddafi, if not exactly a socialist, was generous to his people—one supposes in accordance with traditions of noblesse oblige that reign in feudal societies: “In four decades, Libyans have gone from being among the most wretched in Africa, to considerable elevation in terms of social amenities.” Of course, having never shown the slightest interest in political freedom except when his own ox was being gored, one can understand why Cockburn can shrug off the fact that torture was so widespread in Libya that even the Great Leader’s son was forced to admit:
A foundation run by Libyan leader Moamer Qadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam catalogued an array of cases of torture, wrongful imprisonment and other abuses in a report for 2009 published on Thursday. The Qadhafi Foundation’s report also sharply criticized the continuing domination of the print and broadcast media by the state. The few non-state media are all controlled by a publishing company run by the younger Qadhafi. The report recorded “several flagrant violations” of human rights in Libya during the year, including “cases of torture and ill-treatment” as well as a number of “blatant and premeditated breaches of the law.” The report, distributed to the press, condemned “all forms of torture” and called for the lifting of the “immunity granted by laws of exception to employees of various state agencies. “It also called for a full liberalization of the media in Libya.
Right Vision News, December 13, 2009
But no matter. As long as there is “considerable elevation in terms of social amenities”, who would want to complain about some malcontent having his testicles attached to an electric generator. And why blame Libya for taking part in “extraordinary renditions”? After all, there was a need to defeat terrorism, as the stalwart Marxists at wsws.org would remind us:
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), considered a branch of Al Qaeda, mounted a major challenge to the Gaddafi regime in the 1990s. The destabilizing impact of that challenge was a major factor in the decision of the Gaddafi regime to abandon its traditional anti-imperialist rhetoric and seek an accommodation with Europe and the United States. As recently as 2007, the Libyan government, according to reports, was bracing for terrorist attacks.
I must admit that this came as quite a surprise to me. I thought that the neoliberal policies were a function of the same powerful market forces that were taking place everywhere in the world. I never would have suspected that it was al-Qaida that drove Qaddafi to cut deals with Western oil companies so generous that a Houston lawyer would advise his clients that there were no risks in Libya. Imagine that.
We also learn from Vijay Prashad on Counterpunch that the CIA was pulling the strings in Libya even before protests began in Tunisa, months before the Benghazi uprising. (The anti-anti-Qaddafi left seems to have a difficult time figuring out whether the outside agitators making life hell in Libya came from Langley, Virginia or Osama bin-Laden’s cave.) Prashad writes:
In December 23, 2010, before the Tunisian uprising, Boukhris, Charrani and Mansouri went to Paris to meet with Qaddafi’s old aide-de-camp, Nuri Mesmari, who had defected to the Concorde-Lafayette hotel. Mesmari was singing to the DGSE and Sarkozy about the weaknesses in the Libyan state. His man in Benghazi was Colonel Abdallah Gehani of the air defense corps. But Gehani would not be the chosen military leader. The CIA already had its man in mind. He would soon be in place.
Fascinating stuff. If I wrote a screenplay based on this, I’d think about casting George Clooney as the CIA agent. He’s an old hand at this.
Meanwhile, we learn from Prashad that the revolution was doomed from the start because Libya is basically two countries, even though some commentators describe the populations of Tripoli and Benghazi as an admixture of ethnic groups from East and West: “That east-west divide smothered any attempt by the working-class in the western cities to rise to their full potential.”
Silly me. I thought the smothering came from other quarters:
TRIPOLI, Libya — A state of terror has seized two working-class neighborhoods here that just a week ago exploded in revolt, with residents reporting constant surveillance, searches of cars and even cellphones by militiamen with Kalashnikovs at block-by-block checkpoints and a rash of disappearances of those involved in last week’s protest.
As rebel fighters in the country’s east celebrated their defeat of a raid on Wednesday by hundreds of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s loyalists in the strategic oil town of Brega, many people in Tripoli said they had lost hope that peaceful protests might push the Libyan leader from power the way street demonstrations had toppled the strongmen in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
The climate of fear suggests just how effectively the government’s ruthless application of force in Tripoli has locked down the city and suppressed simmering rage, even as the rebels have held control of the eastern half of the country and a string of smaller western cities surrounding the capital.
”I think the people know that if they make any protest now they will be killed, so all the people in Tripoli are waiting for someone to help them,” one resident said. ”It is easy to kill anybody here. I have seen it with my own eyes.”
Several people in the two neighborhoods, Feshloom and Tajura, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of Colonel Qaddafi’s secret police, said militias loyal to the colonel were using photos taken at last week’s protest to track down the men involved. ”They know that there are people who have energy and who are willing to die, so they pick them up,” another resident said.
New York Times, March 4 2011
Of course, there is always the possibility that the bourgeois press is simply making things up about repression in Tripoli. Now if we can only get Saif Qaddafi to admit that he was writing propaganda when he said there was widespread torture in Libya.
So what does all this amount to? Basically, the anti-anti-Qaddafi left is straining to fit Libya into a pattern that should be familiar to us by now. The Benghazi fighters are like the Nicaraguan contras or the Kurdish rebels who are, as MRZine put it, “traitors” to their country. It doesn’t matter that the self-appointed (and that is really what they are) “leaders” of the resistance consulted nobody in the ranks when they set upon the course of working with imperialism.
The lack of military coordination, as described in the LA Times above, should give you an accurate sense of the utter disorganization of the movement politically. When the Kurds fought against Saddam Hussein, they had a strong and cohesive organization that had years of experience both in the field and in mass struggle.
For all practical purposes, the revolution against Qaddafi began just one month ago and its flaws are a function of its raw and infant state rather than the counter-revolutionary instincts of the participants. Indeed, to make an amalgam between the Benghazi street and the wheeler-dealers on the phone with Langley, Virginia is an absolute slander. Here is the real Benghazi street:
On Feb. 17, the scheduled “Day of Rage,” soldiers and the police opened fire with machine guns on unarmed crowds. Soon, photographs circulated of bodies torn in half by high-caliber weapons. Unarmed young men climbed into bulldozers and drove them in suicidal attempts to breach the high green-and-white walls of the Katiba, the last stronghold of Qaddafi’s authority left in the city, a vast compound that dominates Benghazi’s downtown like a medieval fort. The death toll shot up, and the initial core of politically active protesters like Saih and his fellow lawyers soon grew to encompass a broad swath of Benghazi’s roughly 800,000 people.
One of them was Mahdi Ziu. His home was about 200 yards from the Katiba, and he saw a young man shot to death right outside his front door. Ziu was anything but an agitator: he worked as a middle manager at the Arabian Gulf Oil Company. He was a paunchy man, sedentary and diabetic, with thinning hair and glasses and a resigned expression. He liked to read and surf the Internet, his daughter and brother told me. He had a soft heart and often cried when watching television dramas with his wife and daughter on the living-room couch. He disliked politics and tended toward moderation in all things: he would walk away when he heard religious extremists fulminating about right and wrong at the local mosque. But after three days of brutal killing in his hometown, something snapped. “He kept saying, ‘Jihad, jihad, this is the time for us all to go out and fight,’ ” his 21-year-old daughter, Zuhour, told me. Zuhour seemed to alternate between awe and horror as she quietly narrated her father’s death (his wife was sequestered, in accordance with Muslim mourning custom). She sat on a couch in the living room, a slim, pretty girl in a head scarf with her hands folded uneasily in front of her. The neighbor’s baby whined in the next room, and a photograph of her father’s face sat on the table nearby. “If you heard this man,” Zuhour continued, “you would know he was ready for something.” No one else in the family had taken part in the protests; Mahdi’s brother told me, a little regretfully, that he had been too frightened.
By Sunday, Feb. 20, protesters in Benghazi had armed themselves and were focusing all their efforts on storming the Katiba. Every day, soldiers inside the barracks were firing down on the funeral processions that used the long boulevard from the courthouse to the city’s main cemetery, killing more people and generating more funerals, more anger.
On Sunday morning, with the sound of gunfire in the background, Ziu slipped a last will and testament under the door of a friend. He then returned to his apartment and asked the neighbors to help him load a number of full gas canisters into his black Kia sedan, parked just outside the house. They asked why, and he told them the canisters were leaking; he needed to get them fixed. His brother, Salem Ziu, told me that he thinks Mahdi used a small patch of TNT, the kind Libyans use to kill fish, as a detonator. No one really knows.
What is certain is that about 1:30 p.m., Ziu drove his car until it was facing the Katiba’s main gate, near the police station where the first protests began five days earlier. The area in front of him was clear, a killing zone abandoned by all but the most reckless. Rebels fired from the shelter of rooftops and doorways, and snipers at the Katiba fired occasional shots down on the figures darting in the streets. Ziu put his foot down on the accelerator. The guards opened fire, but too late. The speeding car struck the gate and exploded, sending up a fireball that was captured on a cellphone video by a protester a few hundred yards away. The blast blew a hole in the wall, killing a number of guards and sending the rest retreating into the Katiba. Within hours, it would fall to the protesters.
The remains of Ziu’s charred and crumpled car now lie by the open gate of the Katiba. Above and around it are tributes to him in looping spray-painted letters: “Mahdi the Hero.” “Mahdi, who liberated the Katiba.”
NY Times Sunday Magazine, April 3, 2011
Yes, Mahdi is a hero even if people like Alexander Cockburn and Vijay Prashad would have us piss on his grave.
(In my next post, I will comment on Juan Cole and Gilbert Achcar)