by Anne Jaclard
Sunday, Aug. 28 – Libyan rebel forces have taken control of nearly all of the country. They seized the oil town of Ras Lanuf and are waiting for reinforcements to move further west, step by step. From both east and west, the rebel army approaches Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s home town of Sirte, where he or his family may be hiding; his representative offers to negotiate peace. It is too late for that, says the new self-declared national authority, the Transitional National Council (TNC).
Its priority today is to find 50,000 rebels who are unaccounted for and may have been taken captive by Qaddafi’s forces over the past months of warfare. Some prisoners have just been liberated, including 107 from the infamous political prison Abu Salim in Tripoli, where one inmate was held for 16 years. But fears are that tens of thousands more may still be locked in Qaddafi’s secret prisons, where they face imminent death from their loyalist keepers or, if their keepers fled when the rebels entered Tripoli a week ago, from starvation.
In Tripoli, loyalist snipers are killing people and destroying property, including planes sitting in the airport. Many areas of the city lack electricity and water, and there are shortages of food and medical supplies. But today, for the first time, the streets are filled with people, and they are euphoric. Downtown Green Square, where Qaddafi held his rallies, has been returned to its former name, Martyrs’ Square, and is a scene of celebration.
After eight months of revolt throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and while peaceful demonstrators and armed rebels alike are being massacred in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere––three dictatorships are gone. Tunisia and Egypt’s rulers gave up after relatively short fights, inspiring many revolts across the region that have been unable to repeat those early successes. Now, at last, after six months of fighting, the Libyan people have ended Qaddafi’s 42-year long iron rule.
In other Middle Eastern and North African countries, rebels fight on. The sheer number and tenacity of the rebellions has inspired people around the world. In the same recent period, coinciding with the intransience of worldwide recession and unemployment, we have witnessed unprecedented demonstrations against economic inequality and austerity measures in Israel, Chile, Greece, Spain, and rioters in England––nearly all of them composed largely of youth.
MHI opposed the U.S. and European military intervention in Libya, nominally in the name of NATO (see editorial), but one ought not to let anger against imperialism obscure the possibilities that may open up for the Libyan people’s self-emancipation now that Qaddafi is gone. Let us not mentally cede control of the revolution to the TNC and its foreign backers, nor relegate it to chaos, which some predict will result from the rebels’ competing factions. In a similar vein, one can look for new liberatory forces without having illusions that progressive government can be shared with political Islamists, and not write off revolutions-in-the-making because some of the rebels are Islamists. The point is that all revolutions contain contradictions within them, and we can help them go forward by aiding the liberatory forces.
Too frequently, the U.S. left judges situations based on simplistic formulae instead of trying to see what is developing out of the mass activity that is engendering, and engendered by, rebellion. Instead of judging the revolutions now, the left ought to find and support those revolutionaries who want to establish democratic, secular countries with equality and opportunity for everyone, including women and minority groups.
Youth spearheading the revolutions
An obvious reason why Middle Eastern youth began so many movements to oust their governments is that youth lack jobs or any prospect for getting jobs. Overall unemployment in Libya is reportedly 30 to 40%, and in Egypt over 20%. In countries that are not vital to the world economy, including small countries like Libya with a population of 6.5 million, there is little reason (within the logic of capitalism) for international or local investment to create economic expansion, other than in oil production. On the other hand, both countries have oil, which used to produce revenues sufficient to fund many social services, although services declined in recent years.
Another widely analyzed reason for the revolts is the advent of social media like Facebook, which enable youth to converse with those in other countries who have gone through both “velvet” revolutions and armed uprisings, and which enable local organizing on the internet even where public assemblies are outlawed.
However, underlying youth’s willingness to risk their lives when the other side begins to shoot, imprison, and torture them, is a factor as great as any material reason: the idealism that motivates youth to try to change their world. The internet allowed them to share not only strategies and tactics for organizing and fighting, but also ideas about what liberation could mean. This discussion includes not only underground socialist groups, but brand new groups. The website Tahrir Documents (http://www.tahrirdocuments.org) is a collection of radical documents that are continuing to be produced in Egypt. It publishes, in Arabic and English, a variety of groups’ ideas for carrying out the revolution, ideas about establishing freedom and benefiting workers and farmers, women and youth.
The story of the youth from the April 6 Movement, who began the Egyptian revolution in January, is well known. Nawal El Saadawi describes the occupation of Tahrir Square that brought down the dictator Hosni Mubarak in an MHI article. The April 6 Movement and other youth organizations continue to be forces for a secular, pluralistic, liberal Egyptian government. Following a recent visit to Cairo, the reporter Mona Eltahawy marveled at the complexity and intensity of the debates about politics and the future that were continuing non-stop at every demonstration.
The Libyan revolution was spearheaded by youth inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Nicolas Pelham in, “Libya in the Balance,” Middle East Research and Information Project, March 15, 2011 (http://www.merip.org/mero/mero031511), describes the early days of that revolution:
“[T]he Libyan people’s release from captivity by the February 17 uprising pulsated with an unparalleled hope. Freed from a ban on public assembly of four or more persons, rebel-held towns across Libya thronged with celebrants late into the night. Benghazi, Libya’s second city, which the colonel had stripped of its museums, cinemas and cultural symbols, including the mausoleum of its anti-colonial hero, ‘Umar Mukhtar, buzzed with impromptu memorials to Qaddafi’s victims, political theater, songs and art, and mass open-air prayers. And after four decades in which one man had appropriated the right to speak on behalf of a country, Libyans in their hundreds of thousands recovered their voice.”
One young Libyan fighter, when victory was in sight last week, was quoted as saying simply, “I expect something new.” Another echoed: “The world didn’t know Libyans. They knew Qaddafi.” All over Libya, it appears, people are beginning to re-define themselves and their country. I don’t know whether there is or will be a forum for public discussion like Tahrir Square, but barring the reestablishment of tyranny, there will undoubtedly be many political parties and tendencies contending.
Who is in control after the revolution?
Libya lacks Egypt’s continuous history of revolutionary organizations, and the country could revert to fighting and chaos, if the groups who made the revolution fall out. On the other hand, it is not tightly controlled by the pre-existing army, as is Egypt. The TNC, claiming it is in power only temporarily, is made up of various political parties and establishment figures. It has not stated goals of transforming society beyond bourgeois democracy. Some consider its members to be stooges chosen by the U.S. and Europe to create a stable and friendly new government that will continue selling them oil. Some consider them stooges chosen to prevent Shiite political Islamists from taking over and making the country a stooge of Iran.
Meanwhile, the U.N. and France just offered to help police the country. Their aim is undoubtedly to reestablish order and not let newfound freedoms get “out of hand.” Also today, the TNC announced it will bring back Libya’s old police force to maintain order, and to avoid the situation following the U.S. take-over of Iraq, when suddenly-unemployed police and soldiers organized militias to fight the occupiers and puppet government. Bringing back the Libyan police will not be easy, however, since they are reportedly afraid to put on their uniforms, knowing the population will seek retribution for years of repression.
Surely a revolutionary government would enable the people to police themselves instead of either bringing back their immediate past repressors or bringing in foreign powers. The TNC has now been recognized by 57 countries and the U.N., but its legitimacy within Libya remains contested by some of the rebels. According to Nicolas Pelham back in March, (“The Colonel, the Rebels and the Heavenly Arbiter” in Middle East Research and Information Project, 4/20/11, http://www.merip.org/),
“a gap is emerging between youth who led the uprising and the elite who appointed themselves leaders and claim to speak in the uprising’s name. Outside the courthouse [in Benghazi] that the National Council has made its principal seat, disgruntled students circulate a family tree mapping the multiple posts to which the Bugaighis and Gharyani families have appointed themselves.”
On August 27, the TNC announced plans to expand its membership to include representatives of newly liberated areas of the country, including Libya’s largest city, Tripoli. One hopes it will also include more women—according to some reports, there is currently one among its 80 members.
We cannot know what will happen next. Will the TNC actually establish control of the country, since it is not now recognized as the new government by all the rebels? Will it make good on its stated intention to hold an election in eight months? Will it impose Islamic law? Will minorities such as the Berbers be protected? Will women have real equality? Will the country be safe enough to entice Libyans living in exile to return and help rebuild?
The struggle continues in Egypt
In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the military, to which Mubarak ceded power in February, is the sole governing body until legislative elections next month. Youth resumed demonstrations in Tahrir Square soon after the dictator resigned, in order to pressure the military to make progress toward turning over control of the country, but little has changed. The youth who made the revolution call the ruling body “the Council of Mubaraks.”
The Supreme Council conducted a national plebiscite in March to approve a few constitutional changes, leaving most of the old constitution, and government practice, in place. Nonetheless, Egyptians turned out in record numbers for the first election held without police and soldiers watching them vote and without the results being known in advance. A man was quoted (N.Y. Times, 3/20/11, p. A17), “Now there is freedom; there is organization. The people of Egypt are happy today. I feel like I am flying. It is something coming from deep within my soul.” Young and old radicals opposed the constitutional proposals because of their limited scope, but the referendum passed, and the coming elections will be the result.
Changes of a more radical nature have been discussed in Tahrir Square from the beginning (see http://www.tahrirdocuments.org/). But the period since the revolution has not been a time of reconciliation and peaceful discussion with the ruling Supreme Council. In June, clashes between police and protesters left more than 1,000 injured. One student protester said she was appalled at how the police treated them. “This is not what we called for when we took to the streets on January 25th. This is not the revolution we imagined” (New York Times, 6/30/11, p. A10). In July, thousands returned to Tahrir Square to voice frustration at the slow pace of change in repressive laws and to demand the prosecution of former officials. The Council was forced to begin a trial of Mubarak.
Many political parties have bloomed, but the biggest tension among the revolutionaries remains that between the secularists and the religious Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood became popular when, before the revolution, it was the only significant opposition group allowed to function, and it provided social services to the poor when the government did not. Mubarak had to fake the last election’s results to keep the Brotherhood’s party out of parliament. During the revolution, young members of the Brotherhood participated in the events at Tahrir Square, working together with the April 6 youth and saying that they shared its goals and did not want to impose Islamic rule.
Since then, however, the Brotherhood has grown bolder about presenting a political Islamist agenda. On July 29, a “Friday for Unity” rally was planned “to gather secularists and Islamists alike in a peaceful, nonreligious show of support for a united Egypt,” according to the N.Y. Times magazine story of 8/28/11:
“Instead, Tahrir Square was overrun with tens of thousands of Islamists—members of the Muslim Brotherhood along with more conservative Salafists [who are described in the story as engaging in physical attacks on Christians]. The revolutionary slogan ‘Hold your head up high, you’re Egyptian’ was replaced by ‘Hold your head up high, you’re a Muslim.’ Many called for Shariah, or Islamic law, and some flew the Saudi flag …”
On the other hand, Egypt has a long history of secular government, and the Brotherhood’s politics are not comparable to the Iranian government’s.
One wonders if it is possible for these revolutions to reconcile the aims of diverse religious factions, factions financed by other Middle Eastern or Western powers, and factions representing enormous class differences, not to mention divisions rooted in tribal systems that prevail in much of Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. To attribute all the revolutions’ potential problems to manipulation by imperial powers is way too simplistic. We need to see how they develop now. It is always easier to be unified by what you are against––even if fighting means giving up your life, than to work out what you are for.
Can they “fix” their economies during a worldwide recession?
The revolutions will save some money by ending the dictators’ costs of maintaining their positions (but that will increase unemployment), and by curbing corruption, but the economic problems facing Egypt and Libya are massive. Both countries had high unemployment rates, and their networks of social services were in financial trouble before the revolution. Egypt, according to Sahar Nasr, an economist with the World Bank, is hobbled by corruption, low productivity, low private investment, vested interests, and inadequate public transport and logistics. He undoubtedly believes that what is good for capitalist development is good for the Egyptian people, so he concludes that the country needs to change all that, and at the same time, it needs to strengthen the safety net for the poor (he spoke at a program at Columbia University, 4/18/11, “Egypt’s Transition to Democracy: Political and Economic Challenges”).
Egypt’s economy has worsened since the revolution, which scared away foreign investment and tourism, a large industry. In June, the New York Times quoted Hassan Mahmoud, a resident of a slum near Cairo, saying, “People are angry.” He had expected a better life after the revolution, but instead was laid off from his $10-a-day job in a souvenir factory. “People in the neighborhood are talking about going back to the streets for another revolution—a hunger revolution.” (“Egypt’s Economy Slows to Crawl, in Test to Revolt,” 6/10/11, p. A1) Moreover, the goods Egypt may buy and sell abroad are prescribed by its international trade agreements, the General Agreements on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organization. GATs also place many constraints on non-trade matters, curbing domestic reforms (see Our World is Not for Sale Network, https://web.archive.org/web/20110617234508/http://www.ourworldisnotforsale.org/).
The Libyan people in areas devastated by fighting are in dire need of immediate resources. According to Al Jezeera-English (www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2011/08/2011827223817990105.html, 8/27/11), the TNC is in a good position to get the country running again because of its oil, lack of debt, and frozen assets of $110-150 billion. Some of those assets are now being unfrozen and given to the TNC in order to rush humanitarian aid there. The money, however, cannot replace creating jobs and income in a country with up to 40% unemployment.
Perhaps if the revolutions go forward, they can create more possibilities for cooperative or public workplaces that produce for the internal market, but they are not likely to be able to compete extensively in the world market other than in oil. It will take revolutions all over the world to actually uproot capitalist production and start a sustainable new, human mode of producing.
The Middle Eastern uprisings have caused such a scenario to no longer sound like pie-in-the sky. The spread of revolutions throughout a supposedly benighted region, and the confluence of those rebellions with discontent all over the world, from the Americas to China, gives us hope that such an overthrow of the capitalist system could become possible.