Thursday, September 1, 2011

Did NATO Kill The Libyan Revolution?

What do you say when a dictator is overthrown and the news shows pictures of people celebrating? That's easy, right? You feel good that the world is a slightly better place. But, then, what do you say if the dictator wasn't fundamentally defeated by those people - at least not alone - for all of their courage they needed the help of outsiders? You'd still probably feel like the defeat of a dictator was a good thing. However, what if those outsiders had a long and odious history of propping up dictators, invading countries and setting up repressive regimes, exploiting weaker nations and even crushing calls for democracy in their own backyard? You'd probably start to raise questions about why such people would help the struggle for democracy since they haven't demonstrated much interest in it themselves. It might lead you to ask what their real intentions were. If you thought about it a little more, it might also lead you to ask the question of who asked such dubious characters to enter the fray in the first place. These would all be legitimate questions and the answers wouldn't always be easy or uncomplicated but they have to be asked.

 All of which brings us back to Libya. There is a wide array of opinions that exists on the left - from the NDP, which supported the NATO intervention to those, like the Centre for Research on Globalization, which view Gaddafi in a positive light, as a liberator and the insurgency as a NATO plot top to bottom. Then there are those who acknowledge that having NATO involved is not ideal but argue that the overthrow of Gaddafi still constitutes a progressive revolution and contend that the role of NATO was not as important as some would suggest. Lastly, there are those, like myself, who argue that indeed the insurgency that shook Libya beginning February 17 was a very real, very grassroots revolt against a dictatorship; that it was part of the broader Arab Spring, which had seen dictators fall on Libya's eastern and western borders, Egypt and Tunisia, respectively. That uprising spread rapidly:
This was a mass popular uprising involving millions of people. Areas liberated from the regime put under popular control all the functions of the state, including prisons, the police and courts. Councils organised the distribution of food according to need, opened TV and radio stations, and issued revolutionary newspapers. Popular committees took over key installations such as electricity stations, the ports and other utilities. All the major liberated cities and towns are run by these revolutionary councils
However, Gaddafi's regime was able to move quickly to push back against the revolt, purging dissident elements from the army and the state with brutal swiftness. What's more, the sheer brutality of the Gaddafi regime in suppressing dissent and preventing the formation of any independent civil society, unions, etc. meant that there were no pre-existing networks of resistance that existed. Everything had to be made up from scratch. Except those networks of former regime officials who had come over to the revolution along with some military commander with their troops.

In the face of the forward rush of the revolution, the grassroots revolutionaries could have the upper hand in energy and sheer numbers. But when the dash westwards by Benghazi's young and disorganized revolutionaries was halted and then pushed back, it was the organization of former regime officials and military officers who had the experience to hold things together. They gained the upper hand in the National Transitional Council (NTC), which brought together representatives from across the country. And while the initial political inclinations of the revolution were decidedly anti-imperialist - with a giant banner in liberated Benghazi demanding no foreign intervention - when the revolution was put on the back foot, the former regime officials, people like Mahmoud Jibril and Mustafa Jalil, looked not to spreading and deepening the revolution to accelerate the continuing disintegration of the Libyan state but to a no-fly zone and air strikes as well as international recognition. In one sense, one can hardly blame them, the revolution was truly under siege but calling in NATO and the Gulf monarchies would have it's own price, which became clear right away.

On March 10 France recognized the NTC. On the same day, the NTC announced that it would respect all of the oil contracts. The next day Cameron & Sarkozy released a joint statement calling for a no-fly zone. The day after that the Arab League - under pressure from Saudi Arabia, which had reached a deal with the US to back a no-fly zone in Libya in return for the US turning a blind eye to its counter-revolutionary invasion of Bahrain - made the same call. On March 17 a UN resolution passed, paving the way for intervention.  It's also worth noting that the Qatari monarchy - which bans political parties, unions, etc - recognized the NTC on March 27, the day after the NTC signed an oil contract with them.
Qatar's recognition of the rebel council comes just a day after a senior rebel official said that Qatar Petroleum had agreed to market crude oil produced from east Libyan oil fields no longer under the control of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader... Manouchehr Takin, from the Centre of Global Energy Studies, told Al Jazeera that the deal, if confirmed, would be "a landmine, legally speaking". "Is this council representing the Libyan people? Only two countries have accepted that. Whether we like it or not, the Tripoli government, by the United Nations, is [still] the legitimate and sovereign government," he said.
There was also infighting going on within NATO as countries fought over the potentially significant spoils of Libya's oil fields. Italy in particular was outraged when France tried to circumvent NATO entirely and itself lead the air war against Gaddafi. The reason was clear enough - ENI is a major Italian company and is the largest foreign presence in the Libyan oil fields. Italy thus accused France of wanting to get in on the action:
Meanwhile the head of the Italian Senate's defence affairs committee, Gianpiero Cantoni, said the original French anti-NATO stance was motivated by a desire to secure oil contracts with a future Libyan government.
Eventually, by mid-April NATO seemed to have gotten its act together and was stepping up air attacks, in particular around Misurata to break Gaddafi's siege and then to provide air support for the rebel advance out of the city. Meanwhile, in the Nafusa mountains, the French were air dropping weapons and the rebels were receiving intensive training.

The Tripoli Brigade, as they called themselves, had trained for four months in Libya’s western mountains with French, American and Qatari special forces for this moment.
The article continues with a detailed description of events leading up to Operation Mermaid Dawn, NATO's name for the assault on Tripoli.

With Nato drones overhead, beaming real-time images of the ground in front of them, rebels advanced in the wake of more bombing raids. Jets were called in by special forces, acting as forward air controllers, to attack Gadaffi’s tanks and command centres. Rebels fed back information using satellite phones supplied by Britain and France, bringing more bombs down on ammunition stores and communications facilities.
Members of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, experts in covert intelligence gathering, were part of the 30-strong British special forces team. They linked with their French counterparts at Zuwaytinah, the command headquarters for the eastern front, 90 miles southwest of Benghazi.
The French troops are believed to be members of the Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS), which draws from the elite parachute regiments of the French army.
In the air Nato sharpened its information gathering by deploying RAF Sentinel aircraft which can use radar imagery to track the smallest vehicle from 100 miles away. They overflew the battle zones, mapping the positions of Gadaffi forces.
The article goes on to describe how rebels inside of Tripoli aided the assault by studiously targeting snipers on the tops of buildings and, on the day of the assault, sneaking up on them with butcher knives and meat cleavers. The overall picture that emerges is not one that fits neatly into a narrative that paints the rebels as NATO pawns - as those who support Gaddafi have suggested. But it is also clear that it was NATO that was setting the terms of the progress of the war and of the final assault on Tripoli. This hierarchy continues in the soon to be launched assault on Sirte - NATO planes are bombing Gaddafi installations, tanks and artillery pieces to "soften up" the enemy while rebel troops assemble ready to attack when the enemy is too weak to resist much. But NATO and the rebels are fighting for different things.

One of the interesting things about the rebel fighters on the ground and the NTC is the role of Islamists in the fighting forces. At present the military commander of Tripoli is a long standing jihadi named Abdelhakim Belhaj who was a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and who fought against the Soviets as a mujahideen in the 1980s. He was associated with al Qaeda though eventually broke with them. He was arrested by the Americans at one point and sent back to Libya under the extraordinary rendition program, jailed and tortured - reportedly under the supervision of the CIA. In 2010 Belhaj and his comrades signed a book length recantation of their beliefs in order to be released from prison by Saif al-Islam in a public relations exercise to demonstrate Libya's ability to rehabilitate Islamist terrorists. It is men like Belhaj with extensive experience and training in guerilla warfare who are now leading rebel fighters.

However, the dominant forces inside the rebel political leadership are the former regime elements. The president and prime minister of the provisional government are formerly high-ranking officials in the Gaddafi regime. Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister, was responsible for privatizing Libyan state assets as the head of the National Economic Development Board. Mustafa Jalil was the Minister of Justice.

Some of those who believe that the overthrow of Gaddafi constitutes a revolution against the Gaddafi regime and a continuation of the Arab Spring point to these sorts of disjunctures between the NTC and other factions within the rebels, whether between the military and political leadership, or between the Misurata leadership council and the NTC, to point out that the spirit of the revolution is still alive. That is undoubtedly true. People didn't fight and die because they wanted to help NATO countries strengthen their hold over Libyan oil, or to gain control of the Arab Spring or to strengthen their strategic position in Africa. But to say this is entirely to miss the bigger point that the forces at work and their agendas are more powerful than the relatively dispersed, guerilla type networks of rebels. What's more these are not large forces. The Tripoli Brigade that stormed the capital only has 1,300 soldiers. The actual fighting force of the rebels is unclear with different numbers on different Wikileaks pages but the fact that the storming of Tripoli involved perhaps as few as 4,000 rebel soldiers gives an indication of its size.

 To think that such a tiny force - even if we add untrained volunteers to boost the numbers - could stand against NATO, which had just decimated the trained and well armed military force of the Libyan government is sheer foolishness. But it wouldn't even have to come to this extreme solution. The tiny military force lacks the national political capabilities that are controlled by the NTC as a result of their alliance with NATO and, now the growing financial power of the provisional government. Already, the UN, UK, France, Spain, the US and some Gulf monarchies are releasing billions of dollars in previously frozen Gaddafi funds to the NTC. And in a powerful symbol of the nature of the relationship, the first tranche of money was flown to Libya in a British fighter jet. The Canadian government, which froze aid to Palestine after Hamas was democratically elected in the Gaza Strip, is also looking to release money to the NTC as soon as possible. Meanwhile, eager to help the NTC spend all their newfound money, a conference for "Friends of Libya" will be held today in Paris. What is the purpose of the conference?

While officials are adamant Thursday is about securing political stability in Libya and doing things differently than in Iraq, French companies are planning a trade mission to get a head start on reconstruction contracts.
As well as big prospects for developing oil drilling, the end of the six-month conflict will open up big opportunities for infrastructure, construction, electric power, telecoms, water and tourism companies who are keen to challenge the privileged position enjoyed by Italian firms under Gaddafi's long rule.
The NTC has said those who took a lead role in backing their revolt will be rewarded.
I have discussed previously how China might react to being shut out of Libya. China has been pushing very aggressively into Africa and its competitive investment model has sidelined older big powers like the USA. There is no doubt that NATO's intervention into Libya is about pushing back against China - and China has made clear that it too will push back to defend its interests. This holds the danger of militarizing the new scramble for Africa, leading to more wars and more dictators, not less.

What's more, perhaps one of the most important political impacts of NATO's involvement was the conservatizing influence it has had on the politics of the struggle. In the early days there were reports of rebels undermining the state by radicalizing it - reaching out to conscript soldiers to join the uprising, setting up revolutionary councils, engaging in mass action, etc. But with the retreat of the revolution and the growing power of conservative elements in the NTC, this changed opening the door to reactionary politics, like the anti-black African racist killings by rebels that have emerged.

The dominance of relatively conservative elites and the absence of countervailing pressures skewed the politics of the rebellion. We hear of "the masses", and "solidarity". But masses can be addressed on many grounds – some reactionary. There are also many bases for solidarity – some exclusionary. The scapegoating of black workers makes sense from the perspective of elites. For them, Libya was not a society divided on class lines from which many of them had profited. It was united against a usurper inhabiting an alien compound and surviving through foreign power. Instead, the more success Gaddafi had in stabilising his regime, the more the explanation for this relied on the claim that "Gaddafi is killing us with his Africans ".
A further, unavoidable twist is the alliance with Nato. The February revolt involved hundreds of thousands of people across Libya. By early March the movement was in retreat, overseas special forces were entering Libya, and senior figures in the rebellion called for external intervention. Initially isolated, they gained credibility as Gaddafi gained ground. As a result, the initiative passed from a very large popular base to a relatively small number of armed fighters under the direction of the NTC and Nato. It was the rebel army that subsequently took the lead in persecuting black workers.

There is about to be a big scramble for contracts and Jibril, a professional neo-liberal, is likely to continue the process of privatizing state assets. If there is a rapid move to a shock doctrine model of "reconstruction" workers in Libya could see a precipitous drop in their living standards - up till now one of the highest on the continent. The exact nature of the political settlement is unclear as different factions jostle for power and influence. It's still early days. The influence of the Islamist militias has already been recognized in the draft constitution, which defines sharia as the principle source of legislation. Of course, that can mean almost anything depending on interpretation. What will be key is the balance of forces.

In Egypt, where the Mubarak military structure maintained its control, they have resisted all moves towards democratization beyond the most superficial. However, the revolution in Egypt was never derailed by the intervention of imperialism and was led from the bottom up, drawing upon a decade or more of growing activism in labour and civil society. In Libya, the more revolutionary elements were sidelined once NATO became involved. They now face not only their own version of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - in the form of the NTC and NATO - they do so with a much weaker alternative source of leadership, a lack of civil society organizations, labour unions, etc. If the NTC feels confident to put a recent Gaddafi lackey in charge of Tripoli within hours of setting up shop and with the militias still armed, what will it do once they are disarmed and demobilized or integrated into a national army?

There is a reason why the touchstone for politicians about what not to repeat is Iraq. What bothers them is not the invasion and killing of hundreds of thousands. No, they realized what a mistake it was to dismantle the Ba'athist state. As much as possible the Gaddafi state structure will be preserved. NATO intervened in part precisely to prevent the Libyan revolution from radicalizing and establishing an organizational basis for that radicalization. They don't want any more Tunisias or Egypts were the labour insurgencies continuing to push forward the revolution after the dictator's face has been removed from billboards and airports. NATO - and the Gulf Cooperation Council - wants regimes it can do business with, regimes that are loyal and, if necessary, regimes that will put their own populations in place. In the coming days, the NTC will move as quickly as possible to achieve the goal of a stable, business friendly nation. And don't be surprised if that includes a western military presence.
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