Max Lane: Reflections on Libya

I have never read any book length or other in-depth studies on the history, politics or economics of Libya. The picture I have of the present developments in Libya is made up of a kind of collage of images, gathered from watching and reading the Australian and international mainstream media from the Melbourne Age to Qatar’s Al Jazeera to the New York Times’s International Herald Tribune. Additional information and images are layered over, or is it under, or is it around, this material as a result of scouring the dissident and progressive media for additional data and perspectives. Out of all this, and over the last few months, I become more confident that I have an idea of what is happening – but only insofar as a basic outline goes, and even then, only tentatively. Any perusal of left-wing mailing lists indicates there is a range of interpretations as well as stances among the left, ranging from outright support for the Libyan “rebels” and their NATO allies through to full defence of Kadaffi. One major problem I have had throughout this period is that I have no faith whatsoever in the mainstream media to tell the truth as to what has been happening. The media is, at the best of times, suspect, biased and unreliable, even on facts. But when capitalist governments in Europe, America or Australia are on a war footing, and the media is supporting these governments, the truth goes out the window even faster. John Pilger’s latest documentary “The War You Don’t See” showed starkly the extent of the lies and distortions that the media engages in, including media such as the BBC, when a capitalist government is at war. Yet, not only most of the initial public response, but much of the Left’s response to development’s in Libya relied on “information” blasted out precisely via this media.

Very early on, a column by Fidel Castro in the Cuban paper GRANMA warned that the truth about massacres by Kadaffi in the first days of demonstrations, including alleged aerial bombings of demonstrations, would not emerge for a long time. He also reminded his readers that Libya was different from many other middle eastern countries in that it had achieved good results on social and economic development, as measured by the United Nations Human Development index. He did this clearly in response to the mainstream media’s lumping the regime’s of Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya together as dictatorship’s that served the interests of tiny self-enriching elites. Many on the Left, including myself – but by no means everybody – had sympathetic memories of the popular economic and welfare policies of the early period of Kadaffi’s revolution. Heeding Castro’s warning, I checked a range of websites and found counter-reports for most accusations. Mainstream media reports alleged aerial bombings of demonstrations. Military spokespersons from Russia quoted on Russian TV stated that their satellite monitoring of Libya showed no aerial activity at all by Libyan planes on the days in question. Accusations of the use of mercenaries from other African countries, were countered with reports of significant numbers of black African Libyans being in the Libyan army and supportive of Kadaffi because of affirmative action policies in regards to non-Arab Libyans – in addition there were reports, including by US journalists, of the Benhengazi based ‘rebels’ detaining black African Libyans. In fact, anybody who spent even a minimum of time looking at the range of material available would see that there were counter-reports to most of the accusations being made by the war-supporting mainstream media.

Which were credible? Which were true?

In the TV coverage of the battle for Tripoli that is under way at the time of writing, the stark differences in different ways of reporting the war are very different. In the websites either sympathetic to Kadaffi and/or hostile to NATO, the analysis emphasizes – and very correctly, I think – that the NATO was bombing various targets on Tripoli almost up until the very last minute anti-Kadaffi forces entered Tripoli. I have hardly heard or seen a mention of it on the Australian TV news. Some ‘dissident’ website reports gives figures in the several thousands for the numbers of bombing sorties against Qadaffi supporters. And it has to be noted here that all those bombing sorties would be against targets that had no chance of defending themselves from the NATO air attacks. The critical, progressive or pro-Qadaffi analysis (not necessarily the same) argue that the anti-Kadaffi’s victory is artificial, in the sense that it would not have been possible without the massive NATO assistance.

How does one find one’s way through all this when it is pretty impossible for the distant observer to be sure about 90% of the facts? In the end, however, there are a few things which we can assess as true, and I think these are enough to take a basic stance, while leaving the efforts to prove in-depth analysis to those who have or who do develop a genuine expertise in the area.

As regards NATO we do know the historical record of the major NATO governments and know therefore that the criteria they use consistently for foreign military interventions is whether or not it advances the security of the economic interests of the various countries capitalist classes, either in the countries concerned, regionally or in the ideological sphere. The United States, the United Kingdom and France, for example, have a long record of shoring up dictatorships, including in the region. After Kaddafi himself softened his stance on economic cooperation with these classes, there was even an almost non-stop flow of capitalist leaders from the US and Europe visiting him in Tripoli or inviting him to Europe. Checking too on the different reports about the Organisation of African Unity’s attempts to facilitate a negotiated solution, one can’t help come to the conclusion that it was the NATO country’s very early demand that Kadaffi go – from Washingtin, London and Paris – and the indications (followed by real decisions) that they would recognize the “rebels” as the legitimate government of Libya made it possible for the “rebels” to refuse any negotiated settlement that would have saved the country the devastation it has now undergone.

As regards Libya itself, for myself, as a non-expert observer from a distance, relying on others’ research, it was a couple of indisputable facts about Kaddafi’s behavior that made it possible for me to have a clear stance, if not a clear analysis. One image which had some influence, but was not for me determinant, were the first video footages of a massive demonstration on the beach of Bhengazi, with the huge crowd sing-songing chants in Arabic. It will be one of the images of a mass gathering I will always remember. But the image was not enough to jump to conclusions about the nature of the rebellion. I know enough about history, and have experienced directly myself, how reactionary forces can also mobilize huge numbers behind reactionary or backward demands. As more and more interviews, both with leaders and the vox-pop with American and British accented Libyan rebel fighters, were screened over the weeks, it remained, for me, difficult to assess the political character of the anti-Kaddafi forces, except to say “mixed’ at the base, and pro-imperialist and neo-liberal at the top.

And Kaddafi? Well, here it is clearer for me, even if not in a detailed way. There were two major (and many minor) acts and statements that firmed up a basic, even if minimalist, picture. I will just comment on the two major ones. Early in the war, Kaddafi broadcast that he would arm the people to fight the Bhengazi based opposition. I think it is very clear that he never distributed weapons to the masses which he claimed supported him in the majority. I really don’t know whether there were foreign mercenaries or loyal Libyan soldiers fighting for him, but it seems clear that – on the whole, I did read one report of armed women villages attacking rebels – there was no significant arming of the people. Having stated that he would arm them, but then not doing so seems to depict a leader who does not trust the level of support he has among his own people. On top of that is the lack of serious political content – at least as far as the translated excerpts indicate – in his appeals to the people to fight his opposition. He appealed to an assumed level of support for himself (belied, I think, by his inability to arm the people) as representative of Libya and its people and a shallow branding of his enemy as “rats” for betraying Libya and siding with NATO. Well, despite the fact that there may indeed be many corrupt and self-seeking rats among the anti-Kadaffi leaders, there is no sign of him trying to lead a resistance built on a clear political base beyond personal loyalty (as his definition of patriotism).

Castro was definitely correct in pointing out that Libya’s historical experience and socio-economic achievements had been different from Tunisia and Egypt and Syria too. From the UN data alone, it is clear that the Libyan people had benefited more from their national wealth than in the other countries, especially during earlier decades. Some commentators, such as Pilger and also including Castro, have noted too that Kadaffi’s style of leadership reflects the Bedouin tradition of exaggeration and hyperbole. It is probably also true that Kadaffi, like many of the leaderships that consolidated their position in the fourties and fifties or even sixties, did so at a time when their economies were small, where there was little modern manufacturing and minimal capital accumulation – except where there was oil. “Ruling classes” were forged out of tribal, clan and military elite’s that were tiny and drew on pre-modern methods of rule, often based on family politics, mixed with modern military techniques. Meanwhile, their economies have grown. While they have grown nowhere near enough to be classified as prosperous national economies, still crunched and squeezed too as they are by imperialist capital, they have grown enough to create new elites, based in expanded manufacture and services, expanded professional classes, bigger moneyed diasporas in Europe, UK and the USA. Perhaps what we are seeing in the Middle East, including in Libya, are new elites aspiring to modern “western’style” bourgeois rule, rejecting the traditional, family based, arbitrary personalized rule of the elites that took power in the earlier period of their histories. Some will hanker after a system where there is a modern version of profiteers’ power; some among the professional layers may have illusions in the model based on “the West’s” own depiction of its democracy. And in everywhere in the 21st century world, where the whole world is aware of the material abundance concentrated among some in some countries, it is not surprising that the masses of the whole Arab world (as elsewhere) should also be increasingly discontented. And in the 21st world too, arbitrary, personalized family rule, which ultimately will always involve repression and violence, is out-of-date and more and more hated.

The pro-NAT0 “rats” who coordinated with foreign air-forces to drop thousands of bombs on their own cities or the arbitrary, personalized family rulership too afraid to arm its own supporters – which side am I on? Both have used demagogy to mobilize support among the masses. Well, from afar, I think: neither. And there was nothing I, nor the international Left, were in a position to do in support of one or the other. However, as far as the NATO participation goes, including the Australian government’s jingoistic support for it, I was and am opposed. It was blatant and violent intervention into another country’s affairs, setting a(nother) precedent for colonial style “regime change” wherever imperialism wants it and thinks it can get away with it. In addition, it repeats again the deepening, rotting moral phenomenon of imperialist cowardice. Tripoli (like Baghdad before it) was bombed from the air; it was a city and people completely unable to defend themselves. How many thousands of children had to listen the bombs burst and planes scream overhead for weeks. The city had no weapons that could reach the bombers. What do you usually call people who physically attack others than cannot defend themselves at all?

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