The Libyan Miscalculation
The Success of Revolutions That Do Not Succeed
NATO miscalculates and thrice fires on the Benghazi rebels. The NATO commanders blame this on a confused frontline. It is hard to distinguish, they say, between the Libyan rebels from the Libyan regulars. Libya is effectively partitioned between the west and the east.
Qaddafi remains in command of the west. His son, Saif-al-Islam told the BBC that his family is not keen on an exit to Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe or Venezuela. Saif, and his brother Saadi, have made an offer that their father might consider stepping down from a position he claims not to hold, as long as the sons can remain in some form of authority (Qaddafi pere conducted the remarkable feat of centralization of power in the name of de-centralization). Former US Congressman Curt Weldon apparently told Qaddafi that he might be made honorary chairman of the African Union, and that his sons might be permitted to run for office in a future Libyan election. The Benghazi rebels are aghast. This is not what they hoped for.
Humanitarian intervention's purpose was grander. Imagine if Richard Holbrooke went to Milosevic and permitted Mirjana Markovic (Slobodan's wife) to run for elections (as it turns out, Mirjana is now the leader of the Yugoslav Left, which does run in the Serbian elections). Qaddafi has used the Libyan oil money to finance the African Union (that money paid for the construction of homes for the African leaders who attended the Lusaka summit of 2001). They might put up with him in this honorary capacity, although this would be a disaster for whatever potential remains in the African Union.
Within the Qaddafi family, tensions simmer. Mutassim, Hannibal and Khamis prefer the gun, and their testosterone-laden histories rub against the more conciliatory tone from Saif and Saadi (Saif's conciliation is toward Europe and the U. S., not toward his own people as he demonstrated in his February 20 speech).
The slow advance of their rebellion is the cause of discord among the rebel leadership. The three main rebel military commanders cannot get along: Khalifa Hefter, who left Vienna, Virginia for Benghazi, does not seeeye-to-eye with the former interior minister General Abdul Fattah Younis and nor with Omar el-Hariri. Two of the rebel political leaders, Mahmoud Jibril(who worked closely with Saif-al-Islam on the privatization of Libya) and Ali Essawi (a former ambassador to India) remain in Europe, building support for their Council. But disagreements are rife, and the opening gambit for negotiation from Tripoli does not please anyone. Jibril and Hefter had grand aims, but not as grand as those of the human rights community.
The rebellion broke out on February 15, when the Libyan government arrested the 39-year old lawyer, Fateh Terbil. Terbil was freed, but is not in the front rank of the decision-makers. People like Terbil are sidelined. The closest thing to a representative of this strand is Ahmed Sadik El Gehani, a former legal consultant to the Qaddafi government, who is now busy drafting a Constitution for the new Libya. Negotiations with the Qaddafi regime, and family, are not palatable to them as well. But with the military stalemate the reasonable choice is to either begin negotiations with Tripoli for a mediated settlement or to declare the formation of Eastern Libya, a new country. If the latter, Egypt would have to recognize it immediately. So would Turkey. They hold the key.
The oil lands sit at the border between the two parts of the country, close to the shifting sands of the frontline, between Ras Lanuf and Brega. Whether there is a partition or a mediated settlement, there will need to be an understanding over both the stability of the oil and natural gas pipelines and for profit sharing between east and west. These are fraught matters, and not on the horizon of either side of the country.
Several years ago, a friend of mine was sitting with E. P. Thompson, the Marxist historian. My friend, Dilip Simeon (who has a lovely new novel called Revolution Highway), was bemoaning the limits of "bourgeois democracy." Edward Thompson, according to Dilip, asked him to stop using the word "bourgeois" before "democracy." It was giving Edward Thompson a headache. The phrase demeaned democracy.
The impact of revolutionary developments is hard to predict.
The counter-revolution crushed the revolts of 1848, but it could not break its spirit nor its dynamic. The culture of feudalism perished in its aftermath, broken by the rise of new social identities. "Our age, the age of democracy, is breaking," wrote Frederick Engels in February 1848. A worker, pistol in hand, went into the French Chamber of Deputies and pronounced, "No more deputies, we are the masters." The counter-revolution was fierce. "The bourgeoisie, fully conscious of what it is doing, conducts a war of extermination against them," Marx pointed out. Nonetheless, 1848 opened up a new social horizon, against bondage and subservience, and a mid-point of struggle between the promise of an earlier revolution (1789) and the possibility of a later one (the Paris Commune of 1871). Europe could not return to its age of the lash and powdered wigs. That time was gone.
So many other revolutions have had a similar impact, breaking the back of older forms of social claustrophobia, but not immediately inaugurating new forms of social freedom. Russia's 1905 and 1917 strengthened the will of anti-colonial movements; Gandhi, then a lawyer in South Africa, wrote of the Russian revolution of 1905, "The present unrest in Russia has a great lesson for us. The Russian workers and all theother servants declared a general strike and stopped all work," and "it is not within the power of even the Czar of Russia to force strikers to return at the point of the bayonet. For even the powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled." If the Russian workers and peasants could strike out against their autocrats, so could the Indians and the Indonesians, the South Africans and the Persians. Gandhi's idea of non-cooperation comes via St. Petersburg.
The national liberation movements of the Third World project emerged head held high in the 1920s, and then walked off the stage of history in defeat by the 1980s. And yet, here too, a legacy of colonial heavy-handedness was dispatched as the countries committed to the Project sought to redress problems that they felt only they could answer (along these lines, Fanon wrote in 1961, "The Third World today faces Europe like a colossal mass whose project should be to try to resolve the problems to which Europe has not been able to find the answers"). Rates of inequality in the Global South belie any successes from this project, and yet it is the formidable example of the Third World era that provides sustenance to so many struggles that germinate in the South.
Closer to our time, the global risings of 1968 from Tokyo to Mexico City, from Paris to Karachi seemed not to have made much of an impact. The revolutionary dreams of the workers and students lay squandered on the wayside as young people turned in their slogans and bohemianism for the lure of personal advancement. And yet, the social and political impact of 1968 is formidable, not the least of which is the new horizon set for gender relations and for race relations. Many of the '68ers might have migrated to the world of corporations, and that has been the great limit of that revolt, but nonetheless they have not been able to turn back the new commitments to social equality.
Tunisia and Egypt are poised for elections later this year. This is a major social shift in the Arab world. Of the many lessons that wehave to take from the USSR's experiment and that of the national liberation State's attempts is that they badly misjudged the importance of democratic yearnings and democratic institutions. Qaddafi certainly provided transfer payments to the Libyan population with the oil wealth, so that Libya's people enjoy high human development indicators (the past ten years, however, have seen a decline in these payments). But such payments are no substitute for social and political dignity, as the emirs of the Gulf are finding amongst their restive populations. Elections are no panacea, but they set a new foundation. More will be demanded. New forms of popular engagement, new public spaces, new democratic dreams that far exceed the rancid constraints of neo-liberalism.
The outcome in Libya is not clear-cut. Africom's General Carter Ham now says that even though U. S. ground troops would not be an ideal situation in Libya, it might be the only way to help the rebels. A prolonged military conflict of this kind would benefit the counter-revolution, since it would further weaken the hand of those who seek a political path forward, to build on the new social horizons created by the uprisings. Faced with the stalemate, those who only know war want more war. Others seek a ceasefire, negotiations and pathways to build on what have been achieved, which is considerable.
The Arab lands will not be the same again.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org