Qaddafi’s Overthrow: a “Blow to the Arab Spring”?
By Pham Binh
August 25, 2011
Not since the European revolutions of 1848 have revolutions spread with such speed and force. The Arab Spring brought more change to the Middle East and North Africa in less than a year than occurred there over several decades. Brutal dictators who seemed invincible were toppled in a matter of weeks in Tunisia and Egypt, protracted civil wars erupted in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, and the monarchy in Bahrain managed to survive only thanks to the political and material support it received from the Saudi monarchy and the U.S. government.
Muammar Qaddafi has joined the ranks of ousted dictators Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but not in the same way. In the case of Libya, the U.S. government and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies became intimately involved in toppling his tyrannical regime after some hesitation.
Some on the left who initially supported the Libyan rebellion argued that the involvement of the U.S. and NATO in Qaddafi’s ouster makes them the real winners in Libya, not the Libyan people. In doing so, they have come perilously close to the positions of groups like the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) who were “skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, the popular challenge to the Qaddafi regime that began with mass protests” as the International Socialist Review put it.
A recent editorial in the U.S. Socialist Worker newspaper described Qaddafi’s downfall in the context of NATO’s military intervention as a “blow to the Arab Spring” and argued that: “[t]he new government that will come to power in Libya won't answer to the people of Libya and their desire for democracy and justice. It will answer to imperialism – and that is a blow to the Arab Spring, which this year showed the world the hope of an alternative to oppression, violence and tyranny.”
These truisms apply equally to the post-Mubarak government in Egypt, which is a military dictatorship that uses force against protestors, outlaws strikes, continues its cozy relationship with Israel, and receives billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid. Clearly, the military junta running Egypt “answers to imperialism” and not the people, nor does it care about their desire for democracy and justice (in fact, it fears that desire). As with Libya, the U.S. became intimately involved in trying to get Mubarak out of office, albeit in a different form.
Even if Mubarak had stepped down under U.S. pressure instead of pressure from striking workers, no one would conclude that his overthrow was a “blow” to the Arab Spring.
Socialist Worker’s line of reasoning involves two errors: one is a failure to understand the Arab Spring and the other is a flawed view of the revolutionary process in the context of a world dominated by imperial powers like the U.S., China, Russia, Germany, Britain, France, and other nations.
The Arab Spring is a dynamic process of mobilization from below, counter mobilization from above, and political radicalization on a mass scale. This process is driven by material conditions, namely, the tremendous gap in wealth between the elites of the Arab and North African states and their populations on the one hand and the autocratic, repressive measures these states use to keep their populations in line on the other. It is not primarily a process driven by opposition to U.S. imperialism. This is why the uprisings did not stop at the borders of Libya, Syria, or Iran whose regimes were not friendly to the U.S. government but were just as economically polarized, brutal, and corrupt as their pro-U.S. neighbors.
The main loser of the Arab Spring process has been the U.S. government for the simple reason that there were far more pro- U.S. regimes in North Africa and the Middle East than anti-U.S. regimes. The U.S. lost close allies in Egypt and Tunisia, is opposed to the “wrong side” winning the civil war in Yemen, would welcome the end of Assad regime in Syria, and managed to turn the Libyan revolution to its advantage, but not exclusively so. As Richard Seymour who writes the Lenin’s Tomb blog noted: “[t]he government that now follows will be less oppressive and more democratic than the one it ousted.”
In other words, toppling Qaddafi was a step forward for Libya’s workers, students, and oppressed groups like the Berbers. They now have more space to organize unions, political associations, and struggles for what they need than they did under the decrepit Qaddafi dictatorship. This is a good thing and it should be celebrated, Socialist Worker’s admonitions notwithstanding.
If it wasn’t for the ongoing revolt, Qaddafi would still be in power today. NATO’s military might prevented the Libyan revolution’s physical destruction at Bengazi, played a decisive role in paving the way for its ultimate triumph in Tripoli, and corrupted the “normal” Arab Spring dynamic of mobilization, counter mobilization, and mass radicalization. That the U.S. government would manipulate and try to control a struggle against an adversary is unsurprising. What is surprising is socialists disowning a struggle because the U.S. moved to shape it or because the struggle’s leaders made political choices we find abhorrent.
The combination of a democratic revolution and imperialist intervention in conjunction with that revolution against their common enemy caused tremendous confusion on the left internationally: Marxist academic Gilbert Achcar initially supported U.S. military attacks on Libya; PSL denounced the rebellion and supported Qaddafi’s repression; Socialist Worker supported the rebellion prior to the intervention of NATO. Needless to say, this brief survey does not cover the range or nuances of positions expressed by various left currents, but it does show concretely how living revolutions pose new and challenging questions for us that make textbook responses inadequate at best.
The involvement of the U.S. military in Qaddafi’s ouster is both a symptom and a cause of tremendous problems for the Arab Spring process generally and for the people of Libya specifically. In Egypt, the military stood squarely behind Mubarak until general strikes by workers erupted in every industry and every town; this has not been repeated elsewhere. In Libya, the rebel leadership’s failure to mobilize the masses, particularly the workers involved with oil production and distribution in oil fields and at ports and sea terminals, meant that the struggle against Qaddafi was not a social struggle but a military one where he had the advantage, provided that outside powers did not step in. They did. He lost.
The question now is will Syria’s revolutionaries call for U.S. military intervention as their counterparts in Libya did instead of relying on mobilizing the social power of the working class as was done in Egypt? Will the U.S. exploit the difficulties of Syria’s revolutionaries to turn their democratic revolution into a win for itself, bolstering its domination of the oil-rich Middle East? Now that Qaddafi is gone, will the Libyan people force their new rulers to give them a greater share of the country’s tremendous oil wealth and democratic rights? How will they react to the integration of their country into the world capitalist system’s global race to the bottom for workers, a race that is rapidly hollowing out what is left of the American dream?
How these questions are answered by the tens of millions awakened by the Arab Spring remains to be seen. We in the West need to do what we can to keep the hands of our rulers off of other people’s revolutions, which means taking a stand against imperialist intervention even when it is disguised as aid to a beleaguered rebellion (John Reed was absolutely right when he said Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing). We also have to realistically appraise the mistakes and successes of the Arab Spring instead of disowning them totally when imperialist powers try to use them for their own advantage, something that is inevitably in an increasingly multipolar world.
Above all, the best thing we can is focus on organizing our own workers, students, and oppressed people to win whatever small gains we can. The accumulation of concrete victories, however small, is the only thing that can lead to our own desperately needed spring.
Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch, and International Socialist Review. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net