Hi all. After a long break I have resumed blogging, with three posts below that have been accumulating this year. First there is a comment on the Egyptian revolution, comparing the successful overthrow of Mubarak with the disastrous western intervention in Iraq (A tale of two Squares). Then there is a brief restatement of the history of the political philosophy of liberation from below, drawing on the history of the international workers movement (No Saviour from on High Delivers). Finally, these themes are brought together in a commentary ‘On the Libyan Tragedy’.
I have also updated a backlog of comments that had accumulated – both supportive and critical of the positions taken here – so let the debates resume!
The break from blogging since October signified something else – a return to ‘real life’ activism on my behalf. For it was in October that the anti-cuts movement took off in the UK. Since then I have been busy helping to organise local protests and meetings in my town – often hundreds strong – to defend public services. Time will tell if I can maintain both commentary and activism – and my day job – and my normal life!
The art of revolution entails two things – uniting the masses and dividing the ruling elites. This appears to have been behind the success in Egypt, where the army top brass calculated that its interests would best be served by abandoning Mubarak, given the threat that ordinary soldiers would side with the people on the streets. The urban masses of Cairo – one of the great cities of the world – had overcome religious and other divisions and suddenly stood millions strong. In Libya, the opposite has now happened.
The revolution that began a month ago on Feb 17th also had initial success. Not only did the youth lead the seizure of cities from Benghazi to the outskirts of Tripoli, but the revolt also began to split the regime, with sections of it coming over to the revolution – including state and military figures. By the end of February Gaddafi looked isolated and ready to fall.
But Libya is different from Egypt in two ways – firstly it has OIL fields and secondly its tribal divisions are deeper. So Gaddafi had always been able to use the oil wealth to buy support from sections of the masses and play off one tribe against another – a long game of divide and rule. This oil means another thing – the Western imperial powers will want to use any opportunity to assert their power to protect their substantial interests in Libya’s oil fields.
At the end of February we saw a change of tone from the western political leaderships. While they had been lukewarm about the Egyptian revolution, praising Mubarak as an ally and scaremongering that the revolution was really an ‘Islamicist takeover’, suddenly they found a new stridency over Libya. It was then that David Cameron began calling for the overthrow of Gaddafi, for a no-fly zone, for arming the rebels – and the SAS made their abortive intervention in Benghazi. While the revolutionaries of Benghazi kicked out the SAS and hung a banner prominently denouncing western interference, the damage was done.
This was a gift for Gaddafi. He could now credibly portray the revolution as a western imperialist plot while posing as the great ‘national hero’ and ‘anti-imperialist leader’. Western threats would inevitably and rally more support behind his regime. Cameron’s sabre rattling – rather than opening up further cracks within the ruling elites, would help cement Gaddafi’s teetering rule. Ruling elites throughout history have used fears of foreign invasion – real or imagined – to suppress dissent. But in the Arab world, which has long smouldered under the heel of western colonialism, such threats of western interference are political and cultural dynamite.
The joy of the Arab Spring of 2011 was that the masses would (even if only briefly) take the centre stage of history – acting for themselves. This act of revolution promised to overcome years of indignity and oppression meted out by both Arab rulers and their imperial overlords. Bush and Blair’s adventure in Iraq has lead to such a bloody disaster because liberation can never come from above, from a foreign army. In contrast to the unity and solidarity achieved on the streets of Cairo, post invasion Iraq saw only years of civil war and sectarian strife.
Now it looks like the imperial powers will get embroiled in Libya – even given the experience of the Iraq disaster showing the bankruptcy of so called ‘humanitarian interventionism’.
Now the tyrant Gaddafi is threatening to become the butcher of Benghazi. But can the powers that levelled Fallujah in 2004 save Benghazi in 2011? In Iraq’s Fallujah, the USA and UK forces suppressed a city-wide uprising – when ‘our side’ used chemical weapons such as white phosphorous and killed thousands of civilians. The western powers are no better than the tyrant Gaddafi – and they can be worse. 100,000’s died because of Bush and Blair’s invasion.
If the west intervenes in Libya it will be to secure its assets and interests there, especially around Oil. Most probably they will partition the country, between East and West – a Balkanised Libya, leading to bitter civil war. Tyranny will be strengthened – not democracy and freedom. This is the Libyan tragedy. The people of Libya are stuck now between a rock and a hard place – between the murderous Gaddafi regime – and the imperial greed of the west.
And the stench of hypocrisy rises pungently from every utterance of Cameron. For at the other end of the Middle East, the dictatorship in Bahrain is also using bloody force to crush a democratic revolution. And the forces of repression are being backed up by the pro-western absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia, armed by Britain. What do we do? The Queen is inviting the murderous and brutal King of Bahrain to London to the Royal Wedding! Why don’t they be even handed and invite the murderous Gaddafi as well? The palace garden party will be full of dictators, corrupt monarchs and war mongers – he will feel in good company.
Adding to the post below about the Middle East. The long story of winning democratic rights in Britain has given us a hard won experience – from the Chartists of the 1840’s to the struggle for women’s rights to vote at the beginning of the twentieth century. Liberation can only come from below – not from above. In 1864, the First International Workers Association declared in the opening lines of its founding statement ‘That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’. This political reality was then widely recognised. A verse from the 19th century working class anthem the ‘internationale’ famously declares that ‘No saviour from on high delivers’. No saviour from on high – especially raining bombs down from the sky – can liberate the working people.
Remember the famous media event in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq? When ‘the masses’ pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein? This was supposed to signify the ‘liberation of Iraq’ – a popular revolution. At first the media only showed us a close up. Later, long shots of the incident were published (reproduced below) which show that it was a tiny event stage managed for the world media. This helps explain why the aftermath of the invasion saw years of bloody civil war in Iraq, full of sectarian strife. There was no popular revolution from below – only a decapitation of the regime from above by an imperialist war machine.
Firdos Square during the famous toppling of the Statue of Saddam Hussein
A mass popular revolution achieves two things – not only can it bring down a tyrannical regime – but it also organises something to fill the vacuum. Civil society grows in a revolution – mass democratic organisations and associations emerge at the grassroots, able to unite the people. But none of this emerged out of the chaos of Bush and Blair’s ill advise Iraq adventure, and nor could it.
Now contrast the picture of Fardis Square, Baghdad in 2003 with pictures from Tahrir Square, Cairo in 2011. This is what a real revolution looks like – not a stage managed event – but the masses taking centre stage of history.
Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011 - the masses topple Mubaraks tyranny
Lets hope this revolution – liberation from below – can bring real democracy and equality for the people of Egypt – in a way that Bush and Blair’s war machine never could for the people of Iraq.