Boris Kagarlitsky: Reflections on the Arab revolutions

By Boris Kagarlitsky, translated from Russian by Renfrey Clarke

November 28, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- “Turning-points in the history of humanity,” a contributor to the left-wing Algerian newspaper Le Matin observed in the summer of 2001, “are never simple for contemporaries to understand. Rarely are people able fully to assess the significance of these episodes, or their consequences. The developments concerned do not proceed in the manner, or at the time and place, that people expect. The early years of the twenty-first century have seen this rule reaffirmed. During this time, new and increasingly powerful trends have been mingled with the heritage of the past, dragging us back. History, however, operates through these new forces, which gradually but inevitably will succeed in overcoming the inertia of the past.” (1)

The Arab revolutions of 2011 came as a surprise to many people, including left analysts, who expected and predicted social and political shocks everywhere, from Latin America to Eastern Europe, except in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. These events, however, were not historical accidents (in history, nothing on this scale happens by chance), but were the logical and natural results of earlier developments. The effect of surprise was due to the fact that the societies of the Middle East had been kept under heavy pressure by authoritarian regimes that did not allow any serious mass protests; in outside observers, this created an impression of graveyard-like tranquillity. This very stability, however, was the precursor to an explosion of extraordinary force. Tightening the lid of repressive police rule on the boiling cauldron of Arab societies, the ruling classes unknowingly guaranteed that social pressures would blow this lid to pieces.

Another reason for the confusion among the analysts lay in the relatively favourable figures for indices of economic and even social development. Gross domestic product kept growing right up until the outbreak of the world crisis, levels of education were improving, and achievements had also been registered in the areas of housing construction, public transport, and social security. The only problem was that the statistics, while recording certain quantitative improvements, concealed an accumulation of systemic contradictions and even structural decline in the economy.

The crisis of 2008 not only brought a sharp rise in food prices, creating an unprecedented social crisis on what might have seemed a level space. It also revealed numerous problems which along with everything else proved that the development strategies chosen by most of the governments in the region, and considered relatively successful in the 1990s, had finished up in a dead-end.

Liberals and dictators

The neoliberal reconstruction of capitalism that took place in the 1980s and 1990s was accompanied by a shift of production and jobs from Europe to countries where cheap labour power was available. From this angle, the prospects for the countries of North Africa seemed bright. Not only were wages low, but significant numbers of the population spoke European languages. In this situation, the governments of Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt seemed justified in deciding to develop education systems capable of raising the quality of labour power and of making these countries more attractive to foreign capital. Prospects in Libya, where the income from oil sales created additional possibilities for industrialisation, also looked promising.

Geographically these countries were close to Western markets, and many of them possessed their own raw materials and energy bases. Even Egypt, which did not have large oil reserves, was located not far from energy sources, and thanks to the Aswan Dam which had been built with Soviet help, had an abundance of cheap hydroelectric power. The infrastructure of all the countries in the region was in reasonable condition. For investors, the dictatorial regimes were an attraction, guaranteeing stability and preventing problems from arising with public criticism, environmental bans, trade unions and strikes. The only more or less obvious risk factor was the Islamist movement, whose influence was gradually increasing. This movement, however, was the target of systematic repression by the apparatus of the various states.

The most dramatic events occurred in Algeria, where in December 1991the initial round of the first multi-party elections was won by the Islamic Salvation Front. The armed forces did not wait for the second round, but cancelled the voting, forcing President Chadli Bendjedid to resign. The Islamic Salvation Front was banned, and its supporters went into hiding. A civil war began, and lasted for almost a decade. Both sides showed extreme ruthlessness, with neither sparing the peaceful population. Eventually, the Algerian security forces managed to smash the Islamist resistance. The authorities also conducted a purge of the clergy, removing radical imams from the mosques. After winning the election of 2004, new president Abdelaziz Bouteflika felt confident enough to risk declaring a partial amnesty.

From the first years of the new century, the struggle against the Islamists was accompanied by growing integration of the security forces of the region with Western intelligence services. The local organs not only served the interests of the American and European security organisations, but also sought and received their assistance in the struggle against internal enemies. How intensive this collaboration was can be judged from documents of the Libyan security police that have been released since the revolution in that country.

Soon after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, the London Independent published the story of one of the most influential rebel military leaders, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj. The newspaper related in detail how Belhaj had been abducted by the Americans in Asia and had been tortured by agents of the CIA, who had then handed him over to their Libyan colleagues for further torture in the notorious Abu Salim prison. When a British journalist asked Belhaj whether his attitude to the US had changed now that the Americans had become allies of “free Libya”, the rebel commander replied curtly, “It is hard to forgive such things.” (2) After a few days the Libyan press reported that the British had “declined to make any apology” and that Belhaj had announced his intention to sue Her Majesty’s intelligence forces in the London courts. (3) Another Libyan Islamist, Sami al-Saadi, suffered a similar fate, being handed over as a gift to the Tripoli regime’s security service before Prime Minister Tony Blair made his trip to Libya as a guest of the colonel. (4)

Under an agreement with Italy and the European Union, the Libyan navy patrolled the African coast, intercepting illegal migrants trying to reach Europe. Thousands of people intercepted in this fashion were thrown into “filtration” camps, where they remained for months and years without prosecution or trial. All this was common knowledge, but did not arouse the indignation of the West. “And why,” an Algerian newspaper asked ironically, “would this upset them? The main thing was that the ‘African hordes’ did not make it to the shores of Europe.” (5)

Following the capture of Tripoli by the rebels, secret documents of the CIA and the British security services were carried out of the shattered building of the Libyan security police in whole packets. The correspondence bore witness to intensive, extremely friendly collaboration between the Libyan and American security forces. Also in the documents were mentions of collaboration with Israel. British secret agents were shown to have been involved in undercover operations by the Libyan regime, aiding it in its struggles with opponents, exchanging information with it and helping to train soldiers of the notorious Hamis Brigade, noted for its particular savagery in combating the rebels. Diplomatic correspondence, no less scandalous in its implications, came to light as well. The British themselves were responsible for the leaks, since Foreign Office personnel fled the Libyan capital in such panic and haste that they abandoned their entire archives, including secret files. This shows once again how lacking the Western powers were in any planned and considered strategy toward North Africa.

The history of Western arms shipments to Libya is also striking; according to the Daily Mail, Great Britain in 2007 signed a contract to supply military and police equipment worth £5 million. Subsequently, the newspaper relates, London “sold arms worth tens of millions of pounds to Gaddafi’s regime.” (6) The Daily Telegraph provides more detailed figures, though the journalists admit that these too are incomplete. The firm General Dynamics UK, a subsidiary of the US transnational, alone supplied the Libyans with communications equipment worth £79 million. In addition, Her Majesty’s government issued licences for the sale to Libya of armaments worth £21.7 million, including for the supply of small arms and ammunition, aircraft spare parts, armoured vehicles and military electronics.

Other countries of the European Union tried not to fall behind the British. Germany issued licences for sales, mainly of armoured vehicles, worth £47 million in British currency; France, for sales of £20.6 million; and Belgium for £19 million. Along with the armaments came shipments of police equipment, especially for breaking up demonstrations. In 2009 alone, the overall worth of military supplies from the countries of Europe reached £293.2 million; of this sum, £67.9 million was for some reason paid to Malta, which does not have an arms industry. This latter amount was evidently for the re-export of weapons which for some reason could not be acquired through official channels. (7) While the Libyan army and police were rearming vigorously, Russia was steadily being forced out of this market, though it continued to supply the Gaddafi regime with ageing tanks and with spare parts for Soviet-era aircraft.

The colonel received his final weapons shipments in late January 2011, a few days before popular protests began; the firearms involved were sniper rifles, which were used freely by supporters of the regime in combat against rebel fighters, and also for killing journalists and opposition activists. These developments made a particular impression on Russian military chiefs and politicians, who after the Libyan events decided to begin large-scale purchases of sniper rifles in the West, anticipating disturbances in Russia along the lines of the “Arab scenario”. As President Dmitry Medvedev nodded approvingly, General Nikolay Makarov explained that “the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have shown that the Russian Army needs to be ready in case the situation in our country develops in especially adverse fashion.” (8)

Because weapons do not fire themselves, the Western security services had to train their Libyan colleagues, especially snipers from the very same Khamis Brigade. In the best traditions of commercial advertising, the commanders of Britain’s SAS special forces therefore promised Gaddafi that they would “provide quality assurance”. (9) The supplying of weapons continued right up until the United Nations Security Council resolution banned armed shipments to Libya. The British must be given their due; even in February, when the repressive Gaddafi regime had already been condemned on an official level, they still managed to send the dictator ammunition worth £64,000. (10) In November 2011 the Canadian National Post published an interview obtained by Gary Peters with one of Gaddafi’s security agents; the interview made clear that even after the Western intervention had begun, employees of private military firms carried on working for the Libyan dictator, who “employed Western security specialists, some from Canada.” (11)

Following the capture of Tripoli by revolutionary military units, once-secret documents appeared on the front pages of the British press. While some of these materials inspire revulsion, others are quite comic. We learn, for example, that London conducted a secret correspondence with Tripoli on a request by Prime Minister Tony Blair to be photographed with Gaddafi against a background of a Bedouin tent: “I don’t know why the English are fascinated by tents. The plain fact is that the journalists will love it,” a member of British intelligence remarked to an Arab colleague. (12) The Libyans graciously agreed, and the photo session took place.

There is no reason to suppose that the intelligence services of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and other Arab countries were less active than their Libyan colleagues in collaborating with Britain, the US and Israel. Traces of these contacts are to be found in the same Libyan documents that came to light during the revolution. The only difference is that in Libya the revolutionary process went much further in smashing the old apparatus of state repression than in the neighbouring countries, and the secret archives were subjected to glasnost on a massive scale.

It should be recognised that on a technical level the work of the security forces and repressive apparatus proved totally effective. By the middle of the first decade of the new century the situation in most countries of the region seemed completely stable; the opposition forces, both Islamist and secular, were incapable of making any serious challenge to the state. And if revolutions happened anyway, this merely testifies to the fact that there are historical forces with which even the most vicious police cannot cope.

Growth without development

In the early 21st century, the dynamic of economic development has turned out to be quite different from what was forecast. Economic growth has continued, but on the whole, the industrial upturn observed in the final years of the last century has come to a halt. The reason for this has been the rapid rise of China, which has transformed itself into the “planetary assembly shop” and “workshop of the world”. Traditionally, it used to be accepted that Chinese competition was causing massive job losses in the West, but the actual situation is sharply different. Over the past decade the processes of deindustrialisation in the West have basically run their course, and the Chinese miracle has tended rather to stimulate job creation in machine-building, electronics and other sectors that have developed in a close symbiosis with Chinese industry.

In the countries of the periphery, by contrast, huge job losses have occurred under the blows of Chinese competition. An indication is provided by the fate of the textile industry in Morocco. After developing rapidly in the 1990s, this industry has since gone into slow decline. Even experts from the World Trade Organisation, who had been extremely optimistic in their assessments, were forced by the middle of the following decade to recognise that in North Africa, despite a broadening of ties with European markets, “employment has stagnated or declined in the textile sector in these countries.” (13)

China’s advantage lies not in the cheapness of its labour power, but in the numbers of the Chinese workforce. No country, not even India, is able to organise cheap production on the same scale. It is not surprising that in these circumstances industrial development in the countries of North Africa has been blocked, and in many cases even reversed. Numerous enterprises have shut down, and whole sectors, from textiles to the production of souvenirs, have gone into decline.

Satisfactory figures for gross domestic product have hidden a real problem, well known to economists since the 1970s – “growth without development”. Investment, which has gone mainly into tourism and services, has served to devalue the education provided by state-run schools and universities. Oriented since the late 1980s at industrialisation, the education system has continued to pour into the labour market growing numbers of qualified people whose skills no-one needs. Education is a system with a good deal of inertia, and politically as well, there has been no possibility of turning back. While the cultural value of education has remained high, and the number of people trained to a respectable European level has continued to grow, the real economic value of this education (and correspondingly, the life chances of those who possess it) has fallen rapidly.

The spread of mass education has everywhere been accompanied by a lowering in the social status of educated people. This process occurred at a particular stage both in the West and in the Soviet Union. To a significant degree, it aided the spread of left-wing views among European students in the 1960s and of critical, dissident moods in the Soviet intelligentsia. In Europe, the development of the education system outstripped the economy, but in the countries of North Africa the situation is proving even more dramatic – the structural evolution of the economy is in direct contradiction to the dominant trends in the system of education.

The “superfluous people” of the neoliberal system are top-class engineers working as tourist guides, young scientists who have become translators in hotels, and geologists who have taken jobs as restaurant mangers. Such people are typical figures in the everyday economic life of the Arab world in the early twenty-first century. In many ways this mass disqualification of experts recalls the processes in the countries of the former Soviet Union, with the difference that in North Africa this is not occurring against a background of demographic slump, but at a time when the population keeps getting younger. As an American journalist has put it, a generation with “dead-end jobs and high hopes” (14) has appeared on the scene.

The crisis of 2008 laid bare the structural contradictions of the system, turning economic disproportions into social conflicts. The attempt by the US to save its banking sector through pouring in huge quantities of unsecured money led to an explosion of speculation in commodity markets. Food prices soared throughout the Middle East. In January 2011 popular disturbances broke out in Algeria and Tunisia, then spread to Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. In Algeria the government managed to fend off the wave of popular anger by combining concessions with acts of repression, but in Tunisia the power of President Ben Ali crumbled. Then it was Egypt’s turn. Many days of stand-off between the police and the popular masses who had occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo ended when Hosni Mubarak was driven from office.

The Arab world was seized by democratic euphoria. Freedom of the press, honest elections, the right to form political parties – all these principles became norms of social existence just as self-evident in the Middle East as in Western Europe. The kings of Jordan and Morocco were quick to begin democratisation from above, rather than waiting for the process to impose itself from below. A wave of popular struggle continued to sweep across the region. Iran, Libya and Syria were now gripped by protests. In Iran the authorities managed to cope with the discontent relatively easily. In Syria the obstinacy of the regime led to a bloody, drawn-out conflict between masses of unarmed protestors and the repressive organs of the state. But unlike the situation in Tunisia and Egypt, these organs showed no signs of demoralisation and decay; the army and police stayed loyal to the regime, keeping their unity and effectiveness.

In Libya, however, events took a quite unexpected turn. From the very first days of the revolution, the regime and its military-repressive apparatus split into supporters and opponents of change. Colonel Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for 42 years, showed not the slightest willingness to make concessions, and succeeded in consolidating enough supporters around his regime to allow it to resist the rising tide. What began in Benghazi and Tripoli on 17 February as a peaceful, Tunisia-style revolution turned quickly into a civil war that dragged on for many months and cost the country thousands of lives. Gaddafi’s rigid position served as a signal to other Arab rulers who had kept control of the situations in their countries. The authorities in Bahrain launched harsh reprisals against the demonstrators who had occupied Pearl Square in the capital. In Syria the regime of Bashir Assad, after wavering between repression and concessions, hardened its position. Troops were sent into cities that had been gripped by disorders.

The events in Libya not only transformed the political “scenario” of the Arab revolutions, but also sowed confusion in the ranks of the left (more so in Europe, it is true, than in the Middle East). The ideological bewilderment intensified when the French air force came to the help of the rebels in Benghazi, and when collective intervention by NATO followed.

The discussion on Libya that has unfolded among leftists in Russia and Western Europe has not only provided dramatic proof of the extremely superficial grasp which most of the participants have had of the real situation in the North African country. Also clear from the discussion are the personal moral and theoretical dilemmas which members of the radical intelligentsia confront, and their general unpreparedness to grapple with the realities of political struggle.

Meanwhile, and as often happens, the “exceptional character” of Libya has emerged not in the violation of general trends and principles of the revolutionary process, but on the contrary, in the fact that these tendencies and laws have been manifested there in an exceedingly sharp, even extreme form. As the left-wing Algerian newspaper Le Matin notes, the development of all nationalist regimes has proceeded along similar lines, and “Libya conforms completely to this logic, especially if we take into account the close relations between Gaddafi and the Americans.” (15)

In power for more than four decades, the Gaddafi regime underwent the same evolution we observe in other Arab countries, but these changes and shifts from left to right took on a grotesque form because of the personal idiosyncrasies of the extravagant dictator. In no way, however, does this negate the overall logic of events, about which there was nothing unique. At the time when Muammar Gaddafi seized power, the entire Arab East was experiencing an upsurge of nationalism, framed in ideological terms as a sort of “national version” of socialist transformation. It was not only in Egypt, Iraq and Syria that the ruling elites declared their intention to construct socialism; even in Tunisia, where President Bourghiba was totally loyal to the West, left-wing rhetoric in the spirit of European social democracy was employed freely.

The anti-imperialist course of the Arab governments that were seeking to overcome the remnants of colonial dependency was supported on the technical, political and military levels by the Soviet Union. The Gaddafi regime in Libya immediately took up a position on the extreme left flank of the general process, and maintained this stance for at least two decades. Meanwhile, the colonel’s policies were not limited to anti-imperialist rhetoric, to supporting the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, or in some cases to assisting radical terrorist groups with which Moscow was reluctant to deal. Gaddafi initiated reforms that led to a real democratisation of decision-making at the neighbourhood level; this was the essence of his “people’s jamahiriya”.

The dramatic rise in oil prices in 1973 and 1974 put substantial sums of money at the regime’s disposal, allowing it to fund social programs. In a country with a relatively small population, it became possible to substantially improve the quality of life for most citizens. Medicine became one of the regime’s priorities. Progress in education, though, was less marked, and this lag made its effects felt in the health-care sector. While building first-class hospitals, the government in 42 years did not succeed in staffing them with local medical personnel of corresponding quality; people were treated by Russians, Egyptians and Bulgarians, whom they preferred to Libyan doctors. This situation contrasts sharply with the experience of Cuba, where the Communist government not only provided all the country’s citizens with a high standard of health care, but with Soviet help also trained its own professional medical staff, who have a superb world reputation.

Nevertheless, the oil income brought real change to Libya, which from being a poor country of backward tribes was transformed increasingly into a modern, urbanised society, integrated on a national basis. The unified education system and the transfer of government employees between East and West helped overcome the historic rift between the two parts of the country, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica; a common Libyan identity came into being. These same achievements, however, prepared the way for an inevitable conflict between an increasingly modernised society and the authoritarian regime, which through its own successes became more and more an anachronism. (16)

As so often happens, the ruling group responded to the challenges of change not by allowing democratisation, fraught with the risk of losing control over the situation, but by tightening the screws. Meanwhile, the consolidation of power in the hands of Gaddafi himself as “national leader” was accompanied by a steady narrowing of the social base of the regime, which rested increasingly on loyal tribes and clans that had benefited from the distribution of jobs, resources and incomes. The contradiction grew between a society that was undergoing modernisation and a regime that was becoming more and more archaic.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory of the West in the Cold War brought about a new situation that led the Gaddafi regime to a sharp ideological and geopolitical change of course. Long before the disintegration of the USSR, the elites in every country of the Arab world had lost their anti-imperialist passion. The leader in this process was Egypt, once the head of the anti-imperialist camp but which after the 1973 war with Israel reoriented itself toward the United States.

After 1991 Gaddafi, who had sensed the general trend, flung himself with characteristic radicalism and extravagance from the extreme left flank to the right. For the regime in Tripoli the Gulf War, during which the Americans routed the Iraqi army that had invaded Kuwait, became a turning-point. The rhetoric of the Green Book, which proclaimed the “uniqueness” of the Libyan regime’s ideological and social foundations, provided perfectly for such unprincipled shifts.

Taking account of the dismal experience of the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad, Colonel Gaddafi set out on the road of privatisation and liberal economic reform. Commentators in the Russian press who in 2011 discussed the prospect that after the Western intervention Libya’s oil would begin to be divided up did not even get around to explaining the real situation – that the deposits, the prospects and the productive infrastructure had already been divided up between Western corporations in the 1990s. The vast income from oil exports was being redistributed in line with the priorities of the new economic policy – fewer and fewer of the funds were being invested within the country, and exports of capital were growing rapidly. Libyan companies were investing money in Europe, buying up shares and financing expensive large-scale projects. The profits from this activity were placed on account in Western banks, never going anywhere near Libya.

Meanwhile, Colonel Gaddafi did not limit himself to commercial investments. He ploughed about $4 million into the London School of Economics, where state functionaries for neoliberal regimes were forged and where his son Saif al-Islam had studied. Later, when the scandalous details of this deal emerged, Britons jokingly renamed the institution the Libyan School of Economics. (17) Libyan money also helped fund the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine; the colonel’s regime sought wherever possible to demonstrate its usefulness to the US.

As Samir Amin observes, Gaddafi’s policies during the first decade of the new century were dictated by a simple principle: to act so as to please the Westerners. The reverse side of this approach was represented by growing contradictions within Libyan society, as the colonel’s actions “worsened social problems for the majority in banal fashion.” (18) While a total of more than $160 billion accumulated in the foreign accounts of Libyan companies, housing was in short supply for young Libyans who could not afford apartments in the overheated property market.

In Tripoli the authorities could not ensure the proper working of public transport (not only were the authorities unable to find the money to build a promised underground rail system, but they could not even organise bus transit). Unemployment affected 30 per cent of the adult population, mainly its younger members. (19) As in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, educated people found no use for their skills. As the Tripoli Post related, Libyan society suffered from “a failure to provide enough new job opportunities annually for the thousands of new university leavers. Too many graduates were left disillusioned without real academic or professional futures.” (20)

The geopolitics of the Arab Spring

The evolution of Gaddafi’s government closely matched the overall degeneration of the post-colonial nationalist regimes in the Arab world and the countries of Africa. All that was unique to the Libyan situation was that in most other states this evolution was accompanied by a generational shift within the leadership. In Tripoli, Colonel Gaddafi remained in place for 42 years, successively playing the roles which in neighbouring Egypt had been performed by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.

It is not surprising that the mass popular protests in Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt should have found an echo on the streets of Benghazi, Tobruk and Tripoli. But the “February 17 Revolution”, as these events in Libya came to be known, did not result in a peaceful transfer of power but in a civil war. The regime split, but resting on the dominant clan and its clientele, the Gaddafi family retained many of its positions. The revolt was successful in the east of the country, in Tobruk and Benghazi, but in Tripoli was crushed. The struggle not only took on a drawn-out character, but also provided an opening for intervention by Western powers.

It was not only in Libya that Western politicians who recognised that change was inevitable made a sharp switch from supporting a dictatorial regime to backing a revolution; the same had happened earlier with Egypt and Tunisia. The turns involved were the result of natural interests and pragmatic calculation. The West sought not only to forge ties with the new regimes that were taking shape, but also to influence them, holding them back from excessive radicalism. Within this scheme, collaboration with the revolutionary movements figured as a much more effective tactic for restraining the revolutions than useless attempts to crush mass protests.

As usual, Western intervention was rationalised as being driven by a concern for the spreading of democracy and for the defence of peaceful populations. But in Libya, where the intervention extended to military operations, the abrupt shift by European and American diplomacy from collaborating with a dictatorial regime to fighting against it proved far more painful, dramatic and scandalous than elsewhere. The demand for armed intervention was made by France to the accompaniment of open disapproval in Germany, vagueness in Britain, panic in Italy and all-but-open resistance on the part of the United States.

Resolution 1973 of the United Nations, granting approval to a humanitarian intervention for the purpose of defending the peaceful population of Benghazi and of other regions threatened with reprisals from Gaddafi, was supported by the League of Arab States, which declared that the Gaddafi regime had “lost its legitimacy”. (21) On the side of the West, on the other hand, neither unity nor enthusiasm was in evidence. While France actively pushed Resolution 1973 in the UN, the German government refused to support Paris in the endeavour. Nor did the Germans supply aircraft for the operations in Libya. The conservative government of Norway took an analogous position. Wall Street Journal observer Max Boot exclaimed indignantly:

“The administration, recall, did not agree to take military action until March 17, more than a month after the rebellion against Gadhafi had begun. For weeks rebel representatives had been pleading for Western help in the form of a "no-fly zone" to stop murderous attacks by Gadhafi's aircraft. Mr. Obama ignored those entreaties, allowing Gadhafi to regain his footing. Only when the revolt was in danger of being extinguished—with the Libyan army poised on the outskirts of Benghazi—did Mr. Obama finally support Britain and France in calling for action at the United Nations. (22)

During discussion of the draft UN resolution American diplomats, reluctant to speak out openly against “humanitarian intervention”, clearly hoped for a veto by Russia or China, with whom discussions were held in a deliberately mild and ambiguous tone. But to the embitterment of the Americans, Moscow unexpectedly supported the resolution, leaving the Western countries facing a problem they clearly had no wish to solve.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russian representative at the Brussels headquarters of the North Atlantic Alliance, stated that Libya had “provoked a serious crisis within NATO”, (23) while a number of military analysts even declared that the operation had “led to a split” within the NATO ranks. (24) The disagreements were indeed without precedent. In Brussels, a scandalous comedy unfolded. First, NATO refused to undertake to carry out the UN resolution; then, under pressure from France, the allies agreed, but no-one showed any desire to lead the operation. The Americans and Europeans did their utmost to palm off responsibility on one another. With the politicians in a panic, the military leaders had no idea what the aims and objectives of the combat operations were supposed to be. The scale of the actions was to be extremely modest compared to what the Western powers had mounted in Iraq, in Afghanistan and earlier, in the Balkans. Russian military analysts stated that “extremely little” use was made of aircraft. (25)

Writing in the Wall Street Journal in July 2011 Max Boot calculated that over 78 days of military operations in Kosovo the Western air forces, using 1100 aircraft, had flown 38,004 sorties. In Libya, despite the closeness of the theatre of action to major Western air bases, only 250 aircraft were sent into action, carrying out 11,107 combat missions. (26) Even more striking was the contrast with the military operations which the Americans and their allies had earlier conducted against Iraq. Operation Desert Storm, which in 1991 had so frightened Colonel Gaddafi, lasted 43 days in all and was accompanied by 109,876 combat sorties, an average of more than two and a half thousand per day. In the period of “peace” between the two Iraq wars the Americans carried out a total of 41,850 military flights over that country, and during the second Iraq war an average of 565 aircraft were being used to pursue US aims there.

Against this background, the 57 flights per day which the coalition mounted in Libya is merely a sad parody. (27) Poorly coordinated, ill-prepared and generally chaotic, the bombing campaign by the middle of spring had finished up in a dead end. By early summer everyone, from Gaddafi supporters to the rebels, from Western experts to Russian military observers, was branding the operation a failure. The fate of Libya lay in the hands of rebel field commanders and of the people gathered round them in the country’s Western mountains.

Meanwhile, the events in Libya were arousing no less disagreement and confusion among the traditional critics of Western imperialism. In the final reckoning, it was not the NATO powers that were split by developments in the North African country, but members of the left. It was more than obvious that the people organising the intervention, whatever they might have claimed in the way of humanitarian objectives, were not in the least moved by concern for the peaceful inhabitants of Libya. In the Arab press, many supporters of the Libyan revolution noted this as well.

But if NATO in this case had refrained from intervening, members of the left would have been the first to criticise the hypocrisy and double standards of the alliance, which remembers its “humanitarian tasks” only when it finds this convenient. In fact, such a criticism has already begun to be heard in connection with the unwillingness of the West to intervene in Yemen or Syria. In the spring of 2011, while aiding the revolutionaries in Libya, the West looked on shamefaced as repression was unleashed against peaceful demonstrators in Bahrain, where the US navy has one of its bases.

Some Arab writers, on the other hand, called for a rethinking of the role of the West in the region, stressing that the situation in Libya had nothing in common with what took place in Iraq or Kosovo. Of course, as Abdelkader Saadallah wrote in the Algerian left newspaper Le Matin, NATO is “a coalition set up to defend the interests of global and in the first place Western capital, while suppressing national populations.” But this time, Saadallah continued, “the NATO coalition intervened in order to stop the slaughter of the population in Benghazi.” On this basis, he concluded that what was involved was not “neocolonialist or imperialist aggression.” (28) The prominent Arab scholar Mohamed Elmasry argued that even the most negative assessment of the role which the West had played in the Middle East changed nothing, since once they had risen in revolt the people of Libya “simply had no choice”. (29)

Even more emphatic in supporting the intervention was the well-known Middle East specialist Juan Cole. In his view, the arguments of those who maintained that the West sought through its intervention to seize Libya’s oil were completely groundless. “Libya was already integrated into the international oil markets,” Cole noted, “and had done billions of deals with BP, ENI, etc., etc. None of those companies would have wanted to endanger their contracts by getting rid of the ruler who had signed them. They had often already had the trauma of having to compete for post-war Iraqi contracts, a process in which many did less well than they would have liked. ENI’s profits were hurt by the Libyan revolution, as were those of Total SA and Repsol. Moreover, taking Libyan oil off the market through a NATO military intervention could have been foreseen to put up oil prices, which no Western elected leader would have wanted to see, especially Barack Obama, with the danger that a spike in energy prices could prolong the economic doldrums.” (30)

However convincing Cole’s arguments might be, they do not prove that the coalition was without vested interests in relation to Libya. There is no doubt that imperialist interests preconditioned the decisions that were taken; it is simply that this did not occur in the spirit of the primitive geopolitics imagined by dogmatists who live according to the ideas of the mid-nineteenth century. The strategy of the Western countries in this case was not one of attack but of defence; these countries were not out to seize particular markets or resources, but were trying to prevent them from being lost. Meanwhile, within the coalition itself a sharp struggle took place between France, which was seeking to expand its influence and authority within the region, and the United States, which along with Britain was steadily losing ground.

The criticism by leftists of the Western intervention, and the unmasking of its true imperialist motives, has been completely justified and necessary. Nevertheless, the moral questions that have arisen in this context cannot be dismissed. It would of course have been more “correct” from an ideological point of view, and even from that of the social and political dynamic of the process, if the revolution had proceeded without foreign interference or influence. But unfortunately, this factor has inevitably been present in all revolutionary conflicts, starting with British support for the Latin American war of independence.

Are we to consider the loss of thousands of lives, that would have been inevitable in the case of the battle for Benghazi, a preferable variant? Should we put a revolutionary development at risk for the sake of concerns about its “purity”, or for the purpose of testing our theoretical hypotheses? In this regard the remarks made by one of the revolutionary leaders, Azeddin el-Sharif, in an interview with the French Marxist journal Inprecor are particularly telling. The participants in the uprising knew perfectly well what Western intervention in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq had led to; it was “wrong to suppose that Libyans were illiterate.” But it made no sense for Western leftists to criticise the rebels for collaborating with NATO “without suggesting some concrete alternative.” (31)

A certain chance of avoiding Western interference existed in the spring of 2011when both the Libyan rebels and many of their supporters in the Middle East placed their hopes on an intervention by neighbouring Arabs, who might have taken on the implementing of Resolution 1973. But the military government that came to power in Cairo after the fall of the Mubarak regime kept its distance from the Libyan crisis.

This decision by the Egyptian authorities aroused serious discontent within Egypt itself. The Egyptian press noted that “ordinary Egyptians were unsurprisingly far faster than their government in supporting the Libyans revolting against the 42-year rule of the eccentric Gaddafi.” (32) In the words of the Egyptian Gazette, intervention in Libya was needed to fulfil one of the tasks of Egypt’s own revolution, to “revive Egypt’s one-time regional clout.” (33)

The military officers who had come to power in Cairo, however, were far from delighted by the thought of the Arab Spring continuing and the revolutionary process developing further. Their formal pretext for refusing to take part in resolving the Libyan crisis was a concern for the safety of Egyptians held hostage by the Gaddafi regime. “Thousands of Egyptian workers, they argued, were still in Libya at the time of the armed revolt, and any declared support by Egypt for the rebels could have jeopardised the lives of these Egyptians.” (34)

The Libyan rebels as well hoped for Arab intervention, stressing that they did not want Western forces on their territory. But the Egyptian position remained unchanged. Fear of a further development of the revolution outweighed any possible geopolitical advantages.

In March, the start of the NATO bombing campaign blocked Gaddafi’s forces from entering Benghazi. It is hard to say how events might have developed if the West had not decided to intervene. In the open desert, without air support, the rebel fighters would have been helpless against the tank columns of a regular army. But as the fighting in Misrata, Al-Zawiyah and later Tripoli showed, armoured vehicles do not enjoy the same supremacy on city streets.

By the beginning of summer the front in Libya’s war had stabilised. But behind the front lines, and directly amid the front-rank fighters, processes were under way that would determine the outcome of the struggle. As Juan Cole notes, the attention of the press and of military observers was focused on the region of Ajdabiya, where positional battles were taking place. “But the two most active fronts in the war were Misrata and its environs, and the Western Mountain region. Misrata fought an epic, Stalingrad-style, struggle of self-defense against attacking Qaddafi armor and troops, finally proving victorious with NATO help, and then they gradually fought to the west toward Tripoli. The most dramatic battles and advances were in the largely Berber Western Mountain region, where, again, Qaddafi armored units relentlessly shelled small towns and villages but were fought off (with less help from NATO initially, which I think did not recognize the importance of this theater). It was the revolutionary volunteers from this region who eventually took Zawiya, with the help of the people of Zawiya... and who thereby cut Tripoli off from fuel and ammunition coming from Tunisia and made the fall of the capital possible. Any close observer of the war since April has seen constant movement, first at Misrata and then in the Western Mountains, and there was never an over-all stalemate.” (35)

During these days the African Chapaevs and Libyan Makhnos with their gun-bearing jeeps decided the course of the war. They gradually created their own army, sacked unreliable generals suspected of double-dealing, established links with the underground resistance in Tripoli, and consolidated support for their struggle among the population of the western provinces where earlier the regime had retained numerous adherents. The rebel fighters succeeded in overcoming tribal and clan differences, already weakened by the processes of modernisation; they united people in a common struggle, creating the conditions for a revolution that is now radically transforming Libyan and African society from below. The people now have guns in their hands, and political authority lies with field commanders whose origins are among the masses.

Revolution and intervention

The Western intervention in Libya could not fail to give rise to new contradictions and to sharpen already existing disagreements within the revolutionary camp itself. In Tunisia, where the initial phase of the uprising proceeded relatively quickly, and in Egypt, where events passed off without armed struggle, these conflicts were postponed until “act two of the revolution”. But in Libya, they made their effects felt at an early stage. One manifestation of this was the affair of General Yunis.

From the early summer, when the fighting on the eastern front had led to a stalemate, suspicions grew among the rebels that the West was not aiming to help free Libya, but by analogy with Kosovo, sought to separate Cyrenaica and the oil-rich east from Tripolitania and to turn it into a protectorate. The mutual suspicions increased when NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen remarked that there was “no military solution” to the conflict in Libya. (36)

Reports of separate talks between the West and the Gaddafi regime started seeping into the European and Arab press. The dictator’s son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi stated bluntly that “we are now holding negotiations with Paris.” (37) For his part, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé declared outright that if the dictator were to quit as his country’s leader, all accusations against him might be dropped. To retain the regime in its earlier form was impossible, Juppé explained: “Gaddafi has been discredited, and his use of force against the population has made the demand for his departure inevitable.” (38) This demand, however, by no means signified a requirement for radical social or political change. It was not even demanded that the former dictator leave Libya; it would be enough for him to transfer power to one of his subordinates.

David Welch, former US deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush, put an analogous position to representatives of the Libyan regime early in August. Welch was by no means a novice in Libyan affairs, since he had been in charge of re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries in 2008. In Washington he was known for having close ties to the oil corporations. Formally speaking Welch had no links to the existing administration, but the content of the discussion that took place in Cairo showed unambiguously that the American was not acting solely on his own behalf. The record of the conversation that was discovered in Tripoli after the rebel victory stated in black and white that Welch undertook to communicate what was said to the US administration and to influential people in Congress and other Washington institutions. (39)

Western diplomats sought persistently to persuade Gaddafi to make some symbolic concessions, after which the intervention might be declared successfully concluded. It would be enough simply to announce the forthcoming resignation of the “national leader”, and to declare a readiness for national reconciliation. Juppé said plainly to this effect, “This is what we’re waiting for, so that the political process of bringing about a cease-fire can get under way.” (40)

The purpose of these moves was to use separate talks between the West and the Tripoli regime to compel the Libyan people to accept either the partition of their country, or else “Gaddafism” without Gaddafi, a situation in which everything would continue as before but under the control of the Europeans, who would guarantee the inviolability of both sides within a context of “political continuity”. Within Libya, this behaviour by Western “allies” of the revolution caused growing irritation. Rebel Chief of Staff General Abdul Fattah Yunis acknowledged as much when he stated publicly to a Benghazi press conference: “Either NATO meets its obligations, or we shall call on the Security Council to halt its actions. Misrata is being completely annihilated. NATO is defending us with periodic bombing, but is allowing the people of Misrata to die by the day. NATO has let us down.” (41)

For their part, the Western allies put their stake on Yunis’s rival, Colonel Khalifa Haftar, who had arrived in Libya from the United States and who made no secret of his ties to the CIA. Soon after Yunis made his criticisms of NATO, he was recalled from the front and killed in mysterious circumstances along with two of his colleagues, Mohammed Khamis and Nasser Madhur. The revolutionary authorities in Benghazi put the blame on agents of Gaddafi who were said to be trying to penetrate the rebel ranks. (42) Many people in Benghazi and abroad suspected that the murder of Yunis had been set up in order to clear the road to power for Colonel Haftar, but this did not come about. Appointed in place of Yunis was General Suleiman Mahmud from Tobruk, while at the local level real power lay with the field commanders, the best known of whom was Abdel-Hakim Belhaj.

Thanks to the efforts of these commanders, a dramatic turning-point in the military struggle was reached during August. To the astonishment of most experts and observers, the rebels began a broad offensive in the west of the country and burst into Tripoli. “The secret of the uprising’s final days of success,” Juan Cole explains, “lay in a popular revolt in the working-class districts of the capital, which did most of the hard work of throwing off the rule of secret police and military cliques. It succeeded so well that when revolutionary brigades entered the city from the west, many encountered little or no resistance, and they walked right into the center of the capital.” (43)

For some time supporters of Gaddafi continued to hold out in their clan centres, Sirt and Bani-Walid, where at first the revolutionary fighters (unlike the army of the old regime) showed a reluctance to use heavy armaments, hoping to keep casualties among local residents to a minimum. The outcome, however, was inevitable. After the former dictator had been captured and lynched, the fighting died away. The time had come for political struggle.

The victory of the rebels in Libya marked the end of “act one” of the Arab Spring. Soon after the fall of Tripoli mass protests resumed in Yemen and Bahrain, while in Syria the opposition followed the Libyan example and took up arms. In October Yemeni President Saleh promised once again to give up power, but no-one any longer believed him. In November President Assad made concessions to the League of Arab States, announcing that political prisoners would be freed and that troops would be withdrawn from the streets of cities that had risen in revolt.

These very successes of the popular movement, however, posed the question of what the future of the revolution would be. In Tunisia and Egypt, where authoritarian regimes had given way to transitional governments, the unrest did not come to an end. The bourgeoisie and upper middle class had dreamt of normalisation and stability, but instead, the revolutionary process began to escalate. As people came to understand the possibilities implicit in the freedom they had won, new social layers, voicing new demands, were drawn into the struggle for change. A wave of strikes swept Egyptian firms. In Tunisia the student movement grew by leaps and bounds.

The newspaper La Presse de Tunisie reported a “formidable democratisation” under way in the universities. All key posts, including those of rectors, deans and faculty heads, were made subject to election, with trade unions and students gaining the right to “act as participants”. (44) Constant meetings and demonstrations were held, and in workplaces union organising went on apace. Even the police staged protests.

The alarmed bourgeoisie and their media allies exclaimed indignantly: “Even though the Provisional Government has provided clear indications as to how we are to carry on with our lives, anarchy is growing throughout the country, threatening loss of life and serious material damage. There is a danger that this will end in regression and the triumph of prejudice.” (45) In Egypt bourgeois publications also complained of uncontrolled protests mounted by “lawbreakers, anarchists, saboteurs and those loyal to the disgraced regime of Hosni Mubarak.” (46)

More sober commentators noted that Egypt’s military government would be unable to cope with the wave of popular agitation until social changes, instead of solely political ones, got underway: “While on the one hand they are placing huge focus on keeping the people off the streets, they are doing very little to tackle the reasons why the people keep going back.” (47) There was also unrest in Libya, where the liberal leadership of the National Transitional Council was coming under harsh criticism from below. In September 2011 the Tripoli Post predicted that developments in the country would depend on when and how an opposition would arise “to the opposition party that is running the transitional government.” (48)

The dissatisfaction felt by the bourgeoisie with the way the revolution was proceeding is more than understandable. But at least at first glance, it is far harder to explain the extreme confusion and annoyance which the Arab Spring has aroused among leftists in the West and in Russia. Of course, a key motivation for expressing these sentiments was the intervention by the Western powers in Libya (it should, meanwhile, be noted that those who supported the intervention were no less disoriented and confused than those who condemned it). Behind the arguments concerning the Libyan “special case”, however, one almost immediately finds a more general dissatisfaction with “incorrect revolutions”, occurring without the leadership of a left party, without a consistent proletarian program, and generally in ways quite different from the theories set out in popular Marxist pamphlets.

To many left analysts the Arab masses have seemed like an unthinking horde, prepared for struggle and self-sacrifice but doomed to fall victim to political demagogy and manipulation, and at best capable only of destruction. Even the courageous Orhan Jemal, who spent a large part of the Libyan war with the rebels, has spoken of the naivety of the Arab revolutionaries, whom he describes as “political romantics” (49) who fail to understand that “all the main difficulties lie ahead, and that victory over the Gaddafi dictatorship is not yet full victory and not yet happiness.” (50) Nor have such moods been alien to some Arab leftists. “There cannot be a revolution without a revolutionary project, without a vanguard, without charismatic figures,” the writer Fadela M’rabet complained in the Algerian Le Matin. (51)

Meanwhile, Samir Amin has predicted that with the kind of leaders seen in revolutionary Libya, nothing worthwhile will be achieved: “It is unclear what kind of people make up the National Transitional Council in Benghazi. There are evidently honest democrats among them, but they probably also include Islamists and worst of all, regionalists.” (52)

Inevitably, the euphoria of the first victories is being followed by a sense of uncertainty about the road ahead, and people are also finding that their societies lack a clear program of change. Even the liberal press has acknowledged that in conditions of acute social and economic crisis “revolutionary forces do not propose genuine alternatives – except in the political realm. Even more perilous is an unwillingness to think about true alternatives.” (53) For that matter, there has not been complete clarity even on political questions: “Since 14 January Tunisians have known what they do not want: despotism and the concentration of power,” a Tunisian newspaper observed in September. “But they do not have the slightest idea as to what kind of regime should replace it.” (54)

The political scientist and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Al-Ahram Abdel-Moneim Said has also stressed that the revolution faces the task of changing society “not only by liberating the entire political process, but also by adopting a genuine economic and social programme for development and fighting corruption.” (55) Liberal social thought, we understand, might not extend much beyond appeals for eradicating corruption, but the reflections of Abdel-Moneim Said contain something else that is of genuine interest. Pondering events in Egypt, he observes that during the French Revolution “conditions were almost identical in terms of political and social maturity, but the French carried out a massacre and jeopardised the independence of the entire European continent for two decades.” (56)

There are indeed similarities between the events in the Arab East in the early twenty-first century and the shocks which Europe experienced two centuries earlier. But what now seems to moderate liberals to have been a nightmare and bloody chaos was the natural result of the popular masses, who earlier had been deprived of any possibility of influencing public life, emerging onto the political scene. The French Revolution was indeed accompanied by terror and destruction, but it laid the foundations for a democratic society, in a process extending far beyond the specific tasks of the bourgeois transformation. It is this, not the Jacobin terror, that makes the French Revolution so unpleasant for many bourgeois thinkers to contemplate. Nevertheless it is precisely this quality of the revolution that made it one of the most important events in world history, a model to which we return again and again whenever the transforming of society appears on the agenda.

Left-wing analysts, in mapping out the prospects for the Arab revolutions, have not shown much originality. For the most part they have echoed the prophesies of conservative writers, promising all conceivable horrors – national disintegration, conflict between tribes and regions, the seizure of power by Islamic fundamentalists, reprisals against ethnic and religious minorities, terror and chaos – to countries that free themselves from harsh authoritarian regimes. Whatever historical events, logical arguments or specific reasons are adduced in order to back up such forecasts, their basis is invariably a firm belief that populations who have been left to their own devices and who seize their freedom will fail to achieve anything good. At its most fundamental level this kind of thinking rests on a profound lack of faith in democracy – and indeed, fear of it. That is not to speak of a no less deeply rooted though often unconscious racism (it is curious how often racist arguments are put forward in the guise of the struggle against “Eurocentrism” – as, for example, when it is argued that Eastern peoples because of their “cultural peculiarities” do not need guarantees of individual rights, democracy and other “Western” inventions).

Leftists, no less often than adherents of the right, have rushed into diverse political speculations, contemptuously ignoring economic and social processes, not to speak of displaying a firm conviction that the masses of the population as such are incapable of doing anything intelligently or independently. Attention has been concentrated not on social conditions and on the masses, but on the leaders, on traditional ideologies and parties. No meaningful account is taken of the fact that in the course of a revolution these ideologies and parties develop, decay and undergo what might be called mutations.

The popular masses should not of course be idealised; rather, it is essential to understand them. Meanwhile, it is precisely a disdain for the masses – sometimes conscious and elitist, at times unconscious and expressed in a primordial rejection of an “incorrect” process (from the point of view of one’s own ideological concepts) – that has characterised a significant section of the left, not only in the West but also in the Arab world itself. Paradoxically, this situation has revealed an irreconcilable rift within the left between revolutionary rhetoric and revolutionary politics. The former has not only been lacking in any relation to the latter, but has also provided an obvious sign of a reluctance to engage in real struggle for the masses, in the real work of transforming society through mobilising its real possibilities and genuine potential. Concealed behind the argumentation about class struggle has been a contemptuous refusal to speak to the working class about its problems and in its own language.

All great revolutions have been “incorrect” from the point of view of the dogmatic schemas according to which comfortably-off progressives have oriented themselves, whether these people have been academic intellectuals, bureaucratic officials of large parties, or sectarian groups revelling in their exclusiveness. The Russian revolution of 1917 was incorrect in the eyes of the social democrats; the Comintern did not understand the politics of the peasant war which Mao conducted in China; and the revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua met with condemnation from the local Communist parties. The victory of Chavez in Venezuela was also regarded by significant numbers of Venezuelan and other Latin American leftists as a scandalous violation of all conceivable rules.

Lenin, Mao and Che Guevara were all great revolutionaries precisely because they found within themselves the boldness to break with the orthodoxy that was dominant within the left milieu. They were victorious because their practical actions were dictated by their own understanding of the historical moment and the character of its social contradictions, not by dogmas into which the experience of past generations had become hardened after leftists had failed to rethink or reject it on the basis of fresh practice.

Political Islam

The historical importance of great revolutionary overturns lies, in part, in the fact that they shatter established stereotypes and earlier-determined “norms” of political and social action, forcing us not just to rethink our theory, but also to define our position in relation to these new facts. It is not excluded that for the left, our attitude to the Arab Spring will serve as such a demarcating factor, just like the attitude which leftists in 1917 took to the Russian October. The question of who on the left is a supporter of revolution, and who is simply a lover of radical rhetoric and a connoisseur of Marxist citations, is defined precisely by one’s relation to the struggles in which the masses are engaged, and to their actual political practice. The condemning of someone else’s “incorrect” revolution is followed, with logical inevitability, by an incapacity and refusal to take part in the practical politics of real action within one’s own country – by a replacing of the struggle for the masses and of the struggle for power with intellectual-symbolic exercises and with the ritual repetition of practice that is known to be ineffective, but which is habitual, comfortable, and for the most part inoffensive.

It does not, however, follow from this that warnings and ominous forecasts made by critics of the revolutionary process should be rejected from the outset. The most serious problem, both theoretical and practical, to confront the left in the course of the Arab Spring has been the influence of religion. This is not just in the shape of “political Islam”, which has won the right to legal existence, but in the form of traditions that retain importance for large numbers of the people who are now entering politics in their millions.

The comparisons with Iran in the 1970s that are glimpsed regularly in commentaries on Arab events serve not so much to throw light on the processes under way as to demonstrate how little the authors have thought about the lessons and historical meaning of the Iranian revolution. Since the triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, the theme of Islam has kept analysts hypnotised, to the point where they forget concrete social interests and the struggle between them. In Iran in the 1970s, the processes that were played out beneath Islamic slogans were markedly similar to those occurring during other revolutions beneath slogans of a quite different character. Even the religious manner in which political programs were framed did not reflect any specific peculiarity of Iran, since programs were formulated in much the same fashion during the early bourgeois revolutions in Holland and England. The truly specific elements of the Iranian revolution lay not in Islam as such, but in the fact that the spiritual-political corporation which Khomeini headed made effective use of religion in order to consolidate its power, smothering the revolution in an early phase and imposing a preventive, “Thermidorean” dictatorship before Persian Jacobins – the people’s mujahedin, fedayin, Maoists and other leftists (who did not miss any chance to use Muslim traditions and rhetoric in their own propaganda) – could bid for power.      

In Iran during the late 1970s the Shiite clergy made up an integrated and politically united corporation, but in Egypt and Tunisia the mullahs split immediately into supporters and opponents of the revolution. Meanwhile, the Islamists did not receive active support from the mosques; on the contrary, the conflict between the clergy and the political groups that appealed to Muslim traditions grew more acute as the revolutionary crisis developed. The Tunisian press noted that since the beginning of the revolution the Islamists had concentrated on “ousting from the mosques the old imams who were appointed under the former regime, and on installing imams of their own.” (57) These attempts, however, were far from being universally successful, and gave rise to new conflicts, on religious grounds, within the Muslim communities themselves.

Still more striking was the extremely limited role played by the clergy in the political events in Libya. This was especially remarkable since supporters of political Islam were active in the revolutionary protests in Libya from the beginning, while in Egypt and Tunisia they had initially waited and vacillated.

In Iran, power was seized not by parties proclaiming the ideas of political Islam, but by the clerical corporation itself; in North Africa, by contrast, the clergy made no claim to power, and in any case did not make up a united whole. In Sunni Arab countries the model for political Islam has not been Persian Shiite theocracy, but the Turkish Justice and Development Party (JDP), which governs the country under Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. The latter’s populism, combined with his orientation toward market economics, readiness to defend the interests of his country in the face of Western pressures, and fidelity to European-style political institutions, has made his JDP an acceptable alternative for a relatively broad spectrum of social forces and groups.

Adopting a stance of moderate conservatism on social questions, Erdogan’s supporters have been able to base themselves on the significant section of the local bourgeoisie that is unhappy with the dominant position of foreign capital, while mobilising support among peasants and lower-income elements of the city population, especially the “new townsfolk” who migrated from the countryside during the industrial boom of the late 1990s. In the favourable setting provided by Turkey’s economic growth, Erdogan managed to combine the interests of these groups. But his Arab followers, coming onto the scene in conditions of acute crisis, have encountered far more challenging tasks.

An ability to reconcile diverse and contradictory interests has always been a strong point for populist movements and leaders, but revolutionary crises have the effect of sharpening all social contradictions. Cross-class populist blocs bear the stresses of such events only when they possess a strong objective basis in the form of shared interests that substantially outweigh all the differences.

At a time when dictatorships have collapsed one after another, both the Arab bourgeoisies and the Western powers have looked for a force in the Middle East which, while refraining from acting openly against the revolutions and democratic changes, might prove able to halt the process of social transformation. The only organisations capable of doing this are ones with authority and influence among the masses. The “Muslim brothers” are far better suited to this purpose than are liberal Westernisers. After a brief period of hesitation, the “Brotherhood” has put its support behind the revolutionary movement, while at the same time seeking to keep the social radicalism of the movement to a minimum.

Samir Amin has written that the Muslim Brotherhood, whatever it might claim, “has never been and cannot be ‘moderate’, still less ‘democratic’.” In his view, the Brotherhood is “a component part of the comprador bourgeoisie.” (58)

In an interview with the French Inprecor Azeldin El Sharif, representing the Libyan National Solidarity Network, has characterised the “brothers” as an element within the “reformist opposition”, unlike the activists of the popular movement who played the decisive role in overthrowing Gaddafi. (59)

The bourgeois nature of the Muslim Brotherhood is readily confirmed by its political practice, by its social positions, and by its ties to the transitional military regimes formed in Tunisia and Egypt after the fall of the dictatorships. The “comprador” nature of the Brotherhood’s policies, though, is far more contentious. The attempt to assign the capitalism of Middle Eastern countries a “national” character, or at least colouration, lies behind the activity both of Erdogan’s party in Turkey, and of his followers in the Arab world.

The Tunisian En-Nahda (Party of Rebirth) is the first of the Muslim Brotherhood organisations to have achieved success at the polls. In free elections in October 2011 the party won 90 out of 217 seats in the republic’s Constituent Assembly. Its program combined diffuse arguments about Islamic traditions and values with no less general (and repeated) declarations on the need to defend civil rights, on the interests of hired workers and on social justice. During the election campaign the party’s leader Rashid al-Ghannushi stressed at length his readiness for dialogue with the left, visited the Jewish community in Tunis, and pointedly took his distance from radical Islamists. The “Nahdists” declared: “Our present preoccupation is not with winning positions or being present in the parliament or government, but with ensuring that the country undergoes a democratic transition. We do not want our success simply to be ratified by the popular voting; we would like people to vote for us out of conviction.” (60)

The “Nahdists” stressed repeatedly that they were not a religious party, but that they simply defended the traditional cultural values of Tunisian society. More radical Islamists were less than delighted by this stance, while supporters of the secular state did not trust the moderate protestations of the party leaders, and warned people of the danger posed by theocratic dictatorship. In the event, the results of the October elections left the “Nahdists” with no choice but to go into coalition with the left, which had won 97 positions in the assembly. Despite winning more mandates overall than the Nahdists, the left handed over political leadership to them, since their own vote was divided among eight parties. The largest of these were the social democratic Congress for the Republic (CPR), the populist Arida Shaabiya (People’s Petition), and the At-Takattul party (Democratic Bloc for Labour and Freedom), associated with the trade unions. Though initially considered the favourite, the Progressive-Democratic Party, which had operated legally under the dictatorship, was rejected by voters. The Communists and more radical leftists won representation in the assembly, but achieved no more than one to five mandates for each organisation.

It was not only the left that was disunited. In Egypt after the fall of the dictatorship several Islamist parties began operating simultaneously, competing against one another. In the spring of 2011 the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram observed: “The problem for supporters of political Islam is not only that they don’t seem to agree on future political tactics, but also that they are not socially coherent.” (61) On the model of their Turkish co-thinkers the “Muslim brothers” set up the Justice and Freedom Party (JFP), only to see the simultaneous rise of the Islamic Group. More radical Islamists, the Salafis, founded their own El-Noor Party and began an aggressive struggle against the liberals and leftists who were calling for a secular state. The “Muslim brothers” at times worked with the Salafis and at other times took their distance from them, attempting, as an Egyptian newspaper put it, to show “how moderate the FJP is compared to the Salafis, hence encouraging more alliances, while at the same time emphasizing that the Salafis are potential partners if liberal forces continue to spurn them.” (62)

For all the tactical advantages that such a position can open up, it proved extremely ill-suited to the conditions of a deepening revolutionary crisis; the party split along the lines of the counterposed tendencies. Rapprochement with the Salafis threatened to cost it the support of moderate Muslims, while compromise with the liberals opened the way for a strengthening of the fundamentalist forces criticising the Brotherhood for inconsistency and opportunism.

The “Muslim brothers” also set up the National Front for the Revival of Libya. Here the same tendencies and contradictions were evident. In circumstances where all political forces were to one or another degree declaring their adherence to Islamic values, the problem lay in demonstrating that one’s own branch of political Islam was its most serious and attractive representative.

The success of the parties campaigning under the slogans of Islamic values caused hysteria in sections of the left and liberal intelligentsia, though this was more apparent outside the Arab world than within its boundaries. The left was confronted with a serious political dilemma: who should it work with? The liberals, in the name of secularism? Or with moderate Islamists in the name of consolidating the democratic regime and bringing to fruition various social initiatives supported by An-Nahda and other such organisations? While remaining principled supporters of the secular state and of freedom of conscience, leftists would finish up ideological hostages of the liberals if they did not find support among the oppressed layers of society, who still adhered to Muslim traditions. Worse, if they were to counterpose themselves to these traditions, the left would surrender into the hands of the Islamists that section of the masses that had yet to attain a radical materialist ideology or the required level of class consciousness.

 Instead of helping the victims of oppression to consolidate themselves in struggle for their interests, campaigners for “socialist values” often prefer to wait passively until the oppressed raise themselves to the required level. But if there is no interaction between the masses and the left intelligentsia, the masses will never reach this point. This is not because the masses are backward, but because the intelligentsia is incapable of performing the elementary cultural task of devising a political language that the masses can understand. In Latin America left parties, together with followers of the Theology of Liberation, have managed to develop such a language, but in the Arab countries this essential work still remains to be carried out. This is despite the fact that Islamic versions of the Theology of Liberation exist. (63) Terry Eagleton reminds us of this when he speaks of theologians “for whom Islam and socialism are perfectly compatible. Islam began as a religion of the poor and retains that legacy today.” Agitation for socialism in the language of Islam is perfectly possible, since “capitalism is an inherently faithless system”. (64)

Among the masses, political discussion takes place in the language of Islam. The question becomes one of who will bring their message to the masses through using this language, and of what that message will be. The idea that the Islamic cultural tradition is something incompatible with the institutions and theoretical concepts that have developed in the West is nothing but a particular, perverted version of Eurocentrism or even of racism, cultivated by reactionary extremists in both the Middle East and Europe. Historically, Christian norms of social life have not differed much from Islamic ones. Until the seventeenth century the West was far less tolerant in religious matters than were Ottoman Turkey, Morocco, the Mongol Empire or Iran. All these empires permitted religious pluralism, while in Europe Muslim minorities were converted to Christianity or banished. Jews were subjected to isolation and persecution, and were even driven out of one country into others. In not a single Islamic country was there such a concept as the Ghetto. In Europe, Christian heresies were suppressed using the most pitiless methods. Nor could the West boast of great advances in the area of women’s equality. In provincial Russia as recently as 150 years ago, for a woman to appear on the street with her hair loose was considered the height of shamelessness.

The point is not that Christian Europe differs radically from the Muslim East, but that Europe has managed to overcome Christian norms (personal and social) on the level of everyday behaviour, while in the East this has not happened. By no means least important here is the fact that in Europe the overcoming of religious traditions took place “from within”, arising on a European cultural basis; in the East the onset of secularism occurred “from outside”, and was closely tied to the experience of colonialism and of foreign cultural and political domination. In Europe, the overcoming of tradition “from within” was associated with the experience of revolution, with mass participation by the common people in transforming society and in “founding” their own state and history. This is precisely the kind of experience that is now being acquired by the Arab East.

The key political and cultural question of the Arab revolutions, it follows, does not relate to the conflict of Islam with secularism. Instead, it has to do with how, when and to what degree Islam of itself will be subjected to secularisation in the course of revolutionary changes. It has to do with the ideological currents that grow up on this basis and with the degree of strength they attain among the masses. The liberation of society from the norms of enforced religiosity will not proceed by way of “external” pressure exerted by a state intent on modernisation. Instead, it will come from within Islamic culture itself, through revolutionary action from below. The paradox lies not just in the fact that the secularisation of social and political life is not only an important historical task of the revolutions occurring in the Arab world in the early twenty-first century, but also in the fact that these “Islamic” political movements, setting out on the road of parliamentarism and forming bourgeois political parties with centrist programs, are objectively aiding this process, ending the opposition between “Western” politics and Eastern “spirituality”. Through its political practice – forming parliamentary parties, turning its movement into an electoral machine, and acting as a liberal-centrist force – the Muslim Brotherhood is taking a decisive and irrevocable step, one that will lead to the disintegration of political Islam and to the secularisation of Islam “from within”.

Members of the left are necessarily supporters of secular norms, but for them (unlike liberals) putting this principle into practice is inseparable from the struggle for the social rights of the majority of the population, for a general civil and class emancipation. Amid the crisis which modern capitalism is now experiencing, the decay of political Islam is made inevitable by the objective course of events, just as the transitional regimes engendered by the first stage of the revolution are doomed to collapse. What will replace them? Who will win the support of the masses, when they become disillusioned with their bourgeois-Islamic leaders? What kind of program will this new political force have, and in what terms will it be put forward? The victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917 was due, in no small measure, to their ability to find the necessary words at the right moment.

Democratic revolution

The collapse of the dictatorships in the Arab countries is opening up prospects for free social development, but democratic revolution involves far more than simply abolishing censorship and holding honest multi-party elections. The political agenda of a democratic revolution is by no means exhausted once a new political regime is installed. The real test for the political forces and for the whole of society merely begins from this point.

Among the most vital criteria for democratic transformations is the question of the rights of women. As a writer for the Tripoli Post noted, “Women have been instrumental throughout the crisis and did far more than send sons and husbands to the front. They hid fighters, cooked them meals and sewed flags. They ran guns and in a few cases used them.” (65)

The rights of national and religious minorities are a no less fundamental issue for the new democracy. According to a journalist for Le Matin, if the state remains “Arab” it will be a “prison-house of peoples” for Berbers, Kurds, Jews and all others who live in these countries but do not consider themselves Arabic. It may be noted that in arguing in defence of minority rights the Algerian journalist referred to the discrimination suffered by Russians in the Baltic countries. The development of the revolution requires recognition of the linguistic rights of Berbers in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, and the struggle around these demands is already under way. (66)

A democratic revolution cannot restrict itself to merely formal assurances of human rights and civil freedoms. It has to resolve the problems of education, health care and social security, without which citizens in a free society cannot be guaranteed a worthy existence.

The Tripoli Post observed in the autumn of 2011: “Education, justice and health sectors constitute the backbone of developmental plan, and they seem to be pertinent reasons for social dissatisfaction among the people against the previous regime.” (67) The left parties which achieved impressive votes in the first free elections in Tunisia also campaigned heavily on the demand for social rights, in the first instance seeking the creation of a system of free health care. Analogous slogans were heard in Egypt as well.

The inseparable nature of democratic and social demands means that extending and deepening the revolutionary process is a historic necessity. Beginning with the first European revolutions, from the time of the Czech Hussites and English puritans, the emergence of the popular masses onto the political stage has inevitably led events beyond the narrow framework, of limited pragmatic reforms, of which the bourgeoisie dreamt. The question has come to be posed of the political revolution spreading to encompass the social sphere. The Arab Spring set off a wave of social mobilisation that is reaching such heights that the maintenance of the existing social and economic order has been placed in question.

The political leaders who were thrown up by the first wave of the revolution are quickly being transformed from fighters for change into conservatives. The centrist forces represented by the “Muslim brothers”, moderate liberals and the military elite are trying simultaneously to stabilise the situation, securing their leading position, and to force a halt to the process of change with its escalating demands.

This, however, is by no means always possible. In line with principles proclaimed as early as the French Revolution, the leaders of the National Transitional Council in Libya have had to renounce participation in the new government and parliament that are to be formed on the basis of the coming elections. President of the NTC Mustafa Abdul-Jalil is increasingly being turned into a figurehead. The plan by Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril to form a cabinet made up of his closest supporters was interpreted in society as an attempt at a coup d’état, and ended with his resignation. (68)

The participation by NATO forces in the Libyan conflict provided certain guarantees to the moderate leaders, who not only received the support of the West, but also presented themselves to the mass of rebel fighters as the only people able to guarantee the receipt of aid. But in November 2011, as the war ended, NATO ended its presence in Libya. Smitten by the most serious economic crisis in the entire history of capitalism, the West was no longer capable of maintaining an active military policy in North Africa, limiting itself to diplomatic initiatives. With the position of the Americans and Europeans in the region now weaker, Turkey found its hand strengthened, but Turkish political and economic resources were also extremely limited.

As the possibilities for external forces of influencing the situation in the region declined, the more obvious the weakness of the pro-Western liberals became, to the point where they were losing ground before people’s eyes. In Tunisia they suffered a crushing election defeat. In Libya a sharp struggle broke out between moderate politicians who had made names and careers for themselves under Gaddafi, and various field commanders, the best-known of whom was Abdel-Hakim Belhaj. The field commanders criticised the NTC leaders, describing them as “remnants of the Gaddafi era” and “a bunch of liberals with no following in Libyan society”. (69) A campaign of criticism of NATO and the West unfolded in the press. The Palestinian commentator Ramzy Baroud noted at this time that the Libyans were inspiring the whole world not because they had won their freedom in struggle against a dictatorship, but also because they had succeeded in “overcoming NATO’s stratagems.” (70)

The main concern both of the moderate leaders of the NTC and of their Western allies was with taking back weapons from the population once military operations had ended. Here, however, no great successes were recorded, especially since the process of disarmament depended in practice on the field commanders, who understood very well that the moderates’ initiative was aimed against them. The weapons in the hands of the people remained an important guarantee that armed violence would not be used against the masses as, for example, happened in Russia in 1993, when Moscow residents supported the parliament that had risen in revolt against neoliberal reforms.

The struggle in Libya quickly spread onto the streets and into the workplaces. Meetings and rallies criticising the NTC became commonplace. The workers’ movement made its presence felt not only through the formation of new, free trade unions, but also through strikes. In October 2011 employees of the firm Waha Oil stopped work, calling for the removal of the old directors who had been appointed under Gaddafi, and in effect, demanding the right to participate in management. The Tripoli Post reported: “Striking workers force decision on oil field management.” (71)

Within the Russian left, comparisons abounded between the events of 2011in the Middle East and the Russian Revolution of February 1917. The “correct” development of events was supposed to see the Arab Spring followed by an “Arab October”. As the Russian expression has it, comparisons are always cripples, but the analogy in this case is particularly incapable of standing on its feet. In Russia in February 1917 the system of state administration had collapsed, and the people had armed themselves. The soviets, popularly elected councils based on the workers, peasants and armed forces rank and file, had created a situation of dual power alongside the Provisional Government, which in the words of Lenin amounted to an authority with no strength. In Tunisia and Egypt nothing of the kind occurred in January 2011, or has happened since. Under pressure from the multitudes the system of state institutions has tottered, but so far has remained upright. If there is an “Arab October” here, the analogy is not with October 1917 but with the October Manifesto of Tsar Nicholas II in 1905. In Russia in October 1905 the old regime was forced to grant the people freedom, but had no intention of yielding power. Meanwhile, social and economic reforms were not even officially on the agenda, though they were implied in the demands being put forward by the population.

The only Arab country which to a certain degree has followed the trajectory of the Russian February is Libya, with its popular councils, armed masses and contrast between the real power lying in the hands of these councils, which collaborate with rebel field commanders, and the TNC leadership representing the moderate-progressive sector of the liberal bureaucratic elite. The analogy is lent still more weight by the collusion between the TNC and NATO, a collusion which inevitably recalls the close relations between the Provisional Government in Petrograd and the Entente. Here, Libya has proven to be the most dynamic element within the general picture of the Arab Spring. (72) But even if the events in Tripoli during the summer of 2011 bear comparison with the February 1917 revolution in Petrograd, it would be naive in the extreme to expect a new set of Bolsheviks to appear. The revolution will move ahead not in Bolshevik, but rather in Jacobin forms.

What is the difference between Bolshevism and Jacobinism? Lenin himself described the Bolsheviks as the Jacobins of the Russian revolution, and there is an undoubted continuity between the two groups in terms of ideology, traditions and even organisational forms. But the social base of the Bolsheviks was the consolidated industrial proletariat, while Jacobinism rested on the undifferentiated though also socially heterogeneous plebeian masses, which included workers, the petty bourgeoisie, and impoverished individuals from the free professions. Today, a similarly broad plebeian mass provides the base for the Arab revolutions. Moreover, the evolution of hired labour, the global redistribution of production and changes in the structure of society have created a situation in the early twenty-first century in which “classical” proletarian revolution is really only possible in China (yet another paradox of the present period, since it was the Chinese Communists in the 1930s who posed the question of the possibility of a socialist revolution in which the proletariat was not the major, decisive force). In eroding the traditional working class, modern capitalism simultaneously brings about the proletarianisation of the middle layers, returning us to a situation in which there is no possibility of relying on consolidated and organised classes, possessing a clear and robust consciousness. But the masses of new semi-proletarians – hired workers in the non-industrial sector, members of the impoverished middle layers, and people from the intelligentsia who have lost their former status – are no less inclined to radical anti-capitalist action than industrial workers (needless to say, this action will come about in different fashion, and the demands will not necessarily be articulated in the language of the “classical” left).

This leads us to a conclusion that is important for understanding the processes now under way in Russia. In its social and ideological forms the coming Russian revolution will not be proletarian but plebeian-democratic. It does not, however, follow from this that the revolution will be unable to put socialist slogans on the agenda, or that it will not succeed in implementing them. We are thrust in this direction by the general crisis of modern capitalism, and also by the objective necessity in Russia of resting on the historical basis of the Soviet heritage – not only and not so much ideological as material, cultural, intellectual and technological.

In the epoch of global crisis, Russia is far closer to the Arab countries than its elites and liberal intelligentsia would like. For us, therefore, the question of how to regard events in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya is not a topic for idle discussion, but a pressing political issue, a test that reveals our own readiness for struggle and for the changes that are to come.

Socialist revolution grows out of democratic revolution; it rests on the democratic needs of the masses, and unlike various progressive upheavals within the elites, cannot come about in any other fashion. Socialism is nothing other than the decisive triumph of democracy, expanding to encompass the sphere of the economy, and whenever it begins to be interpreted and practised differently, it suffers defeat. The democratic uprising in the Middle East creates an opening through which millions of people, who previously could never even have imagined themselves as subjects of history, can struggle for new conditions of their social existence. Plebs is being transformed into demos; the crowd is becoming the masses, and the population is coming to conceive of itself as the people.

This historic struggle is revealing what each left group, ideologue and party is really worth. The place which various currents will hold is being decided by their attitude to the revolution, and by their willingness or unwillingness to take up the challenge of history. Their role will depend on how they answer this challenge – not adapting to circumstances, and not playing to the majority, but at the same time never ceasing to work in its interests. There is nothing terrible about being in a minority, but there is nothing more appalling than to remain a mere spectator of history, on its sidelines, outside the process which the human majority is living through.

[Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalisation Studies and Social Movements.]


1. Le Matin, Algeria, 1 Sept. 2011.

2. The Independent, 2 Sept. 2011.

3. The Tripoli Post, 10 Sept. 2011.

4. See The Tripoli Post, 10 Sept. 2011.

5. Le Matin, Algeria, 21 Aug. 2011.

6. The Daily Mail, 24 Feb. 2011.

7. The Daily Telegraph, 27 Feb. 2011.

8. RBK-Daily, 13 Sept. 2011.

9. The Daily Mail, 5 Sept. 2011.

10. See

11. The National Post, Canada, 29 Oct. 2011.

12. The Daily Mail, 5 Sept. 2011.

13. H. Kyvik Nordås. The Global Textile and Clothing Industry post the Agreement on Textile and Clothing. WTO Discussion Paper no. 5. Geneva, 2004, p.11.

14. International Herald Tribune, 31 May 2011.

15. Le Matin, Algeria, 26 Feb. 2011.

16. One of the contributors to the Tripoli Post, Sami Zaptia, notes that foreign analysts, like the supporters of Gaddafi, “have made much of the issue of tribalism.” Zaptia argues that in fact, Libya is “basically quite a homogeneous society.”

17. For a more detailed treatment of the relations between Gaddafi and the London School of Economics, see also: The Guardian, 2 March 2011; and

18. S. Amin, “Le printemps arabe?” Nouveaux cahiersdu socialisme, 22 May 2011.

19. See The Tripoli Post, 22 Sept. 2011,

20. The Tripoli Post, 24 Sept. 2011,

21. Le Matin, Algeria, 6 March 2011,

22. The Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2011.

23. See

24. Voennoe obozrenie, 8 August 2011,

25. ibid.

26. See The Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2011.

27. See Inprecor, July-August-September 2011, no. 575/576, p. 49.

28. Le Matin, Algeria, 1 Sept. 2011.

29. The Tripoli Post, 6 Sept. 2011,

30. J. Cole, “Top Ten Myths about the Libya War”,

31.Inprecor, July-August-September 2011, no. 575/576, p. 45. Significant numbers of people on the radical left sought to evade the problem by issuing resolutions that were ideologically irreproachable but devoid of political content. For example: “…to support the rebels in their struggle against the Gaddafi dictatorship, but not to give political support to the National Transitional Council” (Convergencia de izquierda, Buenos Aires, 15 Sept. 2011). What did this position mean in the conditions of the civil war that the rebels were waging under the leadership of the NTC? A far more serious question, though, was how such an “ideologically correct” position (or any other) was reflected in the practical activity of the organisation involved, assuming that it presupposed any action at all. If adopting a position is not followed by actions or by drawing conclusions for the formulating of current tasks, then there is no point in having the position.

32.The Egyptian Gazette,1 Sept. 2011,

33. The Egyptian Gazette, 13 Sept. 2011,

34. ibid.

35. J. Cole, op. cit.,

36. Nezavisimaya gazeta, 12 April 2011.

37. Inprecor, July-August-September 2011, no. 575/576, p. 51.

38. Le Matin, Algeria, 7 April 2011.

39. For a more detailed treatment see B. Kagarlitskiy, “Skelety iz shkafov polkovnika”,

40. Le Matin, Algeria, 20 July 2011.

41. See S. Ghannoushi, “Dueling legitimacies in Libya”,

42. Le Matin, Algeria, 30 July 2011.

43. J. Cole, op. cit.,

44. La Presse de Tunisie, 12 Sept. 2011.

45. ibid.

46. The Egyptian Gazette, 11 Sept.2011,

47. Daily News Egypt, 8 July 2011,

48. The Tripoli Post, 13 Sept. 2011.

49. O. Dzhemal’, “Domino-revolyutsiya”,

50. O. Dzhemal’, “Liviytsy eshche ne ponyali, chto im grozit”,

51. Le Matin, Algeria, 15 June 2011.

52. S. Amin, op. cit.

53. Al-Ahram Weekly, issue no. 1061, 18-24 Aug. 2011. Online edition,

54. La Presse de Tunisie, 13 Sept. 2011,

55. Al-Ahram Weekly, 18-24 August 2011, issue no. 1061. Online edition,

56. ibid.

57. La Presse de Tunisie, 6 Sept. 2011,

58. Samir Amin, op. cit.

59. See Inprecor, July-August-September 2011, no. 575/576, p. 48.

60. Zied Daoulatli, “Ennahdha n’est pas un parti religieux”. Global Net, 4 Feb. 2011,

61. Ahram Online, 18 March 2011,,-Jihadists-and-Salafists-Egypts-Is.aspx.

62. Daily News Egypt, 29 July 2011, online,

63. An example is provided by a discussion between Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Žižek on the Al-Jazeera television channel,

64. Socialist Review, September 2011, p. 17.

65. The Tripoli Post, 17 Sept. 2011, Azeemullah).

66. See Le Matin, 10 Sept. 2011,

67. The Tripoli Post, 17 Sept. 2011.

68. The Tripoli Post wrote triumphantly that the fall of Jabril would “serve as an example” to all who tried to enrich themselves on the struggle of the Libyan people (The Tripoli Post, 2 Oct. 2011).

69. S. Ghannoushi, op. cit,

70. The Tripoli Post, 31 August 2011, Another Tripoli Post columnist, Hadeed Ali, was just as emphatic. Although the Western aid to the rebels improved Libyan attitudes to America, he argued, it should not be forgotten that “successive administrations have, for the purpose of securing material and strategic interests, been on the side of the dictators in the Middle East, who have been responsible for suppressing any political dissent and expression for decades.” Developing his thesis, the author argued that not only the policies of the US in the Middle East, but also the capitalist system itself and the neoliberal market regime needed to be condemned (The Tripoli Post, 13 Sept. 2011,

71. The Tripoli Post, 15 Oct. 2011.

72. Arab writers have also noted that the revolutionary process in Libya has been more profound than in Tunisia and Egypt because of the destruction of the military-repressive apparatus and of the entire state machinery of the old regime. If what took place in Tunisia and Egypt was “a publicly inspired military coup”, Sami Zaptia observed, in Libya the old state was comprehensively deconstructed (The Tripoli Post, 1 Oct. 2011,


This is indeed a well crafted piece that captures some of the self-criticism that should be evident amongst both anti-Libyan interventionists and pro-Libya interventionists. There is certainly a variegated politics in the region that is often not captured by outsiders, particularly the will to change amongst the people for whom the situation of uncertainty and strange tactical alliances are more acceptable than the status quo. As I stated earlier (on the South Africa debate list where Peter Waterman posted a link to this piece) it is up to the Libyans to determine these choices, which would not preclude outsiders from providing their assessments. So this is a much needed piece that should push us all to vigilence and reflection, even if we disagree.

And while I still hold the view that the neo-humanitarian intervention in Libya was unjustified on its terms (i.e. even with the UN Sec Council resolution) there needs to be an analysis of what the responsibility to protect entails "going forward" - there being no counterfactual.... BK rightly identifies uniqueness as not being seminal - this incidently was the basis for many arguments on the Debate list and amongst the left. I said that it was hard for me to justify the violence of the MG regime, and made no attempt to do so, and remain open to arguments that enlighten what are essentially refined judgement calls. However, the main thrust of my argument, even if accepting the case for intervention of some sort, was that there were other alternatives to NATO bombardment.

The broader point unaddressed in this piece is how this form of 'Responsibility to Protect' R2P intervention is to be codified into international law based on state practice, andd still needs to be addressed particularly as relates to Bahrain, Oman and other places of interest. Comparisons are difficult of politics as such, and it is always much more difficult when First World countries make common cause with Third World liberation aspirations. But here BK puts too much store, for me, on the fractures in the 1st world around the Libyan intervention - these too are not unique but typical - and goes on to surmise (unreasonably so) that this was a reluctant project (even cats toy with mice simply because they can, unless one gives respect for rule of law to the first world vis a vis the 3rd a new twist & previously I said in response to Cole that a comparison with Iraq was neither here nor there... ).

Likewise BK puts great emphasis on Arab League intervention as a possible resolution to the crisis. But like others, whom he quotes, like Juan Cole (why he is an authority on this matter who is someone who provides a simplistic "three prong" analysis for justifying the use of violence I am not sure), he fails to address other alternative and competent (by this I mean effective) solutions including a UN force under mandate. Because the framing of the debate was No-Fly Zone, that became the discourse. This is realistic representation of what happened but not tenable in the argument made by BK. This, incidently was the first operation in which the Secretary General of the UN was in on planning military operations, surely a fall from Dag Hammerskold! Or this may reflect a notable feat of consensus indeed, but other speculations on this have been tendered (for instance I had raised the point about pre-emptive war still being able to reap a dividend at the UN SC, particularly if Russia and China had reached the opinion that resistance would be futile and accordingly would save their veto currency for matters closer to their more precious interests so as not to castrate the fragile protection that the UNSC provides).

Far too much store is also put on relations between Libya and the 1st W - Syria currently under pressure was also a friend in torture and illegal renditions etc... it is old hat this, nations do not have friends, only interests, and interests can change.

And it would also have been more to BKs credit if instead of relying on the 'kill them like rats' translation paraded by the mainstream media he looked into the full translation, kill like rats if armed (this is much like 'erase Israel off the map' statement by Ahmedinajad). A rejoinder to BK might simply be that MG was a rogue, but simply not the rogue the 1st World wanted (which would link into the need for the interventionist Left to look into cases where "like" cases prevailed without intervention beyond uniqueness).

Then there is the issue of Megrahi and the atrocious bombing of a civilian airliner over Lockerbie. None of this features in the analysis, even though UN SG Anan's special rapporteur said that not even a child would believe the case. In a sweep of the developments, this has been overlooked, and one could not place a UN Special Rapporteur in the basket with conspiracy theorists. This constant omission, which ought to be a real bugbear for the 1st world, and its privileged concerned about terror against "its" people, is conspicuous only by its absence.

Much is made of the differences amongst the left. And rightly so, a diversity of views is what keeps us sharp. But too much is made of the non-interventionist left's view (implicitly supporting MG) and far too little of the safeguards that ought to have been put into (or argued for) the resolution particularly since even BK admits that once the pandora of 1st W intervention is released things predictably go bananas. It is this foresight and lack of it simultaneously that distracts from what is otherwise a brilliant piece.

However his point below is something that applies both to interventionists and non-interventionists, and essentially is about how to capture the moment/rapture and to reinvigorate the role of the organic intellectual (and what is new, as there is a shifting tide of world views, opinions and actors) to make a contribution to justice:

"The popular masses should not of course be idealised; rather, it is essential to understand them. Meanwhile, it is precisely a disdain for the masses – sometimes conscious and elitist, at times unconscious and expressed in a primordial rejection of an “incorrect” process (from the point of view of one’s own ideological concepts) – that has characterised a significant section of the left, not only in the West but also in the Arab world itself. Paradoxically, this situation has revealed an irreconcilable rift within the left between revolutionary rhetoric and revolutionary politics. The former has not only been lacking in any relation to the latter, but has also provided an obvious sign of a reluctance to engage in real struggle for the masses, in the real work of transforming society through mobilising its real possibilities and genuine potential. Concealed behind the argumentation about class struggle has been a contemptuous refusal to speak to the working class about its problems and in its own language."

What really worries me is essentially arguments that push for violence when political solutions are available, simply because the 1st W happens to be in agreement (for whatever reason). Distinctions between state terror and non-state terror should not be so casually deployed in making the arguments for violence.


Response to Boris Kagarlitsky

Boris Kagarlitsky's article has some good analysis of a number of issues, including the economic situation in the Arab world, the role of religion, and the rightward turn of the Gaddafi regime and its collusion with imperialism.

However, I disagree with some of Kagarlitsky's opinions.

It is true that Gaddafi's regime had moved to the right, economically and politically. But for many neoliberals, and for some imperialist governments, it had not gone far enough.

In March 2007 Business Week magazine said, referring to Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and adviser to the Libyan government:

"Porter complains that reform ground to a halt last year....One reason: a backlash against proposed layoffs of public sector workers. A planned privatisation of a public sector bank called Sahara also failed when investors rejected the government's valuation". (

Another possible source of dissatisfaction in imperialist circles was that the Libyan government, while allowing foreign companies access to Libya's oil, drove a hard bargain and kept a high proportion of the revenue for the Libyan state.

Also Libya's foreign policy was not totally pro-imperialist. Libya had friendly relations with countries the US doesn't like, such as Cuba and Venezuela.

Thus when the opportunity arose to remove Gaddafi, the imperialists were interested. But they were initially cautious. It all depended on who would replace him.

Initially the imperialists seemed uncertain who was "in charge" in Benghazi after the February 2011 uprising. The rebels were a mixed bag. There were democrats inspired by the Arab spring. There were defectors from the Gaddafi regime. And there were Islamists with a long history of trying to overthrow Gaddafi.

Some of the defectors were well known as supporters of neoliberal reformns and closer relations with the imperialist powers.

Some of the Islamists were also well known to the imperialists, but the history of this relationship was complicated, including periods of cooperation and periods of conflict.

The most prominent Islamist figure is Abdelhakim Belhadj. He was a long term opponent of Gaddafi. In the 1980s, like some other Libyan Islamists, he went to Afghanistan and fought in the US-backed war against the Soviet-backed government of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan.

After the fall of the PDPA he went back to Libya and set up the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which made several attempts to kill Gaddafi. When the LIFG was crushed Belhadj fled into exile. In 2004 (by which time the reconciliation between Gaddafi and imperialism was in full swing), the CIA arrested him and handed him over to Gaddafi. In 2010 he was released under an amnesty.

No doubt US officials would have been a bit nervous at seeing Belhadj rise to prominence in the rebel movement, fearing he would want revenge.

Eventually the imperialists were satisfied that pro-imperialist neoliberals were in control of the NTC, and gave the green light for the NATO bombing campaign. They also sent NATO special forces personnel to work with some of the rebel military units. One of their roles was to call in NATO aerial attacks on Gaddafi's troops.

Initially the imperialists were hoping that the military campaign would create sufficient pressure to bring about a negotiated transition, which would have maintained Gaddafi's state apparatus largely intact, changing only a few of the leading personnel (including Gaddafi himself, of course).

Experience in Iraq had shown that creating a new bourgeois state apparatus from scratch after the old one has been dismantled is a difficult process, due to rivalries between different bourgeois factions, each wanting to control the new state.

NATO bombed Gaddafi's compound, trying to kill him, or else persuade his associates to remove him and negotiate a deal with imperialism and a section of the rebels.

This strategy did not succeed. Instead the NATO bombing weakened Gaddafi's army sufficiently that the rebels were able to win a military victory.

The old state apparatus has been largely dismantled, and power lies in the hands of the rebels. But the rebels themselves are not a united army. They include various local militias.

I don't know much about the political nature of most of these militias. But in the case of the Misrata militia, we know that it carried out the mass expulsion of black people, turning the city of Tawergha into a ghost town. (

Today military power is in the hands of competing armed groups, some of which (such as the Misrata militia) are clearly reactionary. Some of these armed groups have clashed with each other. For example, the Zintan militia seized control of the airport, and clashed with the so-called national army which tried to seize it from them. Thus as in Iraq imperialism faces difficulty in creating a stable new state apparatus.

The NATO intervention has not brought democracy to Libya. However struggles around democratic issues have been occurring. There have been protests demanding that the NTC publish the names of its members. There has been a sit-in by staff at the state broadcaster demanding they be free of direct NTC control. There have been some strikes by workers. There have been protests by women over the fact that rapes go unpunished.

But on the issue of racism there is no apparent progress. The people of Tawergha are still living in refugeee camps, unable to return home.

What alternative to NATO?

Supporters of the rebels argue that they had no choice but to turn to NATO for support. Otherwise the democracy movement would inevitably have been violently suppressed.

But the people of Egypt and Tunisia overthrew dictators and made some democratic gains (albeit precarious) without NATO intervention.

Some might say that Gaddafi was more ruthless or more determined to hang on to power than Ben Ali or Mubarak. I would say the difference lies elsewhere. I would argue that Gaddafi still retained some of the support he had won as an Arab nationalist and a bringer of a certain amount of social welfare to the Libyan people.

For example, speaking of the town of Tawergha, a BBC report says:

"Tawerghans are mostly descendants of black slaves. They are generally poor, were patronised by the Gaddafi regime and were broadly supporters of his regime. Some signed up to fight for him as the regime fought for its survival." (

Furthermore, a large part of the Libyan people distrusted the rebels. Gaddafi portrayed them as imperialist agents and as Islamist terrorists. Given that Libya had previously suffered attacks by imperialist agents and terrorists, this must have seemed plausible to many Libyans. And indeed, some of the rebels (such as Belhadj) were veterans of past terrorist campaigns.

Initially the rebels tried to counter the "imperialist agent" accusation by saying they didn't want foreign military intervention. But once the NATO bombs started falling, Gaddafi's accusation must have seemed to many Libyans to be correct.

Why were the rebels unable to win support in places such as Tawergha? Was it just that repression prevented them spreading their message there? Or was there something wrong with the message?

The racism of many rebels became obvious when they drove out the black inhabitants of Tawergha and turned it into a ghost town. But it would have been apparent to black people long before then.

If the people of Tawergha had joined the rebels Gaddafi's forces would have been unable to maintain the blockade of nearby Misrata. But the political limitations of the rebels prevented them winning such support.

The rebels relied on NATO because they did not have sufficient support amongst the Libyan people to win on their own.

Kagarlitsky downplays the significance of the NATO bombing campaign. He cites figures showing that as of mid July "only" 11,107 combat missions had been flown. It is true that this is less than in some other Western bombing campaigns, such as the war against Iraq. It is probably true that this lesser amount of bombing was related to NATO's desire to arrange a negotiated transition rather than win a military victory.

But more than 11,000 bombing raids is a lot. NATO's treatment of Gaddafi was very different from its treatment of (for example) the king of Bahrain. Although US spokespeople occasionally claimed to disapprove of repression in Bahrain, and although the US has an air base in nearby Qatar, not a single bomb was dropped on the king's palace, nor on his troops, nor on the Saudi troops who entered Bahrain to help suppress the protests.

This indicates the very different attitude the US took to Gaddafi compared to most of the other repressive rulers in the region. (They may take similar action against Assad in Syria, who has displeased them by being an ally of Iran, and by helping Hezbollah in Lebanon).

Chris Slee