On Libya

14 03 2011

A friend recently asked me my thoughts about the African and Arab uprisings and whether or not they will lead to more dictatorship.  I responded with the following:

I’ve been following what’s been happening in the Arab world since reports starting coming in about the demonstrations in Egypt. Everyone here, much like the rest of the world, barely heard about Tunisia until it happened.  It wasn’t even rated as a news story.

These are very significant events in the history of the post-colonial world, and the tendency for the news media, except maybe, Al Jazeera, to gloss over them or badly report them is a crime.  The same can be said for the international community that has been working very hard to find out what each uprising means for them and their interests before trying to decide how to turn the situation to their benefit.  It is destroying the huge potential of these uprisings.

Colonialism never truly died in these countries. The colonial powers formally relinquished control, but their presence remained. The eager revolutionaries and organisations that took their place instituted authoritarian rule, and the same Western powers that once colonised these countries for their resources or strategic military value, simply made friends with the dictator to open the doors to commerce. Large corporations then moved in to extract resources from the country, export them home, and pay the dictator millions of dollars while the people remained in poverty.

Part of the reason these authoritarian regimes have been able to come to power is because the people of these former colonies have never had a chance to “birth” a new national identity, one based on honour, respect and equal rights.  Colonial rule ended suddenly, and the institutions that lead to oppression under colonialism, generally, remained in place.  As such, no new identity was born.  While the French were able to do it in the face of their monarchy, and the Americans did it in the face of Britain, the colonial power, in the countries now experience unrest there is simply a perpetuation of the privilege, humiliation and abuses that occurred under colonialism.  These uprisings are the next step in the process, where the people rise up, kick out their petty tyrants and establish an identity that is not based in humiliation and subjugation. This is why all these uprisings have had a nationalist bent — and while I’m against nationalism as an oppressive, divisive concept often aimed at achieving conformity and suppressing difference, I accept the nationalism of these uprisings as an attempt to re-express an identity.

It is a fundamentally good thing.

The next thing that is necessary to consider is that not all country’s in Africa and the Middle East are the same.  Tunisia and Egypt were similar because both governments tried to maintain a thin veil of legitimacy to the international community and world.  They were also strong Western allies.  So when the people no longer feared the para-state security apparatus that Ben Ali and Mubarak had created, it was easier to force them out of the country.

Libya was the next in the chain, particularly given that it sits right between Egypt and Tunisia.  Unrest had spread to many countries, but you could tell Libya would be next.  The only problem is that Gaddafi would never step down.  He has less to lose than Ben Ali and Mubarak did.  Better yet, he never tried to maintain a veil of legitimacy to deal with the rest of the world.  People know he’s a brutal authoritarian ruler and they engaged him anyway.  That they are now saying “OMGz What are you doing to your people?” is really a farce.  Further, the internal structures and institutions of Libya are different to Tunisia and Egypt in that Gaddafi did his best to marginalise the military to prevent a coup, so it’s little wonder many in the military have defected, play the tribes off against each other and therefore keep the people subjugated.

There is this point you will find in all these uprisings where the reports you read will cause fear.  You can see the videos of what is happening in the street, read the twitter feeds giving on-the-ground accounts and then you read the news reports.  There is that point where you fear for the people and think, maybe, just maybe, their momentum is finished and the State may now crack down, hard.  Your first thought is that there will be blood.  There was that moment in Egypt, but the protesters made one final push, with the help of the military, and Mubarak was gone.  In Libya, there was that moment exact same moment, but unlike in Egypt, the protesters in Libya faced far heavier repression.  The Egyptian security forces would try to run down demonstrators in the street but the army never opened fired on demonstrators.  The servants of the Libyan state shot protesters dead.  In dozens.  Indiscriminately.  With RPG’s and bullets all too often, aimed at the head.

It is not hard to see the lies and great efforts the regime in Libya has gone to in order to hide their brutality.  I watched a video just the other day, where a reporter went into a town recaptured by Gaddafi forces.  In the centre, the week before, there were 19 bodies that were buried.  These were people killed in the uprising.  The graves had been demolished, and apparently a bull dozer had been brought in to remove the bodies.  A coffin lay smashed open on the ground.  Relatively peaceful protests, as seen in Egypt, never had a chance.

I also do not think it is right to call what is going on a ‘civil war’.  The “rebels”, as they have been called in the media, have no organised army or weapons, except that which has been liberated from Gaddafi’s security forces.  What we are seeing is a continuing response to the brutality of the crackdown on an attempt at a relatively peaceful protest and revolution.  The people picked up guns liberated from the security forces and rushing to help protect others in neighbouring towns because it is their only choice.  Libya is in revolt.  For those who began the revolt, everything is on the line and if Gaddafi is able to reassert control over the country there will be a continuing, brutal repression against anyone who was involved.

Make no mistake about it.  People have disappeared.  The injured have been removed from hospitals, the young have been arrested and dissent has been crushed in many places.

Too many pessimists are already saying nothing good can come from these events.  I disagree.  Strongly.  I am optimistic about what these revolutions, if successful, will achieve.  As I pointed out earlier, the capacity for a people to stand up from a long period of subservience and humiliation to establish a new identity is inspiring.  It is a positive thing and may very well yield positive result.  But in saying that, you can never know with revolutions.  Uprisings, rebellions and revolutions are fickle creatures.  Often the question is not whether you will be successful against the forces of great evil, but whether or not you will become them yourself.  Those who start out fighting for honour, dignity, integrity and justice all too often end up becoming what they hate.  But this is not to say that revolutions should not be fought or attempted, it is just that you cannot know the future until you’re living in it.

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