The unfolding events in Libya are extremely difficult to follow. One thing is clear though: the population has suffered weeks of repression, fear and uncertainty. Maybe thousands have died initially at the hands of the regime’s repressive apparatus, but now increasingly they are caught in the crossfire as the government and opposition struggle for control of the country. What are they dying for? On the one hand, in order to maintain Gaddafi’s control of the state, and on the other in order to put the Libyan National Council - the self proclaimed “voice of the revolution”- in control of the whole country. The working class in Libya and beyond is being asked to choose between two sets of gangsters. In Libya they are being told they should actively take part in this growing civil war between rival parts of the Libyan bourgeoisie over control of the state and economy. In the rest of the world we are encouraged to support the brave struggle of the Opposition. Workers have no interest in supporting either faction.
The events in Libya started as a mass protest against Gaddafi, inspired by the movements in Egypt and Tunisia. The impetus for the explosion of anger in many cities appears to have been the brutal repression of the first demonstrations. According to The Economist 26/2/11, the initial spark was the demonstration in Benghazi on 15February by about 60 youths. Similar demonstrations took place in other cities and were all met by bullets. Faced with the murder of scores of young people, thousands took to the streets in desperate battles with the forces of the state. These struggles witnessed actions of great courage. The population of Benghazi, hearing that mercenaries were being flown into the airport, descended upon the airport and its defenders en masse and took it over, despite heavy losses. In another action civilians commandeered bulldozers and other vehicles and stormed a heavily armed barracks. The population in other cities drove out the repressive forces of the state. The only response of the regime was ever more repression, but this resulted in the break-up of much of the armed forces as soldiers and officers refused to carry out orders to kill protesters. One private shot dead a commanding officer after he issued a shoot-to-kill command. Initially this seems to have been a genuine explosion of popular anger faced with brutal repression and increasing economic misery, especially on the part of the urban youth.
Why have things taken a different turn in Libya?
The deepening economic crisis and a growing refusal to accept repression has been the wider background for the movements in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. The working class and general population has suffered years of brutal poverty and exploitation as the ruling class has accumulated vast wealth.
But why has the situation in Libya been so different to that in Tunisia and Egypt? In those countries, while there was repression, the main means for bringing the social discontent under control was the use of democracy. In Tunisia the growing demonstrations by the working class and wider population against unemployment was diverted almost overnight into the dead end of who would replace Ben Ali. Under the guidance of the US military the Tunisian military told the president to sling his hook. It took a bit longer in Egypt to get Mubarak to go but even his resistance ensured that the discontent was focused on getting rid of him. Importantly, one of the things that finally pushed him was the outbreak of strikes demanding better conditions and wages. This showed that while workers had participated in the massive demonstrations against the government they had not forgotten about their own interests and were not willing to put them to one side in the name of giving democracy a chance.
In both Egypt and Tunisia the military is the backbone of the state and was able to put the interests of the national capital above the interests of particular cliques. In Libya the military does not have the same role. The Gaddafi regime has deliberately kept the military weak over the decades, along with any other part of the state which may have been a power base for rivals. “Gaddafi tried to keep the military weak so they could not topple him, as he toppled King Idris” said Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert at the Washington-based National Defense University. The result is “a poorly trained military run by poorly trained leadership that are on the ropes, not exactly personally stable, and with a lot of extra weapons floating around.” (Bloomberg 2/3/11) This meant that the only answer the regime has to any social discontent is naked repression.
The very brutality of the state’s response swept the working class up in an outbreak of desperate anger at the sight of their children being massacred. But those workers who joined the demonstrations did so largely as individuals: despite the great courage it took to stand up to Gaddafi’s guns, workers were not able to put forward their own class interests.
In Tunisia, as we have said the movement began within the working class and the poor against unemployment and repression. The proletariat in Egypt entered into the movement after having engaged in several waves of struggles over recent years, and this experience has given it confidence in its ability to defend its own interests. The importance of this was demonstrated at the end of the demonstrations when a wave of strikes broke out (see the article on page 3).
The Libyan proletariat entered into the present conflict in a weak position. There were reports of a strike in one oilfield. But it is impossible to tell if there have been any other expressions of working class activity. There may have been, but we have to say that the working class as a class is more or less absent. This means that the class from the beginning has been vulnerable to all of the ideological poison generated by a situation of chaos and confusion. The appearance of the old monarchist flag and its acceptance as the symbol of the revolt in only a matter of days marks how deep this weakness is. This flag went along with the nationalist slogan of a “free Libya”. There have also been expressions of tribalism, with support or opposition to the Gaddafi regime being determined in some cases by regional or tribal interests and tribal leaders using their authority to put themselves at the head of the rebellion. There is also appears to be a strong presence of Islamism with the chant of “Allahu Akbar” being heard on many demonstrations.
This morass of ideologies has exacerbated a situation where tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of foreign workers have felt the need to flee the country. Why would foreign workers line up behind a national flag, no matter its colour? A real proletarian movement would have incorporated the foreign workers from the beginning because the demands would have been common ones: better wages, working conditions and the end of repression for all workers. They would have united because their strength was their unity, regardless of nation, tribe or religion.
Gaddafi has made full use of all of this poison to try and get workers and the population to support him against the alleged threat posed to his ‘revolution’: foreigners, tribalism, Islamism, the West.
A new regime in waiting
The majority of the working class hates the regime. But the real and gravest danger for the working class is falling in behind the ‘opposition’. This opposition, with the new ‘National Council’ more and more assuming a position of leadership, is a conglomeration of various fractions of the bourgeoisie: former members of the regime, monarchists, etc, along with tribal and religious leaders. All of them have taken full advantage of the fact that this movement has no independent proletarian direction to impose their desire to replace Gaddafi’s management of the Libyan state with their own.
Ehe National Council is clear about its role: “The main aim of the national council is to have a political face ... for the revolution,” “We will help liberate other Libyan cities, in particular Tripoli through our national army, our armed forces, of which part have announced their support for the people,” (Reuters Africa 27/2/11) “There is no such thing as a divided Libya” (Reuters 27/2/11). In other words their aim is to maintain the present capitalist dictatorship but with a different face.
The opposition is not united though. Gaddafi’s former Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Ajleil announced the formation of a provisional government at the end of February with the support of some former diplomats. It was based in Al-Baida. This move was rejected by the National Council based in Benghazi.
This shows that within the opposition there are deep divisions which will explode eventually if they manage to get rid of Gaddafi or when these ‘leaders’ scramble to save their skins if Gaddafi manages to stay in power.
The National Council has a better public face. It is fronted by Ghoga, a well-known human rights lawyer and is thus not too tainted with links to the former regime, unlike Ajleil. All the better to sell this gang to the population.
The media has made a lot of fuss about the committees that have sprung up in cities, town and regions where Gaddafi has lost control. Many of these committees seem to have been self-appointed by local dignitaries, but even if some of them were direct expressions of the popular revolt, it looks as though they have been pulled into the bourgeois, statist framework of the National Council. The National Council’s effort to establish a national army means only death and destruction to the working class and the population as a whole as this army battles it out with Gaddafi’s forces. The social fraternization that originally helped to undermine the regime’s efforts at repression will be replaced by pitched battles on a purely military front, while the population will be called on to make sacrifices to ensure that the National Army can fight.
The transformation of the bourgeois opposition into a new regime is being accelerated by the increasingly open backing of the major powers: the US, Britain, France, Italy etc. The imperialist gangsters are now distancing themselves from their former buddy Gaddafi in order to ensure that if a new team comes to power they will hold some sway over it. The support will be for those who will fit in with the imperialist interests of the big powers.
What appears to have begun as a desperate response to repression by parts of the population has very rapidly been used by the ruling class in Libya and internationally to their own ends. A movement that began as a furious effort to stop the massacre of young people has ended up as another massacre of the young, but now in the name of a Free Libya.
The proletariat both in Libya and beyond can only respond by increasing its determination not to allow itself to be dragged into bloody struggles between factions of the ruling class in the name of democracy or a free nation. In the coming days and weeks, if Gaddafi hangs on to power the international chorus of support for the opposition in this civil war will grow ever louder. And if he goes, there will be an equally deafening campaign about the triumph of democracy, people’s power and freedom. Either way workers will be asked to identify with the democratic face of capitalism’s dictatorship.