Guests from around the world are gathering today in the Libyan capital, Tripoli for the 40th anniversary celebrations of the revolution which toppled the colonial puppet King Idris. The week-long festivities mark an unprecedented opening up to outsiders just as Libya has hit the headlines with its warm reception for Mohamed al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted in connection with the Lockerbie bombing.
The commemorations will help to free Libya from the pariah status it has suffered ever since 27-year-old army officer, Captain Muammar al Gaddafi led a group of army officers to overthrow the corrupt monarchy in a nearly bloodless coup. The Revolutionary Command Council aimed to “turn Libya, now under-developed and badly governed, into a country which will fight against colonialism and racism and will help colonised countries”.
Gaddafi sought to improve the lot of Libyan citizens, who had suffered under Italian occupation and under Idris, a cat’s paw for US, Italian and British oil interests. Gaddafi was inspired by Gamal abdel Nasser, who achieved Egyptian independence in 1952 and inspired anti-colonial revolutions throughout the Middle East. The Libyan leader went far beyond his hero in his moves to democratise Libyan society.
The September 1 regime struck horror into the United States and Britain, who until then extracted cheap oil through companies like BP while Libyans languished in poverty. Gaddafi urged the liberation of Palestine and redistribution of land and resources. He removed foreign bases, nationalised the banks and established the Libyan national oil company. He also raised the price of Libyan oil. (Libya, the Struggle for Survival, Geoff Symons 1993).
Gaddafi set out to transform Libya from the world’s poorest country into a rapidly developing one. Oil income was invested into diversifying the economy, irrigation and desalination, health and agriculture. The nomadic Bedouin and Tuareg of the desert were protected.
In 1973 Gaddafi launched a political revolution which culminated in 1977 with the creation of the “Authority of the People” through the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya – translates as “state of the masses created to give power directly to the people”. In 1975 the Libyan General Women’s Federation was established; Libyan women enjoyed greater freedom than almost any in the Arab world.
But his dream of achieving pan Arab and African unity were actively thwarted both by the big powers as well as Arab and African national regimes. The Soviet Union provided MiG-25 combat fighters, but the Kremlin Stalinists bitterly opposed Gaddafi’s support for revolutionary democratic movements. In 1975, Egyptian president Sadat, who signed a peace deal with Israel and the US, described Gaddafi as "100 per cent sick and possessed by the devil".
The Reagan regime was obsessed with hatred for this tiny but obdurate country, and on 15 April 1986, US Air Force Navy and Marine Corps carried out air-strikes against Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s main cities. Forty people were killed, including Gaddafi’s daughter. Two of his sons were injured as the US narrowly missed their key target.
Embargos and sanctions forced through the UN by the US, Britain and Israel, as well as falling oil prices took a heavy toll and GDP shrank by 40% in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1984 anti-Gaddafi exiles surrounded the Libyan Embassy in London and a policewoman was shot. After an 11-day siege by the British state, the Libyan officials were released and returned to Tripoli. Britain broke off relations with Libya.
In December 1988, a Pan-Am flight was brought down by a bomb over the village of Lockerbie, and Libya was blamed. Last week’s release of al-Megrahi had two aims: to sweeten deals between British companies and Libya and to prevent Megrahi’s appeal from taking place.
The economic meltdown of the global economy is driving a renewed search for cheap sources of oil. While visitors and locals party in Libya’s cities, ships chartered by BP are greedily prospecting the Gulf of Sidra off Libya’s coast. And details of the secret deal signed in 2007 by BP with Libya’s National Oil Corporation with Blair looking on have just come to light.
Gaddafi remains a champion of the cause of African unity in words at least and today he will chair a summit meeting of the 53-nation African Union (AU) in Tripoli. But Libya has made a nasty deal with Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, at the expense of refugees and asylum seekers. Libya’s Internal Security Agency is described by Amnesty International as having “unchecked powers to arrest, detain and interrogate individuals”.
The US, Britain and other European countries want to draw Libya into their orbit from a position of weakness. Reeling from their failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are trying a more softly-softly approach. This is a sign that the gains of the national liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s have not been entirely lost. We now live in a very different time with the capitalist economy in a much deeper crisis. Signing deals with the corporations is not the way to go.
A return to pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism at a new pitch, to reflect the challenges of the globalisation of the world economy and the role of transnational corporations, is what is needed. Otherwise Libya risks becoming yet another pawn in the global oil game, where countries alone, however tough they try to be, find it hard to defend their national interests.
A World to Win secretary