The anti-government demonstrations sweeping Libya mark a stunning turn of events in the revolutionary upsurge sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. With diplomats defecting and the army split, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime is rocking.
A bizarre appearance by Saif Gaddafi on state television last night only adds to the sense that Libya’s leaders will soon suffer the fate of those in Egypt and Tunisia.
Gaddafi’s eldest son, while saying that “untrained” soldiers had made mistakes, claimed the “seditious” demonstrators were under the influence of foreign powers or even drugs and claimed that only a few people had died. He warned of civil war and a fight to the finish.
But with an estimated 200 plus deaths and many more wounded, events in the Libya – and the Arab world as a whole - have reached a point of no return. Those who are being gunned down in the streets of Libya’s second city Benghazi share the grievances affecting all of the Arab states from the largest (Egypt) to the smallest (Bahrain) – the lack of democratic rights, growing inequality and economic want.
The crackdown by the Libyan regime has been particularly brutal, much of it hidden as internet services are closed down and foreign reporters banned. One CNN report said that helicopter gunships have been used to fire at protesters.
The turning of the Gaddafi regime against its own people in this way is a turning point in the fortunes of the Arab people. Libya, despite its small population of 6.5 million, has played a special role on the world stage. After taking power in September 1970 in a military coup that overthrew the monarchy, Gaddafi fought hard to implement the ideals of Pan-Arabism championed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt.
With his concept of jamahiriya – “state of the masses” or “republic of the masses”, he sought to foster a direct democracy in which the people would rule through local councils and communes. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Libya became a anti-imperialist force which supported liberation movements throughout the world, especially the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Libya became subject to US oil and export sanctions from 1982. The UN trade embargo was to last until 2004.
Not only did Libya face punishment by the major imperialist powers. Gaddafi’s campaign for Arab unity was undermined and betrayed by Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s and Hafez al-Hassad in Syria. He was denounced by his neighbour, Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba. He was punished further for opposing the Iraqi invasion of Iran during the genocidal Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s.
In April 1986, the US ir force bombed the Libyan capital Tripoli in revenge for a bombing at a Berlin discotheque frequented by US troops and Gaddafi’s family was targeted, with his daughter being killed. Political and economic pressure on Libya increased after the downing of the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie in December 1988 for which Libya was framed.
Libya’s political and economic isolation produced a reactionary political turn. The 1990s saw increased inequalities and loss of political freedom for ordinary Libyans. A nepotistic dynastic elite grew up in which the rich enjoying freedoms denied to ordinary Libyans. Rights for opponents became non-existent, with political prisoners being shot down at the Abu Salim jail in 1996.
The sight of Gaddafi making deals over oil and immigration with oil-hungry authoritarians like Blair and Italian leader Berlusconi has been particularly shocking. The possible collapse of his regime is sending shock waves down those in the British establishment and corporate world, who have been supplying many of the weapons used against the demonstrators
Events in Libya sound not only the death-knell of liberation leaders turned autocrats. It also creates a crisis for those who conspired against them while they were revolutionaries but embraced them when they turned against their own people. With both eyes on Libya’s oil, the major capitalist powers do not give a damn for democratic rights, which is why their remarks are not worth listening to.
A World to Win secretary