Friday, 2 September 2011

We are the People!

Freedom, Unity and Socialism.

The bloodless coup of 1969 followed a similar pattern as the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, when the last remnants of British power were overhauled by the Free Officers, Muammar al-Gaddafi was one of a coterie of military officials. In power the Colonel sought to model the regime on the pan-Arab and secular nationalist set up in Egypt, Gaddafi railed against the European colonial powers, America and Israel. Before his death in 1970 General Nasser said "I rather like Gaddafi. He reminds me of myself when I was that age." The Gaddafi regime forced out the British and American military bases and quickly moved to expel Westerners. At the same time the regime sought to craft a welfare system to provide universal health-care, education and affordable housing which fed into an anti-imperialist platform. The regime began to fund groups like the PLO, the ANC and the IRA. Gaddafi later described the system he was building as Islamic socialism, it might be more accurately described as Islamic Maoism. The country began to resemble an African Cuba.

The exact nature of links between the regime with the US and Britain were ambiguous in the early days, though a young Muammar al-Gaddafi had been on a military training course in Britain in 1966. With one British official stating "We thought he was a bit left-wing, but not too bad, and that we could deal with him." There have even been suggestions that the US backed the coup. The former Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Bakoush claimed "The Americans had contacts with Gaddafi through the embassy in Tripoli. They encouraged him to take over. There were dozens of CIA operatives in Libya at that time and they knew what was going on. The Americans were frightened of the senior officers and the intelligentsia in Libya because they thought that these people were independent and could not be run as puppets." We should keep in mind that Bakoush refused to give any names that might corroborate this theory. The rise of a new regime in Libya might have been interpreted as a chance to avoid a violent insurrection which might lead the country into the tentacles of the Soviet Union.

It is certain that there was serious concern about the reforms initiated under Gaddafi and the threat Libya would pose as a model for independence. The end of the monarchy and the construction of a welfare state might have "bought off" socialism for the time being, but what happens when other countries look to Libya as an example. This was the threat posed by the rise of General Nasser in Egypt and the desperation of the British to crush Arab nationalism. So in 1971 the CIA and MI6 put together a plot to bring down Gaddafi as part of an all-out-invasion of Libya, which would culminate in the release of political prisoners and the restoration of the monarchy. Ultimately, the plot fell apart because the CIA decided that the Gaddafi regime posed a sufficient bulwark to Communism in North Africa. Although the Gaddafi regime was opposed to the state of Israel and what it deemed Western imperialism, the  same regime stood in opposition to Soviet influence in the region. This was enough for the Americans, the British just had to shut up and grit their teeth.

Cracks began to emerge in the regime as a schism opened up between a serious commitment to socio-economic development and the interventionist foreign policy. In 1975 came an attempt to overthrow Gaddafi, which was crushed when the CIA notified him of the plot and the opposition were either exiled or imprisoned. After this Gaddafi began to undermine all aspects of Libyan society which might pose a threat to him in the long-term future, e.g. the military and the trade unions. The security apparatus became much more powerful. The sanctions later imposed by the UN and the US only furthered this process to the extent that corruption became endemic within Libya. By 2010 Gaddafi had seen to it that only 1.2% of GDP was spent on the Libyan military. The weapons and military equipment were either old models from the Soviet Union or had been recently imported from Britain and the US. The regime experienced a degree of immunity because of the government's reliance on oil revenue, as well as on the Soviet Union for political support in the world as relations with the US "waned" after the first 10 years in power.

As a result of the power struggle the country underwent a series of significant changes as the regime became increasingly centred around Colonel Gaddafi. The old Arab nationalist flag was tossed aside along with the title of Libyan Arab Republic as Gaddafi brought out his Green Book. Gaddafi called it a "cultural revolution", though he might have pursued such changes as relations with Egypt soured in a bid to distinguish his regime from that of Sadat. Officially Libya became the most democratic country on earth, a direct democracy maintained through a string of committees - a "practical form" as Gaddafi put it - where the authority of the people comes first and foremost. In reality the Libyan state was comprised of committees which took orders from Gaddafi who fell back on an astonishing security apparatus to police society. A network of informants and spies was established throughout Libyan society. It was a system of bureaucracy he built to insulate and maintain his own power. When asked where the people fit into this system the Colonel gave the perfect Stalinist reply "We are the people. The Free Officers are the sons of poor families, they are the embodiment of the people."

This is the similar method of rule practiced in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, though Gaddafi was far less brutal than Pol Pot it remains an adequate comparison. The Khmer Rouge took the negation of the past to the furthest limit, but failed to create a new collectivity. The old order was just replaced with a primitive regime of egalitarian control and ruthless exploitation. The Free Officers broke apart the old remnants of colonialism and the monarchy only to fail at the construction of an egalitarian society. Instead the regime provided a vent to the rage of the victims of colonialism as it built an apparatus of repression, rather than build on the accomplishments made early on and eliminate poverty totally. Similarly, Gaddafi reigned in distance from power as the Libyan state was officially a form of direct democracy just as the Khmer Rouge refused to admit it was in power for a few years after it had seized the country. To inquire into the structure of state-power was considered a crime and the leaders were simply referred to as "Brother No.1", "Brother No.2" etc. while the ruling party was simply known as "Angka", which means "organisation". In the same way Gaddafi represented an authoritarian distance from power.

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