How the West Used Libya to Hijack the Arab Revolts

By Alex Kane · 10 Apr 2012

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Vijay Prashad talks neoliberal economics, the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and why NATO's intervention in Libya marked a new chapter in the story of the Arab revolts.

At first glance, the revolt in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi seemed to be a continuation of the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010. But when NATO forces began to fly sorties over Libya, bombing Gaddafi’s fighters, it became absolutely clear this was no Egypt or Tunisia.

Instead, argues Vijay Prashad in his new book Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, Western powers, helped along by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, used the turmoil in Libya to promote their own agenda--an agenda that included transforming Libya’s economy into a neoliberal haven. As for the Arab states that aligned with the West, Prashad argues that the “Atlantic powers” struck a deal with the “Saudis and the Gulf Arab states that allowed the latter to silence dissent on the Arabian peninsula (Bahrain and Yemen).” In turn, the Gulf states delivered “the Arab League and so the United Nations for a NATO-led intervention in Libya."

AlterNet recently spoke with Prashad, the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History at Trinity College, about his new book, which is set to be released this month.

ALEX KANE: The Arab Spring, and the aftermath of the intervention in Libya, is very much a story that is ongoing, taking twists and turns every day. So what made you decide to write a book on such a fluid historical moment?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the book was about an argument that was very sharp in March and April, and that was around what was happening in Libya specifically. So, for instance, in February, when the uprising began in Libya, there was a thought that Libya would also go the way of Tunisia and Egypt. Then there was a very bizarre set of events taking place, and the calls for NATO to intervene. There was no such call for Egypt and Tunisia, even though when the calls to intervene began, the number of dead in Libya were comparable to the number of dead in Egypt. What people don’t realize is that over 1,000 people died in Egypt during the revolution, the first phase of the revolution. And so, I found that very interesting. Why was there such a strident call for NATO to intervene?

Part of the reason I wrote this book was to review the recent history of Libya and to consider the question of how NATO became an actor in the Arab Spring. How did we move from, “the Arab street is now awake,” to “NATO must be a participant.” That was the story that was worth telling.

ALEX KANE: The last book you wrote, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World, was a history of the anti-colonial, non-aligned states that developed an alliance during the Cold War. Do you see this book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, as one that builds on your previous work?

VIJAY PRASHAD: It does, certainly. The way it does is, that book told the story of the Third World project, which ran from the 1920s, but largely collapsed in the 1980s. While I was researching that book, of course, I read extensively about Libya, I had been to Libya as a child, I had a long relationship with the Libyan story. And what’s interesting is even though Muammar Gaddafi had been in power from 1969 to 2011, even though he had been in power for that long period, just about when the Third World project collapsed in the mid-1980s, the Gaddafi project collapsed and transformed itself in the 1980s. So the narrative arc, the story I tell in The Darker Nations, is also revealed in Libya’s story.

So Gaddafi comes to power in ‘69 by way of a coup d'état in which almost no gun was fired; he had virtually the entire population on his side when he overthrew King Idris. The elites were unhappy and they fled the country, but the mass of people were very pleased with Gaddafi, who in his own idiosyncratic way provided a large amount of the social wealth of Libya to the betterment of the people. In the 1980s, when that Third World project starts to strain and begins to collapse, the Gaddafi project also collapses. You might think of it as a subset of the larger developments. And when the Gaddafi project collapses, what is reborn is a kind of mutant child, where on one side you have the rhetoric of the 1969 revolution, and on the other side a need, a desire to make a rapprochement with the West and bring into Libya what becomes known as neoliberal economic policies. So there is a real pivot in the Gaddafi camp in the 1980s. 

ALEX KANE: Neoliberal economics in the Arab world is not often discussed as a driving force behind the revolts, at least not in popular discussions of Egypt and Tunisia in the US. But your book gives those policies prominence in describing why the revolts came about. Could you talk about this more?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, yes, there were two heads that the Arab Spring worked to topple. One is relatively well understood, particularly in the North Atlantic world. And that is the head of the national security state, what here we call dictatorships, authoritarian regimes. In these countries, since the 1970s, a highly developed apparatus was put into place to keep the populations in line. Large numbers of prisons, very sophisticated intelligence networks for internal security, the mukhabarat [Arabic for intelligence] is one element of that, internal security forces in Egypt, Tunisia, etc. So, this is one aspect, and we are very familiar with dictatorships or authoritarianism, and the answer to that is freedom. So one head is well understood.

The second head is neoliberal economics. The best example of this is Egypt. In 1971 the Sadat regime moved away from Nasserist economic policies, to build the nation and the economy, and they started a policy of infitah, the kind-of openness policy, the policy of liberalization [of the economy]. And for this, they had to cut subsidies to farmers, to allow international finance to enter, and multinational corporations. And suddenly they cut back on food security measures that had been put in place by the Arab nationalist regimes. There were struggles around this second head, which was largely things like renewed trade union struggles, peasant struggles, struggles of the general population in cities frustrated by rising food prices, particularly wheat prices, bread prices, etc.

So this has to be part of the equation, because in both Tunisia and Egypt, the actual spur of the revolt was not just against authoritarianism or dictatorship, but also the collapse of the ability to survive. From 2008 onwards, there has been a concatenation of protest across North Africa, and in fact across the Global South, against rising prices. We see the rising price scenario played a very important role in the Kenyan uprising around the election campaign. You know, that is part of the story. So I consider this a sort of general strike in the Global South, but in the Arab world, it had the most dramatic impact when the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia fell. And in both of those cases, you know that the neoliberal policies were an important factor because shortly before Ben Ali and Mubarak fell, they tried to reinstate the bread subsidy. But it was generally too little, too late.

So I see the Arab Spring as being against these two heads: on the one side, the dictatorship, or the national security state, and the other side against austerity programs or neoliberal economic policies.

ALEX KANE: And which do you think have been proven to be tougher to topple?

VIJAY PRASHAD: This is a good question. In fact, I would say both, because, if you take the case of Egypt or Libya, it’s true that the leader has been removed, but how far the movements are going to be able to actually upturn the security state remains to be seen. And that is a long term process. To remove a security state is not as easy as removing a leader, because a security state has large numbers of people who have an interest in maintaining a certain kind of order, and because the movements have not yet provided a kind of counter-power. There are big sections of the population that are scared of anarchy, and therefore they may go back to supporting some kind of security state. So this is a long-term battle, the fight against dictatorship.

The economic policies are an interesting side. In all these countries, worker movements have been a very powerful part of the movement to overthrow the government, to change the government. But very quickly, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, they’re all back in the saddle. Just before Ben Ali was thrown out, the International Monetary Fund had a report on Tunisia, in which it basically extolled the Ben Ali government. And nobody has said that the IMF has lost its legitimacy by the kind of crazy reports they’re producing just while the rebellion is ongoing.

And yet, the IMF is back in Tunisia, is right there to try and guide the government to pursue the same kinds of policies. So both of these heads are very hard to topple, but certainly the consciousness of the people is now at a stage where they will be unwilling to go back. And, you see, the protests continue in Egypt, they continue in Tunisia, and in Libya, it is a unsettled fight. You know, 22 people dead April 3, 100-some people dead during the week of April 1. So this is a battle about what the new Libya will look like. So the battle continues. It’s not in over.

ALEX KANE: WikiLeaks cables are frequently mentioned in your book. Did the cables give you special insight into your argument?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Oh, my god. Without the WikiLeaks cache, it would have been very hard to write this book for the following reasons. One of the main arguments, as I said, was about trying to understand the role of NATO, how NATO became an actor in the Arab Spring. And to understand how NATO became an actor in the Arab Spring, I had to better understand the nature of US policy in the region. And the WikiLeaks cables were essential for that.

For instance, the cables from Yemen--they should be compulsory reading for every American citizen. There is a meeting that is described where, tens of civilians were killed in an attack in 2009 in Yemen, by an American attack. And David Petraeus comes to meet President Saleh. But these are important people sitting in a room, and in that meeting, Mr. Saleh complains that the Americans are not doing enough for Yemen, and at one point he says, look, you can continue to bomb the country, that’s fine, but you have to keep allowing us to say that these are our bombs, not yours. Otherwise, we look like we are just stooges to you. Now, that is very important--it demonstrates the kind of collusion between these governments against their own people.

ALEX KANE: Israel gets some mention in your book, but I wanted to draw out your thoughts on Israel’s place in the region post-Arab Spring. What do you see as the future for an Israel surrounded by governments much more responsive to popular pressure?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Let’s start from this point: if I were in the Ministry of Defense in Israel, I would be very concerned about what’s happening. What’s happening is the following: previously, Israel had stable borders on every side except Lebanon. Israel and Lebanon still have no relationship, and that border is manned by the United Nations. They have a so-called interim force there; it’s been in the interim since the 1980s, so they should change its name. So Lebanon is the only unstable border.

In Syria, Bashar al Assad essentially is a border guard for Israel. He has maintained that border very carefully. There’s a kind of rhetorical back and forth, but really Bashar al Assad has been a very stable force for Israel. And the so-called peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, brokered at Camp David between Sadat and Begin in 1979--that peace treaty made the Egyptian army come offline. And the Egyptian army was paid a bursary by the United States, essentially, to maintain the peace treaty with Israel. Because of this, Israel’s plans could shift, so it could then be able to fight asymmetrical war against its two, much weaker adversaries, in Lebanon and Palestine. And Israel, when it battled, had an asymmetric advantage over these two countries.

But with the Arab uprisings, Egypt is no more a settled border. It is already the case that Syria is not going to be a reliable border, whatever happens. The opposition inside Syria is making statements about Israel that are not quite conducive to settling the mood in the Ministry of Defense in Israel. So the Assad regime is radicalizing its rhetoric against Israel.

So if I were working in the Ministry of Defense, I would be calling up the political wing in Israel and say, “Look, we need to make a genuine peace treaty with the Palestinians. We need to genuinely move toward some kind of rapprochement with the Palestinian leadership moving towards a settlement. Because, otherwise, we are going to be isolated. No longer do we have an asymmetrical advantage over our neighbors,” which they had had since the 1978 engagement and then the peace agreement in '79. So, no more will Israel be able to walk into Lebanon in 1982, and again in 2006. No longer is that going to be possible. I think Israel has to do some serious consideration about the politics of its neighborhood.

ALEX KANE: You make an interesting point about Assad’s utility to Israel. But now, the US and its allies recently announced that they would directly aid Syrian opposition fighters in their quest to overthrow Assad. I’m curious what your thoughts are on the interplay between how Israel is viewing the situation as the international community looks like they may be going in the direction of Libya, although there is no talk of air power yet.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Let’s just deal with this in a kind of timeline way. And I’m just going to talk about one week’s events. On the 27th of March, Mr. Kofi Annan, the envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, was able to secure from the Assad regime a six-point plan. The plan essentially was that Assad said he would withdraw troops from the cities and that he would allow humanitarian support, so that humanitarian assistance and basic needs can get into the cities. This has been, by the way, a big demand of the Syrian opposition inside the country.

On April 1 in Istanbul, the “Friends of Syria” group met. There, the Gulf Arab states, notably the Saudis and the Qataris, with the Americans, the British, and to some extent other European states, made a very different kind of approach, disregarding the Annan agreement, which was a considerable breakthrough, even if we doubt the sincerity of the Assad regime. At this meeting, they said they would be willing to spend millions of dollars buying arms for the opposition, which is a demand being made by the Syrian opposition outside Syria. The great danger, of course, is that this is going to further escalate the conflict. But after the “Friends of Syria” meeting, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the head of NATO said, “we are not going to enter the military conflict at all”--basically behind the Annan plan.

In Baghdad, where the Arab League had just met, the Iraqi government of Nuri al Maliki gave a statement saying, “we condemn this financing of the opposition, especially giving arms,” and at the same time they had just completed the Arab League meeting in Baghdad, where only 10 out of 22 heads of state came. Only one Gulf Arab state, Kuwait, came to that meeting. The Saudis boycotted it, the Qataris boycotted, and the Americans are very unhappy because the Iraqis are refusing to stop Iranian planes flying into Syria.

So, what I am just trying to do is give you a picture with this timeline. There is a very disturbing project underway, from the Western states and the Gulf Arabs. On the one hand, they are trying to stoke this conflict, to maintain it, to prevent a political dialogue from beginning--whatever the sincerity is, still a road is open. They’re trying to mess with that political dialogue at the same time that they’re not willing to take the Libyan role, at all.

I think this is a very disturbing attack by all sides on the Syrian people, because blood is going to be shed inside Syria, and this kind of irresponsibility is going unchallenged. I find this very disturbing. No mainstream North Atlantic paper has written about this kind of agenda that is being played out.

ALEX KANE: You write that Libya’s revolt was hijacked by the Atlantic powers, helped along by the Saudis. But there was also a grassroots element to the uprising as well. Could you talk about the interplay between grassroots protest against Gaddafi and the elite neoliberals who latched on to NATO’s military power?

VIJAY PRASHAD: This is the heart of the second half of my book. The way the story runs is, from the 1990s, there has been a very great number of protests against the Gaddafi regime. These protests have come from, basically, three different kinds of social agents. One is, to some extent, groups that have gone to the Islamists, and they became part of the Libyan Islamic fighting group, which was founded in the 1990s. And they are largely rural, but not entirely.

Secondly, there are the urban professionals who benefited from the education produced by the Gaddafi regime, but have turned deeply against the Gaddafi regime for being absolutely uninterested in any kind of genuine democracy. And these are people who became lawyers, teachers, etc., people like Fathi Terbil, who plays a very important role at the start of the rebellion. It’s his arrest that essentially opens the door for the rebellion. And the third section would be people in certain cities. Libya is an archipelago of cities, and Gaddafi favored certain cities over all the others. That plainly appears.

So, cities like Misrata, for instance, were always treated like enemies by Gaddafi. And so these three social forces have been protesting since the 1990s, and they faced a considerable crackdown. One of the most elevated crackdown was when the police fired inside a prison in 1996, where 1,200 people were killed. They were largely Islamists who were killed, and their lawyers were people like Fathi Terbil, who was defending the families, trying to get justice for the 1233 people and their family. So that was the essence of the protests.

But the neoliberal section--some part of it was outside Libya, in the Gulf States, in Beirut, in Europe. But the neoliberal section had been brought in by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi to reform or modernize the Libyan state. Some in the country were working with Saif al-Islam, but large numbers were outside. And they wanted to have Libya handed to them. But they did not have the social base of the Islamists, the middle class element, etc. And they needed to have power in the rebellion, and they got that power from NATO. And that is why several of them are still in the saddle. When the Libyan National Transitional Council was formed, at one of their first meetings, they had two things on the agenda: a pledge of unity against Gaddafi, and setting up a central bank. It’s really bizarre that a revolutionary movement would be so eager to create a Central Bank. I had never heard that in any revolt before.

Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and a staff reporter for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

This article was originally published by Alternet. SACSIS cannot authorise its republication.

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