An inconvenient execution

The death of Gaddafi will not bring freedom to Libya, argues James Turley

“That’s for Lockerbie!” screamed The Sun over a picture of Muammar al-Gaddafi (October 21). After more than four decades in power, the former Libyan dictator had just met his sorry end - hauled from a sewage drain and summarily executed. The rebel forces - supported by Nato bombardment - had finally concluded this phase of the Libyan civil war.

Gruesome shots of his bloody corpse dominated the next 24 hours of the news cycle. Slightly more disturbingly (death being, after all, one of the more common side effects of war), more than one paper in Britain led on reports that the erstwhile tyrant spent his last moments pleading for his life. To the likes of the Mail and the Mirror, as well as The Sun, this was cause for sadistic gloating.

Of course, it was most definitely not for Lockerbie. The soldiers who dragged him off chanting “God is great!” did not have the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over a Scottish town foremost in their minds as they cocked their rifles and took aim. The true nature of the forces which have now been left in charge of Libya - after six months of war effectively propped up by Nato - is becoming increasingly clear, and it is not a pretty picture to western eyes. The somewhat distasteful spectacle of Gaddafi’s corpse on public display in a cold storage unit will not be the worst of it.

Gaddafi’s career as de facto head of state was, to put it mildly, colourful. He came to power in 1969, on the back of a more or less bloodless military coup. Two contradictory dynamics were at work around him - firstly, the long process of decolonisation and nationalist struggle against imperialism; and secondly, the rolling back of pan-Arabism, which had suffered a serious setback in the wake of Israel’s crushing victory in the 1967 war.

Gaddafi positioned himself as inheritor of the mantle of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian president; he proceeded to concoct an ideology for himself which combined elements of pan-Arabism, Islamism and pseudo-socialistic rhetoric. He also cemented his power through purges of the army and complicated negotiations with the various tribal forces that populate the vast wilderness within Libya’s borders.

Inevitably, he ended up at loggerheads with the US, which had other plans for the region; Libyan material support for forces as diverse as the Palestinian liberation fighters and the Provisional IRA hardly helped matters. The Lockerbie bombing, and other atrocities laid at his door, were wheeled out to justify economic sanctions and airstrikes alike.

Gaddafi bought himself a lot of cheap prestige with his anti-imperialist sabre-rattling, but ultimately he conformed to type - a cynical dictator, left after the fall of the Soviet bloc very short of allies, he was able to worm his way into the west’s favour. The settlement of the Lockerbie case, which saw Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi carry the can, plainly had more to do with the exigencies of US-UK-Libyan Realpolitik than the facts of the case; by providing the US with a scapegoat, and imperialism more generally with extremely lucrative business deals, Gaddafi’s Libya was able to ‘come in from the cold’. He happily danced to the Americans’ tune for the best part of a decade.

Nonetheless, when the Arab awakening knocked on his door, and he responded (as dictators do) with violent suppression of demonstrations, the US and its allies - seeing favoured regional strongmen toppling left and right - took the opportunity to regain the initiative. That decision led eventually to the current situation.

It is hardly possible to say with certainty how things will pan out from here. Yet the omens, surely, are not good. The new regime is headed up by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, former minister of justice under Gaddafi, and he is not the only unreformed defector with a sniff of power.

He has also already given us a good idea what he considers ‘justice’ - sharia law is to be the guiding principle for the new society. Polygamy is back, and no doubt the position of Libyan women is set to worsen further. Jalil is caught in something of a pincer movement; on the one hand there is the US and Nato, who want at least to spin this as a success. There is also the matter of establishing enough stability for all those billions of dollars of foreign business interests to function in good order. On the other, there are the Islamists, who represent the most ideologically coherent and longest-established element of the anti-Gaddafi alliance. He - and whoever emerges out of next year’s promised elections in charge - will have to plot a course that will keep them both happy; and the US would rather have sharia law than civil war.

Further conflict, however, remains a very strong possibility. For all its longevity, Gaddafi’s regime rested on a relatively shallow institutional base. He was all too aware of his own road to power, through a military coup, and remained distrustful of his armed forces, preferring at many points (including the beginning of this year) to buy in mercenaries. No other consistent power base was available to him, and the very rapid pace of defections from his regime to the Benghazi rebellion before the war testified to an underlying weakness. The tribal leaders who tolerated his rule, meanwhile, were not much less mercenary than the mercenaries.

This is no accident. Libya is not an Egypt, or a Tunisia, or an Iraq. It is a vast territory, but - apart from a handful of urban centres, mostly in the north - sparsely populated. Indeed, because Gaddafi pursued a deliberate policy of not proletarianising the population and bringing in foreign workers to run the oil industry, Libyan society remains remarkably backward; tribalism remains extremely strong. Any attempt at statecraft in Libya is faced with the fairly insurmountable difficulty that it is not in any sense a ‘natural’ state, suffering like much of the former colonial world from the legacy of arbitrary borders past.

The ruling class, in all its vile triumphalism, would like us to believe that ‘the hard part is over’, just as it peddled equivalent stupidities after the fall of Kabul and Baghdad in the last decade. Yet Libya is every bit as much the powder-keg that Afghanistan was; the question is whether imperialism will allow itself to be sucked into any further conflagrations, or if it will hope rather that nobody notices them.

It is a wilful blindness, alas, shared by some on the left - notable, as always, is the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, which contrary to its normal practice has consistently downplayed the Islamist (in AWL-speak, “clerical fascist”) tilt to major parts of the Libyan rebel forces. After all, acknowledging that fact would force the AWL either to retrospectively consider the Libyan rebellion reactionary from the outset, or declare it perverted by the Nato intervention to which the AWL consented (sorry, ‘refused to oppose’). It has certainly maintained a telling silence as regards the way the new order is shaping up, concessions to sharia and all; but then, each new social-imperialist line from this shabby outfit seems to bear still less relation to reality than the last.

This is not simply a matter of academic assessment of past lines. The involvement of the imperialist countries in Libya’s affairs is not going to end now - whether it takes economic, military or any other form depends on the development of a fluid situation. Nonetheless, it remains the job of communists to oppose resolutely all attempts by our own governments to manipulate that situation and otherwise interfere in Libya. Iraq and Afghanistan should be evidence enough that the US and its lackeys bring only destruction and chaos in their wake.