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The End of Revolution in Africa and the Middle East


Political change does not, after all is said and done, amount to a revolution. Revolutions require more than a change of political regime no matter how "radical" this change may seem from the point of view of western imperial observers. Revolutions require a change in the very and most fundamental nature of power, including the often hidden power of local elites over the domestic political economy and the power of their international, particularly imperial, allies over the links of the domestic economy with the global corporate-driven process of globalization.

What is happening in Egypt and Tunisia is, precisely and at its best, a change of political regime from despotic and semi-militarized dictatorships to western-style liberal democracies in form. I say in form because even for this sort of representative democracy there are many necessary preconditions, particularly socio-economic ones, that are simply missing in these countries. Yet, even a formalistic liberal democracy, however weak and unstable, seems preferable in these countries to the long-standing dictatorial rule of the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali resting on largely repressive strategies. And this, certainly, is what the heterogenous coalition of groups that are supposed to have led these struggles seem to all be agreement with. And, so far, in terms of the basic rules that these political changes require, as can be seen on the limited constitutional amendments approved by referendum in Egypt, even the "supreme council" of the Egyptian armed forces is also in agreement. And fhe final seal of approval has also already come from Washington and the European Union. The upgrades are thus done. Time for the stock market to reopen. The revolution is now, effectively, dead.

What is happening in Libya is a lot more convoluted. It's not simply that the "rebels" were too quick to adopt armed resistance or that they have no other choice in the face of the brutal response from the Gaddafi regime. This response could have easily been predicted by more enlightened revolutionaries and the counter-response could have also been thought out ahead of time even in only in rough terms. But there is something more sinister and more hidden at work here than there was in the case of Egypt or Tunisia and this is revealed, precisely, by the speed and scale of the western imperial "humanitarian" intervention on the side of the "rebels".

Unlike the always predictable and western-friendly regimes of Mubarak and Ben Ali, Gaddafi has been and continues to be a thorn on the side of the imperial west in a way that no other leader of the North African and Middle Eastern Region ever has been. Gaddafi has represented a force in favour of sort-of African-genereated solutions for some of the most pressing problems of the continent in a way that explicitly challenges western imperial control of the continent's resources, land and people. In addition, Gaddafi has not hesitated to forge alliances with the harshest critics of western imperial politics and economics in and outside Africa even at the same time as he tried to congratiate himself with some of these powers. True, Gaddafi was not a very merciful dictator when it came to the domestic opposition and all the hopes and expectations that were placed on him by the misguided LSE theorists of the Third Way – from David Held to Anthony Giddens – were, obviously, ill founded both theoretically and practically. Gaddafi was never really interested in western-style liberal democracy or in completely adopting wester-style models of economic development. Gaddafi was thus not a man that the imperial west felt comfortable with, never really has, and the Libyan uprising has created the golden opportunity that western imperial ruling elites hoped for to remove this "rogue" political leader by effectively fighting the fight of the opposiiton from the sea and the air.

Rebels anywhere are certainly free to request military support from western imperial powers anytime they need it. The struggle against tyranny and repression is something that must be supported anywhere it may break out – with some possible caveats. But there is something deeply suspicious when western imperial powers respond to a call for military assistance as quickly as they have done in a place like Libya.

The argument that western military intervention is justified in order to stop the death of innocent civilians is an argument that is as conveniently used for one case as it is dismissed for others. The gruesome strategic calculations over the 'body count" of specific conflicts reveals that not all bodies count the same way or to the same extent. Some bodies warrant the commitment of "military assets" while others do not. The bodies of people perceived to be in favour of western-style liberal democracy count more than the bodies of its critics. The conflicts in Rwanda, Somalia and the Balkans during the 1990s and those of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine in more recent years illustrate not only the relativity of the body count as justification for intervention from the point of view of western imperial powers, but also that the very notion of "protecting innocent civilians" is a tool of imperial convenience that, when deployed in places like Libya, with the UN support, sets a very dangerous precedent for future uprisings against western-deemed "rogue" leaders or regimes. And if western imperial powers are willing to support a revolutionary cause, keeping in mind the fundamentally anti-revolutionary nature of these powers, they will do so with strings attached. No amount of western political or military support has in fact ever been given without certain conditions, which are never openly revealed. In the case of Libya, the political debt that the "revolutonaries" have already acquired guarantees not only an enduring level of imperial influence over the destiny of their country, but has in fact already structurally mortgaged the goals of the entire process in a way similar to the experience of other countries "liberated" by shock and awe of imperial power.

Although the situations of Haiti and Iraq are very different, and certainly very complex to analyze here in any meaningful way, they do serve as examples of the ultimate strategies pursued by western imperial powers through so-called "humanitarian interventions". The United States intervened In Haiti in 1994 under the "Operation Uphold Democracy" with the goal of, well, "upholding democracy". After "restoring" Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the Presidency, Aristide argued that "Washington’s negotiators made one demand that Aristide could not accept: the immediate selloff of Haiti’s state-owned enterprises, including phones and electricity. Aristide argued that unregulated privatization would transform state monopolies into private oligarchies, increasing the riches of Haiti’s elite and stripping the poor of their national wealth" (See Naomi Klein, "My date with Aristide Ousted Haitian prez reveals he was tossed because he refused to privatize", in Now Magazine, July 21–28, 2005). After the final "removal" of popularly elected President Aristide by a US-orchestrated and UN-sanctioned coup d'etat in 2004 and the imposition of the widely-hated – in Haiti – United Nations Stabilizaiton Mission that has been there since the 2004 Haitian uprising, Haiti has not experienced a single digit of so-called "growth", let alone development. Repeated "humanitarian interventions" in Haiti have, in fact, done nothing but increase its economic and political debts. After yet another natural catasthrophy in Haiti, the devastating earquake of January 2010, Hillary Clinton visited Haiti and offered her assurances of continuing US support and her enthusiastic endorsement for Paul Collier's neoliberal and delusional proposal of turning the entire island into a maquiladora-style free-trade export-processing zone for the US garment industry as the key for the country's "development" (See Paul Collier, Haiti: From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Security. A Report for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, January 2009). Let's be clear about this: Absolutely no amount of imperial support for any "humanitarian" cause is ever given without the assumption that the supported country will have to play by the rules of imperial states and currently dominant global corporations. There is thus no possibility of real liberation in these Faustian pacts.

The same can be said in the case of Iraq after the "liberation" from the regime of Saddam Hussein by the US-led invasion of 2003. Following the invastion and after establishing the so-called "Coalition Provisional Authority", particularly under the "leadership" of Paul Bremer in 2003-04, the imperial coalition implemented a radical programme of economic restructuring in line with the principles of neoliberal privatization and deregulation, particularly of the oil industry, a programme that ensures the structural connection of Iraq with the requirements of western imperial powers and constitutes a fundamental limitation, akin to a constitution, of any future administration indebted, as they will be, to the imperial powers for their "liberation". And where is Iraq today? Not even remotely close to the promised land.

The western imperial intervention in Libya, and the SC Resolution 1973 on which it is supposedly based, is thus not without strategic and imperialistic implications even when marquaraded as yet another "humanitarian intervention" driven by dubious "responsibility to protect" doctrine on which it is ostensibly based. As in the case of other hypocritical interventions, this one must also be emphatically declared wrong for other interrelated reasons aside from those indicated above. First, it is – well – fundamentally hypocritical because it is not used in cases such as Saudi Arabia/Bahrain or Israel/Palestine, for example; second, it has already exceeded the resolution's explicit limitations not to go for "regime change", but only to "protect" innocent civilians from Gaddafi's attacks, limitations required by the Arab League and without which they would not have supported it for fear that the same principles could come back to haunt them at a later stage; third, it doesn't represent any form of "humanitarian intervention" whatsover but is, in fact, overt military support for one of the sides of the Libyan conflict and, as such, it sets a very dangerous precedent for countries undergoing contentions but nevertheless actual revolutonary experiences like Venezuela and Bolivia; finally, the ulterior reason behind all of this – surprise, surprise – is once again the control of Libyan oil and natural gas and the control of people by plugging at least one hole of an increasingly unpopular Arab and black African migration into the Mediterranean shores of Europe.

On the first point above, the hypocritical nature of the imperial intervention in Libya, Esam Al-Amin has pointed out that "the same countries outraged by Gaddafi’s behavior looked the other way as the Bahraini army, aided by military units from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries, cracked down on thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, causing dozens of casualties. The protestors were calling for democracy and freedom from the 230-year dictatorship of the Al-Khalifa family". Further, and we musn't forget this, Bahrain is where the fifth fleet of the U.S. navy is stationed and, therfore, "strategic and military calculations have evidently trumped any moral obligation to support the people’s call for democracy and freedom from dictatorship and repression (See Esam Al-Amin, The Clash of Principles and Interests in the Arab Revolutions", in CounterPunch, Weekend Edition, 25-27 March 2011).

And on the final point above about oil and natural gas, Al-Amin also notes the following: "Libya, with its small population of 6 million, is the largest oil producer in Africa, with proven reserves of over 42 billion barrels (more than twice as those in the U.S.) and 1.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. As far as its sulfur content, Libyan oil is the cleanest in the world as well as the cheapest to extract at $1 per barrel. With Libya’s proximity to Europe, its oil and gas are the cheapest to transport". It is true that the United States does not get its oil from Libya. But, as Conn Hallinan points out in a recent short article on CounterPunch, its European allies certainly do (See Conn Hallinan, "The US, Libya and Oil", CounterPunch, Weekend Edition, 25-27 March 2011).

The language of the Libyan armed opposition is, like the language of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutionaries, the language of hollow liberal "democracy". It is, indeed, the language of rights, particularly the rights that underpin the functioning of an electoral democracy including rights to privacy, choice and expression, organization and mobilization, and the like. All these are important rights, true enough, but they are empty without the actual and necessary, socially generated and distributed capacities, to understand and exercise them meaningfully and effectively. And there simply cannot be meaningful and effective exercise of these rights when the majorities live in chronic poverty, socio-economic exclusion, underexployment, insecurity, and political marginalization. These rights are empty rhetoric when, year by year, the formal ritual of elections slowly and predictably gives way to a predecided game controlled by the corporate media, oligarchic political parties, large corporate donors both domestic and international, deeply entrenched bureacracies, and incumbent governments interested in continuity rather than change. These rights are an empty shell when the most fundamental nature of a country's political economy has already been decided, independently of any elections and always behind the scenes, by the imperial supporters of regime change whose "aid" is always at hand to "advice" on the most "democratic" and economically "rational" road to follow after the old guard is gone and the new one is firmly installed in power. Very little in this discourse of "democracy" touches on what revolutions are fundamentally about, namely, transforming the property structure that serves as the foundation of neo-liberal peripheral capitalist models of accumulation and transforming the relationship between these domestic modesl of accumulation and the international global economy controlled by imperial powers and their corporations. And when revolutions do touch on these fundamental matters of power and property, even when they do so through the electoral mechanism (remember Iran in 1952? Guatemala in 1954? Chile in 1973? Haiti in 1991 and again in 2004? Honduras in 2009? and many other examples), there is always the imperial mechanism of embargoes and sanctions whose violence against innocent civilians is never, and could of course never be, counted as a legitimate reason for an intervention against empire by the peoples of the "Global South."

For a tiny moment it seemed as if the "revolutions" in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya could be headed for something hopeful and truly new. The full co-optation of the process by the Ebyptian armed forces and the overt western imperial intervention in Libya, effectively as the air and naval force of the "rebels", has thus sealed the fate of these processes. None of the so-called "revolutions" seem to now be on their way to a substantial revolutionary transformation of the very foundations of social, political, and economic relations. There is no possibility, under the current international context and intervention, to move from institutional political change to an actual social revolution. The Libyan revolution is, thus, still born.

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