Reflections on the Arab Revolutions

“Turning-points in the history of humanity,” a contributor to the left-wing Algerian newspaper Le Matin observed in the summer of 2001, “are never simple for contemporaries to understand. Rarely are people able fully to assess the significance of these episodes, or their consequences. The developments concerned do not proceed in the manner, or at the time and place, that people expect. The early years of the twenty-first century have seen this rule reaffirmed. During this time, new and increasingly powerful trends have been mingled with the heritage of the past, dragging us back. History, however, operates through these new forces, which gradually but inevitably will succeed in overcoming the inertia of the past.” (1)

The Arab revolutions of 2011 came as a surprise to many people, including left analysts, who expected and predicted social and political shocks everywhere, from Latin America to Eastern Europe, except in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. These events, however, were not historical accidents (in history, nothing on this scale happens by chance), but were the logical and natural results of earlier developments. The effect of surprise was due to the fact that the societies of the Middle East had been kept under heavy pressure by authoritarian regimes that did not allow any serious mass protests; in outside observers, this created an impression of graveyard-like tranquillity. This very stability, however, was the precursor to an explosion of extraordinary force. Tightening the lid of repressive police rule on the boiling cauldron of Arab societies, the ruling classes unknowingly guaranteed that social pressures would blow this lid to pieces.

Another reason for the confusion among the analysts lay in the relatively favourable figures for indices of economic and even social development. Gross domestic product kept growing right up until the outbreak of the world crisis, levels of education were improving, and achievements had also been registered in the areas of housing construction, public transport, and social security. The only problem was that the statistics, while recording certain quantitative improvements, concealed an accumulation of systemic contradictions and even structural decline in the economy.

The crisis of 2008 not only brought a sharp rise in food prices, creating an unprecedented social crisis on what might have seemed a level space. It also revealed numerous problems which along with everything else proved that the development strategies chosen by most of the governments in the region, and considered relatively successful in the 1990s, had finished up in a dead-end.

Liberals and dictators

The neoliberal reconstruction of capitalism that took place in the 1980s and 1990s was accompanied by a shift of production and jobs from Europe to countries where cheap labour power was available. From this angle, the prospects for the countries of North Africa seemed bright. Not only were wages low, but significant numbers of the population spoke European languages. In this situation, the governments of Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt seemed justified in deciding to develop education systems capable of raising the quality of labour power and of making these countries more attractive to foreign capital. Prospects in Libya, where the income from oil sales created additional possibilities for industrialisation, also looked promising.

Geographically these countries were close to Western markets, and many of them possessed their own raw materials and energy bases. Even Egypt, which did not have large oil reserves, was located not far from energy sources, and thanks to the Aswan Dam which had been built with Soviet help, had an abundance of cheap hydroelectric power. The infrastructure of all the countries in the region was in reasonable condition. For investors, the dictatorial regimes were an attraction, guaranteeing stability and preventing problems from arising with public criticism, environmental bans, trade unions and strikes. The only more or less obvious risk factor was the Islamist movement, whose influence was gradually increasing. This movement, however, was the target of systematic repression by the apparatus of the various states.

The most dramatic events occurred in Algeria, where in December 1991the initial round of the first multi-party elections was won by the Islamic Salvation Front. The armed forces did not wait for the second round, but cancelled the voting, forcing President Chadli Bendjedid to resign. The Islamic Salvation Front was banned, and its supporters went into hiding. A civil war began, and lasted for almost a decade. Both sides showed extreme ruthlessness, with neither sparing the peaceful population. Eventually, the Algerian security forces managed to smash the Islamist resistance. The authorities also conducted a purge of the clergy, removing radical imams from the mosques. After winning the election of 2004, new president Abdelaziz Bouteflika felt confident enough to risk declaring a partial amnesty.

From the first years of the new century, the struggle against the Islamists was accompanied by growing integration of the security forces of the region with Western intelligence services. The local organs not only served the interests of the American and European security organisations, but also sought and received their assistance in the struggle against internal enemies. How intensive this collaboration was can be judged from documents of the Libyan security police that have been released since the revolution in that country.

Soon after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, the London Independent published the story of one of the most influential rebel military leaders, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj. The newspaper related in detail how Belhaj had been abducted by the Americans in Asia and had been tortured by agents of the CIA, who had then handed him over to their Libyan colleagues for further torture in the notorious Abu Salim prison. When a British journalist asked Belhaj whether his attitude to the US had changed now that the Americans had become allies of “free Libya”, the rebel commander replied curtly, “It is hard to forgive such things.” (2) After a few days the Libyan press reported that the British had “declined to make any apology” and that Belhaj had announced his intention to sue Her Majesty’s intelligence forces in the London courts. (3) Another Libyan Islamist, Sami al-Saadi, suffered a similar fate, being handed over as a gift to the Tripoli regime’s security service before Prime Minister Tony Blair made his trip to Libya as a guest of the colonel. (4)

Under an agreement with Italy and the European Union, the Libyan navy patrolled the African coast, intercepting illegal migrants trying to reach Europe. Thousands of people intercepted in this fashion were thrown into “filtration” camps, where they remained for months and years without prosecution or trial. All this was common knowledge, but did not arouse the indignation of the West. “And why,” an Algerian newspaper asked ironically, “would this upset them? The main thing was that the ‘African hordes’ did not make it to the shores of Europe.” (5)

Following the capture of Tripoli by the rebels, secret documents of the CIA and the British security services were carried out of the shattered building of the Libyan security police in whole packets. The correspondence bore witness to intensive, extremely friendly collaboration between the Libyan and American security forces. Also in the documents were mentions of collaboration with Israel. British secret agents were shown to have been involved in undercover operations by the Libyan regime, aiding it in its struggles with opponents, exchanging information with it and helping to train soldiers of the notorious Hamis Brigade, noted for its particular savagery in combating the rebels. Diplomatic correspondence, no less scandalous in its implications, came to light as well. The British themselves were responsible for the leaks, since Foreign Office personnel fled the Libyan capital in such panic and haste that they abandoned their entire archives, including secret files. This shows once again how lacking the Western powers were in any planned and considered strategy toward North Africa.

The history of Western arms shipments to Libya is also striking; according to the Daily Mail, Great Britain in 2007 signed a contract to supply military and police equipment worth £5 million. Subsequently, the newspaper relates, London “sold arms worth tens of millions of pounds to Gaddafi’s regime.” (6) The Daily Telegraph provides more detailed figures, though the journalists admit that these too are incomplete. The firm General Dynamics UK, a subsidiary of the US transnational, alone supplied the Libyans with communications equipment worth £79 million. In addition, Her Majesty’s government issued licences for the sale to Libya of armaments worth £21.7 million, including for the supply of small arms and ammunition, aircraft spare parts, armoured vehicles and military electronics.

Other countries of the European Union tried not to fall behind the British. Germany issued licences for sales, mainly of armoured vehicles, worth £47 million in British currency; France, for sales of £20.6 million; and Belgium for £19 million. Along with the armaments came shipments of police equipment, especially for breaking up demonstrations. In 2009 alone, the overall worth of military supplies from the countries of Europe reached £293.2 million; of this sum, £67.9 million was for some reason paid to Malta, which does not have an arms industry. This latter amount was evidently for the re-export of weapons which for some reason could not be acquired through official channels. (7) While the Libyan army and police were rearming vigorously, Russia was steadily being forced out of this market, though it continued to supply the Gaddafi regime with ageing tanks and with spare parts for Soviet-era aircraft.

The colonel received his final weapons shipments in late January 2011, a few days before popular protests began; the firearms involved were sniper rifles, which were used freely by supporters of the regime in combat against rebel fighters, and also for killing journalists and opposition activists. These developments made a particular impression on Russian military chiefs and politicians, who after the Libyan events decided to begin large-scale purchases of sniper rifles in the West, anticipating disturbances in Russia along the lines of the “Arab scenario”. As President Dmitry Medvedev nodded approvingly, General Nikolay Makarov explained that “the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have shown that the Russian Army needs to be ready in case the situation in our country develops in especially adverse fashion.” (8)

Because weapons do not fire themselves, the Western security services had to train their Libyan colleagues, especially snipers from the very same Khamis Brigade. In the best traditions of commercial advertising, the commanders of Britain’s SAS special forces therefore promised Gaddafi that they would “provide quality assurance”. (9) The supplying of weapons continued right up until the United Nations Security Council resolution banned armed shipments to Libya. The British must be given their due; even in February, when the repressive Gaddafi regime had already been condemned on an official level, they still managed to send the dictator ammunition worth £64,000. (10) In November 2011 the Canadian National Postpublished an interview obtained by Gary Peters with one of Gaddafi’s security agents; the interview made clear that even after the Western intervention had begun, employees of private military firms carried on working for the Libyan dictator, who “employed Western security specialists, some from Canada.” (11)

Following the capture of Tripoli by revolutionary military units, once-secret documents appeared on the front pages of the British press. While some of these materials inspire revulsion, others are quite comic. We learn, for example, that London conducted a secret correspondence with Tripoli on a request by Prime Minister Tony Blair to be photographed with Gaddafi against a background of a Bedouin tent: “I don’t know why the English are fascinated by tents. The plain fact is that the journalists will love it,” a member of British intelligence remarked to an Arab colleague. (12) The Libyans graciously agreed, and the photo session took place.

There is no reason to suppose that the intelligence services of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and other Arab countries were less active than their Libyan colleagues in collaborating with Britain, the US and Israel. Traces of these contacts are to be found in the same Libyan documents that came to light during the revolution. The only difference is that in Libya the revolutionary process went much further in smashing the old apparatus of state repression than in the neighbouring countries, and the secret archives were subjected to glasnost on a massive scale.

It should be recognised that on a technical level the work of the security forces and repressive apparatus proved totally effective. By the middle of the first decade of the new century the situation in most countries of the region seemed completely stable; the opposition forces, both Islamist and secular, were incapable of making any serious challenge to the state. And if revolutions happened anyway, this merely testifies to the fact that there are historical forces with which even the most vicious police cannot cope.

Growth without development

In the early 21st century, the dynamic of economic development has turned out to be quite different from what was forecast. Economic growth has continued, but on the whole, the industrial upturn observed in the final years of the last century has come to a halt. The reason for this has been the rapid rise of China, which has transformed itself into the “planetary assembly shop” and “workshop of the world”. Traditionally, it used to be accepted that Chinese competition was causing massive job losses in the West, but the actual situation is sharply different. Over the past decade the processes of deindustrialisation in the West have basically run their course, and the Chinese miracle has tended rather to stimulate job creation in machine-building, electronics and other sectors that have developed in a close symbiosis with Chinese industry.

In the countries of the periphery, by contrast, huge job losses have occurred under the blows of Chinese competition. An indication is provided by the fate of the textile industry in Morocco. After developing rapidly in the 1990s, this industry has since gone into slow decline. Even experts from the World Trade Organisation, who had been extremely optimistic in their assessments, were forced by the middle of the following decade to recognise that in North Africa, despite a broadening of ties with European markets, “employment has stagnated or declined in the textile sector in these countries.” (13)

China’s advantage lies not in the cheapness of its labour power, but in the numbers of the Chinese workforce. No country, not even India, is able to organise cheap production on the same scale. It is not surprising that in these circumstances industrial development in the countries of North Africa has been blocked, and in many cases even reversed. Numerous enterprises have shut down, and whole sectors, from textiles to the production of souvenirs, have gone into decline.

Satisfactory figures for gross domestic product have hidden a real problem, well known to economists since the 1970s – “growth without development”. Investment, which has gone mainly into tourism and services, has served to devalue the education provided by state-run schools and universities. Oriented since the late 1980s at industrialisation, the education system has continued to pour into the labour market growing numbers of qualified people whose skills no-one needs. Education is a system with a good deal of inertia, and politically as well, there has been no possibility of turning back. While the cultural value of education has remained high, and the number of people trained to a respectable European level has continued to grow, the real economic value of this education (and correspondingly, the life chances of those who possess it) has fallen rapidly.

The spread of mass education has everywhere been accompanied by a lowering in the social status of educated people. This process occurred at a particular stage both in the West and in the Soviet Union. To a significant degree, it aided the spread of left-wing views among European students in the 1960s and of critical, dissident moods in the Soviet intelligentsia. In Europe, the development of the education system outstripped the economy, but in the countries of North Africa the situation is proving even more dramatic – the structural evolution of the economy is in direct contradiction to the dominant trends in the system of education.

The “superfluous people” of the neoliberal system are top-class engineers working as tourist guides, young scientists who have become translators in hotels, and geologists who have taken jobs as restaurant mangers. Such people are typical figures in the everyday economic life of the Arab world in the early twenty-first century. In many ways this mass disqualification of experts recalls the processes in the countries of the former Soviet Union, with the difference that in North Africa this is not occurring against a background of demographic slump, but at a time when the population keeps getting younger. As an American journalist has put it, a generation with “dead-end jobs and high hopes” (14) has appeared on the scene.

The crisis of 2008 laid bare the structural contradictions of the system, turning economic disproportions into social conflicts. The attempt by the US to save its banking sector through pouring in huge quantities of unsecured money led to an explosion of speculation in commodity markets. Food prices soared throughout the Middle East. In January 2011 popular disturbances broke out in Algeria and Tunisia, then spread to Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. In Algeria the government managed to fend off the wave of popular anger by combining concessions with acts of repression, but in Tunisia the power of President Ben Ali crumbled. Then it was Egypt’s turn. Many days of stand-off between the police and the popular masses who had occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo ended when Hosni Mubarak was driven from office.

The Arab world was seized by democratic euphoria. Freedom of the press, honest elections, the right to form political parties – all these principles became norms of social existence just as self-evident in the Middle East as in Western Europe. The kings of Jordan and Morocco were quick to begin democratisation from above, rather than waiting for the process to impose itself from below. A wave of popular struggle continued to sweep across the region. Iran, Libya and Syria were now gripped by protests. In Iran the authorities managed to cope with the discontent relatively easily. In Syria the obstinacy of the regime led to a bloody, drawn-out conflict between masses of unarmed protestors and the repressive organs of the state. But unlike the situation in Tunisia and Egypt, these organs showed no signs of demoralisation and decay; the army and police stayed loyal to the regime, keeping their unity and effectiveness.

In Libya, however, events took a quite unexpected turn. From the very first days of the revolution, the regime and its military-repressive apparatus split into supporters and opponents of change. Colonel Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for 42 years, showed not the slightest willingness to make concessions, and succeeded in consolidating enough supporters around his regime to allow it to resist the rising tide. What began in Benghazi and Tripoli on 17 February as a peaceful, Tunisia-style revolution turned quickly into a civil war that dragged on for many months and cost the country thousands of lives. Gaddafi’s rigid position served as a signal to other Arab rulers who had kept control of the situations in their countries. The authorities in Bahrain launched harsh reprisals against the demonstrators who had occupied Pearl Square in the capital. In Syria the regime of Bashir Assad, after wavering between repression and concessions, hardened its position. Troops were sent into cities that had been gripped by disorders.

The events in Libya not only transformed the political “scenario” of the Arab revolutions, but also sowed confusion in the ranks of the left (more so in Europe, it is true, than in the Middle East). The ideological bewilderment intensified when the French air force came to the help of the rebels in Benghazi, and when collective intervention by NATO followed.

The discussion on Libya that has unfolded among leftists in Russia and Western Europe has not only provided dramatic proof of the extremely superficial grasp which most of the participants have had of the real situation in the North African country. Also clear from the discussion are the personal moral and theoretical dilemmas which members of the radical intelligentsia confront, and their general unpreparedness to grapple with the realities of political struggle.

Meanwhile, and as often happens, the “exceptional character” of Libya has emerged not in the violation of general trends and principles of the revolutionary process, but on the contrary, in the fact that these tendencies and laws have been manifested there in an exceedingly sharp, even extreme form. As the left-wing Algerian newspaper Le Matin notes, the development of all nationalist regimes has proceeded along similar lines, and “Libya conforms completely to this logic, especially if we take into account the close relations between Gaddafi and the Americans.” (15)

In power for more than four decades, the Gaddafi regime underwent the same evolution we observe in other Arab countries, but these changes and shifts from left to right took on a grotesque form because of the personal idiosyncrasies of the extravagant dictator. In no way, however, does this negate the overall logic of events, about which there was nothing unique. At the time when Muammar Gaddafi seized power, the entire Arab East was experiencing an upsurge of nationalism, framed in ideological terms as a sort of “national version” of socialist transformation. It was not only in Egypt, Iraq and Syria that the ruling elites declared their intention to construct socialism; even in Tunisia, where President Bourghiba was totally loyal to the West, left-wing rhetoric in the spirit of European social democracy was employed freely.

The anti-imperialist course of the Arab governments that were seeking to overcome the remnants of colonial dependency was supported on the technical, political and military levels by the Soviet Union. The Gaddafi regime in Libya immediately took up a position on the extreme left flank of the general process, and maintained this stance for at least two decades. Meanwhile, the colonel’s policies were not limited to anti-imperialist rhetoric, to supporting the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, or in some cases to assisting radical terrorist groups with which Moscow was reluctant to deal. Gaddafi initiated reforms that led to a real democratisation of decision-making at the neighbourhood level; this was the essence of his “people’s jamahiriya”.

The dramatic rise in oil prices in 1973 and 1974 put substantial sums of money at the regime’s disposal, allowing it to fund social programs. In a country with a relatively small population, it became possible to substantially improve the quality of life for most citizens. Medicine became one of the regime’s priorities. Progress in education, though, was less marked, and this lag made its effects felt in the health-care sector. While building first-class hospitals, the government in 42 years did not succeed in staffing them with local medical personnel of corresponding quality; people were treated by Russians, Egyptians and Bulgarians, whom they preferred to Libyan doctors. This situation contrasts sharply with the experience of Cuba, where the Communist government not only provided all the country’s citizens with a high standard of health care, but with Soviet help also trained its own professional medical staff, who have a superb world reputation.

Nevertheless, the oil income brought real change to Libya, which from being a poor country of backward tribes was transformed increasingly into a modern, urbanised society, integrated on a national basis. The unified education system and the transfer of government employees between East and West helped overcome the historic rift between the two parts of the country, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica; a common Libyan identity came into being. These same achievements, however, prepared the way for an inevitable conflict between an increasingly modernised society and the authoritarian regime, which through its own successes became more and more an anachronism. (16)

As so often happens, the ruling group responded to the challenges of change not by allowing democratisation, fraught with the risk of losing control over the situation, but by tightening the screws. Meanwhile, the consolidation of power in the hands of Gaddafi himself as “national leader” was accompanied by a steady narrowing of the social base of the regime, which rested increasingly on loyal tribes and clans that had benefited from the distribution of jobs, resources and incomes. The contradiction grew between a society that was undergoing modernisation and a regime that was becoming more and more archaic.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory of the West in the Cold War brought about a new situation that led the Gaddafi regime to a sharp ideological and geopolitical change of course. Long before the disintegration of the USSR, the elites in every country of the Arab world had lost their anti-imperialist passion. The leader in this process was Egypt, once the head of the anti-imperialist camp but which after the 1973 war with Israel reoriented itself toward the United States.

After 1991 Gaddafi, who had sensed the general trend, flung himself with characteristic radicalism and extravagance from the extreme left flank to the right. For the regime in Tripoli the Gulf War, during which the Americans routed the Iraqi army that had invaded Kuwait, became a turning-point. The rhetoric of the Green Book, which proclaimed the “uniqueness” of the Libyan regime’s ideological and social foundations, provided perfectly for such unprincipled shifts.

Taking account of the dismal experience of the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad, Colonel Gaddafi set out on the road of privatisation and liberal economic reform. Commentators in the Russian press who in 2011 discussed the prospect that after the Western intervention Libya’s oil would begin to be divided up did not even get around to explaining the real situation – that the deposits, the prospects and the productive infrastructure had already been divided up between Western corporations in the 1990s. The vast income from oil exports was being redistributed in line with the priorities of the new economic policy – fewer and fewer of the funds were being invested within the country, and exports of capital were growing rapidly. Libyan companies were investing money in Europe, buying up shares and financing expensive large-scale projects. The profits from this activity were placed on account in Western banks, never going anywhere near Libya.

Meanwhile, Colonel Gaddafi did not limit himself to commercial investments. He ploughed about $4 million into the London School of Economics, where state functionaries for neoliberal regimes were forged and where his son Saif al-Islam had studied. Later, when the scandalous details of this deal emerged, Britons jokingly renamed the institution the Libyan School of Economics. (17) Libyan money also helped fund the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine; the colonel’s regime sought wherever possible to demonstrate its usefulness to the US.

As Samir Amin observes, Gaddafi’s policies during the first decade of the new century were dictated by a simple principle: to act so as to please the Westerners. The reverse side of this approach was represented by growing contradictions within Libyan society, as the colonel’s actions “worsened social problems for the majority in banal fashion.” (18) While a total of more than $160 billion accumulated in the foreign accounts of Libyan companies, housing was in short supply for young Libyans who could not afford apartments in the overheated property market.

In Tripoli the authorities could not ensure the proper working of public transport (not only were the authorities unable to find the money to build a promised underground rail system, but they could not even organise bus transit). Unemployment affected 30 per cent of the adult population, mainly its younger members. (19) As in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, educated people found no use for their skills. As the Tripoli Post related, Libyan society suffered from “a failure to provide enough new job opportunities annually for the thousands of new university leavers. Too many graduates were left disillusioned without real academic or professional futures.” (20)

The geopolitics of the Arab Spring

The evolution of Gaddafi’s government closely matched the overall degeneration of the post-colonial nationalist regimes in the Arab world and the countries of Africa. All that was unique to the Libyan situation was that in most other states this evolution was accompanied by a generational shift within the leadership. In Tripoli, Colonel Gaddafi remained in place for 42 years, successively playing the roles which in neighbouring Egypt had been performed by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.

It is not surprising that the mass popular protests in Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt should have found an echo on the streets of Benghazi, Tobruk and Tripoli. But the “February 17 Revolution”, as these events in Libya came to be known, did not result in a peaceful transfer of power but in a civil war. The regime split, but resting on the dominant clan and its clientele, the Gaddafi family retained many of its positions. The revolt was successful in the east of the country, in Tobruk and Benghazi, but in Tripoli was crushed. The struggle not only took on a drawn-out character, but also provided an opening for intervention by Western powers.

It was not only in Libya that Western politicians who recognised that change was inevitable made a sharp switch from supporting a dictatorial regime to backing a revolution; the same had happened earlier with Egypt and Tunisia. The turns involved were the result of natural interests and pragmatic calculation. The West sought not only to forge ties with the new regimes that were taking shape, but also to influence them, holding them back from excessive radicalism. Within this scheme, collaboration with the revolutionary movements figured as a much more effective tactic for restraining the revolutions than useless attempts to crush mass protests.

As usual, Western intervention was rationalised as being driven by a concern for the spreading of democracy and for the defence of peaceful populations. But in Libya, where the intervention extended to military operations, the abrupt shift by European and American diplomacy from collaborating with a dictatorial regime to fighting against it proved far more painful, dramatic and scandalous than elsewhere. The demand for armed intervention was made by France to the accompaniment of open disapproval in Germany, vagueness in Britain, panic in Italy and all-but-open resistance on the part of the United States.

Resolution 1973 of the United Nations, granting approval to a humanitarian intervention for the purpose of defending the peaceful population of Benghazi and of other regions threatened with reprisals from Gaddafi, was supported by the League of Arab States, which declared that the Gaddafi regime had “lost its legitimacy”. (21) On the side of the West, on the other hand, neither unity nor enthusiasm was in evidence. While France actively pushed Resolution 1973 in the UN, the German government refused to support Paris in the endeavour. Nor did the Germans supply aircraft for the operations in Libya. The conservative government of Norway took an analogous position. Wall Street Journal observer Max Boot exclaimed indignantly:

“The administration, recall, did not agree to take military action until March 17, more than a month after the rebellion against Gadhafi had begun. For weeks rebel representatives had been pleading for Western help in the form of a "no-fly zone" to stop murderous attacks by Gadhafi's aircraft. Mr. Obama ignored those entreaties, allowing Gadhafi to regain his footing. Only when the revolt was in danger of being extinguished—with the Libyan army poised on the outskirts of Benghazi—did Mr. Obama finally support Britain and France in calling for action at the United Nations. (22)

During discussion of the draft UN resolution American diplomats, reluctant to speak out openly against “humanitarian intervention”, clearly hoped for a veto by Russia or China, with whom discussions were held in a deliberately mild and ambiguous tone. But to the embitterment of the Americans, Moscow unexpectedly supported the resolution, leaving the Western countries facing a problem they clearly had no wish to solve.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russian representative at the Brussels headquarters of the North Atlantic Alliance, stated that Libya had “provoked a serious crisis within NATO”, (23) while a number of military analysts even declared that the operation had “led to a split” within the NATO ranks. (24) The disagreements were indeed without precedent. In Brussels, a scandalous comedy unfolded. First, NATO refused to undertake to carry out the UN resolution; then, under pressure from France, the allies agreed, but no-one showed any desire to lead the operation. The Americans and Europeans did their utmost to palm off responsibility on one another. With the politicians in a panic, the military leaders had no idea what the aims and objectives of the combat operations were supposed to be. The scale of the actions was to be extremely modest compared to what the Western powers had mounted in Iraq, in Afghanistan and earlier, in the Balkans. Russian military analysts stated that “extremely little” use was made of aircraft. (25)

Writing in the Wall Street Journal in July 2011 Max Boot calculated that over 78 days of military operations in Kosovo the Western air forces, using 1100 aircraft, had flown 38,004 sorties. In Libya, despite the closeness of the theatre of action to major Western air bases, only 250 aircraft were sent into action, carrying out 11,107 combat missions. (26) Even more striking was the contrast with the military operations which the Americans and their allies had earlier conducted against Iraq. Operation Desert Storm, which in 1991 had so frightened Colonel Gaddafi, lasted 43 days in all and was accompanied by 109,876 combat sorties, an average of more than two and a half thousand per day. In the period of “peace” between the two Iraq wars the Americans carried out a total of 41,850 military flights over that country, and during the second Iraq war an average of 565 aircraft were being used to pursue US aims there.

Against this background, the 57 flights per day which the coalition mounted in Libya is merely a sad parody. (27) Poorly coordinated, ill-prepared and generally chaotic, the bombing campaign by the middle of spring had finished up in a dead end. By early summer everyone, from Gaddafi supporters to the rebels, from Western experts to Russian military observers, was branding the operation a failure. The fate of Libya lay in the hands of rebel field commanders and of the people gathered round them in the country’s Western mountains.

Meanwhile, the events in Libya were arousing no less disagreement and confusion among the traditional critics of Western imperialism. In the final reckoning, it was not the NATO powers that were split by developments in the North African country, but members of the left. It was more than obvious that the people organising the intervention, whatever they might have claimed in the way of humanitarian objectives, were not in the least moved by concern for the peaceful inhabitants of Libya. In the Arab press, many supporters of the Libyan revolution noted this as well.

But if NATO in this case had refrained from intervening, members of the left would have been the first to criticise the hypocrisy and double standards of the alliance, which remembers its “humanitarian tasks” only when it finds this convenient. In fact, such a criticism has already begun to be heard in connection with the unwillingness of the West to intervene in Yemen or Syria. In the spring of 2011, while aiding the revolutionaries in Libya, the West looked on shamefaced as repression was unleashed against peaceful demonstrators in Bahrain, where the US navy has one of its bases.

Some Arab writers, on the other hand, called for a rethinking of the role of the West in the region, stressing that the situation in Libya had nothing in common with what took place in Iraq or Kosovo. Of course, as Abdelkader Saadallah wrote in the Algerian left newspaper Le Matin, NATO is “a coalition set up to defend the interests of global and in the first place Western capital, while suppressing national populations.” But this time, Saadallah continued, “the NATO coalition intervened in order to stop the slaughter of the population in Benghazi.” On this basis, he concluded that what was involved was not “neocolonialist or imperialist aggression.” (28) The prominent Arab scholar Mohamed Elmasry argued that even the most negative assessment of the role which the West had played in the Middle East changed nothing, since once they had risen in revolt the people of Libya “simply had no choice”. (29)

Even more emphatic in supporting the intervention was the well-known Middle East specialist Juan Cole. In his view, the arguments of those who maintained that the West sought through its intervention to seize Libya’s oil were completely groundless. “Libya was already integrated into the international oil markets,” Cole noted, “and had done billions of deals with BP, ENI, etc., etc. None of those companies would have wanted to endanger their contracts by getting rid of the ruler who had signed them. They had often already had the trauma of having to compete for post-war Iraqi contracts, a process in which many did less well than they would have liked. ENI’s profits were hurt by the Libyan revolution, as were those of Total SA and Repsol. Moreover, taking Libyan oil off the market through a NATO military intervention could have been foreseen to put up oil prices, which no Western elected leader would have wanted to see, especially Barack Obama, with the danger that a spike in energy prices could prolong the economic doldrums.” (30)