Since the start of the events in the Arab World, termed as the so-called “Arab Spring,” Vijay Prashad has been writing about the different countries where people turned against their regimes across the region. He has done so by consistently contextualizing the events, while still providing thorough analyses of local dynamics and histories. In his book--Arab Spring, Libyan Winter-- Prashad discusses the case of Libya, its similarities and differences with other revolutions in the Arab world, and the history of the Libyan regime, as well as the “international” intervention.
Magid Shihade (MS): Were the revolutions in the Arab world sudden events, disconnected from the past?
Vijay Prashad (VP): The revolts in North Africa and West Asia were both sudden and anticipated, although the scale was a surprise. Over the course of the past decade, there has been an escalation of protests in the region – largely around issues of well-being, rising prices and so on. The great demographic shifts (with youth being sixty percent of the population) are compounded by high rates of joblessness. Young people were four times likely to be jobless than others in the region. This was always a combustive situation. The joblessness is not driven by Malthusian pressures – too many people, too few jobs to sustain them. It was rather the result of a tonic of neoliberal domestic policies and by the general second-class status of the Global South as the North constructs international policy to favor the corporations.
Add to this troubled economic situation a barren political climate, with the national security state as the dominant form from Tunisia to Syria. These states have run away from the promise of Nasserism or Arab Nationalism – the original form was itself slightly allergic to democracy, but this new form, incubated in the 1970s is entirely premised on ruthless suppression of the populations and a pretense of democracy with closely managed elections. The Mukhabarat or internal security forces are far more the significant institution than the parliament (which was often cosmetic) and the media (which was simply gibberish when it came to political matters, but of course very effective with its soap operas when it came to transforming culture into anesthesia).
Social life in North Africa, and in West Asia to an extent, already pushed against the boundaries of the consensus sought by the neoliberal authoritarianism of the regimes. Protests had become commonplace, whether from the workers of Mahallah or the Muslim Brothers, or indeed the array of small liberal and left organizations from the cities or the peasant organizations from the countryside.
What was unexpected was the scale of the uprising, and the resilience of the protestors. It seemed almost as if they knew that they were fighting for their lives. To return home was to be not only defeated for the moment, but it would mean that the neoliberal authoritarian regimes would now seek them out to crush their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That is why both the central square in Tunis and Tahrir Square in Cairo could not be vacated. It was a matter of life and death. The spontaneous sensibility was well matched by the organized forces – it was this combination that sent Ben Ali and Mubarak into their various forms of exile.
MS: How different is the Libyan case? Or what difference is there between Libya and say Egypt or Tunisia?
VP: Libya was always different. Its people had been partly cushioned from the collapse of economic life – the subsidies fueled by oil exports had not been withdrawn. But people do not live by bread alone. Over the course of the past two decades, the Qaddafi regime sought to privatize vast areas of social life, and to turn the Libyan state into something that would more properly resemble the state in Egypt – subordinate to private enterprise but harsh in its use of an already harsh Mukhabarat. In Libya, the Islamists had faced the wrath of the internal security forces. The long history of repression against them galvanized their revolt. It was the means by which this repression that was carried out against the Islamists since 1996 that turned the professional and liberal class against the regime and into a sympathetic relationship with the Islamists. I’m thinking here of the human rights activists, who joined the Islamists against the authoritarianism of the regime without themselves being Islamists politically or devout religiously.
But in Libya despite the fact that the people were not able to experiment through political struggle, the deep gulf between the people and the regime enabled them to seize vast sections of the landscape for the rebellion very quickly. Within weeks, the entire east was in the hands of the rebellion. Sections of the west, notably Misrata, had also slipped from Qaddafi’s grip. Parts of Tripoli itself, particularly the working class districts of Tajoura and Suq al-Jumah, turned against the regime. The harshness of Qaddafi’s response has to be measured by the habits of his regime (they always responded like this) and by their fear that society was lost to them (they had not previously experienced such a wave of disaffection in so many places). Yes, Qaddafi’s regime struck back hard, but it had become clear by early March that the progress of the revolution was swift and it would have succeeded in its terms. In the process of its fight, it would have clarified its own commitments and its own measure of what the new Libya would have been. Before it could do so, the West intervened. And it was this intervention that has made the creation of a new Libya very problematic. That is precisely the story I tell in my book.
MS: You say that people do not live by bread alone. Given that, are there other foreign policy or regional issues that perhaps motivated the upsurge?
VP: Here the story is interesting. You might remember in Orientalism, Edward Said took to task Harold Glidden’s analysis of honor and shame in Arab culture. Glidden was interested in the humiliating defeat suffered by the Arab armies in 1948. I had always found this an interesting section in Said’s book. I agreed with him that Glidden’s account bordered on racism, with a psychological narrative about the Arabs that portrayed them as infantile and overly sensitive. Glidden’s claim was that humiliation of honor had to be regained through the shedding of blood, and so on. It was mostly ridiculous.
But there is a kernel of truth in the first part of the suggestion – which is to say that there was something humiliating to be both under authoritarian dictatorships that promised so little and took so much, and it was humiliating to see the West and the Israelis walk all over the Palestinians for at least the past thirty years. The humiliation of Mohamed Bouazizi is a general condition amongst the casual workers of North Africa and West Asia – to be caught with no plan for one’s life and to suffer the indignity from a neoliberal authoritarian structure that takes so much from you – that is intolerable. One should not underestimate the great hunger for self-determination or democracy or whatever you want to call it. The West seeks to assume that this “democracy” is its donation to the world, but that is ridiculous. The striving for justice and for self-government is as old as human civilization.
The idea of humiliation should be extended as well to the disdain for the general sense of the proneness of the Arab nation since at least the late 1970s. In terms of international relations, Arab Nationalism has been utterly vanquished. No Arab political force has been able to exert itself against imperialism, and when the shadow of such a force tried, as with Saddam Hussein in 1990, its hollowness was shown for what it was (and tragically its appearance brought out many in support of Saddam’s adventure, thinking it was the emergence of independence when it was the ridiculous mimicry of what had been and no longer was, which is a genuine popular Arab Nationalism). The total domination of the Israelis over the Palestinians, and for decades over Lebanon, simply underscored this sense of historical defeat. The intifadas of 1987-1993 and 2000-2006 were able to galvanize support, but only for a contest that was militarily (not morally) always on the side of the Israelis. It is no surprise therefore that among the liberal-left in Tahrir Square were Kefaya, which emerged in 2004 but drew from currents associated with the solidarity campaign with the second Intifada, and the March 20 Movement, named for the large protest against the 2003 War on Iraq. These two are indicators of the broad vision for the Arab Nation, something akin in time to the Bolivarian consciousness set forth by the 1989 Caracazo and the “pink tide” in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and the rest of South America.
MS: What was the position of Western powers towards the Arab revolutions? What opportunity did the situation in Libya provide Western powers with, and for what end?
VP: The West was stunned by the uprisings in North Africa, and of course in the Arabian Peninsula. It was the latter that was most threatening because they came too close to the great allies of the West, the Gulf Arab monarchies. The Saudis have made it clear that they will not tolerate any democratic experiment on their borders. The history of Yemen’s republicanism is testament to that – the Saudis ran a long standing insurgency against it, and brought the regime to heel (Saleh was once a very close ally of Saddam Hussein, and even supported Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait; his knee went to the ground before the Saudis not long after). Defense of the realm of the Saudis is an extension of the defense of the US (as the Carter Doctrine makes clear). The Saudis would have none of the revolt in Bahrain and Yemen. These had to be controlled. And the transition in Egypt needed to be managed. The West also feel flat before the Saudis on this.
Even the Israelis, for all their talk of being the “only democracy in the Middle East,” were not happy to welcome the revolts. Their intelligence services are often good, and they recognized that absent the neoliberal authoritarianism, political Islam would make major gains. Israel benefits greatly from the old regimes. It is what allowed Israel to have asymmetrical domination over the Palestinians and Lebanon – the Egyptians had been bought off with their annual bursary from the US government to their military, and the monarchies were always wary of any challenge to the US and its proxy in the region, as well the Syrians had become Israel’s border guard in the Golan region. With the “Arab nation” prone, Israel could indulge in its one-sided adventures against Lebanon (1982 and then 2006), the Occupation in general and then the occasional merciless bombardment (Operation Cast Lead, Gaza, 2009).
No attempt to control the dynamic in the region (special envoys and so on) was successful. It took the Libyan war to enable the West to insinuate itself as the active agent. It is remarkable that NATO became a social force in North Africa . . . taking space from the rebellion from below that had generated its own history, and produced its own gains. It would now have to share the spoils with NATO, and the NATO states. Where the West was almost discredited for its affiliation with the neoliberal authoritarian regimes, it was able to rehabilitate itself via the NATO intervention.
MS: What do you say to the argument that Western powers (US, Europe, and Israel) are interested in destabilizing the region, and that either they encourage the revolutions in some places, or they will be benefit anyway from it?
VP: I tend to have a more contingent view of history than that question implies. In other words, I think that the West was caught off guard. It had assumed that the neoliberal autocrats were there for good. Where the revolts could be properly managed, with Saudi tutelage, they were handled appropriately – in Yemen, Vice President Hadi took over from President Saleh, but it is Saleh’s son, Ahmed, who controls the Republican Guard and lives in the Presidential Palace; nothing changed in Bahrain; nothing was permitted in Saudi Arabia. What the West seeks is stability and the Saudi-Qatari momentum promises this to the oil merchants and the arms merchants, to the White House and to the Élysée Palace.
The revolt in Libya had its own dynamic. It was not forged by NGOs or “democracy promotion” funds from the US. It emerged out of the contradictions of recent Libyan history. What the West did was to insinuate itself into the revolt as the protector of civilians, when it seemed pretty obvious that the civilians and the defected troops were doing a pretty good job of defending themselves. I go over the evidence of the potential genocide in my book, and essentially junk it. It was propaganda to allow NATO entrance, and to blind us from what was going to happen in Saudi and in Bahrain – the Libyan war was smokescreen to block out evidence of the massive crackdown in the Peninsula, including in Yemen. The US and its allies encouraged their pillars of Order to reestablish themselves--the 5th Fleet in Manama had to have a stable home, after all, and the Iranians were not to be allowed any successful allies in the Peninsula, having already lost Iraq to the Revisionists thanks to the US intervention there.
MS: What is the ethical stand that you think is suitable for people of progressive politics when it comes to peoples’ revolutions, and to western powers interventions?
VP: This is a very important and difficult question. When a revolt breaks out, should the Left join with it regardless of its social basis? Does the revolt have to have a Left character to be defended by the Left? Not necessarily so. The first obligation of the Left it seems to me is to defend a popular uprising against any state that seeks to use overwhelming force against it. That is the minimum for any kind of humanist Left. No regime, however progressive, should be given carte blanche to bomb civilian areas.
That said, there is no question that none of the regimes in North Africa had a progressive cast by 2011. Qaddafi’s regime began well in 1969, but by the 1980s its entire national liberation agenda had collapsed. The Ba’ath regime always had an antipathy to the Left and to the agenda of Nasserism--it tethered the Syrian Communist Party and sequestered the agenda of Arab nationalism to the interests first of its bureaucracy and then, by the 1990s and 2000s, to the neoliberal elite that had emerged in the major cities, principally Damascus. To believe that these are progressive regimes that need to be defended by the Left is to live in a delusion. Just because they make noises every once in a while about imperialism or Zionism should not blind us to their role as subcontractors of imperialism (both Syria and Libya have welcomed prisoners from the West to torture through the extraordinary rendition program).
Finally, history does not move forward following some kind of script, with the revolutionaries always coming forward trained in the kinds of books we wish them to have read or with the kind of agenda that we would fully get behind. The move by the various social forces against the neoliberal authoritarian regimes lays open space for the emergence of a proper new Left, which will have to be very clever in the way it makes room for itself against political Islam and imperialism, two social forces that are by their programs given to the suffocation of the people. The Islamists will probably ride to power in each of the newly opened up spaces, and because they have a retrograde economic and social agenda will quickly either lose their legitimacy or else will push a very harsh social platform that will be divisive and so might allow them a lease of life. The Arab Left that resurfaces and regroups will have to be very creative on this new terrain.
MS: Given this position you have staked out, should progressives support foreign (especially) NATO interventions in the South, or more specifically in the Arab world?
VP: If, for instance, people are being butchered and there is no way to defend them, and NATO is the only chance for their lives – only a hard-hearted ideologue would not see that NATO’s intervention would be essential.
Such a scenario is rarely what we are presented with. This is a cartoon image of what the NATO media announced about Libya. Going back and looking at the evidence two things are clear: first, that the numbers being thrown about in February-March 2011 for a death count were grossly exaggerated (notably a famous tweet from al-Arabiya) and second, that the rebels were holding their own, and indeed had the momentum on their side.
The problem with a NATO intervention is not entirely germane to the rebels on the ground--they would likely welcome any armed force on their side. That is without question. The problem is rather with the growing power of NATO to act without any oversight, and to act “out of area” (that is to say Europe). When the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 asking all member states to use “any means necessary” to protect civilians, the African Union hastened to send a high level panel to Tripoli and Benghazi to begin talks towards a ceasefire. NATO, meanwhile, powered up its jets, forbade the African Union team from flying into Libya and began its bombardment. Since that bombing started, evidence has emerged that during the 24,000 sorties there were considerable civilian casualties. In other words, in the name of protecting civilians, NATO killed untold numbers of civilians. A team of Arab human rights organizations and the UN Human Rights Council has asked for NATO to allow them to investigate its records to trace the numbers of civilian casualties and whether these were because of deliberate targeting of civilian areas. NATO refused. Indeed, its legal advisor wrote to the UN Human Rights Council to argue that NATO could not ever be seen to commit war crimes. The suggestion was impossible. Then, in the Security Council, the Russians have called for an evaluation of Resolution 1973, to see if it was indeed used most effectively to protect civilians. Of interest is the Libyan town of Tawerga, where the rebels under NATO cover removed the 30,000 largely dark skinned residents; this is ethnic cleansing with NATO collusion. NATO has refused to comply with any such evaluation. This is one of the reasons why the Security Council is loath to allow NATO any leash to act in similar situations, such as Syria.
So NATO does not want any evaluation of its role in Libya. This is a very important problem. In our modern, democratic world we have come to terms with the central idea that the military must be subordinate to and accountable to civilian authorities. But NATO is not subordinate to or accountable to any other bodies but itself. To allow NATO to operate without accountability violates this important prejudice of modernity. One cannot allow NATO to run roughshod over the political authorities and over the planet. That is unacceptable.
NATO is a not a social force for the rejuvenation of Arab society and Arab politics. The agenda of the NATO states is antithetical to the dreams of the “Arab Spring.” NATO states will push the same kinds of neoliberal programs that they have pushed over the course of the past few decades, and NATO states will seek to build up the military in the new states as their main door to control the destiny of the region. All this has to be rejected. History has begun to move away from the days of Western imperialism. They will seek to prolong their power with all means necessary. It is for the people of the Arab lands, like the South Americans before them, to show NATO the door.