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Order reigns in Tobruk

By Marcus Halaby

March 21, 2015

Those on the left who supported Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship against its own people in 2011 occasionally cite the chaos and confusion in Libya today as proof that his dictatorship was a necessary evil, and that his overthrow would inevitably lead to Libya’s becoming “another Somalia”, a fragmented “failed state.” Some even suggest that the West wanted this outcome.

In fact, the Western imperialists’ strategic objective was not to create a disorderly shambles but to maintain a stable regime in Libya that could keep its oil supplies flowing to a Europe heavily dependent on them. Indeed they only turned against Gaddafi after the popular uprising against him in February 2011, having been caught supporting the losing side in both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions a few weeks earlier.

Only when it seemed clear that his regime had lost its ability to maintain order did they turn against him. For over a decade they had been his major customers, and British, French and Italian politicians all had flattered and fawned on Gaddafi and his sons.
Their difficulty, four years after the dictator’s overthrow, is that the USA and its EU allies have found few if any reliable candidates for the job of imposing order. Indeed these candidates’ attempts to do so only seem to increase the instability that they fear so much.

Today, for example, there are two rival governments and parliaments in Libya, each controlling only about a fifth or less of the country.

The Tobruk-based government recognised by the United Nations (UN), and dominated by military strongman Khalifa Haftar, a Gaddafi-era general turned sometime US agent, is supported by the USA, Egypt’s military dictatorship, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. It controls the far east of the country, along the coastline close to the Egyptian border.

However, eastern Libya’s main city, Benghazi, is divided between the control of this government and the conservative Islamist Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. And this pro-Western regime is so lacking in popular support that it notoriously had to hold meetings of its parliament, the Council of Deputies, on a Greek car ferry moored off the coast of Tobruk.
Through its militia allies like the Zintan Brigades and the Gaddafi regime’s former special forces unit al-Saiqa, it has however managed to assert control of much of the oil production in the country’s eastern interior, raising oil production from 200 to 800 thousand barrels a per day, as compared to the pre-revolution figure of 1,600.

Haftar’s major rival is a “moderate” Islamist government in the capital Tripoli, occasionally called “Libya Dawn”, resting on the rump of the General National Congress (GNC) elected in July 2012. In similar a line-up to the one in Egypt before the military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Turkey and Qatar are both supporting it. Its military defence is conducted mainly by the Libya Shield Force and by the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, both coalitions of militias that fought on the anti-Gaddafi side in 2011, which had been recognised and funded by the post-revolutionary government prior to the current crisis.

This crisis began in December 2013, when the GNC unilaterally extended its mandate following a stormy relationship with its prime minister Ali Zeidan, who had hoped to disarm the former anti-Gaddafi militias with whom many of the GNC’s deputies were aligned. An abortive coup attempt by Haftar in February 2014, aimed at forcibly dissolving the GNC and holding new elections, was followed by a “slow coup”, consisting of a political campaign to secure the support of current and former military officers against the militias.

Zeidan’s dismissal by the GNC in March 2014 brought him openly into Haftar’s camp, which launched “Operation Dignity” in May 2014, a combined heavy weapons and air assault on Libya’s second-largest city Benghazi, which remains divided today, with thousands of its residents displaced. This bloody assault was justified to the Libyan public and to the outside world as an “anti-terrorist” operation, in particular directed against Ansar al-Sharia, the Salafi Islamist movement held responsible for the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, in which US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed.

By declaring the whole of Libya’s Islamist spectrum to be “terrorists” who had the choice of leaving the country, being killed or being arrested, Haftar succeeded in uniting most of Libya’s fractious Islamist camp against him.

The siege of Benghazi was followed by “elections” in June 2014 to the new Council of Deputies, in which there was only an 18 per cent turnout, as compared to the 60 per cent that elected the GNC in July 2012. Unable to convene in Benghazi, this new pro-Haftar parliament set itself up in little Tobruk instead, resting on support from Egypt and the UAE.

Haftar’s attempt to seize Tripoli and dissolve the GNC in June 2014 created a constitutional crisis, as the Supreme Constitutional Court, under Haftar’s pressure, refused to recognise the GNC’s dismissal of Zeidan’s successor as caretaker prime minister Abdullah al-Thani, who then also defected to the pro-Haftar camp, taking many “secular” GNC deputies with him. The following month, an uprising dubbed “Operation Dawn” led by militias supporting the rump GNC seized Tripoli’s airport and asserted control over Libya’s third-largest city Misrata, the industrial city whose militia played a key role in the liberation of Tripoli from the Gaddafi regime.

The Supreme Constitutional Court, now under the pressure of the militias, then declared Haftar’s parliament unlawful in November 2014, setting the stage for the current stand-off, with UN-brokered talks foundering on an insistence by the Tobruk regime that it be recognised as the sole government of the country.

The Egyptian regime has since bombed and invaded the port of Derna, between Tobruk and Benghazi, in February this year, using the pretext of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by an Islamic State-aligned militia there. This militia and others like it, like the much larger Ansar al-Sharia, now have their main base of support in the region around Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, between Benghazi and the region around Tripoli and Misrata. They are rumoured to consist of Libyans who fought alongside the rebel forces in Syria, although conspiracy theories abound that many are actually Gaddafi’s old defeated loyalists in new, Islamic garb.

Libya’s difficulty is one shared by Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states: that as an oil rentier state, it lacks a large native working class of its own, having recruited the majority of its workforce from abroad. Lacking permanent rights of residence, let alone political rights, that might give it a visible stake in the political future of the country, this working class’s natural reaction to the chaos of revolution and civil war has been to flee the country and then return after things have calmed down, rather than to intervene in events as a force in its own right.

Nor have the multi-class forces thrown into struggle by the revolution against Gaddafi made any serious attempt to appeal to Libya’s migrant working class as a potential ally in their own struggles; indeed, black African migrants in particular were the targets of racist pogroms by insurgent forces in 2011, in the belief that they were the Gaddafi regime’s mercenaries.

So while Libya in February 2011 might have responded to the experience of successful popular uprisings either side of it (in Egypt and Tunisia) with a genuine popular uprising of its own, it did not take long for the post-revolutionary process opened by this uprising to become dominated by the inter-tribal and localist rivalries that were only partly hidden from view under four decades of what was a highly personal dictatorship.

Haftar, resting on the parts of Libya’s middle classes who were appalled by the lawlessness of the militias, and who had hoped for a return to business as usual after the overthrow of Gaddafi, succeeded in building a movement around him that could intimidate the more “responsible” (that is, imperialist-aligned) politicians to join him, and pose to the imperialist powers as restoring the “rule of law” over the law of the jungle.

But he could do that only by deepening Libya’s divisions further, in particular by alienating those for whom their self-sacrifice during the 2011 revolution created a social and political debt of blood whose repayment the militias stood as a guarantee for.

His opponents, however, possess a “democratic mandate” for their rule only marginally more credible than his – and, moreover, espouse a reactionary social programme that can only alienate those for whom the state-promoted (if often superficial) “secularism” of pre-revolutionary Libyan society represented a genuine social gain.

It follows that Libya’s fate, without a working class with a political voice and a consciousness of its own, will continue to be decided from outside. And this in turn means that the outcome of Libya’s post-revolutionary crisis will be decided, one way or another, by the fate of working class struggles elsewhere in the region, beginning with Egypt and Tunisia.

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