Somebody said to me recently, “The Libyans will soon be doing business with Israel, whether they like it or not.” Here we go again: the assumption that the Libyans have no agency of their own, even after they’ve so dramatically taken the initiative to change the course of their own history. Yes, Libyans took help from NATO, Qatar, and the UAE when they found themselves with no other option. This doesn’t mean they are fated to be slaves of the West. Even Iraq doesn’t do business with Israel, and Iraq has suffered a full-scale US occupation.
Such easy assumptions about the Libyan people arise from racism, usually of the unconscious, ‘well-meaning’ variety. This racism consists, first, of indifference to the people’s plight under Qaddafi, or outright denial of their plight. The rose-tinted view of life under the dictator is reminiscent of the Zionists who assure us that Gaza has swimming pools and shopping malls and that Palestinian Israelis live better than any other Arabs. The rush to highlight the crimes of the revolutionaries (sometimes relying on Qaddafi regime propaganda) is accompanied by silence over the far greater crimes of the quasi-fascist tyranny.
Libyans (and, to a degree, Syrians) are seen as passive tools in the hands of the devilishly clever White man, as childlike people who don’t know their own best interests, as people best advised to shut up and enjoy being tortured for the sake of the greater ‘anti-imperialist’ good. The right of the Libyans to life and freedom, and to make their own decisions, becomes less important than the right of certain people to feel self-righteous.
Many anti-Libyan commentators have felt free to make sweeping predictions about Libya and the Libyans without actually possessing any knowledge of the people or the country. Where now are those voices who a few weeks ago predicted so confidently the division of Libya into east and west? Or who informed us that the uprising against the tyrant was in fact a tribal civil war? Or that Tripoli would never fall because Qaddafi had so much popular support there? How do these people explain the almost immediate surrender of Qaddafi’s security forces as soon as the revolutionaries arrived in the capital, or the fact that revolutionaries rose within the capital to greet their brothers arriving from beyond, or the mass celebrations in almost every neighbourhood as soon as it became safe to express real emotions?
Beyond racism, exaggerated conspiratorial overgeneralisations are a symptom of perceived impotence. Some believe that the CIA (or whoever) is behind not only the revolutions in Libya (why the CIA would have plotted to get rid of Qaddafi I don’t know; Qaddafi was not only selling oil to Western companies, he was torturing rendered Islamists on America’s behalf and controlling cross-Mediterranean migration for the EU’s sake) and Syria, but even in Tunisia and Egypt. Such theorists believe, whether they admit it or not, that change through political action is an impossibilty, that mass mobilisations, and the courage to take on armed goons with empty hands and bare chests, cannot be real. The logical correlation of this belief is that the sole purpose of the left is to whine about the state of the world, but never to actually change anything. At the start of the 20th Century the left could have been criticised for underestimating the difficulty of establishing a fairer society; at the start of the 21st Century, sections of the left, particularly the Western left, must be criticised for the opposite.
Libyans will certainly do business with the West, just as Qaddafi did before. Libya needs to sell oil to make its economy work and to build the infrastructure that Qaddafi failed to build. (If Libyans require advanced medical treatment, they go to Tunisia – a much poorer country). Libyans will no doubt prefer to do business with the Western countries that gave them support than with such powers as Russia, which gave succour to their oppressors. If Libyans are in the driving seat, making their own decisions, this is fine. Yet certainly the danger exists that in their gratitude and amid the current chaos Libyan officials will make too many concessions to Western power. Britain, France and others will be working hard behind the scenes to ensure such an outcome, and the Libyans should be very wary.
Many of the first signs out of post-Qaddafi Libya are good. Although the Transitional Council has failed to make a strong statement against racist attacks on African migrant workers (by people who accuse every single foreigner of being a mercenary), and although Mustafa Abdul-Jalil has unwisely called for continued NATO action (until Qaddafi is captured and his remaining forces neutralised), Transitional Council officials have made clear that Libyan citizens (such as Megrahi) will not be handed over to the West. More significantly, protests have erupted in Misrata against the Transitional Council’s appointment of an ex-Qaddafi official to a security position in Tripoli. Much of the Council is made up of old regime personalities. The challenge now will be to deepen the revolution while keeping the people as unified as possible.
Like Tunisia and Egypt, Libya is in the early stages of its revolution. One thing is certain: the people are by no means passive, and are not in the mood to exchange one tyranny with another.
(Thanks to PW). And here’s Nafissa Assed’s latest piece. Nafissa reported from Tripoli for this site in the early days of the revolution. I’m very pleased that she’ll be returning home soon.