After taking one town after another in
the early days of the Libyan revolution, now the insurgents are having
to come to terms with the fact that Gaddafi has managed to hold together
a significant section of his special security forces and is hitting
back. How does one explain this dramatic turnaround?
After taking one town after another in
the early days of the Libyan revolution, now the insurgents are having
to come to terms with the fact that Gaddafi has managed to hold together
a significant section of his special security forces and is hitting
back. How does one explain this dramatic turnaround?
Libya seemed to be going the same way as Tunisia and Egypt. The speed
with which the movement took large areas of the country, indicates that
the population hates Gaddafi and wants to see an end to his
dictatorship. The cities that fell to the insurgents did so not through
outright military victories against the state apparatus, but through
The fact that in Tripoli, the initial movements against the regime
failed to become a revolt on the scale of Benghazi and other cities is
not an indication of massive support for Gaddafi. Control of Tripoli has
in large part been provided by several well-equipped elite security
brigades. Let us not forget that this is a brutal totalitarian
dictatorship, which is proving it will use any means possible to crush
popular revolt. No doubt the clampdown in Tripoli has been thorough and
The latest events are bringing home to many people in the Arab world
that toppling tyrants will not always be so easy and relatively peaceful
as it was first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. Setbacks and defeats
during a revolution are inevitable. They also play an important role in
forcing people to think. After the seemingly straightforward way the
dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown, the – understandably –
naïve idea developed that all one needs to do is to concentrate large
numbers of people in a central square for long enough and you can
overthrow any regime.
Libya is showing that that is not always enough. Now we also have the
situation in Bahrain where Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have sent
in troops, and the state is stepping up repression. The ruling elites of
these countries have a lot to lose. They are the same regimes that were
pushing Mubarak to resist at all costs. And imperialism also has much
at stake in these oil-rich countries. The US have their Fifth Fleet
based in Bahrain.
The effect of this stepping up of repressive measures in Bahrain has
pushed the youth into an even more militant stance than before. In the
long run all these regimes will eventually fall. Mass opposition is
evident in all of them. And a people once it has risen cannot be held
down by the sword alone for ever.
For now, however, in Libya Gaddafi is holding on and fighting back.
His forces have bombed towns, killing many civilians and rebel fighters,
and they have successfully taken back several of these, and now they
are moving towards Benghazi.
Why has Gaddafi not fallen yet?
we need to ask the question as to why the Gaddafi regime has not fallen
and why it is able to fight back and regain some of the areas
previously taken by the insurgents.
There are several complicating factors in Libya. We will look into
these later, but the most serious is the weakness of the leadership that
emerged in Benghazi. Also, the working class played less of a role in
Libya. After decades of brutal dictatorship there were no organisations
of the working class of any kind, not even of the type that existed in
Tunisia, such as the UGTT which the workers used to organise through.
In Egypt what finally pushed Mubarak out was the decisive
intervention of the working class. Faced with the prospect of a serious
movement of the workers, the top generals were convinced that in order
to stave off revolution from below it was better that Mubarak should go.
In Tunisia also the workers played a key role in ousting Ben Ali with a
movement of massive regional strikes.
Faced with a regime like that of Gaddafi, unless the workers put
their stamp on the revolution all the potential for a generalised
uprising, particularly in Tripoli, and for a mass revolt within the army
and security forces can remain precisely that, potential.
The make-up of the Interim Council also has played a role in this
process. All kinds of different layers have been involved in the early
stages of the revolution. These include some defectors from the old
regime, who decided to jump ship when they thought Gaddafi was about to
fall, no doubt hoping to play the role of Ghannouchi in Tunisia.
Among them are Ali Al Issawi, Gaddafi’s former minister for economy,
trade and investment and Mahmood Jibril, who served as head of the
country’s National Planning Council and National Economic Development
Board, and who holds a PhD in privatisation obtained from the Academy of
Economic Studies in Bucharest Romania. According to a leaked 2010 U.S.
diplomatic cable he was considered as being "well-connected within the
regime" and someone who was seeking more open relations with the U.S.
Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the Council, was Gaddafi’s
Justice Minister from 2007 until he defected last month.
These people successfully stepped into the vacuum of leadership that
emerged in Benghazi when the state collapsed in the face of the
revolution, but rather than strengthening the revolution, they weaken
it. There are also Islamists, who can be of no appeal to working people
in the cities. There are human rights activists and pro-democracy
groups, whose main objective is some kind of bourgeois democracy, but
who do not take into account the social and economic demands of ordinary
working people. Side by side with all these there is the revolutionary
youth and the working class and poor.
the former and the latter there are clear class differences and this
could be seen, for instance, when Gaddafi pretended he was prepared to
“negotiate”. It was clear that the aim of Gaddafi was to cause divisions
among the rebel forces. Some of the “pragmatic” leaders of the Interim
Council fell for it, but had to immediately backtrack as the enraged
revolutionary youth converged on the headquarters of the Council
protesting at such submissive behaviour.
It is this weakness of the leadership, this limiting of their demands
to “Democracy” and “Down with the dictator”, while at the same time
having no programme to deal with the social and economic problems of the
workers, which has strengthened the hand of Gaddafi. The only way the
revolution can succeed is by uniting democratic demands with social and
economic demands. Without such a programme, the revolution failed to
grip the masses to the degree necessary to generalise the uprising and
have a sufficient impact on the armed forces that would have made
Gaddafi’s counter-offensive impossible.
The most important thing that we have to understand is that if we
reduce the conflict merely to the military balance of forces, then
Gaddafi is in a far stronger position. The revolution cannot win if it
is simply reduced to conventional armed conflict.
Initially we did see the beginnings of a breakdown of Gaddafi’s armed
forces, with significant layers refusing to shoot on the masses and
passing over to the revolution, but the process was stalled. At a
certain point the idea that Gaddafi could be overthrown militarily
gained the upper hand on the Council. This reflects their own limited
aims of establishing some “democratic” regime that would have good
relations with imperialism, i.e. they want to push to its logical
conclusion the self-same policy that Gaddafi and his sons have been
promoting, only with a democratic façade.
Here again, we must emphasise the role of the leadership. The Interim
Council that was set up in Benghazi put at its head, as we have seen,
Jalil, Gaddafi’s ex-Minister of Justice! This leadership, faced with the
military might of Gaddafi, instead of pushing to break down his forces
politically, began to talk of foreign help, calling for a no-fly zone
and so on.
This idea of a no-fly zone we will look into later, but rather than
weakening Gaddafi, it has strengthened him. He has been able to use it
to raise himself up as the defender of the nation against imperialist
aggression. The fact that the French government has officially
recognised the Council as the government for the country does not help
in this. Since when has French imperialism been a friend of the Arab
Gaddafi has used this to portray the insurgents as agents of
imperialism and even forces of Al-Qaeda. Once this had happened and the
struggle was transformed from a genuine revolution to a war led by
elements who came from within the regime itself, and with the idea that
their victory would lead to imperialist control over Libya, the balance
of forces changed in favour of Gaddafi.
Volunteers were prepared to march on Tripoli, but much less armed and
untrained in combat against the professional forces of Gaddafi. In such
open conflict, unless the revolution is able to grip the minds of the
masses in a city like Tripoli, and unless this in turn breaks down the
loyalty of the rank and file of the armed forces, then from a purely
military point of view the counter-revolution gets the upper hand. Once
such a process starts it also rebounds on the rebel camp, where the
internal divisions widen as each layer blames the others for the
mistakes they have made. Gaddafi is cunningly exploiting all this.
Defeat of revolution not inevitable
However, the defeat of the Libyan uprising is not inevitable, nor a
foregone conclusion. There are a number of factors here. There is the
revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses which partially makes up for
their military weaknesses. Gaddafi has been advancing, but it has been
painfully slow, considering that he has a well-equipped army that is
facing far less organised and less equipped rebel forces. It took his
forces a week to retake Ras Lanuf, and Zawiya.
However, it is one thing to occupy cities; it is another to hold them
down where the majority of the population is against them. There have
even been reports of defections from the Khamis Brigade, during their
assault on Misurata. Gaddafi’s forces were ambushed and captured in
The insurgents require a revolutionary policy, making appeals to the
cities held by Gaddafi, to the ranks of his units, etc. But what have
the units that went over to the side of the people been doing? According
to The Economist, initially they were confined to their barracks
in Tobruk and Benghazi, because some of the top officers did not
particularly want to get involved in the fighting. What were they doing?
Were they waiting to see which side was going to win?
An example has been Gaddafi’s former interior minister, Abd al-Fattah
Younis, who defected. He had a thousand men at his disposal, but for
weeks he refused to obey the orders of the Council. And the supposedly
most committed of the army commanders who have sided with the
revolution, Major Ahmad Qatrani held back his men with the excuse that
“My forces might have been killed. Now these forces have been put at the
disposal of the Council, but only after having given Gaddafi precious
time to reorganise his forces and hit back.
This behaviour is tantamount to treason. What needs to be done is
to transform those units of the army that have defected and put them
under the control of the working people, of the revolutionary youth and
remove them from the control of these untrustworthy officers. Soldiers’
committees should be organised and political commissars attached to any
unreliable officers. The military command should be under the control of
the organised people.
What kind of foreign help?
On the question of foreign help, the revolution may require this but
this can only come from the Arab revolution itself, not the
imperialists, and it can only be mustered if the revolution presents a
clear class position to the masses of Libya and the other Arab
countries. So long as it is led by elements such as those listed above
it will not have the authority to appeal to either the workers of
Tripoli or the workers of other countries.
Tunisia and Egypt, bordering on either side of Libya, revolutions have
successfully overthrown the dictators. The revolutionary people of
Tunisia and Egypt, surely would be prepared to help their Libyan
brothers and sisters against Gaddafi. An appeal should be made to open
the borders, send weapons, men, and supplies. This has partially been
done in terms of humanitarian aid, but military hardware and manpower is
Had the workers in Tunisia and Egypt taken power and established
workers’ regimes, Gaddafi by now would probably have fallen. But in both
Tunisia and Egypt, the lack of a revolutionary Marxist leadership is
revealing the weaknesses of the revolutions. The Egyptian military, were
it in the hands of the Egyptian masses, could play a key role in Libya.
But the Egyptian military is not in the hands of the masses. On the
contrary, the Egyptian officer caste is manoeuvring in order to avoid
the revolution going the whole way. The same applies to the Tunisian
The best aid the Tunisian and Egyptian masses can provide to the
Libyan masses is to complete their own revolutions. Successful socialist
revolutions in both Egypt and Tunisia would enormously strengthen the
Libyan revolution. The masses of Tripoli would respond by coming out
decisively, thus ending Gaddafi’s offensive against the rebel
And having taken power, the Egyptian and Tunisian masses could
provide the help the Libyan rebels require. It is one thing for
imperialist military forces to intervene in Libya – which would actually
strengthen Gaddafi – it would be a completely different matter if it
were revolutionary Egypt or Tunisia intervening.
Relying on the Gulf States, NATO, Sarkozy, Cameron, the UN… would
be a disaster. The UN is an impotent body that can only function when
all the gangsters that make it up can agree on something, i.e. when all
the major powers have a common interest. As for the others, these all
have their own interests, which are not those of the workers and youth
of Libya. No trust must be placed in the imperialists. These are the
same imperialists who did good business with Gaddafi. Any intervention
on their part would be to guarantee their own economic, military and
political interests. We oppose any kind of imperialist intervention
anywhere. The Libyan people should trust only themselves and their real allies: the Arab revolutionary people.
Revolution in retreat, other factors come into play
Once the revolution has lost its momentum then all the other
secondary factors come to the fore and appear as more important. There
is the nature of the army and security forces, and the fact that only a
part of these went over to the revolution. The rebels, although willing
to fight, are still weak militarily. Not faced with a situation like
that in Egypt where the military chiefs concluded that it was better to
remove Mubarak in order to stave off revolution, in Libya the rebels are
having to fight an outright war. In such a situation the lack of an air
force and other more advanced military hardware is clearly a handicap.
They also lack serious, professional coordination and leadership.
There is also the tribal question, which played no role in either
Tunisia or Egypt, but which in Libya still has an influence in politics,
especially under a dictatorship that has snuffed out any form of
independent political organization.
Another factor is the position of the clique around Gaddafi. After
the initial brutal clampdown and killing of civilians it became clear
they had nowhere to flee to. Thus they were faced with no option but to
fight it out to the end, which is what they are doing now.
Gaddafi has also stashed away huge amounts of money, reportedly much
of it in the country. He did not trust the West to keep his money safely
for him, and also he needed it close at hand in order to literally buy
Which way the conflict in Libya is going to end in the short term, no
one can say. It is one thing for Gaddafi to take the cities, it is
another to hold them down. With each city that he takes, his forces are
stretched. Once he has taken a city he must leave some forces there to
make sure the people don’t rise up again. This weakens his forces as
they advance. And the closer he gets to Benghazi the more difficult it
Should he eventually succeed in crushing the whole rebellion, he will
impose an even more brutal regime than before. And he will only be able
to hold the situation for a period by clamping down heavily. The rebels
know that and that explains also why they are fighting. Now that the
conflict is out in the open, the rebels have everything to fight for and
also everything to lose should Gaddafi come out of this victorious.
But for how long would such a regime survive? No regime can rule by the sword alone… for long.
Stability cannot be imposed with the jackboot. Any regime that is
temporarily stabilized by such methods would be one waiting for the next
eruption of the mass movement.
Already, even at this late stage, there are signs of cracks appearing
within Gaddafi’s forces. There are unconfirmed reports of more sections
of his military defecting to the rebels. The longer this conflict lasts
the more the strain on Gaddafi’s forces will be felt. But this can only
lead to a generalised revolt within the armed forces if the ranks see
in the revolution a force that is capable of going to the very end,
uniting the working people and defeating Gaddafi. Any idea that the
revolution may falter can cut across this.
The key question therefore remains the role of the leadership, which
fell to the Interim National Council. This body has revealed itself to
be far behind the level of determination of the revolutionary youth, who
were prepared to fight to the end.
What we have in the Council is de facto a situation where a genuine
people’s uprising has been hijacked by bourgeois and petit-bourgeois
elements who are not prepared to carry out a genuine revolution. By
their actions, and with their lack of a revolutionary policy, the
leaders of this Council are digging the grave of the revolution.
What is required is a genuine expression of the revolution. The
workers and youth in Benghazi must take over control, break with the
policies of these “leaders” and present a genuinely revolutionary face
to the rest of the country.
The army and the security forces
The nature of the security forces and how they have been built up
over the past decades plays a role in what we are witnessing today. A
section of the army has gone over to the revolution, but Gaddafi has
managed to maintain control over a sizeable force. This can be explained
in part by how Gaddafi has organised and divided up the military
apparatus since he came to power in 1969.
Gaddafi, having come to power through a coup, was wary of
strengthening the Libyan army. He realized that in the totalitarian
dictatorship he has governed over, a real threat could be posed by the
army officer caste. In fact, over the years, there have been several
plots and coup attempts, most of which have not been serious, but
nonetheless enough for Gaddafi to take the question seriously.
There was a failed coup attempt against Gaddafi back in May 1984,
which was followed by a reign of terror. In 1993 Gaddafi moved
pre-emptively against a group of officers who he claimed were organising
a coup. In the process the military were purged and loyal officers were
put in the place of the coup plotters.
In order to weaken the regular army’s power and influence, Gaddafi
has often moved senior officers around from one post to another, never
leaving them in the same position for too long, while at the same time
having a network of spies watching out for any dissent among the
At the same time, Gaddafi placed his own personal security in the
hands of forces made up of men from his own region and tribe, the
Ghadafa [Qadhadhfah]. The Ghadafa tribe also has a disproportionate
presence within the air force, which may explain also why Gaddafi has
been able to command a certain loyalty among some of the pilots at
He also left the regular army ill-equipped and relatively small in
size, with only about 40,000 troops, while at the same time he
reinforced the militias and security brigades headed by his sons or
fellow tribesmen. Control over Tripoli, in fact, is guaranteed in large
part by several elite security brigades, which are well-equipped and
have specialised training.
The present fighting is now being done by these special brigades,
reinforced with foreign mercenaries. Thus what we have is a strong
element of tribal loyalty being used to fuse together these special
forces, combined with foreign paid fighters who have no qualms about
shooting at ordinary Libyan people. It is not like the Egyptian army
that was made up mostly of ordinary young Egyptians, the sons of
Egyptian working people.
No-fly zone the answer?
In the face of such brutality, the idea of imposing a no-fly zone
over Libya has been raised. This has divided the left, some in favour
and some against. Among the Stalinists and ex-Stalinists there is a wing
that is actually supporting Gaddafi to one degree or another, on the
basis that they view him as an “anti-imperialist”. There are also some
minor groups on the left, who side with Gaddafi for the same reason.
They forget that Gaddafi was doing very good business with the west,
implementing new laws, including privatisations and incentives to
foreign investment. Gaddafi was behaving as a kind of border guard for
Europe, brutally dealing with desperate poor immigrants from Africa who
tried to move through Libya on their way to Europe. Gaddafi in fact has
reacted to the threats of imperialist intervention as someone who feels
“betrayed” by his friends, not as an enemy.
bulk of the reformists, including ex-Stalinists, however, have come out
in support of some kind of intervention to stop Gaddafi. An example of
this was the resolution recently presented to the European parliament,
signed by both right-wing and left-wing Members of the Parliament, which
called “on the High Representative and the Member States to stand ready
for a UNSC [United Nations Security Council] decision on further
measures, including the possibility of a no-fly zone aimed at preventing
the regime from targeting the civilian population” and emphasised “that
any measures enacted by the EU and its Member States should be in
compliance with a UN mandate and be based on coordination with the Arab
League and the African Union, encouraging both organisations to steer
The signatories to the resolution included three members of the
European United Left/Nordic Green Left group, Lothar Bisky, of Die Linke
(Germany), who is also the president of the European Left Party, Miguel
Portas, of the Bloco de Esquerda (Portugal), and Marie-Christine
Vergiat, of the Front de Gauche (France). The resolution was approved by
a majority vote, including 11 members of the 35 strong European United
Left/Nordic Green Left, Bisky, Kohlíček, Liotard, Matias, Maštálka,
Mélenchon, Portas, Remek, Søndergaard, Tavares and Vergiat.
The logic behind this idea is that “we must do something”. This is an
understandable reaction of many workers and youth, but in such
situations one has to think through the consequences of such action and
also who is to impose such a zone and what would it lead to later. What
may seem an attractive solution today can turn out to have dramatic and
unforeseen consequences later.
Those who are backing the idea of a no-fly zone seem to think that
this would serve to stop Gaddafi’s military operations and that this
could be done in a nice clean manner, using so-called pin-point
targeting etc. This ignores reality completely. To impose a no-fly zone
one needs to hit airports, airplanes and anti-aircraft guns of any force
one is trying to stop flying. This can only be done by aerial
bombardment, by launching missiles from naval forces and by the use of
commando forces on the ground.
The leaders of the Interim National Council understand that the
presence of foreign troops on the ground in Libya would not aid their
cause. On the contrary, it would play into the hands of Gaddafi who
could raise the spectre of imperialist invasion. Already Gaddafi is
shouting about the imperialists who want to get their hands on Libyan
oil. On this he is right, but he conveniently leaves out the fact that
they already had their hands on the oil via their multinationals
operating in the country. He is thus cynically using the threat of
foreign intervention to strengthen his position.
Let us not forget that Libya in the past has been bombed by US
planes. Remember 1986, which is still used to this day by Gaddafi. That
explains why the Libyan opposition, while asking for a no-fly zone, has
also stated that no weapons or radar systems should be brought onto
Libyan territory and, even more importantly, no foreign soldiers should
be sent in.
From a strictly military point of view, this weakens any
effectiveness of any such no-fly zone. Also such a zone would have very
little impact on helicopters, tanks, and infantry units on the ground.
You cannot stop an army solely through aerial bombardment. For this to
be successful ground forces need to be deployed, and the more
intelligent strategists of imperialism are saying precisely this.
The imperialists are also very wary of going down this road. They
have had the experience in Iraq. Scenes of western planes and military
hardware bombing Libyan towns, most likely missing most of their targets
and hitting civilians, would not go down well inside Libya or among the
wider Arab world as a whole.
Have those people on the left who advocate a no-fly zone forgotten
about the famous “precision bombing” during the Iraq war? NATO and EU
bombs were supposed to hit only specific military targets, hitting the
bad guys and saving women and children and civilians in general. Let us
also recall that in Iraq the no-fly zone failed to protect the Shias in
the south. It failed to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In fact, back in 1991
when US forces were close at hand, just after Saddam Hussein was pushed
out of Kuwait, and the masses rose up in Basra, the imperialists stood
back and allowed the regime to crush the revolt.
The imperialists preferred Saddam Hussein in power to a revolutionary
people taking over. It was long after that revolt had been crushed that
eventually the imperialists decided to invade Iraq and remove Saddam
Hussein. But precisely because he was not removed by the people, the
Iraqi workers and youth have had to suffer under a puppet regime of
imperialism, a regime which while pretending to be democratic, has no
qualms about clamping down on, and even shooting at unarmed protesters.
What the imperialists achieved was to remove from power a regime with
which they had done good business in the past, and replaced it with a
more pliant “democratic” regime.
They probably have something similar in mind now in Libya. They do
not want to see a revolutionary Libya emerge from all this. They are
desperately trying to stem the tide of revolution sweeping across the
whole Arab world. In that sense if Gaddafi can snuff out the revolution
they would see that as a positive step, while of course publicly making
lots of speeches about human rights and so on. Once this is achieved
they can either return to do business with Gaddafi, or use his brutal
clampdown as an excuse to finally impose a no-fly zone, which would
amount to military intervention.
The no-fly zone in Iraq turned out to be a rather more unpleasant
story, than what would be led to believe, listening to the arguments
being used today. Many civilians were hit in what was an outright
imperialist aggression against the Iraqi people as a whole. Is this what
the left is supposed to stand for? Those left Euro-MPs who have
supported such calls have betrayed the very idea of what it means to be a
socialist or a communist and have de facto sided with the European and
The problem is that these Left MPs are imbued with reformism from
head to foot. They have lost any confidence in the ability of ordinary
workers and youth to understand a clear class based position once it is
explained fully. This is part of their general lack of confidence in the
ability of the working class to change society.
Thus they call on the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab
League, anyone, but the workers themselves, to “do something”. Now they
will have to explain the contradictory position they have put themselves
in. The Arab League for example has called for the imposition of a
no-fly zone. Members of this Arab League, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait
and the UAE – among the most ardent supporters of such a zone – now have
troops inside Bahrain. What do these Left MPs think they are for? To
keep the peace? They are there to aid the Bahraini regime to crush its
One cannot appeal to these bodies one day for “humanitarian reasons”
and then turn against them when their real class interests are revealed.
Are we supposed to demonstrate one day calling on the EU and NATO to
intervene in Libya and then demonstrate the next day against their tacit
support for the presence of foreign troops in Bahrain? The US have
conveniently stated that they were “unaware” of the fact that the Saudis
were sending in forces to Bahrain. Does anyone really believe that? Oh,
and of course as it was the Bahraini regime that asked for these troops
to be sent in, it isn’t classed as an “invasion” so that makes it ok!
All this reveals the stinking hypocrisy of the imperialists, whether
dressed in US or European clothes, whether they hide behind institutions
such as the EU or the United Nations. And the left must not fall for
any of their trickery.
In moments like this it is the role of the Marxists to “patiently
explain” what is happening and why it is happening. We need to explain
the real reasons that lie behind any action by the imperialist powers.
What rules their thinking are their material interests. The same
imperialist powers that are attacking their workers at home, in the USA,
in Europe and beyond, are exploiting the peoples of the former colonial
Thus we cannot have one policy at home and another abroad. The enemy
is the same in all cases. We cannot organize strikes and demonstrations
against Cameron in Britain as he imposes draconian cuts while at the
same time supporting his call for intervention in Libya. Our policy is
always opposition to their aims at home and abroad.