The pressing question as to what can be done to support the revolt in Libya as part of a widening and deepening of the revolution in the Arab world is becoming more urgent as Gaddafi launches airstrikes and wreaks deadly revenge on rebel-held towns. What can be done? The call for solidarity that brings together members of Manchester’s Libyan community (the largest in Britain) outside the BBC buildings on Oxford Road every night is now turning into a desperate appeal for help. The nightly demonstrations are contradictory, gender-segregated and with slogans ranging from the accusation that ‘Gaddafi is against God’ (for some of us there a point in his favour) to placards that demand that he must get out, adding ‘Don’t forget to take your sons and your funny clothes with you’.
There is evidence enough, then, for some on the left in Britain to argue (as the Morning Star linked to the remains of the Communist Party puts it) that ‘Islamist Statelets’ are being set up in the east of the country, or to proclaim (in News Line produced by one of the fragments of the Workers Revolutionary Party) solidarity with Gaddafi’s ‘people’s revolution’ against imperialism. And now, as was the case in Kosovo, some of the rebels are calling for armed intervention to support their struggle, pinning their hopes on intervention by the US or the EU or both. Then we, those of us on the left who never bought into the fake-left rhetoric of the Green Book, are forced to answer that question, ‘what can be done’.
Might it be possible to ensure that this really could be, as Tony Blair claimed of the bombing of Serbia, a ‘liberal intervention’? The so-called ‘wrangling’ in Nato as the US and Germany blocked Britain and France’s call for a no-fly zone already shows otherwise. This difference between imperialist powers is not over how best to help the Libyan people, but expresses the tension between liberal democratic propaganda against third world tyrants who need to be brought into line (and in this at least the Morning Star and News Line are right) and the need to work out who is the next best partner to head a regime that can be trusted by the West to hand over the oil. And that next best partner could even be Gaddafi himself. The US director of national intelligence James Clapper has already predicted that ‘the regime will prevail’, and as Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, number one son, declares that his forces will ‘never ever surrender’ there is even now the possibility that – after a brief moment of moral outrage by the West – the regime will be rehabilitated.
Lord Mandelson, former Labour business secretary, already set the ground for this shift with a bizarre hermeneutic reading of Saif’s statement that he would ‘fight to the list minute, to the last bullet’ alongside his father really meant that ‘he doesn’t want the country to be plunged into civil war’; ‘Superficially, he gives the impression of saying, you know we’re going to fight to the very last bullet, but he’s also talking about a different Libya emerging’. The personal links between Mandelson and Saif are the least of it. The recent visit by David Cameron to Egypt and the Gulf States to promote arms deals with existing regimes (all of whom have now been faced with Tahrir Square style protests) is a better sign of what is at stake. Britain, the EU and the US are thinking very carefully about what can be done, and hedging their bets on who to support. The fiasco of the SAS commandos caught in the east of Libya trying to make contact with the rebel forces is an indication that the West is looking for someone they can make a deal with, and if no willing pliable force is to be found, no ‘leadership’ of the kind valued by the West, then the rebels will be abandoned.
Any call for armed intervention would be used to exacerbate oppression, not to end it. What can be done by us outside Libya is to pull the plugs on any economic and state support for any force favoured by the West. That ranges from occupation of Saif’s ten-million pound Hampstead mansion by the ‘Topple the Tyrants’ group to an extension of the ‘UK uncut’ high-street protests against the super-rich. What can be done is to stop our own regimes intervening in such a way as to guarantee their own interests, to stop them being able to give their own answer to the anguished liberal and instrumental economic double question as to what can be done.
This article is also in Slovene at eurovizija.