By Richard Seymour
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Imperialism and revolution in the middle east

This article is over 10 years, 8 months old
The West has a long and bloody record in the Middle East. Richard Seymour charts how the recent revolutions have provoked a new strategy from imperial powers seeking to control the region
Issue 358

Photo DVIDS/Jeremy Spivey

“You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun”, Al Capone reportedly said, “than you can with a kind word alone.” This is a sentiment the US government understands. In 2009 Senator George Mitchell was sent to Tunisia to convey Obama’s warm regard for dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Obama made good his word by seeking Congressional authorisation for the sale of military equipment to Ben Ali the same year. In November 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her warm regard for the dictator Hosni Mubarak, whose relationship with the US was a “cornerstone of stability and security”. Months later, when protests against the regime erupted, US Vice-President Joseph Biden insisted that Mubarak was an “ally” of America, and by no means “a dictator”. Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy for the Quartet (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia), described the dictator as “immensely courageous and a force for good”.

The Egyptian state had been the glad recipient of aid, arms and torture equipment from the US since signing the Camp David Accords in 1978, which confirmed Egypt’s alliance with Israel and thus with the region’s pro-US forces. Through this donated ordnance, Mubarak had maintained control over the country since 1981. He too accepted the IMF medicine, resulting in the massive casualisation of employment and the impoverishment of rural workers. And as far as the US and its allies were concerned, this was all for the best, all that the Arabs were good for or deserved.

The thankless Tunisians and Egyptians, however, have responded by blasting their dictatorships to kingdom come. What was remarkable was the pronounced role of the working classes in each of these revolts. Trade unions, up to then an integral component of Ben Ali’s regime, assumed leadership of the Tunisian Revolution as the social compact between the regime and workers broke down. In Egypt working class rebellions beginning in Mahalla’s textile mills provided much of the original ferment leading to the January 2011 uprising. The spread of strikes to the oil industry, government departments, the Suez Canal companies, the railways and sanitation were decisive in crippling Mubarak’s government, and splitting his elite base. Importantly, these strikes were political, often aimed at removing a crony of Mubarak’s ruling NDP party from management. Just as amazing was the emergence of forms of political organisation that hinted at the possibility of a radically different society. Tahrir Square in Cairo was turned into a 21st century commune, a fully functioning city within a city, the living alternative to Mubarak’s Egypt. People’s committees sprang up everywhere to cope with problems of community organising and security.


Despite US backing of each regime until the last minute, they both fell remarkably quickly. Obama’s ensuing sermons on liberty, which it would be too generous to call half-baked, were barely adequate subterfuges. Washington was clearly losing its prized hegemony in the Middle East.

Meanwhile in Libya, something stirred. January had seen protesters organise over corruption and the shortage of housing, mainly in eastern coastal towns and cities like Benghazi and Darnah. But some political activists, viewing the spectacular revolutions in neighbouring countries, began to press for more. By early February middle class human rights activists such as the journalist Jamal al-Hajji and lawyer Fathi Terbil began to organise protests in favour of greater political liberty. On the evening of 15 February, the night the revolt began, police had viciously beaten and injured protesters in Benghazi.

In normal circumstances the combination of threats and repression would have been sufficient to isolate anyone foolhardy enough to protest. But in the afterglow of Tahrir the protests spread to normally loyal towns such as Al-Baydah. Tribes such as the Barassa, which had hitherto filled up the security apparatus, defected. Importantly, sections of local security and police broke with the regime. Exiles in the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition coordinated with dissidents to plan a “Day of Rage” for 17 February. On that day the government set snipers loose on the protesters, and turned a political struggle into an armed struggle. By 25 February it looked as if Libya was mostly in opposition hands, barring the capital, Tripoli, and Gaddafi’s home town, Sirte. A transitional council was formed, largely comprising elites and regime defectors – military officials, politicians, businessmen, academics and other professionals – to try to organise the social forces involved in the uprising into a single body.

Gaddafi had suppressed all signs of organised opposition to his regime, so the civil society that was now in revolt had no trade unions or political parties to lead the opposition. People’s committees arose across the country, but these were fragmented forms of popular power. In these circumstances it was natural that well-organised elites should try to fill the vacuum. However, their aspiration to get delegations from across the country was not fulfilled; they did not stamp their authority on the revolt, and remained narrowly based in the urban centres of the eastern coast.

Moreover, the personnel making up the council continued to be drawn from the elites, and they were given to fractiousness over strategy, as well as individual power struggles – between Mahmoud Jibril, who coordinated Gaddafi’s privatisation programmes, former justice minister Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil, and former interior minister General Abdul Fattah Younis. Later the arrival of Khalifa Hefta from the US raised further divisions as he assumed leadership of the rebel army. Hefta was once an ally of Gaddafi’s, but broke with the regime in 1987 and is reported to have longstanding ties to the CIA.

Notwithstanding the early military successes, moreover, it was not long before Gaddafi appeared to have the upper hand again, and the weaknesses of the revolt were brutally exposed. Significant tribes like the Warfalla, which had appeared to back the rebels, were won back to the government’s side. And this gave the US and some of its European allies the opportunity to cohere round a strategy which had so far eluded them. They could take control of this process, and shape it in a manner that suited their interests.

Imperial relay

The question of how to control the Middle East has troubled American policymakers since the British Empire went into receivership. The Second World War had left British capitalism in a precarious state, its colonial authorities struggling to contain a series of anti-colonial rebellions. In some cases the US was happy to exploit this. In Egypt, for example, Washington acquiesced in the Free Officers’ rebellion led by Nasser against the pro-British monarch King Farouk in 1952. By contrast, Washington supported another pro-British ruler, King Idris of Libya, until the Free Officers of the Royal Libyan Army overthrew him in 1969. The difference between 1952 and 1969 was that, in the interim, independent Middle East states had shown an alarming propensity towards the nationalisation of resources, particularly oil.

East of Suez

Matters became more difficult for the US when, at the gruesome height of the Vietnam War, the British Empire relinquished its “East of Suez” responsibilities. This meant the withdrawal of the British Navy from the Gulf, which had been used to support a network of sterling-based regional clients. The US Navy’s “Middle East Force” took over these imperial duties, and in place of sterling patronage came dollar diplomacy. In the post Cold War world the US right sought to exploit the absence of a major rival to reshape the region in US interests, uniting round an agenda of overthrowing Saddam and building a pro-US, “free market” state on its ashes.

The culmination of this venture was the first serious dent in Washington’s regional hegemony, the first major fractures in the Euro-American alliance, and the first signs of Russian reassertion. Obama’s mission was to repair the damage, but it was his misfortune to assume leadership of the American empire at just the point when it was about to face one of its gravest crises.

The US had long attempted to destabilise the Libyan state, through sanctions and bombings, but by the 2000s had every reason to expect that Gaddafi would go on indefinitely. Since the revolution Gaddafi’s regime had adeptly used patronage to gain the support of conservative rural elites, entrepreneurs in the oil, banking and imports sector, and technocratic state managers. Three major tribes – the Gadhadhfa, Warfalla and Margharha – formed the backbone of the regime and populated the security forces. A US diplomatic cable from 2009, disclosed by Wikileaks, paid tribute to Gaddafi’s “mastery of tactical manoeuvring”, as he shifted patronage between different social layers, as well as between his competing sons.

So, when Gaddafi decided that sanctions were costing his regime too much – an estimated $30 billion through the 1990s – and sought to realign his regime with Washington, the US had no reason to believe that this new relationship would blow up in their face. Bush and Blair began the nuptials with Gaddafi in 2004, and Libyan elites began to circulate among their Euro-American counterparts – for example, Gaddafi’s son and London School of Economics graduate al-Islam became a close friend of Prince Andrew and Peter Mandelson.

Even so, the US was not so vested in the Libyan regime that it could not abandon the alliance. The former regime elements who occupied the spearhead of the revolt had been participants in the alliance with the US and EU, and were known to be “pro-Western”. Some elements among the transitional council favoured an alliance with the US to topple Gaddafi early on. For example, General Abdul Fatah Younis stated on 1 March that he would welcome targeted air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces, but not a ground invasion.

But the social forces on which the revolt was based were not immediately disposed to accept this. As US politicians and security experts began to talk of intervention, signs appeared in rebel-controlled areas saying clearly “No Foreign Intervention”. Hafiz Ghoga of the transitional council put it just as bluntly: “We are completely against foreign intervention. The rest of Libya will be liberated by the people and Gaddafi’s security forces will be eliminated by the people of Libya.” When SAS forces arrived in Benghazi to offer help on 6 March, they were arrested, for fear that Gaddafi would gain support if he could depict the rebellion as an imperialist plot.

Rebel weakness

Only when the rebellion began to experience serious military reversals in major cities such as Zawiya did the argument for imperialist intervention begin to prevail. Once the rebels had been forced to give up on the idea of the revolt spreading to Tripoli and Sirte, and decisively fracturing the regime, imperialist support seemed to be a way to make up for the weakness of the rebel alliance, and for the lack of authority of the transitional council itself. The US administration seems to have been divided on the subject of intervention, with “realists” like Defence Secretary Robert Gates in opposition, and liberal hawks like ambassador to the UN Susan Rice in support.

The chief of the US’s Africa Command (Africom), General Carter Ham, who coordinated the initial air strikes, later disclosed that he did not consider the US intervention ideal. If anything, it seemed that Britain and France were both far more aggressively pursuing intervention than the US. Yet by 17 March the US had decided to back an aggressive UN-mandated intervention. CIA operatives and special forces were already working on the ground to parley with the rebels, and air strikes were justified on the grounds that Gaddafi would perpetrate an unspeakable massacre if he conquered Benghazi.

It is likely that Gaddafi’s forces would have continued to conduct their counterinsurgency brutally, but it seems unlikely that this would have constituted the “genocide” that some, such as defecting ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, warned about. The humanitarian pretext for war obscured its political dimensions. If the issue was the avoidance of bloodshed, then there was the option of a negotiated cessation of hostilities. Gaddafi was always ready to countenance peace provided that he could remain in political control of Libya. So the question was whether the revolution should succeed and whether popular forces should govern Libya.

In the Middle East the US was supporting counter revolutionary forces in Yemen and Bahrain, just as it had done in Tunisia and Egypt. Therefore, any intervention on its part has to be judged as part of its wider response to the region’s revolutions. The US has a long history of intervening in revolutionary situations and creating client elites to usurp popular initiative. Once Nato was effectively setting the tempo of the Libyan struggle, with intelligence and special forces dictating strategy on the ground, it ceased to be a process in the control of the masses. The revolution has been hijacked.

New model empire

Until this point Washington’s model of “liberation” in the Middle East was the mass cemetery and torture chamber that it created in Iraq. The Obama administration is trying to offer a new model amid this revolutionary upsurge. Increasingly, all signs are pointing towards a negotiated settlement which excludes Gaddafi but protects the basic contours of the regime. This is what is signposted by the “pathway to peace” document signed by Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy. It will be, if it happens, a typical imperial carve-up. That would constitute, not a victory for the Libyan revolutionaries, but their confirmed defeat.

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