Thoughts on the Libyan situation

The tide of revolution sweeping the Arab world had looked as if it was going to wash away long-serving dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but as I write it appears that Libya is poised on the brink of all-out civil war. The situation is fluid of course, but it seems that Gaddafi has been able to consolidate his position around Tripoli and other strongholds, while the rebels are not showing much sign of advancing from the territory they have won in the east of the country.

The outlook looks grim in the short term, though at least there seems to be little appetite in the West for military intervention, so the Libyans should be allowed to fight it out on their own. I hope the rebels will prevail in the end, and usher in a more peaceful and democratic future for the country, but that outcome is far from certain.

Gaddafi’s reputation has come full circle in the last thirty years. Back in the ’80s he was a “mad dog”, and Ronald Reagan was trying to kill him; by 2009 his rehabilitation was so complete that Reagan’s successor could greet him like a long-lost friend. Now he has returned to the doghouse, and it seems unlikely that history will remember him kindly. Gaddafi’s popularity, or lack thereof, in the West always had more to do with global power relations than his personal attributes anyway; when he stood in opposition to imperialist designs in the region he was demonised, and when he was willing to sign deals with our oil corporations he was lauded. The views of the Libyan people, who actually had to live with him, were never factored into this of course.

I think that the Libyan revolution illustrates the reality of what it takes to challenge established power, and seriously undermines the idea that there is some new social media-related paradigm that allows us to overthrow the government by tweeting and posting videos on YouTube. The Guardian had a piece on this last week; here’s the comment I left in the discussion:

I think that the points about how Twitter, Facebook, etc have facilitated communication are valid, but I don’t buy the idea that social media have been the main factor, or even a major factor, in this wave of revolution – that honour belongs to the courage and initiative of the working masses, as expressed through their own forms of organisation, such as (in Egypt especially) labour unions.

I think that the tendency to reduce the complexity of these events to simple labels like “Twitter Revolution” betrays an essential ignorance in the West about the degree of development of Arab society, and represents an attempt to appropriate the energy of the revolutions in a way that portrays the West as a liberating force – “Aren’t these people lucky we set them free by giving them Facebook?” The truth is of course that we have maintained these repressive regimes over decades, and it is despite us, rather than thanks to us, that the people of the region are finally freeing themselves.

No doubt this debate will run and run, but the Libyan people, like their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts before them, are teaching us a lesson about the courage and commitment that is needed to bring about true change.

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