First as Tragedy, then again as Tragedy

March 3, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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As images of demonstrators in their tens and hundreds of thousands surge all across the capitals of North Africa and the Persian Gulf demanding the ouster of their autocratic rulers, it not only caught the elites in these states flat-footed but also elites in the West who had cosied to, and even propped up, these autocrats to ensure the steady flow of oil, secure the imprisonment of the Palestinians, and as partners in the ‘global war on terror.’ Less that four years ago, Anthony Giddens–former director of the London School of Economics which had accepted £1.5 million from a foundation run by Saif al-Islam Gadafy, the dictator’s son–wrote that Muammar Gadafy is serious about social and political change and that in two or three decades Libya will be the “Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking.” And even as demonstrators were flocking to Midan Tahrir in Cairo, Vice President Joe Biden could not bring himself to say that President Hosni Mubarak—whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called a ‘family friend‘–was a dictator!

Yet, the reaction of Western governments to the uprisings in Egypt and Libya could not have been more different–tragedy and farce…or perhaps tragedy repeating as tragedy as Eduardo Galeano adapted Marx’s famous dictum for the Third World.

Tragedy farce

In Egypt, the US administration initially equivocated–before President Barack Obama finally called on Mubarak to leave office, US policies zigged and zagged repeatedly. Once Mubarak appointed his henchman and army intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as the first-ever vice president in his almost 30-year reign, the United States and its European allies shifted their support to Suleiman as he planned to diffuse the crisis by constitutional reform and outreach to opposition groups. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton explained that these things ‘take time’ even as Suleiman told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview that democracy can come only “when people here have the culture of democracy.” It only remained for the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen to say what everybody already knew: “A democratic Egypt that abrogates its treaty with Israel and becomes hospitable to radical Islamists is not in our interests.”

Muburakcartoon

There was no such equivocation as demonstrators took to the streets and squares of Bengazi and Tripoli. Here, almost as soon as protestors took to the streets, the US administration and its European allies–even Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi who had particularly strong ties to the Libyan leader–were quick to call for a regime change, freeze Libyan assets, impose sanctions, call for UN Security Council resolutions condemning Muammar Gafafy, and even speculate on military intervention–to ‘take out’ Libyan air defenses to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ and with Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman even advocating the supply of arms to the Libyan opposition. And the Security Council even had the bald-faced temerity to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court which the United States does not even recognize as Seumas Milne noted in the Guardian!

Calls to intervene militarily and at least to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ were couched in humanitarian terms, and explicitly because of the Libyan regimes murderous assault on its own citizens. Brutal as the Libyan regime has been, it underlines the hypocrisy of the West that the weapons used by the Libyan government forces were supplied by these very Western powers and that in the present upheavals in Libya, Gadafy’s forces have killed far fewer people than Israel did in Gaza in early 2009 just before the George W. Bush Administration left office as Pepe Escobar wrote in AsiaTimes Online. And as the protests were gathering steam in Libya, the Afghan government found that NATO forces had killed 65 civilians including 40 children in the eastern Kunbar province, a fact conveniently ignored in the shrill outrage over Gadafy’s brutality! And of course the US occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan do not even keep a tally of the civilians killed there in one of the greatest war crimes of recent history.

Libya cartoon mov400

The disparity between Western responses to uprisings in Egypt and Libya are partly due to the nature of the two regimes. The Mubarak regime is central to the continued oppression of the Palestinians–they have been collaborators in the incarceration of Palestinians in Gaza by the Israel’s gruesome blockade to punish the residents for electing Hamas–so much too for Western advocacy of democracy: elect our puppets or we will wreak havoc on your house is the message from Washington and the European capitals! The Egyptian armed forces had, as a result, not only got many billions in aid from the US, but its senior leadership had developed close ties with the American military.

Military leaders in Egypt had also profited handsomely from the Mubarak regime. Since reporting on the Egyptian military is a crime, the extent of its economic holdings are unclear and estimates of its share of the national economy range from 5 to 40 percent. General Sayed Meshal, former head of the Ministry of Military Production claimed that it employed 40,000 civilians and took in about $345 million a year. The popular uprising, the people’s revolution, provided them a convenient cover to derail Mubarak’s plan to anoint his son as his successor and by assuming charge of the  country, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces can be expected to safeguard their own privileges, prerogatives, and powers.

There was no Libyan counterpart to the Egyptian army. Having come to power in a military coup himself, Muammar Gadafy was quick to ensure that there was no other power center to challenge his rule. His sons and other family members controlled powerful militias that were better equipped than the regular army and he carefully cultivated the top brass of the air force. There were no comparable links between the US and Libyan militaries. Here the powerful militias and the Libyan elite were directly tied to Gadafy and without him, their power, privilege, and prerogatives would evaporate.

20110224 LIBYA oil large prod affiliate 91

Unlike Tunisia–where also the West-supported autocrat, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was sent packing by a popular protest–and Egypt, Libya has oil. Unrest in North Africa and the Persian Gulf has already pushed up oil prices and since 85 percent of Libya’s oil exports are directed towards Europe, a continued spike in oil prices would threaten Eurozone economies already buffeted by credit crises in Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain. If NATO can intervene in Libya, and install a pro-Western post-Gadafy government, it will not only ensure Europe’s oil supplies but provide Israel with additional security. And NATO forces will have easy access to, and oversight over, the 4,128 kilometer Trans-Saharan pipeline from Nigeria to Algeria scheduled to be operational in 2015.

What is also troubling in all this is that the so-called emerging powers–India, Brazil, South Africa–have been deafeningly silent. The stage of global politics, it seems, is still reserved for the North Americans and the Europeans–though fortunately the Russians and the Chinese may be counted on to bloc any UN endorsement of military action by NATO forces. If ever there was an opportunity to mediate in the crisis in Libya, it is the Arab League and the African Union that should take the lead–and indeed, it is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who has offered his services to the Arab League to mediate the crisis.

 

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