Tag: Libya

In the Country of Men, part one

As I did for Tarzan last year, I’m going to do a multi-part series of posts on Hisham Matar’s marvelous first novel, In the Country of Men. This is the first one (parts twothreefour, and five), which I hope will give you a start on reading the novel — if you want to follow along — and which gives away only a little by dealing only with the book’s very beginning. Note, though, that I am not going to protect you from spoilers or anything like that; it’s a short novel, and an amazing one, so if you want not to be “spoiled,” pick up a copy! 

If you know from the start that the sun in some way represents Gaddafi’s rule over Libya, the first lines of In the Country of Men will make a different kind of sense:

It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy only arrived at night, a breeze chilled by the vacant desert, moistened by the humming sea, a reluctant guest silently passing through the empty streets, vague about how far it was allowed to roam in this realm of the absolute star.

These lines are not quite suitable for the nine-year old protagonist whose first person governs the narrative, of course, and the delicacy of the language bugged me for that reason when I first read it. But the very first line of the novel — “I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away” — clarifies the matter: the book is written in the voice of the fully grown Libyan exile who (we eventually learn) is telling us this story of his younger self and his younger perceptions from Cairo, in a “now” which is a full fifteen years later. And just as it is his mind that produces that delightful metaphor of “shade” as a “patch of mercy carved into the white of everything,” it is also through his mind that we understand the peculiar way in which that metaphor and this novel are about Muamar Gaddafi and the realm which is everywhere ruled by his absolute star. A nine-year old child does not know this, but will this will prove to be precisely the point.

The first time you read this novel, you, too, will likely not notice what is happening here. Certainly you will not understand the gravity of it, or the menace in that sun. And a few pages later, you when you read the description of Baba’s sunglasses, the way the narrator describes his younger self’s indignation will signify more or less the way they signify to nine-year old Suleiman himself:

Two dark lenses curved like the humpbacks of turtles over his eyes. The sky, the sun and the sea were painted by God in colours we could all point at and say the sea is turquoise, the sun banana, the sky blue. Sunglasses are terrible, I thought, because they change all of this and keep those who wear them at a distance.

If the humpback metaphor is that of the 24 year old exile in Cairo, the indignation is the child’s at a father whose distance and refusal of intimacy (not to mention a kind of Oedipal culpability) will fester and burn under the blazing glare of Tripoli’s absolute star. To the child, sunglasses are just part and parcel of the thing that makes his father a gnawing and agonizing enigma.

But the fact that Suleiman’s father is trying to shield his eyes from the light will take on more meaning as the novel unfolds, as will the apparently throwaway fact that the cows which he has imported from Scotland are bothered by the scorching North African sun. “Where they are from the sun has no heat and barely any light,” his father’s closest friend declares, as they moo in wordless lamentation. And just moments before the narrator recalls watching the televised interrogation of an accused “bourgeois and a traitor,” it is important to note that the neighbor who complains about the cows — an odious woman, who the neighbor’s mother dislikes from the start — is married to a man who is “an Antenna,  a man of the Mokhabarat,” a person who the young boy recalls, is “‘able to put people behind the sun,’ as I had heard it said many times…”

Libya, Waiting to See

And so we are bombing Libya. Again we are put in the position—or we put ourselves in the position—of having to “have an opinion” on some indefensible action the United States takes overseas… (RC)


Though I have lots of opinions, I am trying very hard not to have a position on what is happening in Libya. When a big patriotic, national interest event like this happens, the pressure to have a position can be quite strong if you have a high enough opinion of yourself to try to write about it, and that pressure can can force you to take what you think about what is happening — which is likely to be an incoherent aggregation of all sorts of different ideas — and jam it all into the round hole of “what you would do if you were president” or some other reduction to “yes” or “no.” But if you must relate toward the events in Libya as if you were the one making the choice, you will quickly find yourself begging the question that “what is to be done” is the question, and  arguing within that frame such that “doing something” becomes the only possible way to relate to what is happening in Libya, either by its exercise or by its absence.

This is particularly a problem because there is no good option in Libya: with respect to UN intervention, both “nothing” and “something” are completely terrible. And you need to understand that I understand that, because otherwise — no matter how I say what I will eventually say about it — you may mistake me for someone who is in the business of not only predicting the future, but of demanding that a particular course of action, based on my particular insight into events, is the right one. You will mistake me for someone who is under the illusion that “if I were president” is a useful premise for commentary. It’s not, and I’m not doing that. I’m watching the news day-by-day, reading about the past and revising my opinion as I get more information. “When the facts change, I change my opinion,” as Keynes supposedly said; “What do you do, sir?”

One reason it’s dangerous to play the game of for or against is that it produces retroactive consent: by forcing you to take a position on a decision that was already made, you legitimize it by making it seem like there was a democratic process of discussion and debate. There was no democratic process here, nor could there have been, given the time constraints under which such a decision would have to be made. Democracy is slow and unwieldy, and the theory behind having an “executive power” is that it streamlines the decision-making process for decisions that have to be made quickly. We can argue about that theory, but I think we’re long past the point where we can be scandalized by it; every use of military force begins and is “declared” this way.

But this is why we shouldn’t pretend that our opinions right now matter in that way, why we shouldn‘t reduce our thinking to the simplicity of for or against. The two times when it’s useful and necessary to put our opinions in that simplified form are just before the decision (when as citizens, we might exercise some agency over actions done in our name), and far in the future, when we can look back with the benefit of hindsight and decide whether the outcome of that decision justifies revising our policy, assumptions, or whatever. At this point, however, neither is the case: we have little information about what the effects of the decision have been, and yet we also have no power to change the fait accompli that it has already become.

I would suggest, in fact, that it is precisely because there are no stakes in doing so that so many influential columnists and bloggers — who had no powerful opinions about Libya before the NFZ was declared, when their influence might have mattered are now strongly asserting one position or another, vigorously battling each other over a decision that has just become academic. And while this very public debate over Libya (after the decision) allows us to pretend we have a real, functioning public sphere, self-important debate tricks us into thinking that debate actually is important, that “taking a position” is somehow a valuable and necessary social function. I would say, instead, that the fact that the decision has already been taken is actually what relieves their opinions of any force, thereby freeing them to perform their ideology for each other, to position themselves for the next big confrontation with their ideological foes, and to place their cultural and intellectual capital on the market and try to make it grow.

That’s the first problem, a mystification of how decisions are made and of the role that critical opinion plays in that process. The second has to do with the content of the opinions themselves. When you take a position on a contentious issue — especially in an intellectual arena like the blogosphere, where your name is your capital, and you’re trying to make it grow — you invest your ego in the position you take, such that what you think gets structured by the debate more than the by facts. And having staked out that personal position, you begin to take the existence of contrary positions personally: you seek out facts that support your position while (even subconsciously) downplaying facts that don’t, indignantly locking into the rhetorical position of regarding those who see the world differently as not simply, you know, seeing the situation differently, but as being, themselves, different. This last is the worst, I think: instead of being acutely aware of one particular aspect of the problem — and less acutely aware of others (say, the one most motivating you) — you begin to see them as ideologically flawed, even evil or stupid. But pointing out the ideological failings of opponents is a particularly fruitless form of ad hominem, since doing so allows you to pretend that your ideology is the right one, without addressing the fact that all ideologies are machines for oversimplifying the world.

To be clear, I am not doing some kind of fair and balanced shtick here. I don’t think all ideologies are equal. I think mine is the right one, obviously. But I do think it’s possible to say that all ideologies are — albeit to differing extents — limiting oversimplifications, universal rules that are derived from one set of circumstances that we then adapt to fit all circumstances, with varying success. Gandhi was a pacifist, to use that often cited example, who also recognized that pacifism worked in the time and place it did because of the time and place it worked in. Had the British empire been willing and able to simply kill every Indian that stepped out of line, pacifism would have been a dead letter, and he understood that [a commenter quibbles usefully with this reading]. If Gandhi was in Benghazi, I don’t know what he would do, but I suspect he would have been flexible enough to judge the situation on its own terms, rather than impose the terms and principles from another context onto it and expect reality to conform. We should do the same. We should learn from the experience of the Iraq war, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is the Iraq war.

So that’s my not-so-little prelude to my ambivalence about the Libyan “intervention.” I’m not saying I haven’t fallen into these traps. Of course I have. I’m trying not to, but that’s the thing about structural incentives: you can push against the wind if you know it’s there, but that doesn’t stop it from pushing against you.


For me, the fact that Gaddafi is a fucking cancer is actually really important. People like Richard Seymour are perfectly right to point out that the media and political types who are vilifying him are bad people doing it for bad reasons, just as they do every single time when one of our pet dictators goes rogue. But he’s wrong if he thinks there isn‘t truth to it, or that Gaddafi’s actual villainous-ness is of negligible importance. If you are opposed to imperialism in Africa — and I’m going to assume that you are — then it is important to understand that one of the most successful and murderous continent level “military interventionists” has been Gaddafi, and it has continued up to the present.

There’s a dangerous narcissism in imagining the West has a monopoly on things like imperialism, and that kind of solipsism is often particularly tempting and satisfying to even those in the West that think bad things about “the West”: it allows us to maintain the belief that the West is still the center of the universe, even if it’s now the Devil rather than God. But being opposed to the devil we know doesn’t change the fact that there actually are other devils. And a legacy of anti-colonial thinking has left a lot of leftists unable to understand that being the enemy of our enemy doesn’t make someone our friend. Just because the great powers of The West are imperialist in some sense doesn’t mean that those who oppose them in some sense — people like Gaddafi, Chavez, Mugabe, or Ahmadinejad — actually are anti-imperialist.

This point is worth emphasizing: it has been a long time since words like “sovereignty” and “anti-imperialism” have become reliable tools in the arsenal of third-world dictators defending their international right to oppress and exploit their people. After all, what does “sovereignty” mean other than the international community’s decision to grant one person the legitimate right to rule over a space of geography? Certainly it wasn’t the Libyan people who invested Gaddafi with their hopes and dreams. Gaddafi has no legitimacy by any standard I recognize; he took power in a coup and has kept it by killing and imprisoning everyone who might conceivably oppose him. And while it certainly isn’t clear that the Libyan rebels represent the legitimate democratic will either — though depending on how you define and measure those things, they sure have a hell of a stronger case — it is ridiculous to call an attack on Gaddafi’s military an attack on a “sovereign nation,” or on “Libya” itself, as so many have. Whether this is a conscious argument or just a lazy usage, this is how Gaddafi wants you to see the situation, because it causes you to forget that he’s just the guy with the most thugs, guns, and a (metaphorical) piece of paper signed by the UN saying “We hereby officially pretend that Gaddafi represents the popular will of the Libyan people.” This doesn’t make the intervention right, you understand, but it means you have to look for better arguments against it than “sovereignty.”

You’ve probably heard a good deal about what a vicious despot Gaddafi is, so I won’t repeat it. But you’ve probably heard less about what Gaddafi means in Africa. Gaddafi is not just any dictator; he’s got a combination of continent-wide ambition and deep pockets filled with oil, and he has used that oil money to train, arm, and finance all manner of rebels in some of the bloodiest conflicts across the continent, not for a handful of years, but for over four decades. This is not an invention of the people who are now bombing him. He might use words like “sovereignty” and “Marxism” and “anti-Americanism” when he needs to (and drop them the moment some other position — like a close alliance with the United States — is more useful), but his method has basically been consistent since the seventies: use his money to buy personal influence, with anyone he can, as a route to some kind of regional dominance. And the result has been devastating.

Take Charles Taylor, for example: Taylor may not have invented the child soldier as a technology of warfare, but no one used that method as effectively and as ruthlessly as him, and his scorched-earth campaigns in the West African diamond fields remain the gold standard with which any aspiring committer of atrocities will need to reckon. Taylor trained in Libya in the late 1980’s, Gaddafi’s oil money made his insurgency in Liberia possible, and Gaddafi was an important backer of the RUF guerrilla campaign in Sierra Leone. And even though Taylor was sort of uniquely awful, my point is simply that he’s not unique in this sense: he’s just one of the many examples of what Gaddafi does and has done with his oil money. Unlike the cliché of the African dictator, wallowing in mindless excess and consumption, Gaddafi not only believed in his “revolution” and tried to export it everywhere he could, but he sent money, training, and support to some of the most destructive people on the continent in pursuit of that goal. As a result, he continues to have very close ties and alliances  with all sorts of basically illegitimate African heads of state, people like Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Omar al-Bashir, Blaise Compaoré, and Idriss Déby.

The point is not to say that Gaddafi is any worse than the US in this regard, because he’s actually very similar: the “cold war” was a very hot war in Africa, because we had no compunction about sending money and weapons to people that we thought we could use — Mujahedeen style — to destabilize the regimes we wanted to destabilize, for the purpose of the moment, and to hell with the consequences. Mozambique’s decades of civil war was one the results of our fear that communism might spread and imperil our allies in Apartheid South Africa. But Gaddafi is not only playing the same game, he is, quite frankly, really good at it, at least at the regional level. His people actually end up in positions of power, which is one of the reasons why the African Union is acting the way they are.

The fact that Yoweri Museveni, for example, is on the AU’s “High-Level Ad Hoc Committee On Libya” is one clear reason why the AU has been opposed to the UN’s actions in Libya. As opposition figures in Uganda are pointing out, Museveni wrote this piece in Foreign Policy to try to walk the fine line between distancing himself from Gaddafi while not being able to deny their very well-known friendship, and the piece’s otherwise bizarre contradictions and double-speak make a whole lot more sense if you read it with that in mind. Some version of that is going on with many of those people, they may not have the kind of close relationship with Gaddafi that Museveni has, but just about every head of state in the Sahel (and many outside of it) have some kind of past entanglement with Libyan money.

As Alex de Waal summarizes:

…[Gaddafi’s] Africa policy was pursued by through the instruments of monetary patronage and ideological solidarity, strictly on the basis of personal relations with counterparts. Gaddafi has been erratic and mischievous, misusing Libya’s financial clout to act as the biggest buyer in a regional political marketplace. Between eleven and seventeen African countries—to be precise, African heads of state—have benefited from his largesse. Many rebel groups, especially in neighbouring countries, have also been the recipients of extraordinary Libyan giving sprees. Not only Gaddafi but his lieutenants possess large reserves of money and enormous stores of weaponry.

Gaddafi’s long history of personalizing his interventions in a variety of African contexts is the reason, for example, that de Waal is particularly concerned that Gaddafi is now passing out AK-47’s to anyone in Libya that wants them, which almost certainly includes people who will use them in other parts of the region. As he puts it:

Much of Libya is now ungoverned. That is particularly true of southern Libya. There has been little attention to the towns of the south, such as Sebha and Kufra, with no international correspondents there. These places are matters of great concern to neighbouring governments such as Niger, Chad and Sudan, because these towns have served as the rear base for armed rebellions in their countries, and rebel leaders still reside there. Gaddafi’s opening of the Libyan arsenals to anyone ready to fight for the regime, and the collapse of authority in other places, means that such rebels have been able to acquire arms and vehicles with ease. The Sudanese defence minister visited N’djamena last week to discuss the threat.

Reporters on the coast have spoken about African mercenaries serving in the pro-Gaddafi forces, mentioning countries of origin such as Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. There are also rumours that Darfurians, including members of rebel factions based in Libya, are fighting in Libya. The deal is reportedly simple: take whatever arms you can handle, and fight for me, and then those weapons and vehicles are yours for whatever use you see fit. Mercenaries, freebooters and rebels from across the Sahel, and even beyond, are heading for Libya to take advantage of this open-entry, take all you can arms bonanza.

I spoke with one African military officer who welcomed the NATO action in Libya, saying “nothing could be worse than Gaddafi.” I suggested that he wait and see.

I’m just waiting to see like everyone else. But as I do, I think it’s true that the more you focus on what a cancer Gaddafi is, has been, and will be if he stays in power, the more you’re likely to see the upside of UN intervention into Libya. And the inverse of that — and here, now, I’m talking about all the people who don’t know anything about Libya and yet have strong and righteous opinions about what is happening there — the less you know about Libya, Gaddafi, and Gaddafi’s past and present in regional and continental politics, the less you will be able to see that upside. You won’t know what you‘re missing, of course; ignorance about Africa is more than sanctioned. It’s practically required. But it will still be there, unseen.

This is, of course, the usual thing where an area-studies-type-person argues that area-studies-type-knowledge is really important. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. You will always see things through the interpretive matrix of your own beliefs and priorities, and that‘s just as true for people for whom the African context is almost totally missing. If you are — like me — primarily concerned with African politics, that matrix which cause you to see things a bit differently than if you are approaching it through the lens of Palestine and the broader “Arab Spring” movement, or from a total opposition to all “humanitarian military interventions.” Juan Cole has argued that the Libyan intervention is not the same as the invasion of Iraq, and he’s right, but there, too, I think, you can see the particular formulation of the question and problem he‘s using: when and where can a dictator be taken out?

For me, the issue is this: I am hoping that the outcome of the intervention will be better than the almost certain and massive and immanent bloodbath we were looking at a few days ago, and that Libyans will be as lucky as we are, and be ruled by corrupt neoliberal apparatchiks, instead of by secret police. The “intervention” into Libya is nothing that anyone should paper over through euphemism, nor should we underestimate the human cost it’s already having; if you’re going to drop enough bombs on a country to have any significant impact on a military conflict, there are going to be significant civilian casualties. But not intervening does not mean there won’t be civilian casualties, it just means our hands won’t be dirty with the killing, and we’ll get to be ignorant that they’re even happening. Tanks and starvation kill people much more effectively than air strikes, and both African history and Gaddafi’s past are full of demonstrations that cheap warfare can be massively more scalable and therefore massively more deadly than firing cruise missiles at $2 million a pop. And an organized secret police infrastructure that relies on intimidation, torture, and disappearances is a lot scarier to me than the kind of relatively limited bombing campaign that this is going to be.

In this sense, while I do understand that a UN intervention could very well end up in a giant humanitarian catastrophe, for all sorts of reasons that you don’t need me to point out, I come back to the fact that a Gaddafi victory would be unthinkably awful, and that because the UN intervention has prevented it, at least for now, it is impossible for me to condemn or regret it. To the extent that I have a “position,” this is what it is.


This is, of course, an ideologically shaped position, and like the rest of us — ideologically fallen, every one — I happen to think my own blindness is the right one. I think it would be fair to say, however, that the majority of the bloggers and columnists and commenters I’ve been reading do not share this assessment, though. And while I wouldn’t say that people’s experience of the last ten years of American war have clouded their judgment (or at least not any more than my own experiences have “clouded“ mine), I do think we need to be much more aware of what defining our politics by that experience prevents us from seeing. Only the people of Sierra Leone seem to remember the British humanitarian military intervention in 2000. And anyway, if we see only Iraq in ‘03 or Rwanda in ‘94, we do not see Libya in ‘11. Important things drop out of the picture. You may ultimately decide that the things the NFZ has accomplished don’t justify the means, but you’re not being intellectually honest if you don’t factor them in.

And of course, in many ways, it’s really all to the good that when we think about Libya, we think about Iraq. I think that’s a knee that’s jerking in exactly the way it should: Obama’s foreign policy is not quite the same as Bush’s, but both of their strategic policies are basically amoral and destructive, imho. And the fact that Democrats make war differently doesn‘t make them any less destructive. See under “War in Afghanistan, Obama’s expansion of.” It’s a good thing if the US is getting less trigger happy about military expeditions, if indeed it is.

I strongly suspect, in fact, that part of the White House’s subterranean thinking here has got to be the hope that Libya could provide us with a “good war,” and thereby a means of rehabilitating the doctrine of “humanitarian military intervention,” of sanitizing and legitimizing the “Responsibility to Protect.” This is only part of it, of course; the administration was also surely afraid of what Dennis Ross called “Srebrenica on steroids” and they were fearful that they were facing “the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred, and everyone would blame us for it.” And to the kind of mind that thinks in terms of “surgical strikes” and “humanitarian military interventions,” Libya presents a really attractive prospect: a diplomatically isolated and utterly villainous regime, easily accessible via fleets in the Mediterranean, and a whole bunch of shiny cruise missiles that we would love and opportunity to use. We should also never forget that military industrial complexes will find ways to rationalize war, especially when they think it’s going to be without significant political cost. And the administration has been nervous, for months, watching the crazy people-power thing happening in North Africa and the Middle East, over which they have had no control or insight. And since Al Jazeera has made sure everyone in the MENA is paying attention to what is happening in Libya, there has been a mounting pressure on the White House to “do something.” Finally, above all, the prospect of Libya “falling into chaos” is something they’re really scared of; totalitarian repression is something they could live with, and cut deals with. Chaos in the oil fields — and in a country so close to Europe — is something they’re really scared of. So they did “something.”

But their decision making process is not what interests me. I don’t share their values, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had any hope that Obama would be anything other than a moderate Republican president, wholly captured by finance capital, and with a distinct hawkish streak. Contra Leon Wieseltier, there is no “honor” to be had in blowing up military equipment that you sold to Gaddafi, even if it were possible not to kill human beings along with it, which it is not. They are doing this for their reasons, and they are not honorable reasons.

But the reasons they’ve had for entering this war are not the reasons I still have some optimism that the results of this intervention will turn out to be better than the results of not intervening would have been. In that sense, I agree almost completely with Gilbert Achcar’s measured quasi-endorsement of the no-fly-zone resolution, which he explains here:

…there are not enough safeguards in the wording of the resolution to bar its use for imperialist purposes. Although the purpose of any action is supposed to be the protection of civilians, and not “regime change,” the determination of whether an action meets this purpose or not is left up to the intervening powers and not to the uprising, or even the Security Council. The resolution is amazingly confused. But given the urgency of preventing the massacre that would have inevitably resulted from an assault on Benghazi by Gaddafi’s forces, and the absence of any alternative means of achieving the protection goal, no one can reasonably oppose it. One can understand the abstentions; some of the five states who abstained in the UNSC vote wanted to express their defiance and/or unhappiness with the lack of adequate oversight, but without taking the responsibility for an impending massacre.

The Western response, of course, smacks of oil. The West fears a long drawn out conflict. If there is a major massacre, they would have to impose an embargo on Libyan oil, thus keeping oil prices at a high level at a time when, given the current state of the global economy, this would have major adverse consequences. Some countries, including the United States, acted reluctantly. Only France emerged as very much in favor of strong action, which might well be connected to the fact that France — unlike Germany (which abstained in the UNSC vote), Britain, and, above all, Italy — does not have a major stake in Libyan oil, and certainly hopes to get a greater share post-Gaddafi.

We all know about the Western powers’ pretexts and double standards. For example, their alleged concern about harm to civilians bombarded from the air did not seem to apply in Gaza in 2008-09, when hundreds of noncombatants were being killed by Israeli warplanes in furtherance of an illegal occupation. Or the fact that the US allows its client regime in Bahrain, where it has a major naval base, to violently repress the local uprising, with the help of other regional vassals of Washington.

The fact remains, nevertheless, that if Gaddafi were permitted to continue his military offensive and take Benghazi, there would be a major massacre. Here is a case where a population is truly in danger, and where there is no plausible alternative that could protect it. The attack by Gaddafi’s forces was hours or at most days away. You can’t in the name of anti-imperialist principles oppose an action that will prevent the massacre of civilians. In the same way, even though we know well the nature and double standards of cops in the bourgeois state, you can’t in the name of anti-capitalist principles blame anybody for calling them when someone is on the point of being raped and there is no alternative way of stopping the rapists.

This said, without coming out against the no-fly zone, we must express defiance and advocate full vigilance in monitoring the actions of those states carrying it out, to make sure that they don’t go beyond protecting civilians as mandated by the UNSC resolution. In watching on TV the crowds in Benghazi cheering the passage of the resolution, I saw a big billboard in their middle that said in Arabic “No to foreign intervention.” People there make a distinction between “foreign intervention” by which they mean troops on the ground, and a protective no-fly zone. They oppose foreign troops. They are aware of the dangers and wisely don’t trust Western powers.

So, to sum up, I believe that from an anti-imperialist perspective one cannot and should not oppose the no-fly zone, given that there is no plausible alternative for protecting the endangered population. The Egyptians are reported to be providing weapons to the Libyan opposition — and that’s fine — but on its own it couldn’t have made a difference that would have saved Benghazi in time. But again, one must maintain a very critical attitude toward what the Western powers might do.

I’ve quoted Achcar at length because I think he’s right. And he thinks he puts his fingers on the reason why, here, we are seeing a fairly unique situation where it is in the interest of the “Great Powers” to see that as little blood is shed as possible. If Gaddafi makes the streets run with blood in retaking the country, as he has promised to do, and as he would need to do to retake the country, then the flow of oil would become unreliable. And while the entire point of the bombing campaign in Iraq was maximum damage — “Shock and Awe” — this particular campaign will never be anything like the clean war they’d like to pretend it is, but to act like it’s going to be Baghdad 2003 is ridiculous. They are primarily targeting the tanks and artillery that are currently killing civilians. I find it hard to mourn the tanks whose guns have gone silent.

In other words, the number of people who are being and will be killed by Gaddafi’s tanks, artillery, snipers, and torture chambers seem to me to be, simply, on another scale: tanks shelling cities and starving them to death actually kill people a lot more effectively than do cruise missiles. And while NATO has an incentive to keep the body count low, it’s Gaddafi for whom “Shock and Awe” serves a function. This point is worth emphasizing and re-emphasizing: if Gaddafi stays in power, he will have absolutely not one single reasons to be anything but at least as brutal as he was in the bad old days. The last ten years have been a period of relative “restraint” — atrocities were committed quietly, and there were a few openings here and there — because he thought he had something to gain from “restraint,” and he was right: the country has partially opened up to western capital, and the US found in him a valued ally in the war on terror, and cut deals with him. The fact that he was able to get weapons, diplomatic respect, and rehabilitate his international image made violent repression less useful to him. He would never have committed atrocities like he did in 1996 while he thought he had something to gain from “restraint.”

He no longer has that incentive, in any way. He has no allies. He has no defenders. He has no international reputation. The only thing he does have is the military force he acquired as a Soviet and then American client, a secret police infrastructure, and a lifetime’s practice in using them. The only way he will stay in power now is through massive and indiscriminate violence and repression: he has promised to “come inch by inch, home by home, alley by alley,” and he has promised the rebels, who he calls “cockroaches,” that “we will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.” I believe that he will “cleanse Libya house by house” if he can. I think he will do absolutely that if he stays in power and so that remains my biggest fear.

I could, of course, be wrong about this. Any one of us could be. But at this point, the best case scenario is that the UN intervention will turn out to have been chemo-therapy: poisonous and awful, but still better than the alternative. It’s because we know what cancer is that aggressive chemo-therapy — also one of the worst things there is — turns out to be the less horrible alternative. Almost any outcome is better than dead. By the same token, it’s because we also know what Gaddafi is that the same thing might be true here. The worst case scenario was the one where Gaddafi fulfilled his promise and took over the country house by house, a scenario that seemed a virtual certainty the day before the NFZ was imposed. And as likely as it is that the UN will fuck this up, in other words, Gaddafi was a dead certainty. And so it still seems right to me to celebrate that uncertainty.

Meet Mahmoud Jibril

The Libyan rebels officially formed an interim government, and named Mahmoud Jibril as their interim Prime Minister. That’s him shaking hands with Sarkozy, on the right:

The Interim Transitional National Council’s website — of course they have a website; they even have a twitter feeddescribes him this way:

Born in Libya n 1952, obtained a BSc in Economics and Political Science from Cairo University in 1975. Holds a masters’ degree in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1980. He also obtained a Doctorate in Strategic planning and decision-making from the same university in 1984 where he worked as a professor in the same subject field for several years. So far he has published 10 books in Strategic planning and decision making. He led the team who drafted and formed the Unified Arab Training manual. He was also responsible for organising and administering the first two Training conferences in the Arab world in the years 1987 and 1988. He later took over the management and administration of many of the leaders’ training programs for senior management in Arab countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Britain

Unsurprisingly, they don’t make a big deal out of his time as a fairly important technocrat in the reform wing of Gaddafi’s government. But I’m sure you were wondering what it was the US State department has to say about him. And so, to the wikileaks!

On March 7, 2008:

15.(C) In addition, xxxxxxxxxxxx who works with Libya’s economic and financial sectors told EconOff March 11 that Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Planning Commission, ally of Saif al-Islam and a leading advocate for economic reform, would play a key role on three of the five implementing committees – budget, economy and wealth distribution. Jibril, who as recently as early February was so frustrated by his inability to effect reform that he had submitted letters of resignation on three occasions, is reportedly now convinced that Qadhafi’s commitment to dramatic change is sincere enough that he has agreed to stay on – for now.

On November 26, 2008, from a description of a meeting with Jibril, “The head of Libya’s national economic planning apparatus and the effort to implement Muammar al-Qadhafi’s vision for government restructuring and privatization”:

Arguing that the U.S.-Libya relationship needs “a common frame of reference”, Jibril offered that the U.S. approaches relationships as economic and transactional, whereas Arab culture puts a premium on tribal ties in which gifts are given and expected, but not asked for or stipulated. He offered the example of Kissinger perceiving Anwar Sadat as being a “clown” because he did not ask the U.S. for anything when he expelled Soviet advisors from Egypt. Jibril stressed that as an Arab, Sadat did not feel he needed to ask for anything because the U.S. should have perceived that he had offered something and reciprocated of its own accord. Jibril argued that a new perspective, particularly from the Department, was needed that took into account more than oil. Informed by Libya’s rich culture and long history, a new generation of Libyans is emerging and there is real potential for civil society development.

Arguing that there had been “too much talk and not enough deeds” in the U.S-Libya relationship since ties were re-established in 2004, Jibril urged the U.S. to focus to a greater extent on cultivating people-to-people relationships by engaging more on health care, education, technology and training. Our globalized world is characterized by diversity (which he defined as mutual respect for the choices of others) and multiplicity of choices (economic decisions are not as politically-charged as they used to be because economic actors have more choices). A frame of reference that encompasses culture and economics is needed. Cautioning the U.S. against expecting “all or nothing” from Libya by way of political and economic choices, he stressed that developing countries are increasingly taking an ala carte (vice prix fixe) approach to political-economic choices.

February 25, 2009:

Libya’s nearly 500 local level councils — “Basic People’s Congresses” — concluded their deliberations February 23 over two radical proposals put forward by Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi: a plan to distribute Libya’s oil wealth directly to the people, and a massive government restructuring that would eliminate most ministries. The weight of opinion is reportedly against the wealth distribution plan, with fears of inflation cited as the primary reason for opposing it. The BPCs’ recommendations will be considered by the regional and national-level congresses in the coming days. Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, Muammar al-Qadhafi’s celebrated reform-minded son, has formed a committee of technocrats charged with formulating plans to implement any reforms that may be adopted by the national-level General People’s Congress

Despite al-Qadhafi’s public exhortations that “the people” own the oil wealth and should determine how to distribute it, high-ranking GOL officials have quietly begun to discuss how to implement the proposed reforms. Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi and the Chairman of the Economic Development Board and National Planning Council Mahmoud Jibril (who is a respected, US-educated technocrat) have established a steering committee to that end xxxxxxxxxxxx. The committee reportedly enjoys the support of Secretary of the General People’s Committee al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi (Prime Minister-equivalent).

…Muammar al-Qadhafi’s calls for wealth distribution and government restructuring are a populist message intended to distance himself from the widely-criticized corruption and inefficiency in the government and place him squarely on the side of the people. His radical reform agenda has met strong opposition from prominent technocrats as well as self-interested officials who stand to lose influence if government ministries are abolished. According to many of our contacts, the debates in the local councils are genuine (allowing al-Qadhafi to showcase his “people power” democracy to foreign journalists). The national-level General People’s Congress, on the other hand, is expected to be tightly scripted from above. Ordinary Libyans are apprehensive about their future. If al-Qadhafi’s reforms are adopted, they may be embarking on yet another era of economic uncertainty and social instability. If they had a choice in the matter, most would probably forgo the oil money in exchange for a functioning, relatively honest government that provided decent salaries, education and health care.

After a cabinet shakeup, March 11, 2009:

Reform-minded Mahmoud Jibril will retain his seat at the head of the Economic and Development Board but will lose his role on the National Planning Council that has been absorbed into the new Committee for Planning and Finance.

On May 11, 2009, describing a meeting with “Mahmoud Jibril, Chair of the National Economic Development Board (NEDB), an organization that Jibril likened to a “think tank” of multi-disciplinary experts.”:

The NEDB’s role in these projects is to “pave the way” for private sector development, and to create a strategic partnership between private companies and the government. There is a still a “gap of distrust” dividing the two. As to whether Libya has a Master Plan that includes all the 11,000 projects, Jibril admitted that in the past two years, Libya had started executing projects without such a plan. However, the NEDB has been working with experts from Ernst and Young, the Oxford Group, and lately with five consultants from UNDP to advise the prime minister on the best sequencing and pacing of the projects in order to decrease poverty and unemployment.

With a PhD in strategic planning from the University of Pittsburgh, Jibril is a serious interlocutor who “gets” the U.S. perspective. He is also not shy about sharing his views of U.S. foreign policy, for example, opining that the U.S. spoiled a golden opportunity to capitalize on its “soft power” (McDonald’s, etc.) after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 by putting “boots on the ground” in the Middle East. At the same time, his organization has a daunting task to tackle, in terms of rationalizing 11,000 development projects in the chaotic Libyan government bureaucracy and also, to train Libyans to work in new sectors outside of the hydrocarbons industry. Jibril has stated American companies and universities are welcome to join him in this endeavor and we should take him up on his offer.

January 27, 2010:

Jibril said that the “inherited political problems” represent a “big hurdle” for the United States — both diplomatically and commercially — and were in need of “creative solutions.” The Ambassador acknowledged the difficulties, highlighting that the apparent GOL freeze on visa issuance for official American travelers to Libya is currently setting engagement back. Jibril characterized the “visa issues” as something “of the past” and noted “security” is the “overriding concern” influencing GOL policy on visa issuances for Americans. He recommended that both sides work together to implement joint-projects aimed at “building trust,” that would help to erase the historically negative images that each side has of the other. He honed in on the negative perception in Libya of U.S. intentions in the region. “Changing the U.S. image among Arabs and in the region will take consistent work by you and your colleagues who have been in the region and understand it,” he said. He noted that the “Arabs of the sixties are no longer the Arabs of today,” explaining that the leaders and people of the region no longer reject a relationship with the United States simply due to the U.S.-Israel relationship. Libya is one of the countries that wants a relationship with the United States. However, the inclusion of Libya on the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) list of countries of “special interest” has reinforced negative perceptions about the U.S. in Libya.

Jibril seemed to be a very open interlocutor — willing to engage in back-and-forth conversation and brainstorming together comfortably. His confidence in his own ability to approach Saif al-Islam with a new idea, as well as to raise the Trade Mission with GOL ministers, indicates that he is well-connected within the regime. As the head of a think-tank that reports directly to the Prime Minister-equivalent (who called him during the meeting), without the burden of an official policymaking role, he may have a unique ability to influence decision-makers without challenging their authority. In response to Jibril’s proposals, the Public Affairs Section will reach out to U.S. colleges and universities to explore potential areas for cooperation with Libyan academic institutions.

By the way, if you want to read the State Department’s “all you need to know about Libya” cable, it’s “Through a Glass Darkly: The Government of Libya Reaches Out to the New Administration,” February 11, 2009

The American Intervention in Libya

State department cable describing August 14, 2009 meetings between Muammar al-Qadhafi, his son and National Security Advisor, Muatassim al-Qadhafi, and Senator John McCain:

[Muatassim al-Qadhafi] reiterated the refrain he conveyed to Secretary Clinton during his April visit (ref C) — Libya has not been adequately rewarded for its decision to give up WMD and needed some sort of security assurance from the United States. He emphasized the need for Libya to purchase U.S. non-lethal equipment in order to enhance its defense posture. Muatassim requested the “highest level of help possible” to obtain military supplies, including mobile hospitals and uniforms. He also requested assistance with upgrading Libya’s equipment, including helicopters. “We can get [equipment] from Russia or China, but we want to get it from you as a symbol of faith from the United States,” he said. He described the security threats that Libya could possibly face as a result of its geography – “There are 60 million Algerians to the West, 80 million Egyptians to the East, we have Europe in front of us, and we face Sub-Saharan Africa with its problems to the South.” Muatassim stressed that Libya wanted security assurances from the United States as a sign that the United States was still committed to Libya…

Senator McCain assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security. He stated that he understood Libya’s requests regarding the rehabilitation of its eight C130s (ref D) and pledged to see what he could do to move things forward in Congress. He encouraged Muatassim to keep in mind the long-term perspective of bilateral security engagement and to remember that small obstacles will emerge from time to time that can be overcome. He described the bilateral military relationship as strong and pointed to Libyan officer training at U.S. Command, Staff, and War colleges as some of the best programs for Libyan military participation.


“I celebrate this uncertainty”

I’m writing something on the broader contours of the “responsibility to protect” debate as it’s happening with respect to Libya, but in the meantime, I want to offer this piece from Anjali Kamat and Ahmad Shokr (from Economic and Political Weekly) as an example of the sort of thing which the American pundit seems to have no ability or desire to produce. Kamat and Shokr not only start from the premise that this is about the Libyans, first and foremost — and have bothered to acquire actual information about what is happening — but they do so because they recognize that any statement or polemic about what is happening in Libya that excludes Libyan voices is, as such, not worth listening to.

From the conclusion:

The anti-imperialist arguments against imposing a no-fly zone are many and convincing. Neutralising Gaddafi’s air power may not give the rebels a much-desired strategic advantage over his ground forces, which are better trained and equipped. Moreover, the decision by foreign powers to impose a no-fly zone is likely to be motivated by their own regional interests rather than a genuine concern for the well-being of Libya’s people.

However, at this crucial time, debates about a no-fly zone should not replace conversations about solidarity. The struggle of the Libyan people for freedom deserves the strongest support. The imperative for solidarity with the Libyan rebels is being lost in anti-imperialist polemics, some of which has casually dismissed those Libyans who call for a no-fly zone as naïve or, even worse, as imperial stooges. This is disrespectful to the many Libyans who have paid a heavy price for challenging Gaddafi’s regime on the streets. A more sensible antiimperialist position would focus less on what a no-fly zone means for western powers and more on listening to Libyan voices on the ground and finding ways to meaningfully support their struggle.

By contrast, Josh Marshall. Also, anything written by Andrew Sullivan, at least since he happily described the Libyan movement as an “opportunistic rebellion, fed by tribal rivalries, that was violent from the get-go.”

One Libyan who has gotten some play in the American media is Hisham Matar, a wonderful novelist (I just finished his In the Country of Men and can’t recommend it enough), who wrote this in the LA Times:

I could sense myself, particularly over the last decade, growing hopeless. I began to wonder whether Kadafi had succeeded in killing the Libyan spirit. I could feel my heart hardening toward my own country. I sheltered a quiet and perverse dislike for my own people; perverse because hatred of one’s own amounts to hatred of the self. At times, in Libyan gatherings, this would momentarily lift and I would find myself completely in love with all things Libyan. Vacillating between these extremes has often left me empty and weary.

I am 40 years old. I haven’t known a Libya without Kadafi. These days, witnessing the fall of the dictatorship and, more important, the rise of the Libyan people, I am realizing that up to now my country has been overwhelmingly a source of fear, pain and embarrassment. Now it is a source of joy and pride.

This, from Spiegel Online (on what Gaddafi means to him):

He has stolen my father from me, he has imprisoned my relatives, he has killed many of my friends. He is my enemy. But more importantly than my personal grievances, he has held back the whole country and forced the Libyan people to live in a permanent state of madness. He represents a kind of nightmare for Libya from which I am just waking up.

Everybody was surprised by the events, even the people who spend their whole life studying Libya. But once the protests started, it was surprising how unsurprising it really was. I sense it in the voices of the Libyans I have known all my life. They sound different, their necks free from being tied. Gadhafi was the person under whom we have all suffered. We are all united by our suffering under him.

And this, in the New Yorker:

As for what the future holds, I think we have to refer to the nature of the movement. Its character has been so far exemplary, showing maturity and good sense as well as a commitment to the rule of law. A provisional government has been set up, calling itself the “National Transitional Temporary Council”. It is, according to a statement issued, committed to “the establishment of a civil, constitutional and democratic state.” Obviously, there are reasons to worry; it would be unnatural not to be concerned when such a radical change is taking place. But I celebrate this uncertainty. For nearly half a century, we, Libyans, knew everything: we knew what to think, what to say, what to read, and how to live; every detail in our life had been decided for us. Now we can decide what sort of society we want.

I appeal to the international community to follow France and recognize Libya’s transitional government. This would help isolate the dictatorship even more and, more importantly, provide a logistical framework for Libyans to manage the needs of their people. We also need, desperately, medical and food supplies. Qaddafi is trying to starve the rebel strongholds.

(Matar links from Hisham Matar’s facebook page, EPW article via Katherine Hawkins)

Knives, Lions, Children

New York Times, March 11, 2011

Delacroix, a long time ago

Jasper pointed out this visual rhyme on facebook, and it might help explain yesterday’s otherwise bizarrely patronizing and sneering New York Times article, “Libya’s Youth Revolt Veers Toward Chaos,” an article which goes to surprising lengths to portray the Libyan rebels as a bunch of kids having a lark:

Young men revel in the novelty of having no one to tell them not to play with guns. “God is great!” rings out whenever a volley of bullets is fired into the air. “Some guys consider this a lot of fun, and they’re hoping the war lasts a lot longer,” said Marwan Buhidma, a 21-year-old computer student who credited video games with helping him figure out how to operate a 14.5-millimeter antiaircraft battery.

Arabs as children, Africans as children… it’s an old, old story. And certainly there’s a bit of Orientalist theater mixed up in the mix. And certainly that guy is mugging for the camera. Is there anything to see here, other than the same old thing?

I don’t know. The thing I can’t get over is the weird way Anthony Shadid’s article places this “Youth Revolt” in the driver’s seat of this evolving clusterfuck, the way the implied answer to the implied question of why the “youth revolt” is “veer[ing] towards chaos” is given to us in the very act of calling it that in the first place. It is not a logistical failing; it is the quasi-moral failing of boys playing with guns. The fact that the rebel lines are collapsing — if they are — and Gaddafi’s army is gaining ground is not, say, the result of Gaddafi’s more professional, better armed, and much better supplied military force. In that article, the subject of all the important sentences are the youth themselves, whose military inferiority is seen to derive not from the superior force they face but from their own “moments of naïveté,” the way that “time and again, young people express amazement that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces would deploy tanks and warplanes against them…” But maybe if we talked about how and why the Gaddafi’s regime came to have those tanks and warplanes, that professionalism, and that army (or why it is that they’re rolling towards oil refining towns) we wouldn’t get to tell the story of Arabs with knives wrestling with lions? Maybe the absence of the thing the lion stands in for, the modernity of Western-allied dictatorship who , is the more important image? Or maybe I just wanted to write a post leading up to this image.

Who can tell. I’m so tired of the old stories…

Benjamin Barber and the Devil We Know

My father once told me that he didn’t enjoy The Godfather, because, as he put it bluntly, they’re all terrible people and he just couldn’t find a way to care. There might be an interesting story being told from a certain perspective, he said, maybe, but he simply couldn’t see it, feel it; the Corleones were, as I believe I am quoting him accurately, just violent assholes. I’ve thought a lot about that position, and not only because he’s my dad. After all, why would we sympathize with Michael Corleone? Why isn’t he the villain of the story? In a way he is, of course; but also, in a way, he really isn‘t. He is glamorous. He is Al Pacino. He is strong, manly, and smart, an inescapably attractive — and therefore sympathetic — character.

In other words, without denying that “evil” can be compelling subject for art — or demanding that our appreciation of a book or movie has to be strictly guided by some simplistic notion of who the good guys and bad guys are — we should ask why it is that Michael is the character we are asked to feel, identify, and sympathize with. Why would the plight of a gangster prince — who chooses to be the gangster king and do things like kill his own brother — be seen as anything but a horrifying descent into madness and evil? Why would it scan as sympathetic? I would suggest that just as it says something about the mass psychology of Americans that Charlie Sheen has become a bizarre kind of “bad boy” hero — and it’s a something that starts with misogyny — it says something about us that we would sympathize with Michael Corleone, something The Godfather should make us be uncomfortable and thoughtful about.

I bring this up because Benjamin Barber wants us to think of Saif al-Qaddafi as “Michael Corleone, the good son in The Godfather”:

…The war hero, the civilian, the son who’s not going to be part of the Sicilian mafia. And then you know they attacked the Godfather. And Michael comes to his father’s defense, throws away his reputation and the good works he’s done to distance himself from the family, and becomes, you know, one and the same. Blood over chosen identity.

He says the same thing in an op-ed for CNN:

Saif’s “reform face” seemed to have considerable credibility. Two weeks ago, however, Saif abruptly put on another face. Like “The Godfather’s” Michael Corleone – the World War II war hero and educated civilian who was the “good son” until he turned bad – so Saif had been the “good” Gadhafi until he turned bad last week. Saif took off his reformer face and let his Libyan clan identity define him.

North Africa, Sicily

In other words, while “the father” stands as a representation of tribalism, patronage, and society organized by blood-kin relationships and violence (the deeply alien “Sicily”), Michael enters the story playing a different — but no less familiar — narrative role: the American child of immigrant parents, torn between blood ties and the promise of American individuality. And this narrative, the struggle to escape the (Sicilian) family towards (American) self-determination takes the place of the struggle of good against evil. And while the tragedy will turn out to be that he cannot (“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in,” etc), the “family“ comes to stand for a sympathetic reason — and thus excuse — for doing evil things. Defending the father is good, right? And killing the brother, well, he has to do it to defend the family, right? Right? Poor Michael, poor Saif…

One way to respond to this way of framing the situation would be to point out that Michael Corleone “is” the good son in the same way that Satan in Paradise Lost “is” Lucifer, the Light Bearer. Which is to say, he was, right up to the point where he decides not to be. At that point, he is no longer chief among the angels. He is now the devil. Just so with Michael Corleone: he was “good” up until around the moment when he decides to kill lots of people. When he decides to side with the bad guys, you see, he becomes “bad.” But Milton’s Satan is an attractive character — and could, perhaps, be played by Al Pacino — for a different reason, as Stanley Fish has argued: his attractiveness is meant to test us, to make us aware of the attractiveness of sin, all the better to prepare us to defeat it in practice. The point of making Satan attractive, in other words, is to make us better readers, so we can learn from the experience of being beguiled, and sin no more.

In real life, of course, the shades of grey are sometimes finer. But since it was Barber’s allusion — and he was implicitly directing us to think in terms of Tragedy, Good, Evil — let’s entertain it. Because in this case, the decision to use large-scale violence against the Libyan people is actually fairly stark: either kill thousands of people or, you know, don’t. The “Good Son” chose to be on the side of the killing-lots-of-people-to-stay-in-power side. There is actually video tape of him doing this, rallying a group of police officers to go and kill protesters, and he uses fairly non-ambiguous phrases like:

The protesters you confront are nothing; they are bums, brats and druggies. Today brothers, Tripoli that you live in, will be cleared…I shall leave now, and I will send you weapons. Tonight I will return with more people and weapons.

I mean, say what you want about why he made this choice, that choice he made was clear. When the chips were down, he elected to arm the police, empower them to kill people whose lives he specifically flagged as being worthless, and to lead them in doing so. He may have once promised to be something different; when the time came, he decided to be a murderous devil.

I make this point because Benjamin Barber says things like this, trying — again — to make the devil sympathetic:

…as I wrote before, it’s not clear whether the son of Qaddafi, the scholar/reformer, or the European playboy would win the struggle. My own fear, when Qaddafi came under attack, was that blood, family, clan — which is powerful in ways we don’t understand here — would become overriding. And in a certain sense, there was a kind of perverse courage, just the way there was with Michael Corleone…if you think that someone is trying to kill your father or your mother from a family like that — and you’re faced with a choice: Do I go abroad and continue to try to change my country for the good of people and watch my father die? Or do I defend him? Well, I wish he’d gone abroad. But in a tribal society…

He doesn‘t finish that sentence; the interviewer cut him off, so he doesn’t complete the thought. But that also seems about right. His Jihad vs. McWorld essay makes it pretty clear that he simply means the easy, lazy pre-modernism of the other by which they only care about and respect those who are like themselves. And in that essay, it’s clearly a bad thing, as clearly as being part of a gangster mob is a bad thing in America. But notice the second-person there, the rhetorical framing behind a sentence like “if you think that someone is trying to kill your father.” He’s trying to put us in Saif’s position, to make us sympathize with his Very Difficult Choice. Even as he reminds us that Those People Are Very Different From You and I, They Are Tribal, You See, he is working to make us put ourselves in his shoes (TribalMuslim shoes, but still). And thus, the inexcusable-by-definition is, well, not excused, but rendered comprehensible (as the comprehensible thing that incomprehensibly others do).

In this sense, while he briefly declares himself to “feel really bad” about the thousands of Libyans who have been killed by Saif’s forces, Barber quickly returns to telling the story of the Libyan Michael Corleone, the place where his real narrative interest lies:

…I feel really bad for the people being murdered in the streets; that’s the biggest tragedy. But there is also a real human tragedy — call it a sidebar tragedy to the main event where our real compassion belongs — the tragedy of a young man who 10 years ago made a decision not to do what all his brothers did (either take military commands or simply take the money and run, enjoy the high life, and beat up servants in Geneva) and who instead took on the responsibility of trying to change the system into which he was born and to which he was supposed to be the heir. He had the capacity and the courage to do this, and for years he worked for a freer media, for human rights, and for a more democratic Libya. And then the tragedy, the fateful choice — whether coerced, whether it was blood thicker than water — he gave up so much good work in the course of a 45-minute speech. He made the decision that jettisoned, sacrificed, and martyred everything he was and everything he had done. I guess in that there’s a perverse courage to this act of clan loyalty in which he destroyed the scholar and reformer he had labored so hard to create.

Sadly, my own view is if his father doesn’t survive, Saif is unlikely to survive either…And the tragedy will be that his death, which once might have been mourned by Libyans seeking freedom, is now likely to be welcomed.

What Barber is really mourning here, I would venture to assert, is the death of the ideological choice he made a few years ago, a death he will not accept. When Qaddafi began his rapprochement with the West, a group of intellectuals — Barber, Joseph Nye, Anthony Giddens, Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Putnam — were hired as paid consultants for the Monitor Group, an organization that was paid $3 million a year by the Libyan government to burnish its image internationally. This Mother Jones article gives you the dirty details, but it’s not the details of this particular imbroglio that I’m interested in, other than the broad outlines: Qaddafi paid the Monitor Group to rehabilitate his image and the Monitor Group, in turn, paid Benjamin Barber to write glowing op-eds like this one. Maybe Qaddafi actually didn’t hand the money directly to Barber to write that op-ed. But maybe we’re not idiots, and we can follow the logic of the money with sufficient clarity to see the connection. Perhaps, since he’s heard of the Godfather, Barber understands how the concept of money laundering.

But while it’s an embarrassing thing to have been caught getting paid to give good press to a murderous dictator, it may well be that Barber, Nye, Giddens, Fukuyama, and Putnam went in with good intentions. For the sake of argument, let’s give them the benefit of that doubt and say, simply, that they were used against their will. Let us notice that they made a bad decision, and then let us extend the charity of accepting their excuses, their apologies, their regret, and their introspection.

Except — and this is my point — Barber will not admit that he was wrong. When he is asked “How is it that so many people got Saif al-Qaddafi so wrong?” he responds this way:

BB: Who got it wrong? I don’t think anyone got him wrong…Until Sunday night a week ago [Feb. 27], Saif was a credible, risk-taking reformer…Well today of course, it’s all radically changed. But second-guessing the past, I mean, it’s just 20/20 hindsight. But if you want to ask what do I think happened — why did Saif, a guy who spent seven years writing a doctoral dissertation and two books, working as a reformer at considerable personal risk to himself, and using his name to shield the Libyans doing the hard work inside of Libya — why then, during the period of the uprising last week, did he change sides? That’s a good question about which I can try to speculate. But the question is not: How did we all get him wrong — he’s a terrorist; he just conned all of us — but rather, how did a committed reformer who had risked a good deal to challenge his father do such an abrupt headstand in the course of a few days?

FP: You don’t think there was a certain degree of naivete?

BB: No, I do not, I do not. The naivete is the people who want to rewrite history and now want to specifically indict the intellectuals who were there trying to work on the inside during times in which Muammar Qaddafi was totally in power with no seeming hope of his being taken out

The reason I want us to extend Barber the benefit of the doubt, to accept his claim that in 2006, he engaged with Saif and Libya in good faith, is because I want to emphasize what it is that he is doing right now: he is arguing, forthrightly, that you can do a thing for good reasons, have it blow up catastrophically in your face, but that you can then escape all consequences or blame for that catastrophe, because good intentions are all that matters. Even if you end up in hell, in other words, he is arguing that you still have not sinned. Benjamin Barber is not only not surprised by sin; he is still in love with Lucifer.

Let us just re-assert that, in hindsight, it is utterly clear — to everyone but Barber — that Libya was paying the Monitor Group to help it clean up its name, and that Barber received money — from Qaddafi, the father — through the Monitor Group for that purpose. While Qaddafi the father was making nice with Blair and Bush — and Libya’s oil sector was doing all kinds of business with Western capital — the Monitor Group was using Western intellectuals like Barber to create the narrative that a reformist successor was in the wings. Qaddaffi lite: the same great dictator taste, but (soon) with only half the human rights abuses. And since hindsight is 20-20, as he puts it, there would be no great shame — well, at least less shame — if Barber would simply say that he got duped, and think about why. Which is why I don’t care about that original decision; what I care about is his decision to categorically refuse to learn from experience, and to make a principle out of that refusal. Note the way he rails against anyone who would

“go back and say in 2006, 2007, 2008, when the U.S. recognized the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi, when the sovereign oil fund that Libya set up and that people like Prince Andrew and Peter Mandelson, or organizations like the Carlyle Group and Blackstone, were doing business with, and the heavy investments oil companies were making while others were running around and making all sorts of money — that those of us who went in trying to do some work for democratic reform, that we somehow got Saif wrong?”

How dare anyone use the facts of the present to revise the (less informed) opinions we held in the past? How dare they.


“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

–John Maynard Keynes

Barber’s demand that we fail to note that Saif’s actions have proved that they got him wrong is ideological. Note, for  example, how he wants to set up an opposition between the governments and corporations that engaged in formal relations with Libya (bad) and those, like him, who merely produced useful propaganda for the regime (good), propaganda like these paragraphs from his now infamous Washington Post op-ed:

Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, Gaddafi was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies. Once an opponent of representative central government, he is wrestling with the need to delegate substantial authority to competent public officials if Libya is to join the global system. Once fearful of outside media, he has permitted satellite dishes throughout his country, and he himself surfs the Internet.

The devil, you see, is not so bad; he even surfs the internet! Part of it, I’m sure, is purely selfish: by refusing to understand that having a Western educated, “reformist” son is a good thing for an authoritarian despot to have — because it gives Western governments an excuse to get in bed with them, allowing everyone to pretend that change is on the way, and thereby ignore that it sure as hell hasn‘t come yet — he gets to excuse his own complicity in putting to together. But I’m not as interested in complicity as I am in the continuing defense of the right to make a mistake. To reiterate: Barber’s refusal to connect the dots, his insistence on not seeing how putting on a performance of “democratic reform” allows a regime like Qaddaffi’s to stay in power, and how writing op-eds like that one helped it happen, is a way of defending — and thereby maintaining — the ideology behind it.

That ideology is simple, and it is shared by the entire Qaddafi clan: apres moi, le deluge. There is no alternative; the people cannot be trusted with democracy, because they will fuck it up.

Note, for example, how similar Barber’s current interpretation of what is happening in Libya is to the line both of the Qaddafi patriarchs are trying to sell. It is a choice between the safe, authoritarian governance of a dictatorial petro-state and the tribalistic anarchy that will inevitably succeed it. Here, for example, is Saif arguing on Feb 20th that “Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt”:

Libya is different, if there was disturbance it will split to several states. It was three states before 60 years. Libya are Tribes not like Egypt. There are no political parties, it is made of tribes. Everyone knows each other. We will have a civil war like in 1936. American Oil Companies played a big part in unifying Libya. Who will manage this oil? How will we divide this oil amongst us? Who will spend on our hospitals? All this oil will be burnt by the Baltagiya (Thugs) they will burn it. There are no people there. 3/4s of our people live in the East in Benghazi, there is no oil there, who will spend on them? Your children will not go to schools or universities. There will be chaos, we will have to leave Libya if we can’t share oil. Everyone wants to become a Sheikh and an Emir, we are not Egypt or Tunisia so we are in front of a major challenge.

And here is Barber, yesterday:

…this isn’t Cairo, but a civil war with tribal overtones that threaten to overwhelm the genuine desire for freedom of many of the protesters…I’ve been arguing for some time that this is a tribal society. What you’ve got here is not Cairo, but the makings of a tribal war among two parts of Libya that before 1931 were distinct provinces (Cyrenaica and Tripolitania and among whom there’s long been bad blood). Tripoli versus Benghazi is a very old story.

Whether or not you believe this is true depends, more or less, on your willingness to believe that Libyans are tribal people who just want to kill each other and spend our oil. And it depends on you refusing to notice that people like Barber and Saif al-Gaddafi have a terrible track record, that their credibility is somewhere between nil and nonexistent. Which is precisely the point: while Barber wants you to consider finding him credible, he also wants to build up the credit rating for the idea he propounded, the idea that a “reform” dictator — that figure for whom Saif was such a great poster boy — was the only option.

There are alternatives, of course. Michael didn’t have to kill his brother, Saif didn’t have to stand with the regime, and Benjamin Barber could have admitted he was wrong. As my father would have pointed out to him, he might have once been a smooth, cosmopolitan fellow who promised you the world, but now that he’s chosen to be a violent asshole, fuck him, right? And with that in mind, we could, like Milton’s ideal reader, recognize the attraction of the devil as a means of better understanding how it is that we get seduced by evil: he tells us what we already want to believe to give us permission to ignore reality. Wouldn’t it be great to believe that the political order which just happens to provide us with maximum oil and consultant’s fees (and minimum democracy for Libyans) is the only option? Wouldn’t it be nice to have our imperial cake and eat it too?

But we can be better readers. We can observe what Barber is incapable of seeing; for example, that Saif al-Qaddafi’s dissertation was blatantly plagiarized. Click that link; the documentation is unmistakable, and is surely only the tip of the iceberg. But Saif’s academic dishonesty is only interesting because of the way it leaves Barber exposed, because it’s such a nice figure for how this entire system of reputation capital works: the Orientalist asks to be seduced with a particular type of lie, the devil performs for him exactly the kind of “neoliberal pantomime” (as Timothy Burke called it) he requires, and all go home happy and secure in having confirmed exactly the “truth“ they needed to believe. “…he quotes me, all kinds of people. He quotes me on my book Strong Democracy…” cries Barber, as if plagiarism meant quotation. For on such tautological echo chambers are empires built, and as Barber is not wrong to observe, unmasking this kind of “knowledge” would be revolutionary, would undermine the entire feedback loop on which even his own scholarly edifice is built. “If Saif is a plagiarist, then so is everyone else who has written a dissertation,” he proclaims, not because he’s looked at the evidence — it is clear he has not and could never — but because the reputations at stake are far more important than anything so vulgar as facts. Without Western expertise confirming that the Arabs are anarchic tribalists, you see, we would see the moral legitimacy of our support for the autocratic tyrants ruling them crumble and fall. After me, says Barber, le deluge.

I cannot, at this point, put it any better than Manan has in his article “Flying Blind,” for The National, which is well worth reading in its entirety, so I‘ll close with a brief excerpt and encourage you to read the whole thing. Manan’s point is simple, elegant, and powerful: for the American empire to acquire real knowledge of the broad stretch of Oriental fantasy-lands we wish to control would expose us to facts we cannot, with that intention in mind, ever bear to accept. And so we turn to people like Barber, who happily turn to local expertise like that of Saif, who happily trumpet back to them their own half-informed beliefs, now fully laundered of the stain of their origin. Here, Manan is speaking of “Fouad Ajami or Thomas Friedman, or George W Bush.” But he might as well be speaking of Benjamin Barber and the dashed hope that his tragic Michael Corleone represented:

This hope, being irrational and racist, actually requires blindness to the immediate and the real. Notice simply the befuddled faces of area experts when confronted by Tahrir Square. Notice simply that it isn’t the masses in the street that confound but the lack of explicit violence from the masses and the lack of religiosity of the masses.

The appeal of the drone’s eye is precisely that it does not see everything, because it carries no understanding of the things it records. The experts who are required to imagine Afghanistan or Pakistan traverse those spaces in a manner similar to the drones, on their own preprogrammed missions where every little thing becomes a target on which to pin their policies.

On Libya and “African Mercenaries”

A dead man, shown on Al Arabiya and said to be an "African" mercenary

As Tommy Miles put it, two weeks ago (in an excellent piece of writing that should be read in its entirety):

There is a very widespread and dangerous trope being played upon when Libyans accuse Gaddafi’s crimes of being committed by “African Mercenaries”, hints of which are being picked up in the foreign media. CNN has just prominently shown a Libyan woman, tear stained, crying out on the newly liberated streets of Egypt.  She calls for justice for her people, for the killing to end, begs Obama to intervene, and then repeats “Gaddafi is killing us with his Africans!”  She is not alone in arranging this revolution between the Libyan people on one side, and Gaddafi, his family, and dark-skinned “outsiders” on the other.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the use of a map, Libyans are Africans.  But Africans here means “black people” and there is a very long very pernicious racism in their part of the world towards “black Africans”, not unlike that in my part of the world.  When I see tweets like the following, I cringe.  I also see a history of fear and contempt slipping out in a time of unparalleled suffering.

This is because, as N. Thompson pointed out, Libya has both a sizable population of sub-saharan Africans and a history of discrimination against them:

It is estimated that about a million of the 7 million population of Libya are of Sub-saharan origin, some of whom have been in Libya for centuries and mostly found in the South of the country. A significant number of these Africans are, however, recent imigrants to Libya or using Libya as a stop gap destination on their sojurn to greener pastures in Europe. Col. Gaddafi has made no attempts in hiding his supposed love of “Africa” and his determination to help create a free borderless continent and single currency. A 2010 report about the state of “race relations” in Libya does, however, paint a different picture within his own borders.

According to a United Nations Human Rights statement – “Libya must end its practices of racial discrimination against black Africans, particularly its racial persecution of two million black African migrant workers. There is substantial evidence of Libya’s pattern and practice of racial discrimination against migrant workers”. The New York Times in the article “New Status in Africa Empowers an Ever-Eccentric Qaddafi” gives a sense of the experiences of black Africans in Libya: “All over this capital city, illegal African immigrants line up along roadways, across bridges and at traffic circles hoping to be selected for menial day jobs that pay about $8. They call the areas where they congregate the hustling grounds, which are always crowded with desperate faces from early morning until well past sundown. Many people in Tripoli said they resented the presence of so many illegal workers. “We don’t like them,” said Moustafa Saleh, 28, who is unemployed, echoing a popular sentiment. “They smuggle themselves through the desert, and the way they deal with us is not good.” In the New York Time’s article a former Libyan minister of economy, trade and investment Ali Abd Alaziz Isawi was quoted as saying that illegal immigrants “are a burden on health care, they spread disease, crime. They are illegal.”

As the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday, fears that “African” migrant workers would be scapegoated appears to be valid:

Up a muddy clay road next to the University of Gar Younis in Benghazi lies a work camp, with some 52 rows of white prefabricated housing surrounded by a fence. Dozens of Africans greet visitors eagerly, “Are you from the UN? Are you here to help us? Please help us, we need help.”

These foreign workers, left behind as international companies close up shop and embassies evacuate their employees, are in a double bind. Libyans don’t trust them, and they don’t trust the Libyans. Since reports circulated that Qaddafi hired African mercenaries to kill opposition forces, several suspected mercenaries have been caught, beaten, and even killed, and many of the Africans in this camp fear stepping foot outside the compound.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 African and South Asian guest workers and illegal migrants are staying in the Gar Younis camp waiting to get out of the country. The camp is overseen by Libyan volunteers like Sami al-Bah, an engineer from Benghazi. He stalks around holding a sheaf of raggedy handwritten papers which bear the names of those stranded in this camp. His surgical mask, a precaution against rumored tuberculosis carried by the residents, slips from his face.

“Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea … they come from everywhere,” he says. “And there are so many of them. We can barely keep track.” Mr. Bah says about a third of the residents are not in possession of passports – “either because their companies were holding them and did not give them back before leaving, or because they crossed into the country illegally and don’t want to say.” In the chaos of the situation, he says, it is impossible to verify who is employed and who is not.

Or this report from Al Jazeera:

Alex Thurston (on Feb 28) argued that since “Qadhafi has long used mercenaries as advisers and soldiers,” and “African poverty has created a substantial pool of potential mercenaries,” he found it “likely that Qadhafi is now using some of these hired guns against his own people,” and outlines

“three categories of foreign fighters in Libya: foreigners who are part of the formal security forces, foreigners who are fighting for Qadhafi for political reasons, and foreigners who are killing Libyans primarily for money. Let’s add two more: those were coerced into fighting, and innocent persons accused of being mercenaries.”

David Styan is more skeptical:

There is a gulf between perceptions and reality; initially both European and Arab journalists echoed what Libyans told them, that Qadaffi’s forces comprised only ‘foreign’ and ‘black’ troops. This perception rested on a double-amalgam: firstly that anyone supporting Qadaffi is a ‘foreign mercenary’; secondly that these mercenaries were drawn principally from sub-Saharan Africa.

To date, there is little evidence that either is true. Initial fighting in Benghazi produced images of a single mutilated corpse of an ‘African’.  Yet Libya’s own population is racially variegated, with ‘black’ populations straddling Libya’s vast Sahelian borders with Niger and Chad. Qadaffi’s power has rested in part on patronage and clan allegiances, which are particularly pronounced within his diverse security forces.

It’s very hard to tell; all the pictures of “African” mercenaries that I’ve seen seem to be wearing the same uniform, for what it’s worth. Anyway, as Tommy Miles pointed out, focusing on the specter of “African mercenaries” distracts from the bigger picture:

Photos and videos, many horrific, have been provided of a handful (I have seen five total) dead uniformed soldiers with varying degrees of dark skin.  This is hardly proof of the hysterical rhetoric built around thousands of black Africans raping women and murdering protesters.

More reports, including those showing troops attacking civilians, point to the Army and the internal security forces. The Security Battalions (‘Kataeb al Amn’) include forces directly under the command of Colonel Massud Abdul Hafiz al-Gaddafi. Not only are these groups well armed and trained, they are carefully chosen for loyalty and ideologically motivated. If there is any truth in the “African Mercenaries” rumors, Tchadians or other former foreign guerrillas, long ago integrated into these internal security forces, would be cause. But the Libyan military and security establishment is gigantic: 50,000 regular troops and almost as many reserves, bolstered by recent spending sprees on Russian and other western equipment. It strains credulity that a few hundred, even a few thousand, “black African” mercenaries would be able to enforce submission upon the Libyan people without the participation of these forces.

On twitter, users have dubbed stories of “African Mercenaries” “Confirmed” after Al Arabiya – and later Al Jazeera – reported as unconfirmed the same stories of “African Mercenaries” twitter users had earlier broadcast.  A news agency, I should remind readers, cannot “confirm” a story by reporting that you are saying it.  It would need multiple individual, reliable, first hand sources providing consistent stories of having seen the original event themselves.  We only have inconsistent third hand reports so far.

And notes, pointedly, that:

…this is not the first time recently we have heard such stories. In Bahrain, where the military opened fire on unarmed protesters with assault riffles, anti-aircraft weapons, and helicopter fire, some locals have accused “Iraqi”, Pakistani” or other mercenaries of having infiltrated the army.  In the recent massacres on Guinea Conakry and Abidjan, victims have blamed Liberian mercenaries for having murdered and raped protesters.  Again and again, as here in Libya, we hear the cry that “no fellow countryman would do this!”  “Gaddafi couldn’t get Libyans to kill Libyans, so he brought Mercenaries”, not Arab mercenaries, not western mercenaries, but those people who resemble the “lowest”, most “foreign” of our fellow citizens.  There have, just today, been a couple of isolated reports that North Koreans were shooting protesters in Libya, but such reports have not gotten the traction that the “African Mercenaries” have.  I must ask why this is?

As Konwomyn wrote, in an open letter to Al Jazeera, and well worth reading:

I think continually pushing a singular narrative about a more complex story has the danger of reinforcing an African and Arab narrative that has an uncomfortable racial connotation to it. I am not accusing Al Jazeera of having a racial bias, far from it. I just feel its important for the network to be sensitive to how this issue plays out to an international audience of both Black Africans and Arabs when the full story is untold.

As reports are emerging, it seems to be that the ‘mercenaries from Africa’ are most likely from Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Tunisia and Guinea as well as South Africa and parts of Europe. So they are White, Arab, European and Black, not all Black Africans. They may not be from the Congo, maybe not from Somalia but almost certainly not Zimbabwe as some wild speculations claimed. Yes, there was no plane full of soldiers dispatched from Harare to Tripoli at 1 a.m (!) on Sunday morning – any well-educated Zimbabwean could have told these international journalists tweeting in their personal capacity that this ‘witness account’, as dubbed by Al Jazeera, was untrue. Of course AJE is only the messenger so you can’t be blamed for what you can’t verify and I don’t blame you. But since this is an open letter I may as well post some info for other inquiring minds who’ll stumble on my blog. For starters soldiers are not mercenaries, our history of mercenaries is mainly from the apartheid era, Mozambique’s civil war and the Angolan war when White South Africans and White Zimbabweans (some of them were former Rhodesian soldiers) would use Zimbabwe as temporary base but they did not operate in Zimbabwe. Secondly today in Zimbabwe we have thugs (don’t often use guns but often beat and rape) not mercenaries (skilled hit-men like Simon Mann (Equatorial Guinea plot)) that are busy with their own electoral campaign of violence, thirdly Zimbabwe’s thugs* have no knowledge of Libyan terrain and finally Zimbabwe doesn’t speak French. Sadly no amount of @’ing international journos on twitter could kill this rumor. But as untruths die in time, I sincerely hope that this untruth will die sooner rather than later. (see Smith’s column)

Anyway about these mercenaries and Al Jazeera’s role in coverage. As there have been suggestions that it is likely the ‘African mercenaries’ are from the above-mentioned African countries, I’d like to know why an investigative journalist couldn’t be dispatched to these countries to find out how the mercenaries work – surely Chad, Tunisia and Niger are not as hostile to international journalists as Mummar Gadaffi’s Libya. If not, could a Chadian Ambassador or Activist could be invited to Al Jazeera studios to share their view? How can the story of mercenaries be reported to the exclusion of Chad, yet Chad is the French and Arabic speaking nation where some of these hitmen are allegedly coming from?

It bears repeating that Chad is an Arab African nation. It is Libya’s neighbor. As your coverage is mainly centered on the ‘Arab World’ its tempting to think that Chad is perhaps not Arab enough that it should be spoken of and not spoken to in news reports and analyses. I appreciate that this is a fast-developing story and there are many angles to cover, but the impact of events in Libya on security and political relations between these two countries cannot be so insignificant that it’s not worthy of mention, can it? At the very least one would think, Idriss Deby must be having sleepless nights while the Arabs next door are revolting. He could very well be the next Arab dictator to go.

And finally, Callie Maidhof at Jadaliyya:

I suggest that it should give us pause to consider the stakes of this conceptualization of a basic Arab-African or Arab-black antagonism—one that not only formulates these as mutually exclusive categories but also pins them against one another in the context of the Libyan revolution. This formulation is taking place both “on the ground” in Libya as well as in its representation outside its borders, and the generalized media blackout has severely compromised understanding of the situation. Just a handful of commentators have questioned the veracity of the “African mercenaries” charge while maintaining their support for the uprising…Whether or not Qaddafi has recruited foreign mercenaries, it is clear that none of us—in Libya or abroad—are getting the full story. However, the speed with which this charge has been accepted as true should call into question our own assumptions about relations between Arab and black Africans.

Whether or not Qaddafi has recruited foreign mercenaries, it is clear that none of us—in Libya or abroad—are getting the full story. However, the speed with which this charge has been accepted as true should call into question our own assumptions about relations between Arab and black Africans.

This is not the first time that Arab and black Africans have been tragically opposed; rather, this has been integral to policymaking in the United States and beyond, as well as to numerous think tanks and international organizations, humanitarian and otherwise. For a far more extreme example, we can look to Sudan. In his work on that topic, Mahmood Mamdani (2009) has argued that the perceived dichotomy between Arab and black Africans is a false one, relying on colonial-era tropes of settler and native which additionally sought to retribalize and reify Sudanese social (and ethnic) divisions. Mamdani holds that anti-genocide campaigns focusing on Darfur such as Save Darfur depoliticize the insurgency/counterinsurgency by shifting the discourse into the moral realm in order to: 1) link the conflict to the War on Terror; and 2) instigate a military response on behalf of the United States and other Western powers. This move also includes Sudan in the political geography of the Middle East.

and notes that:

Libya has long played a critical role with regard to its neighbors, and Qaddafi himself has been heavily involved in African politics. In his February 22 speech, he further reinforced his ties to Africa, calling into question the consonance of something called the Middle East when he claimed that without him, Libya would undergo US occupation or incorporation by the UAE. Additionally, while the Arab League has suspended Libya for its brutal treatment of civilians, the African Union (of which Qaddafi used to be the chairman) has remained silent on the matter.

The use of the term “African mercenaries” points to African-ness as a site of difference. But Qaddafi’s career has been characterized by a loud and memorable involvement in African politics—even taking on the title “the King of Kings” of Africa or in Arabic “malik al-muluk“. This would suggest that if he has deployed non-citizen mercenaries, it would highlight his and Libya’s regional embeddedness rather than its absolute difference.

Given this embeddedness, we may account for the use of the word “African” to suggest “foreign” in a number of ways. One answer would be the radical break this uprising has produced in our conceptions of “Libya” and “Libyans” versus Qaddafi himself, who has until recently been regarded as almost selfsame with his state and people. In contrast with Qaddafi’s African ties, one could argue, Libyans have determined that they will stand in concert with other Arab revolutions.

Everywhere Tahrir

“The Winter Uprisings in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen have shaken western and Arab confidence in the sustainability of the current models of “competitive” authoritarianism. These were not bread riots; they were illustrations of political gangrene…in the end the Winter Uprisings are political, not merely economic. They cannot be reduced to economic “reforms,” pice checks and micro-finance. They are putting strains on the Arab political order in its full diversity. And the youth driving the Winter Uprisings appear not to be satisfied when thrown a bone — they deserve steak. In the span of two months they have seen two long-sitting autocrats make shaken and desperate public appeals in response to their actions and watched one of them make a run for the Gulf. Whether Tunisia or Egypt or some other Arab polity turns out a revolution or a serious political change, these uprisings will be serious political and historical importance going forward. These are exciting, perplexing times indeed.” (TMND)

I, like not a few Americans, am excited and perplexed. To help me understand these times — and you, if you like — I’ve spent the last couple hours collecting and collating the best short-term, English language accounts I could find on what’s happening right now across the Greater Middle East and North Africa, in synchrony with (if not in imitation of) what’s been happening in Egypt.

There have been quite a few persuasive calls (particularly from historians) to resist the urge to see this as one thing, a single “Winter Uprising” as Kal put it above. Manan, for instance, and Gretchen Head. And I agree. But no one would deny that people in Egypt were watching what happened in Tunisia and interpreting it in their own ways, and the rest of the world is sure as hell watching what happened in Egypt. And while this is not exactly Nasser 2.0, the idea of an Egyptian led Pan-Arabism is certainly on the minds of at least some (and in the nightmares of others). As Lamis Andoni writes:

The Egyptian revolution, itself influenced by the Tunisian uprising, has resurrected a new sense of pan-Arabism based on the struggle for social justice and freedom. The overwhelming support for the Egyptian revolutionaries across the Arab world reflects a sense of unity in the rejection of tyrannical, or at least authoritarian, leaders, corruption and the rule of a small financial and political elite.

Arab protests in solidarity with the Egyptian people also suggest that there is a strong yearning for the revival of Egypt as a pan-Arab unifier and leader. Photographs of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former Egyptian president, have been raised in Cairo and across Arab capitals by people who were not even alive when Nasser died in 1970. The scenes are reminiscent of those that swept Arab streets in the 1950s and 1960s.

Palestinians protest in support of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia:

Gaza celebrates news of Mubarak stepping down:

And in a village in Galilee, watchers of Al Jazeera broke out in “spontaneous praise of Allah’s and Google’s miraculous feats, in exchanges of congratulations and backslapping and in happy laughter”:

In two more minutes the sound of fireworks filled the village evening hush. I stepped out for a fuller appreciation of the event and heard the distant sound of fireworks from neighboring Palestinian villages and the beeping of horns in our streets. We rang the late guests and were told that they have been held up at the entrance to Arrabeh, our village, by the flood of cars on its main street. Minutes later another nephew of mine returned and described the seen in the main square of Arrabeh as being in full spontaneous celebratory mode. He likened the atmosphere to that of the day Iran beat the USA 1:0 in the World Cup football tournament. Toufiq called to congratulate and to cancel our picnic. Al-Jazeera ran a steady listing of Arab capitals where the jubilant crowds broke out in celebration of Egypt’s historic achievement. Another nephew sent an MSN message that said: “Crowds pored out in the streets of Arrabeh.” But Al-Jazeera didn’t show it. Ali, a retired teacher from Arrabeh who happened to land in Cairo’s Independence Square on January 25 and whose Journalist son was detained overnight by the Egyptian police, jokingly took credit for “stirring things up there.” Then he added: “I am off to Amman tomorrow.” I told Toufiq over coffee this morning: “This is the most pan-Arab solidarity I have seen since 1970 when we walked in the funeral procession for Jamal Abdul Nasser.”

“But this is different,” he said. “This sets a precedence.” Then in a low conspiratorial voice he confided: “Mark my word: The day will come when scores of millions of young people from the Middle East and Europe will march peacefully as one man on Israel and Palestine and force freedom and civility on us. We have to start preparing to meet them at the borders. It may require another Mjaddara picnic for the current bosses. Who knows?”

(Worth noting: the Palestinian Authority has worked to suppress Palestinian protests in solidarity with Egypt)

In Algeria, thousands of protesters faced off against many more thousands of police who had created a defensive ring around the capital.

Al Jazeera reports that

“2,000 protestors were able to overcome a security cordon enforced around the capital’s May First Square, joining other demonstrators calling for reform…Protesters are demanding greater democratic freedoms, a change of government, and more jobs.

Earlier, police also charged at demonstrators and arrested 10 people outside the Algiers offices of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), as they celebrated Mubarak’s downfall, Said Sadi, RCD leader, told AFP news agency. “It wasn’t even an organised demonstration. It was spontaneous. It was an explosion of joy,” he said.

More video. And a ton of media collated here. Washington Post reports that more than 400 people were arrested (I’ve heard much higher figures) and that 28,000 security forces were deployed to disperse crowds. Here we have a picture — interestingly — of female police arresting a female protester (while male security people in the background arrest males); they’re trying to avoid inflammatory images, I’m sure:

The Moor Next Door will be your source for commentary on what’s happening in Algeria; his modestly titled “Incomplete thoughts on the Algerian Situation” and “More Incomplete Thoughts on the Algerian Situation” are highly informative, and “incomplete” only in the sense that the present tense always is. Highly recommended. And just because, here’s an aggregation of a series of his tweets from the last few hours (along with his retweets of other people; so very postmodern):

Algerian authoritarianism more smoothly mixes Arab & Eastern Bloc techniques than Egypt, Tunis. We must understand the lessons of Egypt and Tunisia but we must also read our own. Failure to do so will lead to failure.

Likelihood of Tunisian/Egyptian success is low but it will erode the regime’s ability to continue as is. If it continues or escalates the regime won’t be overthrown but will be forced to make concessions. How much loss can Regime recover: 100, 500, 1000 Algerians? Then convince the eyes of the world we’re killing each other AGAIN?

So far, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to lift Algeria’s 19-year long state of emergency and cut the cost of some commodities.


Yemen is another hot spot, where those of us who have been focused on Egypt will hear some familiar slogans and names:

“Government supporters armed with traditional knives and batons broke up a pro-democracy march on Saturday by 2,000 Yemenis…Some 300 anti-government student demonstrators assembled at Sanaa University on Saturday morning. As numbers swelled into the thousands, they began marching towards the Egyptian embassy. “The people want the fall of the government,” protesters chanted. “A Yemeni revolution after the Egyptian revolution.” But a group of government supporters armed with knives and sticks confronted the protesters at the central Tahrir Square. Scuffles broke out and the pro-government activists used traditional knives and batons to force the anti-government protesters to flee.

Yemen’s President (for the last three decades) Ali Abdullah Saleh has made some familiar concessions, vowing not to extend his presidency after his term expires (in 2013), not to pass government reins on to his son, and promising to make some important concessions of electoral procedure.

Via the Angry Arab, this first-hand account gives a lot more details about Friday’s  (more spontaneous) protest, the one seen above, set the stage for Saturday’s:

“Responding to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down, independent Yemeni activists in the capital city of San’a called for a candle light vigil to celebrate the events. By 8:30 in the evening hundreds of Yemeni students, academics, activists and citizens gathered in front of the new university. It was very spontaneous. One activist told another activist ‘why dont you have a celebratory candle vigil for Egypt?” some phone calls were made and people gathered quickly. The timing was right in terms of the qat chewing cycle. People had been home chewing and talking and watching al Jazeera for hours. Soon their numbers grew to the thousands. People chanted in support of Egypt. Chants included:  “The Egyptian people brought down Mubarak”  “Long live the Egyptian people” “Revolution until victory”  “One thousand greetings to al Jazeera” and other chants for Egypt which soon became chants focusing on the Yemeni regime such as: “yesterday Tunisia, today Egypt, tomorrow Yemen will open the prison”  “down with the regime”  “the people want the regime to collapse” “revolution oh Yemen from San’a to Aden” “the Yemeni people is fed up with Ali Abdallah Salih”  They decided to march to the Egyptian embassy. It took an hour and as they marched their numbers grew to the thousands. They marched past neighborhoods and were cheered by onlookers. They were eventually met by soldiers guarding the Yemeni embassy and they turned around and gathered in San’a’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

By about 10:30 pm several trucks full of heavily armed soldiers began to arrive but until then the demonstration had been peaceful. At least ten army trucks carrying dozens of men in civilian clothing who are likely members of the Yemeni security forces arrived as did many security force pick up trucks and jeeps. Hundreds and hundreds of men in civilian attire carrying sticks, knives as well as automatic weapons arrived carrying pictures of President Saleh. They attacked some demonstrators with knives and sticks and at this the majority of the anti-regime demonstrators dispersed. Hundreds of uniformed members of the Yemeni security forces were present facilitating the arrival of those chanting support for Saleh. The security forces also closed off the roads in the area of Tahrir square, allowing only pro regime demonstrators in who came running with signs, sticks, knives and automatic weapons.

The remaining few hundred anti regime demonstrators lasted for a while with a few dozen of them sitting on the street. There was some pushing back and forth as the columns of pro and anti regime demonstrators met, and some water bottles thrown back and forth. But dozens of police in riot gear separated the two sides. Anti regime demonstrators burned pictures of Saleh. They shouted at the pro regime demonstrators “army wearing civilian clothes!”  Pro regime demonstrators shouted “with our spirits with our blood we sacrifice for you oh Ali!”  Anti regime demonstrators responded by chanting “oh oh leave oh Ali” and “oh god oh god down with Ali Abdallah” Demonstrators on both sides danced and sang.   Then hundreds more pro regime demonstrators charged them and pushed them forcing them all to flee. This happened under the eyes of the chief of security for the area, hundreds of various security forces and the general secretary for San’a, Amin Jum’an. In the end thousands of pro regime demonstrators had occupied the square singing, banging on drums and dancing. At least ten anti regime demonstrators had been arrested.  Demonstrations were more violently suppressed in Aden and there were said to be over ten thousand demonstrators in the central town of Ta’iz.”

In Jordan, weekly Friday demonstrations (like this one from January 28th) have been going on for some time:

And have already borne some fruit; King Abdullah II sacked his cabinet on February 1st in response. Ziad Abu-Rish, however, describes some of the particularities of Jordan’s situation:

Jordan shares many of the structural features and governing practices that have inspired the mass mobilizations in both Egypt and Tunisia. These are primarily authoritarian systems of rule that offer little in the way of accountability and civil liberties as well as a neoliberal economic development strategy that has disempowered the average citizen vis-à-vis meeting her basic needs. However, whereas demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia have been focused on regime change, protests in Jordan over the past four weeks have called for changes in the government (which is appointed by the regime) as well as serious (as opposed to cosmetic) reforms that would fundamentally address the political and economic problems facing Jordanian society.

…there has been an effective rhetorical separation between the Monarchy (i.e., the regime) and the government (i.e., the royally-appointed Cabinet). In other words, political discourse in Jordan has represented contemporary politics (whether the government, the formal opposition, or any of the state institutions) in the Kingdom as separate from the role of the Monarchy. This is partly a function of the legitimacy of the Monarchy [which is different than that of the “republican” regimes of Egypt and Tunisia; the Hashemite dynasty claims descent through the Prophet Mohammad as well as the leading role in the “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Empire]. It is also a function of the fact that law and violence have enforced this separation. Equally important, the Monarchy has in many ways set itself up as the vanguard of reform in the Kingdom, claiming to both plot the course of reform and manage its dangers. Barring some type of radicalization of the public, this separation and the legal violence that underpins it has had a real effect on the nature of political demands being advanced…One of the difficulties in gauging public perception of the King is that various forms of political speech, especially those concerning the Monarchy, continue to be criminalized. Thus, it is literally impossible to speak freely of the King. Feelings about the King and the Monarchy are probably much more complex than a dichotomy between unwavering loyalty and calls for its abolition offer. However, it is impossible to grasp this complexity absent the necessary conditions to protect the rights of people to freely express their position on the issue.

[In addition] the dynamic of top-down regime-managed political reform has offered several controlled outlets for public frustration (e.g., organized demonstrations, new media forums, parliamentary elections) while maintaining the concentration of power in both the polity and the economy. This strategy has sometimes responded to public demands (e.g., the sacking of the Cabinet of Samir al-Rifa’i) while at others has pre-empted them (e.g., calling for national consensus on a new election law). Thus, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the “reform game” is still playing itself out in Jordan.

In Morocco (above), daily protests have been ongoing for some weeks and there is, apparently, a big one scheduled for February 20th. But as Gretchen Head noted, Morocco isn’t Egypt:

One of the fundamental things that has been consistently ignored as Morocco is included in Tunisia’s and Egypt’s ranks is the populace’s view of its own government’s legitimacy, considerably more complicated than the Tunisian or Egyptian examples, both of which were/are characterized by the complete lack thereof. The Alaouite dynasty, however, stretches back to 1631 and claims descent through the Prophet, specifically through his daughter Fatima al-Zahra and her husband, ‘Ali, the fourth Caliph. The current king’s grandfather Muhammad V was not only the hero of the independence struggle — a figure who had defied the French, was exiled to Madagascar as a result, and who staged a triumphant return — he was, additionally, the amir al-mu’minin, or commander of the faithful. Muhammad VI holds the same title, and the dual role of political and religious authority, which is the characteristic feature of the Moroccan monarchy, continues to carry resonance with the population at large. In short, Ben Ali and Mubarak were/are reviled by the people whom they govern/ed; significantly, in Morocco, even among those who want reform, Muhammad VI is not.

In Kuwait and Bahrain, rulers are distributing cake for the masses to soften protests:

The ruler of Kuwait has announced the distribution of $4bn and free food for 14 months to all citizens, although his country is not facing any protests. Each of the 1.12 million native citizens will get $3,572 in cash as well as free essential food items until March 31, 2012, Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah was reported to have said.

Bahrain’s king has decided to give $2,650 to each family on the Gulf island, the latest step the Sunni rulers have taken to appease the majority Shia public before protests planned for next week. Although most analysts do not see any immediate risk of revolt, the kingdom is considered the most vulnerable to unrest among Gulf Arab countries.

Bahrain reportedly has protests scheduled for next week, though it’s hard to find much about it.

But, as “Kholud” writes pseudononymously from Saudi Arabia:

…not all Arabs are rejoicing on the streets. In Saudi Arabia, most celebrated in the comfort of their homes, where they would not get in “trouble.” So we did the same and went to a friend’s house party instead. Um Kulthum’s “Lil Sabr Hdud” (Patience has its limits) was blaring from huge speakers. Women and men were dancing, hugging, smiling. Many were still crying tears of relief, of disbelief. Some were even tapping their forefinger at the bend of their elbows, like heroin junkies, to show that Arabs still have a pulse, that yes, despite it all, we are still alive. That despite it all, we crave more of the victories that the Egyptians and Tunisians have reminded us we are capable of. And yet, despite it all, I returned home alone with an overwhelming sense of defeat, hoping that some live footage of Arabs celebrating outside of Saudi Arabia would cheer me up, remind me how momentous this night is. And sure enough, it did, and I started shedding tears of joy again. Until my partner in crime called me, relaying what an aide to the Saudi King had just asked him in surprise: “Really? You still have hope that anything will change here?”

(Tweets from Saudi Arabia)

And in Syria, the response to Egypt and Tunisia has been similarly muted; as AJE reports, “in addition to the repressive state apparatus, factors such as a relatively popular president and religious diversity make an uprising in the country unlikely”:

…people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt,” Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, says. “The groups who have mobilised in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price – Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in Hama.” The so-called Hama massacre, in which the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in 1982 in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, is believed to have killed about 20,000 people. “I think that in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something [protests] would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”

…Fawas Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says Syria is one of the Middle Eastern countries least likely to be hit by popular protests, because of its power structure. He says the allegiance of the army in Syria is different than in both Tunisia, where the military quickly became one of the main backers of the president’s ouster, and in Egypt, where the army still has not taken sides. “The army in Syria is the power structure,” he says. “The armed forces would fight to an end. It would be a bloodbath, literally, because the army would fight to protect not only the institution of the army but the regime itself, because the army and the regime is one and the same.”

[Moreover] even if people dared to challenge the army and the dreaded mukhabarat intelligence service, analysts say the appetite for change of the country’s leadership is not that big. Many Syrians tend to support Bashar al-Assad, the president who came to power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled the country for 30 years. “An important factor is that he’s popular among young people,” Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of Syria Comment, says. “Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who’s 83, Bashar al-Assad is young. Young people are quite proud of him. They may not like the regime, they don’t like corruption and a lot of things, but they tend to blame this on the people around him, the ‘old guard’.”

But as Houry puts it:

“It will be interesting to watch how things are going to unfold over the coming few months,” he says. “The Syrians, like any other Arab household today, have their TVs turned on to Al Jazeera. They’re seeing what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt. Freedom is an infectious feeling and I think people will want more freedom.”

And finally, let’s dream for a minute:

(Global Voices on Gabon)

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