Contributed by Tasnim
Note: This post is in response to The price of Dignity in Libya by Roqayah Chamseddine. In an earlier post, Libya from a Libyan’s Perspective, I responded to Sarakenos’ post Libya in Perspective. This was before the military intervention in Libya.
The military intervention in Libya has divided the left into two camps, the pro-interventionists and the anti-imperialists who define it as a military assault equivalent to the war in Iraq. At the centre of this division is an apparent contradiction between supporting the people’s revolution against autocracy and an anti-imperialist stance which denounces western hypocrisy. As a Libyan, I reject this false contradiction. I see myself as an anti-imperialist, I denounce western double standards, and I supported the revolution and the intervention. I see no need to twist myself into an arguing position where I declare myself to be for the people’s revolution, but against the intervention that sustained it. That, to me, would be the contradiction.
The accusations levelled at the pro-interventionists include naivety, hypocrisy, and selling their soul (and dignity) to the devil. The rhetorical questions fly: How can you believe this is a humanitarian intervention? Who bolstered Gaddafi? How about Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine? Afghanistan, Iraq, see what they did there? Rwanda, see what they didn’t do there? Do the three letters O-I-L mean anything to you?
The charge of naivety is popular, because proving you’re not naive can be difficult. I don’t speak for Libyans, but I can speak for myself and those I know, and we don’t need to be told that those intervening in Libya are acting in their own interests. None of us believe that this so-called humanitarian intervention is motivated solely by concern for human life. We know who rehabilitated Gaddafi. We watched Berlusconi kiss his hand and Clinton pose with his son Mutassim and Blair sit in his tent and announce a New Era, all when the brutality of the regime was being masked by the thinnest possible patina of change, the change of Saif’s western bought PR.
We also remember when Gaddafi was lionized by some in the left as an anti-imperialist Nasserite during the 70s and 80s, a time when people were hung in public and Libyans were poisoned against progressive ideas because of the brutality of the regime that pretended to espouse them. We remember when Gaddafi was the enemy of the west. We remember Operation El Dorado Canyon. We remember the collective punishment of sanctions as a whole nation was held responsible for Pan Am 103, only adding to the suffering of the most vulnerable. We remember when we were the pariah-state, and Libyans were the terrorists after the plutonium. We don’t need to be told that this intervention is, as one friend put it, mish ashan sawad eyona – not for the sake of our eyes. None of us are apolitical or naive, we haven’t had a chance to be. Yet all of us support the intervention.
To denounce Libyan pro-interventionist stances as naive is condescending, imperious and an insult to our knowledge of our own history. I find it amusing that self-declared anti-imperialists flourish Libya’s history in the face of Libyans who support the intervention, when some of them knew no more about Libya a couple of months ago than its location on the map. And that it was ruled by a madman.
Cross-examining the military intervention does not make me uncomfortable. I am aware of the need to be wary. I am aware that western countries could easily have looked the other way and continued benefiting from their deals with the Gaddafi regime, and I am aware that by intervening they are banking on new deals and new interests.
What saddens me is the morally bankrupt arguments made by those intent on justifying their anti-imperialist stance at all costs, to the extent they will mine neoconservative material and echo Gaddafi’s accusations to prove the “rebels” are Al Qaeda, or CIA. Some have justified the crackdown, using Gaddafi’s claims of secessionist movements, ignoring the fact that resistance is as strong in Misrata in the West as in Benghazi in the East. Some have gone further than that to deny Gaddafi’s atrocities took place. Others don’t even venture into this territory but still elect to wag their fingers at Libyans for submitting to imperialism. And when these arguments offend a Libyan, an anti-imperialist declares: “I relish in the fact that you are offended. I enjoy it.”
I find it a little counter-intuitive to deny atrocities took place to prove that atrocities will take place. Yet when I look at the arguments of those who oppose the intervention and the methods some of them resort to, I’m reminded why I made my decision. I need the reminder because it was not an easy decision to make. The morning I woke up to find a column of tanks a few kilometres outside Benghazi and wished for air-strikes to make them disappear, I asked myself whether it was only because I am Libyan. I imagined an alternate universe where the Arab League and the UN had made the same choices during the Gaza massacre. For me, it’s a no-brainer. Whether they called it a “no fly zone plus” or a “kinetic military action,” if it took out the jets and the tanks heading into town, I would have supported it, as long as those on the ground supported it.
I look to the cities that have been bombarded by Gaddafi’s forces for over a month – Misrata and Zintan and the western mountain area – and I see none of the intellectual arguments against intervention coming from them. So I support them. I support the opposition in every Arab country rising up, I am an activist for Palestine and against the War on Terror, and I support the Libyan uprising. In all cases, I take my cue from the people most affected, not from pundits.
The Libyans dreamed briefly about a revolution like the one in Tunisia or Egypt. One where we could go out and chant “silmiya.” Instead, we had to go from unarmed demonstrations faced with heavy calibre weapons to forming a civilian ragtag army, and then Gaddafi’s brigades sent that ragtag army into retreat. Our dreams were confronted with Gaddafi’s zenga zenga speech. We had to be realistic about our newborn revolution, because it was about to be “cleansed” off the face of the earth. So what should we have done? Sit on our hands and wait for death? Maybe we shouldn’t have carried weapons at all? After all, what right did Libyans have to decide to arm themselves when they were being torn literally into two? Clearly stoic pacifism would have softened Saif’s heart or increased Gaddafi’s mental capabilities.
We adjusted. That optimistic banner that read “No foreign intervention, the Libyan people can manage it alone,” was accompanied by requests for a no fly zone and support from the international community, with Libyans understanding it to mean that no one wanted full-scale ground forces and an occupation of Libya. That remains the position every Libyan I know believes in. We would have preferred Arab support, but apart from Qatar and the UAE, it didn’t happen. So what were our options? Those who opposed the intervention seem short on realistic alternatives.
The idea that the Libyans must allow their nascent revolution to be crushed by a brutal regime which has recently been bolstered by the west rather than accept western intervention in the hope for a better future – that idea seems to me to be based on an exasperatingly short memory. The west has it’s interests, the anti-imperialists warn. Just a few sentences prior, they will have pointed out that the west aided the Gaddafi regime. Clearly, those insidious interests did not magically appear with the disastrous imperialist intervention, and they won’t magically disappear after it.
The self-described anti-imperialist camp describe themselves as cynical, to further the argument that everyone else is a naive, western stooge. I would argue that a position which holds that you should let yourself fall into an abyss rather than accept any helping hand is a quintessentially idealist (and fatalist) one. I question their cynical credentials.
This is not a refutation of the anti-imperialist argument, because the “I’m for the revolution, against the imperialist war” stance can be a comfortable one. It’s principled and it’s consistent, because that’s what you always will be when you’re blind to your own contradictions.
What I want to bring attention to is the price. Not the price of dignity, because I would never question the dignity of any people fighting for their freedom, but the price of depicting the Libyans as sell-outs. I believe in Arab unity more than ever in this Arab Spring. I’ve seen it and shared it with my Tunisian and Egyptian friends, and I’m hoping to share it with every Arab I know. What poisons the revolution is not western interests – those are facts, they are on the ground and in play in every single country in the region. What poisons the revolution is division, and the rhetoric that fosters division.
Roqaya Chamseddine has criticized the pro-interventionists for emotive rhetoric. I find that slightly ironic, given her description of dignity as “a thin string being pulled two and fro, so close to snapping in two, you can hear the sound of screams as each fiber is lacerated.” If that is not emotive rhetoric, I don’t know what is. Chamseddine goes on to pose a series of emotive rhetorical questions, bloodied hands of empire, submission, bended knees and boot-shining included. She cites Omar Mukhtar, implying our ancestor would be turning over in his grave. She notes that he chose to be hanged rather than be a puppet. Taking this analogy to its logical conclusion, some Libyans criticized her for essentially recommending Libyans go hang. I’ll be charitable and take this appropriation of the Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar against the Libyan people as a warning not to be puppets. I hope she’ll be pleased we’re taking her sage advice.
We refuse to be puppets to a madman who has become a puppet to the west any longer. We will continue this struggle until we are rid of him, and as the Egyptians and the Tunisians have done before us, we’ll continue it after we are rid of him. Because this is a long journey we’ve embarked on. But as Omar Mokhtar said: “We are a people who don’t surrender. We are victorious, or we die.”
For additional information and perspective:Filed Under guest post, imperialism, Libya