As capitalism in dire straits makes its grab for North Africa, we say end the destruction abroad and at home...
Sometimes foreign affairs impinge on our domestic scene so much that they warrant closer attention, especially as the “fog of war” obscures the real story. Workers are about to have standards of living further eroded amid rounds of cuts that are the worst for generations. At the same time, further bailouts – at our expense – loom and countries in our backyard have their economies downgraded to junk status.
So this declining capitalist system once again manages to find resources to embroil itself in yet another war with no clear exit. The expense is once again extracted from us – or, failing that, from the bank accounts Britain has confiscated from a sovereign nation. That’s why it is absolutely right to make the demand “Hands Off Libya”, to cease the bombing abroad and destruction at home. Instead we have the urgent task of rebuilding Britain.
The political parties are incapable of this and have marched to war almost unanimously in a cowardly and supine way. Acting, with France, as dogs of war for a USA which – for the moment – seems to be taking a back seat, Britain is deeply involved and hence our responsibility as workers to address the issue.
With the backing of the USA, a powerful effort is under way to assert control over the resources of Africa, the Near East and the Mediterranean. The United States Africa Command (Africom) – developing since the days of Bush – now surfaces as a force in the region. Britain and France follow, taking advantage of popular upheavals, in an attempt to reassert traditional spheres of influence.
The USA seems to be giving space for a trial run of a nascent European Defence Force, one that fractures as quickly as it coalesces. This is the latest guise of the old European Defence Community – set up as a result of the US Marshall Plan in the early 1950s to create a European army within NATO. Rejected by a combination of Gaullists, former partisans and the French Communist Party, it has now been revived by the British–French partnership within NATO in their attack on Libya.
So for us as workers it is not some distant conflict that can be easily ignored. British capitalism and that of several other European nations have had long and vital interests in Libya and the wider area - competing with each other as well as with newcomers like China (30,000 mainly oil and gas workers were evacuated as the current events unfolded). Nor is it just because it’s almost within sight of the popular resorts of Spain’s Costa del Sol (residents in Almeria are becoming familiar with the sound of attack jets speeding south east).
The carving up of north Africa was very much a British Empire activity. In the wider area Britain saw bloody action in 19th century war on Sudan, bombing (including chemical munitions) in Iraq in the 1920s, the attempt (again with France) to seize Egypt’s Suez Canal in 1956, regime change in Persia and the seizure of its oil resources in the 1950s, the British-engineered Balfour Declaration of 1917 and its occupation of Palestine.
These are just a few of many chapters of our nation’s deep involvement in the strategic control of the region and acquisition of its wealth.
Following the days of creating nations and kings by drawing lines on maps, the era of national liberation struggles was countered by a clandestine neo-colonialism. Newly independent states throughout Africa lived with the threat of being undermined, controlled by placemen, financed by British capital and what is called “aid”. Countries were sucked dry, ensuring mineral rights and strategic footholds.
Countering the Soviet Union
In the post-Second World War decades this was all part, too, of countering the influence of the Soviet Union. The independent-minded were sidelined, ridiculed or assassinated. Nasser and his version of socialism had to be smashed, coups organised, dictators lavishly praised. For decades the Edinburgh-educated, and member of the Church of Scotland Hastings Banda ruled Malawi with an iron fist.
Now evangelists, celebrities and the Scottish Parliament continue the old colonial connections in a seemingly benign cloak. And at the heart of Africa millions have perished in a war without end in Congo, in the scramble for diamonds and rare minerals such as coltan – essential for new technology and other science applications. No headlines about that and no intervention contemplated; capitalism is already involved in that scramble.
It is further north that a big leap forward for Britain’s entanglement with the region has taken place. Cameron took full advantage of the chaos in Egypt to parachute into Tahrir Square with his team of travelling arms salesmen. His – and the other parties’ – support of the repression in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia (as well as Saudi military intervention in Bahrain) totally contradicts their calls for regime change and democracy in nations they dislike. These just happen to be those independent-minded nations that have avoided the US government’s Africom or European Union one-sided trade deals.
For Britain, two ends of the African scenario are now seen to be linking up. The current legal action for compensation for British atrocities during the Mau Mau rebellion over 50 years ago has exposed the role of the same torturers and agencies at work both in Kenya then and in Bahrain during recent decades right up to the present conflict.
Among those freed in a temporary lull in the revolt there last month were several who testified to Britain’s role in “extreme systematic torture” – even citing the long term role of retired British advisers with a record in that repression in Kenya (see Historic Notes, page 15). It was Britain that imposed the al-Khalifa regime on the people of Bahrain and which has benefited from its divide-and-rule tactics ever since.
It is no accident that the USA and its European allies have taken full advantage of the wave of popular revolt to attempt regime change against those independent minded states who have remained resolutely outside their control. They have noted that Syria under Assad is probably the most secular place in the Middle East. In a 1996 memo titled “Clean Break” given to incoming Israeli premier Netanyahu, the USA depicted an overthrowing of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as a crucial step in a larger strategy having as one of its main goals to destabilise Syria.
Libya itself has a similar record of being resistant to Islamism. Whatever one thinks about Gaddafi’s Green Book, suspect accusations over the Lockerbie bombing or deals in the desert with Blair, that nation has a resolve to maintain its own integrity, free of imperial control. It has a social infrastructure to match, especially in medical care, equality of education and distribution of resources; its underground water system is a feat of engineering, and in the sights of European privateers. Its high quality oil is only a small factor in what is a strategic battle to fully control the Mediterranean arena.
Exactly 100 years ago the first bombing raids in the history of warfare were inflicted on Libya by its colonial power Italy. The struggle for independence became guerrilla war in the 1920s and was joined by the future King, Idris. By the early 1940s he was able to bring the Cyrenaican nationalists (i.e. in the Benghazi area) onto the Allied side in the fight against Nazi Germany.
It was with Britain’s backing that the Idris monarchy was set up in 1949, firstly in Cyrenaica, then incorporating the Tripoli area and a third region, Fezzan. These are the regions the attacking powers now seek to emphasise as a prelude to splitting, or “Balkanising” the country. On independence in 1951, Idris became king of the whole of Libya. He maintained close ties with Britain and the US even after the Suez invasion.
Setting up such manufactured kingdoms became a hallmark of the end of direct colonial control, with results very much in evidence in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain today. No intervention is proposed there, with Britain, France or the US hardly commenting on brutal repression carried out with their collaboration and arms sales.
Gaddafi’s timely coup in 1969 prevented a monarchic succession and a republic was proclaimed. It has been the Idris portrait and royal flag that have been widely seen among the current opposition in Benghazi and further afield. If there were idealistic youth among the rebels, they have accepted a poisoned chalice in the form of NATO bombing, military advisers and privatised armies and a London office hosted by David Cameron.
If a parallel with British history was drawn it would be with the futile attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie to restore the feudal, Catholic monarchy in 1745. Even then, France was in there, meddling – but for bad weather French troops might have landed in Scotland.
A Mediterranean Union?
During his election campaign French president Sarkozy called for the establishment of a Mediterranean Union, a project supported by Israel. Libya is a big obstacle to such dreams of reviving French influence in north Africa – and its Mirage jets were the first to bomb, closely followed by British planes and including the new Brimstone missiles. These are suspected of being depleted uranium munitions, thus spreading poison in Libya for years to come.
Nor is it an accident that some of the same forces that Reagan, elder George Bush and Clinton harnessed with NATO to fight Soviet influence and a socialist government in Afghanistan, to counter workers’ and Soviet influence in Egypt and the wider middle east and to arm Kosovo during the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, are again surfacing. These are the very Bin Ladenesque Islamist elements today’s US and European governments claim to be opposing.
With the eager help of their client Saudi Arabia (in receipt of billions of pounds worth of British and other armaments) and the deceptively benign royalty of Qatar (complete with attack jets and their mouthpiece Al Jazeera), Syria and Libya are feeling the brunt of these mercenaries. After a bloody struggle, Syria seems now to be holding out in the face of British, US and Saudi attempts at regime change. The courting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – from the days of the elder George Bush – now surfaces as a useful tool in the new political landscape of that country.
Libya may be a small country but the implications are wide ranging. There is growing opposition around the world to this aggression – Cuba, Venezuela and South Africa are among many who have spoken out. As the civilian death toll mounts, Italy has put into question the use of its air bases and its role in the naval embargo on Libya, calling for a suspension of hostilities in Libya on 22 June in the latest sign of dissent within NATO.
And following a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a conference was called in May in Moscow by Brazil, India, China and Russia, amid second thoughts about their original support for the UN resolution which has given NATO an open door to attack a sovereign country. Taken together with increased India–Iran cooperation, such moves may begin to point to the end of US–European dominance in the Middle East and the wider African arena; other lessons from history may point to greater conflict to come. ■