March 15, 2011

Arcs of Revolution and Reaction (Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia)


At the moment it’s looking bad in Bahrain and Libya. Although the force of freedom is undeniably on the rise, as demonstrated by this great wave of rebellions, this may be a long, ponderous curve. In the meantime, the forces of reaction are retrenching.
In Libya, Gaddafi’s counteroffensive is gradually engulfing the country, crawling eastward toward the rebel stronghold at Benghazi. Yesterday loyalist jets bombed the transportation hub at Ajdabiya, which the rebels call the last line of defense. From there the roads to Benghazi and Tobruk are wide open. “We will defend it”, vowed a rebel commander.
Meanwhile there are dueling reports over the disposition of the oil town of Brega. The rebels had held it, regimists retook it, then the rebels claimed they captured it back. As of now (Tuesday morning EST) both sides are claiming to hold it.
It seems like in the initial confusion and exhilaration of the uprising, it was difficult for Gaddafi to know which forces were reliable, and it simply took time for generals loyal to him to muster the forces they could vouch for and then launch a coordinated counteroffensive. Unfortunately, it now looks like the initial rebel surge was illusory. It didn’t reflect the balance of real forces. Right now the best we might be able to hope for is if the rebels can hold in the East, providing the basis for a future resumption of the drive to overthrow the regime. If they’re driven out of Benghazi, a bloodbath is likely to follow, and it’s hard to see where the fugitives can go from there.
(The notion of a no-fly zone seems pointless by now. Gaddafi will win or lose on the ground. It’s long been clear that his use of aircraft is more for harassment and terror value than any real military effect it may have. He doesn’t seem to have enough jets to use them for more than this. Although I suppose it’s also possible that he’s been restrained by the threat of a no-fly.
So the whole debate over whether or not getting help from the neoliberal system was worth the risk to the political integrity of a successful rebellion looks moot in this case. A no fly zone by itself couldn’t make the difference in whether the rebellion succeeds or fails, and I think we all agree that ground troops would merely replicate the tyrannical experience of Afghanistan and Iraq.
But through all this I’ve basically held the same position, that if a rebellion:
1. Can possibly get limited help from the West, and
2. Such help looks like it would be necessary make the difference between success or failure,
then it may be worth the risk of asking for such limited assistance as a no fly zone.
As I said, it looks like in this case a no fly zone would fail to meet at least the second condition, so it’s not worth risking.)
Libya is the relatively less important front. The revolt in Bahrain (and signs of it in Saudi Arabia itself) hits closer to the heart of the world’s power structure. Bahrain, like the UAE and Kuwait, is a post-modern City of the Plain. It’s a Persian Gulf banking center, a hedonist paradise for the corporate jet set, and home to the US Fifth Fleet, front line enforcers of the Carter Doctine, linchpin of neocon strategy. It’s a primary Saudi proxy.
The unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is largely along sectarian lines, with the economically and politically disadvantaged Shiites (large majority in Bahrain, significant minority in Arabia, concentrated in the oil-important eastern provinces) opposing Sunni-dominated regimes. Counter to this US –> Saudi –> Sodom-Bahrain hierarchy, Iran seeks regional hegemony and sees all restive Shiites as clients. They in turn must thread the same needle of using Iranian help without coming under its thumb.
I’m not sure to what extent these protestors are dedicated to economic and political demands independent of their sectarian interest. There’s been some labor unrest in Saudi Arabia where the workers made purely economic demands. But such demonstrations have been sporadic and minor. Meanwhile last Friday’s intended Day of Rage fizzled out on account of a proactive Saudi security deployment.
But the Bahrain uprising flared up to new heights on Sunday, as protestors defied riot police and Sunni mobs to lay siege to the capital’s financial center. This is a direct assault on at least a symbol of the neoliberal order in the Gulf. The Saudi regime again took action. At the “request” of Bahrain, redolent of Cold War Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, Saudi forces crossed the causeway to deploy across the country. UAE troops were also said to be on the way. Regime hardliners are calling for martial law under this “foreign” force.
This stick has been raised even as the regime is pretending to negotiate with some of the protestors. There seems to be some division among the Shiites, between a democratic group which wants to overthrow the regime and a conciliationist group willing to “negotiate”, that is beg for some crumbs (and cushy positions for its own leadership, no doubt).
If the GCC is determined to impose martial law (de jure or just de facto) in Bahrain and anywhere else among the Gulf Gomorrahs where protest flares up, it’s hard to see what immediate response the people can have which could counteract it. I think the best thing to do would be to directly challenge the foreign thugs just as the Egyptians challenged the riot police. It’s one thing for Gaddafi to open fire in Libya. It’ll be harder for the direct proxies of the US to invade and open fire in the West’s own pleasure cities. Not that I think it’s unlikely they’ll try to do it. But we already saw Bahrain’s own police back down after their initial recourse to savagery was met with defiance. The consistent lesson everywhere seems to be: Stand up and keep fighting back, even in the face of open state violence.
I’ll close today where this all began a few months ago. The Tunisian Revolution continues to develop, continues to make gains. The people’s continued bottom up pressure and continual resort to street demonstrations has forced out several generations of would-be Ben Ali successors. In the latest turnover, the provisional government has been forced to move up the timeline and enhance the scope of promised elections. The government had planned to hold only a presidential election in July. It now promises to hold an election on July 24 to elect a constituent assembly which will write a new constitution. Interim president Fouad Mebazza says a “special electoral system” will run the election. Existing dissident or pseudo-dissident parties expect to do well in this new election. There’s no word on the status of the existing parliament, where Ben Ali’s cadres still numerically dominate. It sounds like that body is superannuated and should be bypassed completely. (Much like my view of how a new constitutional convention here in the US should try to bypass the articles of the main body of the document.)
So there’s the state of things around the revolutionary rim, as I see them. It’s a perilous moment, and there’s an excellent chance we’ll be seeing temporary, perhaps ugly setbacks. But these setbacks are ephemeral in the great movement of history. There’s no doubt that the rising, vibrant force is one which liberates. This is the force of democracy, rising from the heart of the people. No matter what temporary forms it takes, and whatever temporary detours it may have to make, there’s no doubt about the reality of the people’s sovereignty. The modern revolution in all its economic and political aspects finally awoke this human latency and nurtured it to maturity. All of history was an evolution toward this awakening.
Many mistook the economic forces and forms as the real genius of the age, and in my lowest moods I too still lapse into such fears. But in fact these forms were just epiphenomenal. The true genius of the age is democracy. I often mention how all of today’s trend lines point toward feudalism. But these are only the shortest, most proximate lines, a mere fleck of turbulence amid the far vaster current. The real arc of history leans toward democracy, as all the long-term historical evidence demonstrates. That means it also leans toward justice, as MLK said, quoting abolitionist Theodore Parker.
It’s one of history’s great ironies that this newest green shoot of the democratic imperative is sprouting in the heart of the great classical source of oil. Oil has been the driver of all the modern economic forms, the forms so hyped or feared as having been the End of History. From that point of view, Peak Oil has also often been depicted as the end of history.
But Peak Oil is really just the logical exhaustion of what was always a temporary, epiphenomenal form. It isn’t the end of anything affirmative, but the clearing away of an obstacle to democracy’s further development. Democracy shall now reach maturity, and we the people shall take adult responsibility for ourselves. It’s time to remove the training wheels, which are completely rusted anyway.


  1. At my lowest moments I fear Islamofascism taking over in these countries. That troubles me – if only for what it means for the women.

    Comment by Johnny D. — March 15, 2011 @ 6:53 am

    • Hi, JD.

      I worry about that too. It’s just like with past anti-colonial movements: As a rule they’d prefer to follow the path of the American Revolution, but it’s the US itself which does all it can to prevent that by force. So they end up driven into the ideology and practice of other anti-democratic movements, like state communism back then, Islamic fundamentalism today.

      And yet even with such repression and provocation today, most people in the Middle East still would prefer to reject fundamentalism. They’d prefer to have the US and its stooges OUT so they can follow their own natural paths. But the neoliberal structure, if it can’t triumph outright, would much rather see “Islamofascism” triumph and get to wage permanent war with it instead of relinquishing all corporate interest in a place where it has absolutely no real interest or right.

      I think the best thing the US can do for the people of these countries is to Get Out. Even the rare times it may have a partial intent to do good, it only destroys everything it touches. That goes for the women as well, who are not doing very well under the US stooge regimes anyway. They were actually better off from the point of view of being women under Saddam than they are today in Iraq.

      And what could be more fundamentalist than the Saudi religious police who once literally drove fleeing women back into a burning building to perish because they were trying to flee without having first donned the proper clothing for being out in public? That’s the US’s own order there. It’s also bad for women under the Karzai regime.

      It looks like women’s position in the Middle East is going to difficult in the short run no matter what happens.

      But here, as in other cases, I think the shortest path to freedom is democratic evolution, and that has no chance under these stooge regimes. We know that the main thing propping up the otherwise unpopular Islamic extremism is the anti-US reaction. So wouldn’t the long term best bet for women’s causes and other political reforms be an end to the US proxy regimes?

      Comment by Russ — March 15, 2011 @ 8:24 am

    • Thanks, Johnny D.!

      Comment by Lidia — March 16, 2011 @ 11:27 am

      • You’re certainly welcome!

        Comment by Johnny D. — March 16, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

  2. I can’t say that women in Iraq are worse off, though I do place great value on your word. We both agree that we (U.S.) need to get out of all those places. Thanks for the thoughtful answer, Russ.

    Comment by Johnny D. — March 15, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    • I’m not an expert on the issue, but I’ve often read (and not just on the blogs, but in the pro-invasion MSM as well) that under Saddam women (at least Sunnis) had more social freedom and economic opportunity than under subsequent regimes. It’s not official policy, but the stooge regimes let fundamentalists push people around. I’ve read similar stories about, for example, liquor stores being shut down by fundamentalist vigilantes.

      I guess the regime figures it has enough trouble with real insurgents, without also interfering with self-appointed social enforcers. They probably consider it a safety valve, like the way school administrations usually tacitly approve of bullying.

      Comment by Russ — March 15, 2011 @ 11:49 am

  3. State of emergency declared. (For “three weeks”.)


    Comment by Russ — March 15, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  4. What’s your assessment of the risk that the Saudi deployment in Bahrain aggravates Sunni-Shi’ite conflict regionally? My concern is that a violent repression of Bahraini Shi’ites by Saudi Sunnis could incite sectarian conflict in other countries in the Arab Middle East.

    Comment by Ross — March 15, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

    • Yes, it seems bound to both increase the level of bottom-up conflict as well as Iran’s will to try to coordinate Shia resentments under the umbrella of its own interests.

      The link in the post, while not particularly interested in the spontaneous aspect of the issue (Stratfor is very much an elitist-oriented outfit), goes into Iran’s likely mindset in depth.

      Comment by Russ — March 15, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

  5. so Johnny D is a democratic universalist which itself is a bigotted “late Western” attitude.
    Islamic culture is an independent entity and has a right to develop along its own independent lines as per gender and every other issue.

    Comment by Ken Hoop — March 15, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    • I agree it needs to develop along its own lines, and the evidence is that here as everywhere else the people want to rule themselves, not be ruled by fundamentalists. That’s what I mean when I refer to history’s democratic wave, and I think Johnny D agrees, although he can speak for himself.

      I know he doesn’t support the Bush/Obama concept of “democracy”.

      The evidence is that Muslims don’t want to be ruled by homegrown Muslin fundamentalists any more than they want to be ruled by Christian fundamentalists from the other side of the globe.

      Comment by Russ — March 15, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

    • “Islamic culture” has no rights whatsoever. Only people have rights. If “Islamic culture” refuses to recognize the natural rights of women it is illegitimate.

      Comment by reslez — March 15, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

      • An excellent point, Res, and one I looked right past. I was taken in by Hoop’s choosing to attack my post rather than respond to Russ’ excellent blog.

        Comment by Johnny D. — March 16, 2011 @ 7:15 am

      • Thanks, Russ and reslez.

        Any man who is so ball-less as to resort to religious and cultural tradition as a shield to justify the abuse of women and children, merits nothing but our scorn and disgust.

        All women have good reason to fear the breakdown of social orders which, for all their clear faults, have allowed them some degree of agency and control over their own bodies and possessions.

        Fundamentalist males of all stripes cannot abide that state of affairs and are ready to drag us back to the Stone Age. As we can see by the current demonizing of Planned Parenthood and the Republican push to redefine rape(!!), they’ll continue to strive to keep women second-class citizens.

        Recall, folks, that as recently as the 1960s women in Texas were not even allowed to open their own bank accounts.

        Comment by Lidia — March 16, 2011 @ 11:25 am

      • In the US, that’s only going to keep getting worse if women keep thinking the Democratic party and liberal interest groups are going to protect their rights.

        For all of us, it’s a simple imperative:

        Enforce our own rights, or lose them.

        Comment by Russ — March 16, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

  6. Here’s my line of thought, Ken. If women want to walk behind men and wear veils, then they can have at it. If they wish to be freed from such things, they have my full support. I don’t wish to force my views on anyone. But thanks (not) for boxing me up and putting a lable on me.

    Comment by Johnny D. — March 15, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

    • Johnny D., we couldn’t even pass an ERA in the United States, so what hope do you think women in these places have on their own of changing their destiny?

      I’m not advocating the use of force on the part of the West (backfired in Iraq and an epic failure in Afghanistan, anyway). But don’t think that women who are enslaved have chosen their lot, because they have not.

      Comment by Lidia — March 16, 2011 @ 11:44 am

      • I can’t imagine people wanting to be enslaved either, Lidia, but I threw that into my statement so as to show Hoop that I’m not arrogant enough to speak in absolutes when discussing humanity. I can imagine, somewhere, somehow, some women like being muslim and submit to its laws out of love for their god.

        As hard as that is for me to comprehend, I can see it as possible.

        Anyhow, pleasure to make your acquaintance.

        Comment by Johnny D. — March 16, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

  7. Do the rebels have air power as well?


    Conflicting reports on the disposition of Ajdabiya, but it looks like Brega is back in the hands of the regime.


    Comment by Russ — March 16, 2011 @ 6:20 am

  8. Russ, some of your ideas are seeping into the mainstream (if this can be considered mainstream):


    While at present they are still awaiting the promised return of prosperity, at some point the newly homeless millions, like many of their predecessors in the 1930s, may well look at newly foreclosed, empty houses, unsaleable consumer goods, and stockpiled government foodstuffs and see the materials they need to sustain life. The simple taking and using of housing, food, and other goods, however, by breaking the rules of an economic system based on the exchange of goods for money, in itself implies a radically new mode of social existence.

    The social relation between employers and wage earners, one that joins mutual dependence to inherent conflict, has become basic to all the world’s nations. It will decisively shape the ways the future is experienced and responded to. No doubt, as in the past, workers will demand that industry or governments provide them with jobs, but if the former could profitably employ more people, they would already be doing so, while the latter are even now coming up against the limits of sovereign debt. As unemployment continues to expand, perhaps it will occur to workers with and without jobs that factories, offices, farms, schools, and other workplaces will still exist, even if they cannot be run profitably, and can be set into motion to produce goods and services that people need. Even if there are not enough jobs—paid employment, working for business or the state—there is plenty of work to be done if people organize production and distribution for themselves, outside the constraints of the business economy. This would mean, of course, constructing a new form of society.

    Capitalism has been around for so many generations now, proving its vitality by displacing or absorbing all other social systems around the globe, that it seems a part of nature, irreplaceable. But its historical limits are visible in its inability to meet the ecological challenges it has produced; to generate enough growth to profitably employ the billions of people accumulating in slums in Africa, South America, and Asia, along with growing numbers in Europe, Japan, and the United States; and to escape the dilemma of dependence on a degree of state participation in economic life that drains money from the private enterprise system. Just as the Great Recession has demonstrated the limits of the means set in place during the last 40 years to contain capitalism’s tendency to periodic disaster, it suggests the need finally to take seriously the idea, as the saying goes, that another world is possible.

    Comment by Lidia — March 16, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    • That’s excellent. It’s exactly the way we should look at it and what we should do.

      Comment by Russ — March 16, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

  9. actually I don’t oppose johnny d’s right to have any private opinion he wants to about women’s rights, as long as he (or any other) don’t air the opinion in such a way as to allow (purposely or not) the American Empire to attempt to enforce such lifestyles. not that the (fraudulent) attempt turned out well in Iraq. i have the same opinion about Code Pink’s undermining the left’s attempt such that it has been, to extricate the US from Afghan.

    Comment by Ken Hoop — March 16, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

    • These are all public opinions here. That’s what’s great about Internet democracy.

      In this case, I think you’re reading too much into a speculative comment. We can certainly oppose the war and demand its unequivocal end (including all carpetbaggers out) while still feeling and expressing sympathy for anyone who may in the short run be harmed by that. (Not that I assume anyone will be worse off for it even in the short run.)

      I think we can all agree about the confusion (at best) of corporate liberals on Afghanistan, just as on everything else.

      Comment by Russ — March 17, 2011 @ 6:54 am

  10. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/03/2011317645549498.html#

    Meanwhile, fighting is raging for the control of Ajdabiya, the gateway to Benghazi.

    A doctor told the AFP news agency that fighting was still going on in and around the town, which also guards the road to Tobruk and the Egyptian border in the rebel-held east.

    “We received four bodies today, all rebel fighters,” Abdelkarim Mohammed said, adding that 22 bodies, mainly civilians killed by artillery or air strikes, had been brought in on Tuesday.

    The battles raged as the United Nations Security Council planned to vote on Thursday on a draft resolution that would not only introduce a no-fly zone over Libya but may also authorise the use of air strikes to stop the advance of forces loyal to Gaddafi.

    I’ve been trying to get a sense of the magnitude of the fighting, and although the media keeps using terms like “battles raging”, the casualty figures make it sound more like chronic firefights with some sporadic, relatively minor action by aircraft and heavy weapons.

    Like I said in the post, I don’t know if Gaddafi’s holding back the machinery for fear that it would provoke a no fly zone, but at any rate it seems like the forces engaged on the ground (on either side) aren’t very large, by objective measures.

    Maybe that means the rebels have a low proportion of trained fighters, and/or that a lrge number of people who have such training are trying to stay out of the fight. That article also contains a quote from Gaddafi seeming to be calling for volunteers. Presumably he doesn’t mean Mubarak-type mobs, so it may refer to a pool of hitherto disengaged men with military training.

    Comment by Russ — March 17, 2011 @ 6:48 am

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