Volatility

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.