Archive for March, 2011

Published on openDemocracy, 7 April 2011. This replaces an earlier draft published on this site.

In mid-February 2011, the protests which began the Libyan revolution seemed to demonstrate the unstoppable progress of people power. It seemed that even Gaddafi’s kleptocratic and personalised regime – which unlike Tunisia or Egypt never allowed space for civil society – might fall to the new mass-demonstration movement. By early April, after an exceptionally swift national and international military escalation, Libya has shown the limits of popular revolt against a regime which is prepared to use all the means at its disposal to prevent change.

Libya’s escalation to war was so swift that some have even blamed it  on the armed character of the popular movement. This interpretation misses the fact that the Libyan revolution began with Cairo-style peaceful protests, including in Tripoli itself, which the regime instantly met with violent repression, soon escalating to the use of the air-force to bomb opposition-held cities. The desperate plight of civilians in besieged Libyan towns is not the fault of provocative armed militants, but of a regime which will tolerate no loss of control.

I write this in Barcelona, not so far across the Mediterranean from Libya. Here it is impossible not to remember how, when Francisco Franco turned the Spanish army on the people in 1936, the democratic parties in this city and elsewhere improvised their own militia to defend the Republic; nor how in the subsequent war, Franco called in German planes to bomb the Basque city of Guernica. Spain famously became the great cause of the international left in the 1930s, for whom it was the shame of “the democracies” (Britain, France and the United States) that they did little to help.

The Libyan opposition has not even had the Spanish advantage of existing state institutions, parties and international legitimacy through which to organise their defence. Not surprisingly, the opposition seems chaotic and militarily unprepared; the role of former regime figures in the leadership also raises doubts about the opposition’s capacity to provide a better alternative. The Libyan opponents of Gaddafi have now, however, the advantage of military support from the same states that failed Spain all those years ago, reflecting the history of growing western and United Nations “humanitarian” intervention since the end of the cold war.

The balance-sheet of intervention

The practice of intervention has been uneven and – from the point of view of principles – inconsistent. The Bosnian people in the early 1990s, victims of Serbian nationalist aggression, saw little direct military intervention; the United Nations Protection Force was there, as its name suggested, to protect UN humanitarian relief rather than Bosnians. Only after the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 – when war on the ground was already moving against Serbia, and Bill Clinton was facing re-election – did Nato bomb Serbian positions. This was followed by the Dayton conference of November 1995 which ended the war but also obliged the Bosnians to accept the compromise partition of their country.

The victims of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 fared even worse, as the UN stalled intervention until hundreds of thousands were dead. The French – allies of the old Rwandan government whose forces carried out the killing – finally sent forces which saved génocidaires along with victims. In Iraq, the United States turned its back on the popular rebellion of 1991 at the end of the war over Kuwait before being forced (along with Britain and France) to intervene to protect Kurdish refugees; the invasion of 2003 it led was hardly undertaken for humanitarian reasons, and provoked many years of violence.

It was only over Kosovo in 1999 that Nato used decisive military force to end massacres and expulsions, again by Serbian forces (this time against ethnic Albanians); although this took place without the UN Security Council authorisation that was to be obtained for Libya. But in the classic case of “risk-transfer war“, Nato achieved the return of the Albanians to the homes exclusively by means of aerial bombardment; this cost the lives of hundreds of Serb and Albanian civilians while protecting its own military personnel, not one of whom died at Serbian hands.

In 2011, the popular movements in Bahrain and Yemen seem to be losers from the west’s and the UN’s inconsistencies. Both regimes are US clients, so despite their increasing violence and the correspondingly critical rhetoric of Hilary Clinton, they are unlikely to be on the receiving end of Libya-style intervention. The UN may have adopted the “responsibility to protect” as a norm, and there are echoes of it in Resolution 1973 which authorises the Libya intervention, but it is hardly likely that it will be consistently applied in a principled manner. The civilian victims of Ivory Coast’s conflict, to cite only one case, have had no such protection.

The Libyan case

Armed intervention is hardly a generally desirable outcome. No one can take satisfaction from the immolation of Libyan soldiers, who probably include conscripts as well as regime supporters. The fact that the United Nations and the west could find no other means than bombing to prevent Gaddafi’s counter-revolution succeeding is deeply depressing.

An earlier, bolder, non-military international series of initiatives to support the Libyan opposition and people might have averted this outcome. The shallowness of western leaders’ commitment to the anti-Gaddafi effort has been evident from the start (unsurprising, given the western rapprochement with Libya since 9/11 and the eagerness of western governments and companies to do business with the dictator). Nicholas Sarkozy’s gesture of recognition to the revolutionary council in Benghazi would have been more impressive if he had gone there himself (perhaps with Ban Ki-moon), to act as a kind of international human-shield against the Gaddafi onslaught.

Even in military terms, as Mary Kaldor has suggested, an international peacekeeping force on the ground would have been a more certain means of protecting civilians than bombing from the air. But Sarkozy, David Cameron and Barack Obama could think only of airpower, and waited until the regime had almost won before using even that.

The appeal of airpower is that, as over Kosovo, it carries minimal bodily risk for western military personnel – and so also minimal political risk for their leaders. In the Libyan case these motives mix with other considerations: the understandable reluctance of the Libyan opposition and the Arab League to see western troops on the ground, and suspicions among the Chinese and Russian of any such move in the Security Council. Airpower thus becomes the lowest-common-denominator solution.

The limitations of aerial bombing are evident too in the manner of the rescue of two US pilots forced to eject from their plane near opposition-held territory near Benghazi, When two 500-pound bombs were dropped to provide cover while helicopter-planes landed to pick up one of the crew, six Libyan villagers were injured. It is evident that the military’s first instinct was to bomb rather than to search on the ground in collaboration with local forces, even at cost to the civilians who were supposed to be protected. The deaths of around thirteen rebels near Ajdabiya on 7 April 2011 as a result of a Nato air-strike is a further example of the perils of this form of intervention.

It may be that popular Libyan support for the western operation may survive such incidents, as it did among Albanians in Kosovo; but they will damage the operation’s wider credibility, especially among Arabs and Muslims.

The way forward

The Libyan intervention is pervaded by contradiction. These western failings are in the end no reason to reject it, for in its absence the bloody triumph of the dictator was certain. For the same reason that an earlier left campaigned for solidarity with Spain, the internationally legitimate action against Gaddafi’s repression is justified in principle, and appears already to have produced important results.

The regime’s forces were in the early days of conflict on the brink of conquering Benghazi, the country’s second city and opposition capital, with potentially dire consequences for a large urban population. The opposition’s reported fear of the “genocide” of half a million people may have been overstated, but reprisals could well have echoed the notorious Abu Salim massacre in Benghazi’s prison in 1996. The memories of this event, as well more recent brutality in towns recaptured by Gaddafi, underlie the city’s role in the current revolt.

The intervention appears also to have protected – if not yet saved – the people of Misrata, Libya’s third city, from conquest; reports of the brutalities committed there by Gaddafi’s forces emphasise what is at stake. By any standards these are significant achievements which fall within the legitimate scope of the intervention concerning the protection of the threatened civilians. Moreover, the intervention has partially turned round the political situation, and kept alive some prospect (if not a swift one) of removing the Ghaddafi regime.

These achievements notwithstanding, it is clear that airpower is both insufficient to protect civilians and unlikely to achieve the latent goal of regime change. This implicit goal is hardly reprehensible, since (unlike Iraq) the west and the UN are supporting a popular revolution designed to achieve precisely that. Yet modern political power is primarily territorial, and it is only forces on the ground which can definitively end Gaddafi’s strangehold on Libya’s people.

The facts that the opposition is militarily weak and the west has foresworn ground intervention underpin the belief that a stalemate (reminiscent of the mid-period of the seventy-eight-day Kosovo war) is already emerging, with the west’s unwillingness to intervene on the ground making straightforward victory difficult.

There is also no obvious compromise, such as enabled Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw to Serbia and survive more than a year after his forces withdrew from Kosovo. Gaddafi has no border to retreat across, and none of his family will ever be acceptable to the opposition; Saif-al-Islam Ghaddafi’s apparent belief that he could supervise a transition seems pure fantasy.

Yet despite the militarisation of this revolution, and the understandable concerns of Paul Rogers and other analysts, it is not – yet – clear that this will prove a protracted war (see Paul Rogers, “Libya and Iraq: a long war’s risk“, 7 April 2011). Whatever their “tribal” origins, the Gaddafis are not the Taliban. Their power and wealth depend on control of urban systems (especially Tripoli) and modern extractive industries (which they have increasingly exercised in cooperation with western powers). They are unlikely to reinvent themselves as desert-warriors.

The outcome therefore must be considered in more than military terms. The big question is whether the new military situation will encourage the political disintegration of Gaddafism. This is mostly viewed in relation to   defections of senior officials from the regime, but a more important question is whether the weakening of the regime opens space for the popular opposition in Tripoli itself to re-emerge.

The opposition in Tripoli’s working-class suburbs, strong in the first weeks of the uprising, have gone underground in face of the repression. The Benghazi opposition clearly hopes for a virtuous reciprocal action between the military campaign and renewed peaceful action on the capital’s streets. That is far from certain: it is equally possible that (in the short term at least) the Gaddafis use the western intervention to reinforce their repression in there, citing the bombing as a rationale.

At some point, however, the stalemate will have to break. It should be recalled that the origins of the Libyan crisis lie in the Arab revolution of 2011. It is too early to dismiss the possibilities of change, even if the state of Libyan society and state after the depredations of Gaddafi’s four decades of rule may indeed mean a hard road ahead.


My take on the historic significance of the Arab revolutions on (written before the unfolding of the Libyan crisis).

The epic events across the Arab world in the first months of 2011, diverse and many-sided as they are, can be understood as a single episode: the latest phase in the worldwide democratic revolution which has been remaking the world since the 1980s.

The process that began in Tunisia in mid-December 2010 and led to the overthrow of the country’s president a month later, achieved a similar outcome in Egypt following over two weeks of mass mobilisations there, and has spread from Yemen in the east to Morocco in the west.

True, the very different experiences of Arab countries – including the continuing strife in Libya, the protests in Bahrain, and the elite concessions in Jordan and Saudi Arabia – underline how variegated the process is and how uncertain the precise outcome in each case. And it is too early to say whether the changes in Tunisia and Egypt (and the results elsewhere) will lead to the creation of recognisably democratic states, let alone what the regional and global impact of the events will be.

But everywhere, the unifying thread is opposition to authoritarianism and aspiration to democratic rule; and the sense of a psychological break with the dictatorial past is unmistakable.

The immense movement in Egypt in particular – the middle-east’s largest and most influential country – has opened the space for politics, in a way that has ramifications far beyond the region. It is notable in this respect that authoritarian regimes from Tehran to Beijing have curtailed access to information about the Egyptian and other dramas. Their fear is a tribute to the achievement of this “Arab awakening”, however provisional the achievement remains in practical terms.

Democracy and revolution

It is salutary to recall that even in 1960, parliamentary democracy was mostly confined to the core western societies of northwestern Europe, north America, and Australasia – though notably too in various southern countries (India, Sri Lanka, and Chile, for example).

In 1910, democracy was still fully to be established even in this core – there were limits in several places on universal male suffrage, and female suffrage still had to be fought for (with New Zealand and Australia pioneers in this regard). The struggle for democracy was intertwined with social campaigns by labour, women and (in India) for national independence. What is now taken for granted is a hard-won and historically recent achievement.

Moreover, the inter-war period saw grave setbacks for democracy, as Europe succumbed to fascist and Stalinist totalitarianism: only the Allied victory in the second world war “normalised” it once more in its northern heartlands. But the cold-war’s entrenchment in the late 1940s and 1950s made democratic outcomes the exception.

In eastern Europe, Soviet rule extinguished the seeds of pluralism that had briefly emerged in (for example) Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia; in Africa, military rule became the norm in several post-colonial independent states; in Asia, revolutions won via Mao Zedong’s “barrel of a gun” turned into dictatorships; in the middle east too, military coups installed authoritarian regimes, and monarchical states learned how to rely on force to secure their power. Everywhere outside the Soviet “sphere of influence”, the United States viewed dictatorships as pillars against communism.

The longer historical sweep of democracy’s evolution and setbacks also reveals that the modern experience of revolution has so often oscillated between democracy and dictatorship. France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Iran in 1979 – these are but the major landmarks of a familiar trajectory where spontaneous mass movements sparked by a democratic impulse  gradually fissured, polarised, and eventually captured by dictatorial tendencies.

The direction of travel here was systematised in the speeches and writings of Stalin and Mao (and indeed “theorised” by their intellectual bedfellows to give them a wider legitimacy), to an extent that the very idea of revolution seemed to contain within it an endorsement of violent and oppressive rule.

A different kind of revolution

Yet in parallel to the cold war’s larger story of superpower politics, a new kind of democratic revolution which consciously rejected the model and the temptations of authoritarian “capture” has also taken root. The popular upsurges in East Germany in 1953, and in Hungary and Poland in 1956, sought an end to dictatorship and to establish a political space of genuine freedom. In 1968, a reform process in Czechoslovakia mushroomed into a society-wide movement for change.

Also in 1968, student movements pioneered new ideas of participatory democracy which challenged the rigidities of western parliamentary systems as well as authoritarian regimes. The protests of that year reverberated across the cold-war world – from Washington, Berlin and Paris to Karachi, Tokyo and Mexico City. Their aftershocks were felt until at least the mid-1970s.

These movements were mostly unsuccessful in achieving fundamental political change. In the east, the Red Army was the ultimate bulwark of Stalinist order, with Moscow’s local factotums only too willing to keep tight order; in the west, the US could rely on an array of military-authoritarian rulers to obstruct change.

There was an exception to the pattern in southern Europe, where – in Portugal (after the revolution of 1974), Greece (after the military junta of 1967-74), and Spain (after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975) – a revived democracy was consolidated through integration into European institutions.

In the later stages of the cold war, movements emerged that anticipated the landslide to come. The discrediting of military rule in Latin America led to a wave of democratisation in the 1980s, even as vicious counterinsurgency wars were waged in the isthmus. The “people power” insurgency in the Philippines in 1986 that unseated Ferdinand Marcos was another harbinger. In 1980-81 in Poland, the Solidarity trade union had created a new model of mass mobilisation that sought to bypass rather than directly challenge the regime. It was crushed by the coup of December 1981, but was another of the seeds of great convulsion of 1989 that swept east-central Europe.

1989: a global shift begins

In a global perspective, 1989 is a double-sided moment: both a paradigmatic case of “people power” driving permanent political change, and (in China) of the violent reassertion of dictatorship. But it also anticipated further democratic upheavals, and thus became part of the wider historical unfolding of democracy of which the Arab world’s revolt is the latest example.

In that historic year, a serendipitous international conjuncture – democratic consolidation and integration in western Europe, Soviet reform under Mikhail Gorbachev (who crucially indicated that he would no longer use his military to block change in Moscow’s zone) – enabled the success of the “velvet” revolutions.

In this respect, it is right to emphasise the importance of “the pull of the west” in 1989, and that this “is weaker and more complex” in the case of Egypt. But the rejection of Soviet rule in 1989 was also the trigger of a wave of worldwide democratic upheavals in US-allied states in the first half of the 1990s – which notably removed long-standing authoritarian regimes in South Korea, South Africa, Indonesia.

The “Arab democratic revolution”  can be seen to fit this pattern, and thus link in to the broader post-1989 trend. But the fact that it was so long “delayed” also raises the question of why, a degree of local change notwithstanding, the worldwide pattern of upheaval had been slowing down.

After 9/11: a failed substitutionism

The answer to this questions is complex, but has a lot to do with both unresolved conflicts in the middle-east (the major regional exception to democratisation until now) and the United States’s response to 9/11.

The effect of the US’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and (to a greater extent) Iraq, the intensification of Washington’s tensions with Iran, and its role in the Israel-Palestine conflict has been to ensure that the strategic interests of the main players have stifled the possibility of democratic change. This is most clearly seen in Lebanon and Gaza, where calculations of power and interest vis-a-vis Hizbollah and Hamas have taken precedence over encouragement of even limited democratic progress.

At the same time, 9/11 hugely boosted the most anti-democratic forces in the Arab and Muslim worlds. A small but significant element among young Muslims was attracted to the spectacular violence of al-Qaida, and governments everywhere sought to tighten security in ways that curtailed liberties.

George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq fused all these tendencies. The assault was wrapped in the language of “democracy promotion”, in practice implying that  military power – not democratic organisation – was the route to “regime change”. In effect this was a massive substitution of armed force for proper democratic action, which left little room for peaceful contributions by the Iraqis themselves. Instead, the invasion was the catalyst for a bloody, locally genocidal war between armed Iraqi factions which set back the cause of democratic change – in the wider region as well as Iraq.

It is only after Bush became history and the “war on terror” became less dominant (even if it still being waged under Barack Obama) that the possibility of real democratic change have reopened, both in the middle east and in countries relatively removed from the disasters of the Bush years.

The “colour” revolutions, and contradiction

Even when the obstacles in the way of democratic revolution are removed, however, the two decades since the end of the cold war show that the consolidation of democracy once it is established can be very difficult.

Democracy in the west itself is in many respects incomplete, limited, and subject to great pressure from corporate and other interests. The examples are legion, from the United States to Britain (whose coalition government is after less than a year in power imposing destructive policies for which it gained no electoral mandate) and Italy (whose authoritarian-populist ruler Silvio Berlusconi embodies a dangerous fusion of media control, political power, and undermining of the law).

But it is in countries with a more recent experience of democracy that the problems of consolidation are usually more acute. They face the daunting challenge of maintaining the dynamic of change and creating democratic institutions – after the old ruler has gone but when many of his allies, including the army, remain in the shadows. This is why Marxists called for the formation of a revolutionary vanguard, partly by recruiting the rank-and-file infantry to weaken the military and enable a seizure of power in the name of the people.

Such vanguards are no longer in fashion in the Facebook age, and their historical record is not good. But the absence of some such dynamic and unifying force makes division and perhaps loss of impetus among the original revolutionary impetus (as in Georgia after 2003 and Ukraine after 2004, for example) difficult to avoid.

A core problem is that even if electoral democracy is instituted, rulers –  whether old ones under new democratic labels, or new ones thrown up by street protest – will still try to cling to power by authoritarian means, not least by rigging elections. Such manipulation can be achieved even in western countries by heavy manipulation of the media (Berlusconi again) or skulduggery in the voting process (Florida, 2000). Elsewhere, the right result is secured by intimidation, violence, and control over the voting process and the count (as, recently, in Iran and the Ivory Coast). The latter is a new norm in a democratising world.

A rigged election can itself be a catalyst for revolt: the cycle becoming a “revlection” (Timothy Garton Ash coined the term to describe what happened when Slobodan Milosevic fixed the Serbian election in 2000).

Then there are repeated democratic revolutions, as successive rulers fall prey to corruption and authoritarianism (Georgia’s experience, with the post-Soviet leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia giving way to Eduard Shevardnadze, and the latter being overthrown in the uprising that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power – though the ingredients of democracy in some of these changes need to be examined).

If this sounds bad, there is worse. For a process of nationalist-led democratisation in the republics of former Yugoslavia contributed to the disastrous genocidal wars of the 1990s; United Nations-sponsored “power-sharing” and democratisation in Rwanda helped lead to the genocide of 1994; elections have been catalysts of violence in Iraq; and the manipulation of Kenya’s election in 2008 triggered a wave of genocidal violence in which thousands died and hundreds of thousands were expelled. Zimbabwe and (again) the Ivory Coast offer their own contributions to the link between elections and violence.  Democratic change, clearly, is a high-risk business.

An unfinished process

Thus, the worldwide democratic revolution faces many problems. It is also greatly limited still in geographical scope. China is the biggest question. How long can the Chinese Communist Party stall real democratic change, and is it conceivable that it can continue to implement reforms without provoking even greater mass action than in Tiananmen Square in 1989? Egypt suggests that there is a time-limit to authoritarian rule, and China’s deep social tensions and economic inequality make the prospect of another mass uprising at least feasible.

But the revolution is unfinished in a more profound sense, to do with qualitative depth. Free speech and fair elections remain compelling aspirations for much of the world. But they are only the beginnings of change: both because more is needed to guarantee democratic accountability, and because major inequalities in a country make social democracy essential for political democracy to realise its full potential.

But democratic revolution – as seen in the Arab risings – is also a contagion that spreads from country to country, and becomes regional, even global. It also increasingly takes place under the gaze of global media, with more and more citizens having access to information about what is happening as it happens. As much as in Europe in 1989, the middle-east movements are both national and international at their very heart.

In this sense, the worldwide pattern of (national) democratic revolutions and changes is also part of a global (as well as international) trend. Democratisation reflects the growing global consciousness of interdependence and shared values. It poses a huge double-challenge: of consolidating democracy and rights worldwide, and of creating institutions which can create joined-up democracy on regional and global scales. This is the test for the next decades, one that events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere bring into even sharper focus.

The global democratic revolution: a new stage

New article published in the British Journal of Sociology, 62, 1, 2011. Click here to view a draft version.