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How the West Used Libya to Hijack the Arab Revolts

Vijay Prashad talks neoliberal economics, the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and why NATO's intervention in Libya marked a new chapter in the story of the Arab revolts.

Photo Credit: AK Press


At first glance, the revolt in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi seemed to be a continuation of the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010. But when NATO forces began to fly sorties over Libya, bombing Gaddafi’s fighters, it became absolutely clear this was no Egypt or Tunisia.

Instead, argues Vijay Prashad in his new book Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, Western powers, helped along by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, used the turmoil in Libya to promote their own agenda--an agenda that included transforming Libya’s economy into a neoliberal haven. As for the Arab states that aligned with the West, Prashad argues that the “Atlantic powers” struck a deal with the “Saudis and the Gulf Arab states that allowed the latter to silence dissent on the Arabian peninsula (Bahrain and Yemen).” In turn, the Gulf states delivered “the Arab League and so the United Nations for a NATO-led intervention in Libya.”

AlterNet recently spoke with Prashad, the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History at Trinity College, about his new book, which is set to be released this month.

Alex Kane: The Arab Spring, and the aftermath of the intervention in Libya, is very much a story that is ongoing, taking twists and turns every day. So what made you decide to write a book on such a fluid historical moment?

Vijay Prashad: Well, the book was about an argument that was very sharp in March and April, and that was around what was happening in Libya specifically. So, for instance, in February, when the uprising began in Libya, there was a thought that Libya would also go the way of Tunisia and Egypt. Then there was a very bizarre set of events taking place, and the calls for NATO to intervene. There was no such call for Egypt and Tunisia, even though when the calls to intervene began, the number of dead in Libya were comparable to the number of dead in Egypt. What people don’t realize is that over 1,000 people died in Egypt during the revolution, the first phase of the revolution. And so, I found that very interesting. Why was there such a strident call for NATO to intervene?

Part of the reason I wrote this book was to review the recent history of Libya and to consider the question of how NATO became an actor in the Arab Spring. How did we move from, “the Arab street is now awake,” to “NATO must be a participant.” That was the story that was worth telling.

AK: The last book you wrote, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World, was a history of the anti-colonial, non-aligned states that developed an alliance during the Cold War. Do you see this book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, as one that builds on your previous work?

VP: It does, certainly. The way it does is, that book told the story of the Third World project, which ran from the 1920s, but largely collapsed in the 1980s. While I was researching that book, of course, I read extensively about Libya, I had been to Libya as a child, I had a long relationship with the Libyan story. And what’s interesting is even though Muammar Gaddafi had been in power from 1969 to 2011, even though he had been in power for that long period, just about when the Third World project collapsed in the mid-1980s, the Gaddafi project collapsed and transformed itself in the 1980s. So the narrative arc, the story I tell in The Darker Nations, is also revealed in Libya’s story.

So Gaddafi comes to power in ‘69 by way of a coup d'état in which almost no gun was fired; he had virtually the entire population on his side when he overthrew King Idris. The elites were unhappy and they fled the country, but the mass of people were very pleased with Gaddafi, who in his own idiosyncratic way provided a large amount of the social wealth of Libya to the betterment of the people. In the 1980s, when that Third World project starts to strain and begins to collapse, the Gaddafi project also collapses. You might think of it as a subset of the larger developments. And when the Gaddafi project collapses, what is reborn is a kind of mutant child, where on one side you have the rhetoric of the 1969 revolution, and on the other side a need, a desire to make a rapprochement with the West and bring into Libya what becomes known as neoliberal economic policies. So there is a real pivot in the Gaddafi camp in the 1980s.

AK: Neoliberal economics in the Arab world is not often discussed as a driving force behind the revolts, at least not in popular discussions of Egypt and Tunisia in the US. But your book gives those policies prominence in describing why the revolts came about. Could you talk about this more?

VP: Well, yes, there were two heads that the Arab Spring worked to topple. One is relatively well understood, particularly in the North Atlantic world. And that is the head of the national security state, what here we call dictatorships, authoritarian regimes. In these countries, since the 1970s, a highly developed apparatus was put into place to keep the populations in line. Large numbers of prisons, very sophisticated intelligence networks for internal security, the mukhabarat [Arabic for intelligence] is one element of that, internal security forces in Egypt, Tunisia, etc. So, this is one aspect, and we are very familiar with dictatorships or authoritarianism, and the answer to that is freedom. So one head is well understood.

The second head is neoliberal economics. The best example of this is Egypt. In 1971 the Sadat regime moved away from Nasserist economic policies, to build the nation and the economy, and they started a policy of infitah, the kind-of openness policy, the policy of liberalization [of the economy]. And for this, they had to cut subsidies to farmers, to allow international finance to enter, and multinational corporations. And suddenly they cut back on food security measures that had been put in place by the Arab nationalist regimes. There were struggles around this second head, which was largely things like renewed trade union struggles, peasant struggles, struggles of the general population in cities frustrated by rising food prices, particularly wheat prices, bread prices, etc.

So this has to be part of the equation, because in both Tunisia and Egypt, the actual spur of the revolt was not just against authoritarianism or dictatorship, but also the collapse of the ability to survive. From 2008 onwards, there has been a concatenation of protest across North Africa, and in fact across the Global South, against rising prices. We see the rising price scenario played a very important role in the Kenyan uprising around the election campaign. You know, that is part of the story. So I consider this a sort of general strike in the Global South, but in the Arab world, it had the most dramatic impact when the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia fell. And in both of those cases, you know that the neoliberal policies were an important factor because shortly before Ben Ali and Mubarak fell, they tried to reinstate the bread subsidy. But it was generally too little, too late.

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