Archive for Secular vs. Islamist in Libya

Sleeping In the Same Bed Dreaming Different Dreams?

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, On War and Peace in the Mid East! with tags , , on September 4, 2011 by playthell

 Islamist celebrating Victory

Secular Democracy, Islamic Theocracy or Chaos?

As I pointed out in a previous commentary on Libya, “After the fall of Khadafy…What Next,” all mass movements are segmented into factions based on ideological differences.  These factions can be graded on a continuum from right to left: Radicals, liberals and conservatives.  This is true despite the fact that they all agree on the basic objective of the movement.  In this case the unifying objective is the overthrow of megalomaniacal tyrant Mummar Khadafy.

Yet as we get a closer look at the composition of the rebel forces we see that there are deep divisions based not only on ideology but also class, ethnicity, regionalism and theocrats vs. secularist.  At this point it is not at all clear just how profound the divisions are or whether there exist a leadership structure that can unify these disparate factions under the banner of Libyan nationalism.

If they cannot things will fall apart and, like Iraq, the ensuing chaos will be such a nightmare many Libyans will view the Khadafy regime as “the good old days.”  There are several critical contradictions coming to the fore with the fall of the ruling clique that has governed Libya for nearly half a century.  For instance the shallowness of national identity is beginning to manifest itself in the squabbling between the different armed groups who are vying for supremacy in terms of who shall have command of the unified armed forces of the new regime.  With reports of different factions marking off their territory by spray painting graffiti on walls, they look far more like criminal street gangs than members of a serious disciplined revolutionary movement

The normal problem of dealing with antagonistic factions in mass transformative  movements is magnified by the nature of the movement that overthrew the old order in Libya.  Unlike the great revolutionary movements we witnessed in the 20th century, which had strong vanguard parties guided by comprehensive ideologies that defined their objectives and a unified command over the military; the uprisings in the “Arab Spring” have no central leadership structure, no clear cut ideologies and are largely directed by dissidents using social media to direct the spontaneous combustion of the masses.  Hence, from the evidence I’m seeing, nobody is really in charge here so we have no way of predicting what course events will take.  And the fact that Khadafy is still at large and threatening to wage a clandestine counter-struggle further complicates and confuses the situation on the ground.

By virtue of the unique relationship between the army and the people in Egypt, the military was entrusted to maintain order and steward the nation into a new era.  The army that formerly served Honsi Mubarak has now sided with the rebels and arrested Mubarak, who will soon be put on trial for his crimes against the Egyptian people. This was a radically different outcome from previous popular movements that overthrew national governments.  It is a function of the fact that the movement had no established leadership and no clear vision of the new order they wanted to create.  If the Chinese revolution had taken such a course we would be witnessing endless chaos now, given the size and diversity of China.

However the movement that transformed China was a scientific affair artfully directed by the brilliant theoretician Mao Tse Tung, the greatest mass leader of the 20th century…if not in world history.  He certainly gets my vote.  Viewed in retrospect from the vantage point of the mass uprisings in the Arab world the Chinese Revolution is even more awe inspiring when you consider the vastness of the country, the many millions of people, and that they had no telephones, cell phones, computers, internet, social media, television or radio.  They communicated their complex ideology through written pamphlets and face to face recruiting.

We can see how this was accomplished through the voluminous writings of Chairman Mao, the supreme leader of the Chinese Communist Party.  In his three volume Magnum Opus “On Protracted Warfare,” and shorter works like “On Contradiction” and “On Practice” we see the blueprint for a scientific approach to revolution that was also successfully applied by the Vietnamese.

Of course they made necessary alterations to fit the particular conditions of Vietnam; Just as Mao had adapted Marxism/Leninism from the Russian experience to the special circumstances of China.  However these revolutionary movements took a generation or more to build!  As such they organized, mobilized and directed the entire society toward clearly defined objectives.  It is no wonder the Chinese people dubbed Mao “The Great Helmsman.”

 Chairman Mao


Father of the Military Science of Protracted Peoples War

In his seminal text on the role the CIA played in the evolution of American involvement in trying to suppress the Vietnamese revolution, “Dangerous Deceits,” former CIA agent Ralph McGhee provides us a first-hand account of the elaborate organization of the Asian liberation movements directed by Communist parties based on the Chinese model.  He shows how every identifiable social grouping was organized – workers, peasants, teachers, etc. – and explains that it was the American insistence on defining the Communist as a fringe element with “politicized intelligence” rather than the true representatives of the people that led us into a protracted people’s war in Vietnam and ultimately a humiliating defeat.  This grass roots organization by a disciplined revolutionary political party also accounts for the orderly governance of society after the war ended.  The long period of organization and struggle prepared the revolutionaries to govern.

This is a critical element that’s missing in the rebellions of the “Arab Spring” and in the case of Libya, a highly tribal society, it could prove disastrous!  A comprehensive report from the front lines in the August 31, New York Times, “Tripoli Divided As Rebels Jostle Over Leadership,”  points out the complexity of the problem.  “Rebels from the western mountains, the mid-coastal city of Misurata and the eastern city of Benghazi each fought independently, and often rolled their eyes in condescension at one another…Tripoli has become an early test of the revolution’s ability to bridge those divisions because in contrast to other Libyan cities liberated by their own residents, colonel Qaddafi was ousted from Tripoli by brigades from other regions, and most remain in the streets.”

When the Tripoli Brigade, which has five battalions and is the largest and best equipped of the rebel forces, chose Alamin Belhaj to lead the unified military forces – the Tripoli Military Council, which commands 8000 troops and is the largest of the rebel military formations – ideological divisions among the rebels quickly came to the fore.  The main objections to Belhaj is that he had been one of the leaders of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group, which tried to overthrow Colonel Qaddafi during the 1990’s and failed.  This organization has been known to have ties with Al Qaeda and is actually classified as a “terrorist organization” by the US government.

Hence many of the secularist who envision a liberal democracy as the ideal society for the new Post Qaddafi Libya view him with suspicion; a stalking horse for a takeover of the revolution by Islamic zealots.  And the fact that the Tripoli Brigade is largely trained and equipped by the government of Qatar, which also finances the Arabic news service Al Jazeera, feeds the suspicion that they are sponsoring “Muslim Extremism” in Libya.  One member of the Transitional Council – the civilian organization tasked with establishing a post Qaddafi government – reported “The revolutionary fighters are extremely unhappy and surprised.”   He said of Belhaj: “He is the commander of nothing!”

The danger of Islamic Jihadists subverting the popular movements for democracy into a movement to establish an Islamic theocracy under Sharia Law is a constant theme in my commentaries on the so called “Arab Spring.”  And that danger is clearly present in Libya.  The reason for this is that in a popular movement all elements that are opposed to the ruling elite are welcomed into the mass struggle.  But those factions that have superior organization and clear ideological objectives will eventually emerge as the dominant force.  That’s why when communist or Jihadist become part of a coalition they will eventually take it over.

They cannot accord equal weight to other ideas the way liberal democrats are inclined to do because their ideologies are absolutist.  The Communist views their ideology as “scientific,” which means that like chemistry, it’s formulas for change is universally true.  And the Muslims believe that their theology is the “word of God” which by definition is true for all times, places and peoples.

Hence the fear of a Jihadist takeover of the popular movement in Libya is justified by their history and present actions – I will explore their worldview in a forthcoming commentary.  The recent assassination of General Abdul Fattah Younes, who was the supreme commander of the rebel forces in Benghazi, a major theater of conflict, is a case in point.

Although the perpetrators of the murder remain a mystery it is widely believed among secular liberals in the rebellion that it was Islamist forces extracting revenge for the role the general played in suppressing them under Qaddafi.   As flags displaying the star and Crescent increasing unfurl, the Islamic zealots are beginning to openly assert themselves as the popular movement gets closer to taking power.

For instance, as the rebels debate about who should lead the military forces Alamin Belhaj, who is both a member of the secular/liberal dominated Transitional Council from Tripoli and a leader of the long suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, argues that the Islamist factions are best qualified to lead because they will be most effective at disarming the freelance groups running around with military weapons.

 Rebel Military Commander: Alamin Belhaj

 A Closet Islamist?

“They trust us more” says Mr. Belhaj, who argues that the street warriors are afraid that if they give up their guns the fruits of the revolution will be stolen by the rich westernized Libyans, many of whom are expatriates returning from exile in western countries.  This is a recurrent phenomenon in third world countries ruled by dictators where the educated or “westernized” elites fled the country for exile in the liberal democracies of the west, but returned to help rebuild the country after the fall of the tyrant.  It is a special problem in Muslim countries where militant Islamist are playing a major role in the new leadership.  We witnessed this in Iran, where many of the intellectuals in exile helped to overthrow the Shah and put Ayatollah Homeni in power and were then executed when the Mullahs took over.

My former colleague at the University of Massachusetts, Cherif Guellal, who had been a member of the Central Committee of the FLN during the bloody Algerian Revolution, told me very similar stories about the antagonism and suspicions toward western trained intellectuals after they took power.  The irony is that it is the western educated intellectuals who led the revolution.  The central theoretician of the Algerian revolution was the black Martinican Psychiatrist Franz Fanon, who was trained in France.

As a modern man committed to rationalism and science he had warned about the dangers of establishing an Islamic theocracy in the twentieth century in his famous essay “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.”  Cherif once told me cynically “If you knew how to sign your name it was cause for suspicion by many of the fellahin guerillas.”

Dr. Franz Fanon

An implaccable foe of the Islamcist 

Cherif could sign his name in five languages and he was soon driven into exile; the memory of his close friend and revolutionary comrade Franz Fanon, who had died of cancer on the cusp of victory, was systematically eradicated from the memory of the nation.   And there has been a bloody protracted struggle between the secular and Islamic forces ever since.

That’s why it is a risky business for the US government to support the rebels that are overthrowing the established regimes in the Arab world headed by secular military strong men, even though they are all despicable tyrants who suppress the popular will of their people and fleece the nation of its treasure.  While the US cannot afford to be on the wrong side of history defending tyrants against a historic popular movement that is transforming the Arab world,  thus far history demonstrates that when the tyrants  fall the Islamist rise.  I fear that we may be witnessing a similar scenario developing in Libya, because all evidence suggest the rebels are sleeping in the same bed …but dreaming different dreams.



Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

September 7, 2011