Millions of Libyans cast their ballots on July 7 in the first “free” election Libya has seen in over four decades. Throngs of people packed into voting booths to select the country’s new 200-seat National Assembly, which will be tasked with creating a new government and writing up a draft constitution. In response to the voting, U.S. President Barack Obama exclaimed: “After more than 40 years in which Libya was in the grip of a dictator, today’s historic election underscores that the future of Libya is in the hands of the Libyan people.”
But what do these elections really mean for the Libyan masses? To proclaim that the Libyan people are now free because they are able to vote is to ignore the glaring economic inequality and oppression that still persists throughout the country.
In February 2011, following the example set by the mass mobilizations of Tunisian and Egyptian workers that toppled dictatorial regimes, the Libyan masses revolted against their own repressive government. In the city of Benghazi, neighborhood committees were set up to coordinate the struggle and administer day-to-day activities such as the distribution of food and medical supplies.
But whatever independent grassroots movement existed at the beginning of the uprising was soon eclipsed, as the National Transition Council (NTC), composed mainly of rich Libyan elites in exile, took political leadership over the opposition. The leaders of the NTC, who were only interested in inserting themselves as the new ruling elite of Libya, sought to settle their score with Muammar Gadhafi through military means alone. They preferred to call for military aid and intervention from imperialist powers, such as the United States and France, rather than mobilize ordinary Libyans against the dictator.
Seeing a chance to harness and set back the mass dynamic of the Arab Spring and to gain unfettered access to the vast oil reserves of Libya, the imperialist powers quickly geared up for a military intervention against Gadhafi. With the unanimous passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, the “no-fly zone” was quickly transformed into a full-scale military offensive, complete with missile strikes and the introduction of ground troops. After the fall of the Gadhafi regime, the NTC took over as the interim government of Libya, pending elections for a National Assembly.
The July 7 elections resulted in a landslide victory for Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA), a broad coalition of secular and Islamist political forces. Jibril was head of National Economic Development Board in the Gadhafi regime, before defecting to join the NTC last spring. Since the interim government did not bar Gadhafi-era officials from standing in the elections, some remnants of the old regime (such as Jibril) remain intact. Jibril is seen by many elites as the only figure capable of rallying a broad coalition in government to stabilize the country and encourage foreign investment in Libya.
Reuters noted on July 12: “In an oil-producing country with the resources to pay for urgent construction and healthcare needs, Jibril’s consultancy background and international experience may help ties with investors. The NFA says it supports privatization but emphasizes that Libya must first rebuild its infrastructure” (emphasis added).
But while plans to raise the living standard of Libyans are painfully vague, Libyan leaders’ commitment to foreign oil companies is becoming ever clearer. The state-owned National Oil Corporation and its subsidiaries control most oil production in Libya. Government officials have placed emphasis on attracting additional foreign corporate investment. The NTC has committed to honoring all Gadhafi-era contracts and debt and is working towards establishing new contracts with Western oil companies, with NATO countries that supported the armed intervention predictably getting preferential treatment.
The National Transition Council previously stated that it would not sign new oil contracts until elections were held and a new government had been formed. Now that this process is under way, Western oil companies are chomping at the bit to gain increased access to Libya’s vast reserves of crude oil. Libya Business News noted in June that the government will “offer new production-sharing agreements to international oil companies on improved terms to existing contracts,” i.e., terms more favorable for Western companies seeking to amass massive profits from Libyan oil. The Financial Times reported in May that “British companies are gearing up to compete for billions of pounds worth of contracts in Libya as the oil-rich nation presses ahead with its plans to restore its tattered infrastructure…”
One wrench in the works for the new Libyan rulers and their imperialist backers alike is the continued existence of armed militias. Many Western companies are hesitant to invest huge amounts of money in Libya until these militias have been disarmed and reckoned with. These militias have been operating with impunity since the fall of Gadhafi last year, carving out local spheres of influence for themselves.
The militias, far from representing a progressive political alternative, are more akin to the armies of the reactionary warlords in Afghanistan. Patrick Cockburn noted in his recent Counterpunch article: “Last week Amnesty produced a devastating report—“Libya: Rule of law or rule of militias?”—based on meticulous and lengthy investigations, portraying Libya as a country where violent and predatory militia gangs have become the real power in the land. They jail, torture and kill individuals and persecute whole communities that oppose them now, did so in the past, or simply get in their way. A few actions by these out-of-control militiamen have gained publicity, such as taking over Tripoli airport, shooting up the convoy of the British ambassador in Benghazi, and arresting staff members of the International Criminal Court.”
He continues: “But the widespread arbitrary detention and torture of people picked up at checkpoint by the thuwwar (revolutionaries) is not publicised because the Libyan government wants to play them down, or people are frightened of criticising the perpetrators and becoming targets.”
Whether the new government can reign in the militias is yet to be seen. The Western media has often been silent on the rule of the militias because they want to paint Libya as a success story for foreign intervention, rather than a destabilizing factor. Meanwhile, the Libyan people are struggling to get by, as their country is racked by lawlessness, destroyed infrastructure, and ongoing poverty.
So what has fundamentally changed in Libyan society since last year? A different section of Libya’s ruling rich (one more beholden to Western imperialist powers) has placed itself at the head of the people and shows no signs of committing to an economic program that will raise the living standards of the masses. The victory of NATO forces and the installation of this new government represent a defeat for the Libyan people, rather than a victory. Armed militias continue to terrorize the people, while the newly elected Libyan government makes plans to auction off the nation’s oil wealth at fire-sale prices.
The liberation struggle in Libya will depend on the construction of a mass-based revolutionary socialist party. Only with such an independent leadership can a real revolutionary workers’ movement take hold in Libya and pose an alternative to the oppressive capitalist regime that has just been installed at the behest of NATO intervention.
> The article above was written by Daniel Xavier.