The indigenous people of North Africa are the Berbers. Many Berbers are stateless people because the places where they lived as a result of colonisation and imperialism. They lived in the region during the ancient time of the city of Carthage. The most famous of the Berbers was a Carthaginian called Hannibal. Although football fans would probably say the captain of the French soccer team, Zinedine Zidane, is a more famous Berber.
I studied Hannibal’s exploits in Latin at school. My favourite story was Livy’s account of Hannibal’s passage through the Alps. One of the best parts of the story lies in the passage where Livy* describes how the Carthaginians overcame an impasse high up in the Alps:
The next task was to construct some sort of passable track down the precipice, for by no other route could the army proceed. It was necessary to cut through rock, a problem they solved by the ingenious application of heat and moisture; large trees were felled and lopped, and a huge pile of timber erected; this, with the opportune help of a strong wind, was set on fire, and when the rock was sufficiently heated the men’s rations of sour wine were flung upon it, to render it friable. They then got to work with picks on the heated rock, and opened a sort of zigzag track, to minimize the steepness of the descent, and were able, in consequence, to get the pack animals, and even the elephants, down it.
So Hannibal marched an army, which included 40 elephants, from Iberia (modern day Portugal, Spain, Andorra, and Gibraltar) over the Pyrenees and the Alps into northern Italy and defeated the Romans in a series of battles. War weary and with supplies cut off by politicians back home, Hannibal returned to Carthage never having marched on Rome itself.
It was written that Hannibal taught the Romans the meaning of fear.
Later Scipio led the Romans and laid waste to Carthage to exact his personal revenge. Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, had killed Scipio’s father and uncle in a battle in Hispania.
Prior to the Battle of Zama there was one last chance for Carthage to be saved when Scipio and Hannibal met. Scipio had the better infantry and his trumpets would later stampede Hannibal’s war elephants to turn back the Carthaginians.
Beforehand they met to negotiate a settlement. Historians suggest that Scipio mistrusted Hannibal because his opponent had a reputation for trickery and ambush. Even though some Senators in Rome were opposed to Scipio’s campaign against Carthage, Scipio could make no settlement with Hannibal. Carthage was destroyed with huge loss of life.
So Tripoli – modern day Carthage – and the rest of Libya, was influenced by the Romans. It was also influenced by the Greeks. Alexander (‘the Great’) waged campaigns in the region — hence the name Alexandria, the most cosmopolitan of Egyptian cities.
Some time before people from Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) had traded with and exerted influence over Egypt. They had their own trading empire and religion to build. So they influenced the language and culture of the region. Arabic flourished because it was written down (in the Qur’an) while the oral indigenous languages died out. Arabic as a language spread out of its classical area of the Arabian peninsula and northern areas (South Anotalia- Turkey) Levant (Syria-Lebanon), Mesopotamia (Iraq.) Arabic was not the only language in these parts— like Hebrew, Arabic was only one of the languages of the Semitic tribes. ‘Pure’ Arabs were originally from Yemen in the southern part of the Arabian peninsular. Arabic spread to North Africa (including Libya) with the spread of Islam in the 7 th century. Nevertheless, there is a real distinction between Islam and Arab identity. Arabic is spoken by over 280 million people today. Even though 80% of Arabs are muslim, they are not defined by religion. This mistake is often made by the West. For example media reports here keep stressing that the current uprising in Bahrain is caused by tensions between the majority Shia and the Sunni Royal family. Yet Bahrain is one of the most secular and cosmopolitian places in the Arab world. How can religious differences explain a civil uprising based on calls for democratic rights?
Down through the years, across North Africa, a melting pot of Berber, Arab, Roman and Greek influence evolved.
But then Europeans see Mesopotamia as early European civilisation upon which the Greeks and Romans civilisation was built. Perhaps the pioneers of modern nationalist states want to have their society based on the first civilisations as a mark of pride.
The reality is we are all one humanity. Barbarity or military society is not confined to low society or to tribal life. People of modern states may like to view indigenous peoples as backward. This is not true. No matter what society, whether it be economically developed or undeveloped, all are capable of repression, but only the most highly developed are capable of imperial blunders. The Romans did so when they laid waste to Carthage. The US likewise when they destroyed Iraq.
Qaddafi like Hannibal lived in a Bedouin tent (even when he visited the UN in New York) and like the modern Berbers speaks Arabic and shares that culture. Michael Mansell, the Tasmanian Aboriginal leader, must have known this when he led a delegation to Libya to meet Qaddafi in 1987 saying: ‘(we hope) the Libyan people will offer us further support where needed”. One indigenous tribe to another. Of course the conservative press went collectively beserk when they heard aborigines were seeking outside help against the repressive regime here in Australia. Mansell, when asked if he would be accepting money from ‘terrorists’, replied: “We’ve been taking it from terrorists for 200 years!” [Libya – what really happened Pugganna June 1987 no 25 p6]
Since the modern colonial wars of France, Italy and Britain over the lands of the Berbers a resistance has been learnt. This resistance threatens to unify them against their former European colonial masters and if that happens the world will change. From the early 20th century this unity has been built. The Algerian war of independence against France (1954 to 1962) was one of the nastiest and bloody of the national liberation struggles. Only the US occupation of Iraq (2003-2011) matches its savagery. Bombings, intrigues, CIA plots and counterplots have made for intense suffering matching the evil of French military repression in Algeria and the violence it triggered depicted so well in the 1960s film, The Battle of Algiers.
Things changed in Libya upon the discovery of oil in the 1950s. It was no longer an impoverished state. Qaddafi led the revolution in 1969 that threw off the colonial puppet king and drove the Italian capitalists back to reconsider their position. Qaddafi nationalised the oil and rescued many of its people from poverty. But, like any bourgeois, Qaddafi imported and exploited the working class from Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine and from Africa, south and east. He entered into deals with the capitalists while preaching socialism. He tried to hold Libya together by linking up with tribal people and being like one of them. At the same time he set one of his sons up in a $2million apartment in London and sent him to the London School of Economics. This was not to learn about socialism. Qaddafi embraced European militants engaged in armed struggle and sent them money and guns — to the Irish Republican Army and the Italian Red Brigades to name two. The rising tide of left-wing radicalism in Europe was provoked in part by the national liberation struggles in Africa and the Middle East. Ironically a large minority of these Leftists began to show interest in the armed struggle that Qaddafi, among others, chose to fund.
By his own admission at the 2008 Arab Summit Qaddafi got lost in intrigue:
“We (Arabs) are enemies of one another, I’m sad to say. We all hate one another. We deceive one another. We gloat at the misfortune of one another. And we conspire against one another. Our intelligence agencies conspire against one another, instead of defending us against our enemies. We are the enemies of one another. An Arab’s enemy is another Arab’s friend.”
Of course Qaddafi himself was under pressure from the West.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher decided to kill Qaddafi by sending US air force F111s to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi. Qaddafi survived, left his brick house to live in a Bedouin tent and mourned the death of a baby daughter who was killed in the raid (some say she was adopted).
My old school song, Signum Fidei (Latin = ‘the sign of faith’) was sung to the tune of the US Marines’ Hymn ‘From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’. These shores of Tripoli are those in Libya. The school song did not use the same words at the US Marines hymn. It went something like ‘we come from every corner, from near and from far…’ But the idea was the same, to gee people up for battle. In the case of the school, battle took place on the football field.
From 1801-1805 the US had engaged in a war against pirates of the Barbary Coast who were raiding American merchant ships for loot and ransom. This was the First Barbary War also known as the Tripolitania War.
It was the first time in history that the United States flag was raised in victory on foreign soil.
Once again, in 2011, the US is keen to join in the fray in North African and the Gulf states.
This time to protect its oil and shipping interests.
As always there is much at stake.
From long ago, much of European colonial exploitation of Africa was through the Mediterranean states. In the late 19th century, imperialist exploitation made the shift to the West coast of Africa and ultimately brought out the booty and wealth of Africa via the Atlantic coast. Africa was for Britain, Germany, France, and other countries an open market that would garner them a trade surplus: a market that bought more from the colonial power than it sold overall.
This left places like Libya impoverished because they were no longer part of the main trade routes for the colonial powers.
Those days are gone. Many Libyan people are wealthy enough to buy houses and cars. They are wealthy enough to buy guns to challenge Qaddafi and his elite.
Do the rebels act in the interest of the people? Some may think so.
But in an imperialist war, it is the US that is shuffling the deck.
In Bahrain — a cosmopolitan modern state that has shrugged of the stereotypes of orientalism — US allies, the Saudi princes, have marched their army onto the streets of the capital Manama to put down the revolt. The US wants to protect its 5th fleet lying at anchor in the harbour.
Judging by the number of protestors turning out in the streets, this is a popular uprising. The numbers represents a bigger section of the population than the demonstrations in Egyptian revolt only a few weeks ago.
By Bahrain standards the rebel uprising in Libya is less popular, better armed and more suspicious.
The Libyan rebels called for imperialist intervention by asking for a No Fly Zone which they elaborate as meaning targetted bombing of Qaddafi’s forces.
In contrast to the Libyan rebels call for foreign intervention, one of the unarmed protestors in Manama (Bahrain) correctly pointed out :
“This is an internal issue and we will consider it (the arrival of the Saudi and United Arab Emirate armoured convoys) as an occupation,” he said.
“This step is not welcomed by Bahrainis… It (the Bahrain royal family) is a repressive regime supported by another repressive regime (the Saudi Princes).”
The difference is that the protestors in Bahrain is a popular uprising for democratic rights. Unlike the Libyan rebels the Bahrainis did not ask for military intervention from the outside. The Libyan rebels seized oil terminals and towns in the east by military force. By contrast, the Egyptian and Bahrain uprisings called for workers to go on strike and to demonstrate in the streets. They called for democratic change they did not want foreign intervention.
Meanwhile Obama has made a call for ‘democracy’ in Saudi Arabia.
“We’ve all heard the term ‘to stabilise the region’ from the US government. Whenever the term is used it actually means that the US will destabilise the region but ‘stabilise’ any threat to its interests” — Noam Chomsky.
Yet there has been no call by Hillary Clinton for their allies, the Saudi and Emirate princes, to call back their soldiers from Bahrain.
In the same way there was no call for a ‘No Fly Zone’ when the US ally Israel ran amok and made its infamous air and artillery attack on Gaza in December 2008 – January 2009. No call for sanctions then.
Doesn’t this make the calls for a ‘No Fly Zone’ over Libya look hypocritical?
But these are the machinations of the powerful. What will they do to secure their power? The Libyan army is moving slowly toward Benghazi. Using tanks and artillery those loyal to Qaddafi have recaptured what they lost previously to the rebels.
Qaddafi calls the rebels ‘dogs’ and ‘drug takers’. His language and swearing is no better or worse than American soldiers in Iraq. It appears that the Libyan army will surround the city. It is likely that the rebels and Qaddafi will negotiate. Otherwise a bloodbath would ensue. Soldiers will not wish to enter the city because when street fighting commences dying begins. The Americans like so many armies have learnt this lesson in Iraq. This is why they prefer to bomb their opponents from the sky. They possess both power and will to do so.
Will Qaddafi like Scipio mistrust the rebels of Benghazi so much that negotiation will break down. What will Qaddafi do to retain power? Will he follow the lead of the Americans in Fallujah; Scipio at the gates of Carthage?
What is power worth to the ruling class?
16 March 2011
PS I have heard today that the sole representative for the Australian Greens in the house of representatives has called for a ‘No Fly Zone’ to be imposed (presumably by NATO) over Libya. The German Greens did the same thing when there was civil war in Kosovo. Joschka Fisher, the Green’s Foreign Minister, supported the bombing of the Serbs by NATO. This made the situation on the ground even worse, resulting in great loss of life.
When will they ever learn?
* Livy was a Roman historian. Hannibal never wrote his own account of how the Carthaginians crossed the Alps.