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Hamid Dabashi: Gaddafi gained power as anti-imperialist, made deal with Bush and pushed neo-liberal economics

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay Washington. In Libya, protests continue to mount. Benghazi may be partly under the control of protesters, and in Tripoli, it–situation is described as being in chaos. The regime is starting to fracture. Libya’s representative to the Arab League announced that he was resigning in protest at the suppression of the unrest. Libya’s ambassador to China resigned on air while on Al Jazeera Arabic, calling on the army to intervene, and urged all diplomatic staff to resign. Now joining us to talk about the current events in Libya and the historical context, how did Gaddafi come to power, and who is he anyway, we’re joined by–Hamid Dabashi is a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University. He’s host of The Week in Green, a weekly online program about the Green Movement in Iran. Thanks very much for joining us, Hamid.


JAY: So what’s your take on the most recent developments?

DABASHI: Well, the most recent development is that the death toll is rising now. It’s in hundreds, about 300, both in Benghazi and in Tripoli. And there seems to be an absolute indiscriminate shooting of protesters. And the latest report from Al Jazeera is there are people that are defecting from his government, and also in the army. The army is refusing to shoot at people. So I think we are witness to a historical moment, that yet another relic of old-time Pan-Arabism is falling right in front of our eyes. So this, in the context of events that are happening in the aftermath of Tunisia and Egypt, is yet another indication that what we are witnessing is a combination of demographic and economic changes, and the rise of the question of human rights of ordinary citizens that have been systematically disregarded, not only by the Libyan government, but also by its business partners, extending from American to European. And it’s a game-changer.

JAY: Now, Gaddafi has the reputation, profile of being an anti-imperialist. He continues that kind of rhetoric, more or less. But there was a major rapprochement between Gaddafi and the Bush administration in 2008, which led to big arms sales. For example, General Dynamics in 2008, right after the restoration of full relations with the United States, General Dynamics inked a $165 million deal with Gaddafi’s regime, and much of those weapons are exactly what’s being used against the protesters now. But take us back a little bit, back into the beginnings of Gaddafi. How does he come to power? ‘Cause certainly at that time he was riding a wave of anti-imperialist fervor, not only in Libya but right across the Middle East and Africa.

DABASHI: Exactly. I mean, the catalyst, Paul, as you know, is the Palestinian predicament. He came to power back in 1969 with a coup, and throughout 1970s he developed a reputation not for what he was doing but because of his rhetoric of pro-Palestinian Arab nationalism, and even at some point Pan-Arabism. He was the odd man out. He was dashing, and he had these female guards that–he was flaunting them here and there. But most of the power really came from petrodollars, and that he remained in power as such, petrodollars that have continued to keep him in power. In fact, these lucrative contracts with both American and British arm manufacturers that you just mentioned, in millions of dollars, the same bullets that now are being used to mass murder the demonstrators are the result of those petrodollars. Muammar al-Gaddafi went from being the “mad dog of the Middle East” (you recall former president, late president Ronald Reagan called him, back in 1986) to being considered a person of personality and experience under President Bush because of the rapprochement, and also because he kind of addressed the issue of his involvement, or his government’s involvement, or people on his payroll’s involvement with the Lockerbie terrorist act, and also for abandoning their nuclear project. His–presumably, he’s having nuclear project. Once that was sorted out, American and British arm manufacturers were released to sell him as much arm as he wanted, without any consideration for the consequences.

JAY: Right. Let’s go back one more step. In 1967, before the Gaddafi coup–.

DABASHI: It’s 1969. Yes.

JAY: Well, in ’67, the king is still in power, and he’s considered part of the pro-Western series of kingdoms, autocracies, dictatorships that were pro-American, and then he rides a wave and overthrows the king. So talk a little bit about that period and how he was seen then, and then give us the arc.

DABASHI: He was seen very much the same way that Gamal Abdel Nasser was seen of Egypt, Houari Boumediene of Algeria was being seen. This is a period of postcolonial European domination of North Africa–the French, the Italian, the British. And as a result, he posited himself among the world revolutionaries as an inheritor of a postcolonialist state. It was not just in Libya; it was throughout the region. So throughout the 1970s, he kept that image, particularly with progressive movements and radical left movements in Europe and in Latin America. They looked up to him. And, in fact, he had a very catalytic effect with them, financing them to some extent.

JAY: And he did help in terms of financing to national liberation movements, particularly in Africa, did he not?

DABASHI: Precisely, precisely. So the period of 1970s is a period of postcolonial anticolonial uprisings, and he, true to his reputation, was very much involved in those activism. But you have to keep in mind that this was an entirely different period. It was in the immediate aftermath of European colonialism, and European colonialism not only destroyed the infrastructure and robbed them of their minerals and resources, but did not leave behind any foundation for democratic governance in the aftermath of colonial domination. So Muammar al-Gaddafi in 1970s represented this so-called charismatic revolutionary figure that had come to power in solidarity with revolutionary movements and uprisings in Africa and Latin America, but in effect becoming an autocrat and a tyrant in his own country, and nobody paid any close attention to him.

JAY: Is it–can you compare him a bit to Mugabe in Zimbabwe, someone who actually plays a kind of anti-imperialist role and then seems to succumb to a kind of megalomania?

DABASHI: Oh, yeah. Mugabe, Ahmadinejad, Qaddafi, Chavez, these are all, you know, flaky and entirely bogus figures of anti-imperialism. It doesn’t mean that imperialism doesn’t exist. Of course imperialism exists. But instead of having legitimate, grassroot revolutionary mobilizations that now we’re witnessing throughout the region, we have had these bogus figures posturing as anti-imperialism, but they in fact having absolutely no qualms whatsoever engaging in neoliberal economics using the–.

JAY: Well, You can’t say that about Chavez. Chavez is–you can’t say he’s a straight neoliberal economics–.

DABASHI: No, of course you can’t. But the thing is, the globalized condition of neoliberalism, Paul, is such that there is–it is simply impossible to imagine the possibility of an autonomous national economy. And Chavez–.

JAY: Yeah, it may be, but I need to take you up on Chavez, because while I cannot understand Chavez’s links to Gaddafi and Iran, what’s going on in Venezuela is not the same. There’s a kind of pushing, possibly, the limits of what you could do within a single economy.

DABASHI: Years ago, Paul, I wrote, when Chavez began to get close to Ahmadinejad, that either he will save Ahmadinejad from his atrocities, or Ahmadinejad will corrupt him. There is no third way. You cannot claim to be a revolutionary champion of the poor in Venezuela and be instrumental in the suppressing of the same ideals and aspirations in another country. It simply doesn’t work.

JAY: Alright. Let’s get back to Libya. We’ll do Venezuela more another time. So talk about–so in 2003, if I understand it correctly, Gaddafi’s son essentially negotiates the deal with the Bush administration to give up on a nuclear weapons program,–

DABASHI: Precisely.

JAY: –2008 they have the rapprochement, and since 2008, although Gaddafi seems to carry on some of this anti-imperialist rhetoric, it’s been a full-speed neoliberalism in Libya.

DABASHI: Very much so, because now you have to remember that he’s thinking of posterity, he’s thinking of his sons, he’s thinking of getting close to not that much Americans, but particularly Europeans. European Union is approaching him. European Union neoliberal economics is in need of his oil and in need of his market. And as a result, he is thinking of posterity and his children. So the turn to neoliberalism and to rapprochement with United States and Europe is very much in that context.

JAY: So the difference between Gaddafi and, you could say, Ahmadinejad is Iran has its own, you could say, inter-imperialist contradictions with the United States. There is a real contention there, where Gaddafi more or less joined this Western umbrella in 2008.

DABASHI: They are two versions on the same theme. In other words, the fact of the globalized neoliberalism is such that either forces hypocrisy on one side, that you have anti-imperialist position like Ahmadinejad, and yet you begin to cut governmental subsidies so deeply that you have to go back to the Shah’s time 30 years ago, 35 years ago, to find anything similar to that. But in the case of Qaddafi, first of all, you have to remember the population is vastly different. Entire population of Libya is, like, 6.5 million. The population of Iran is 72 million. So for all intents and purposes, Libya was off the map, so far as the world economy was concerned, because the entire population of Libya is half of the population of Tehran. So we’re talking about two different modes of coming close to neoliberalism.

JAY: Now, can you get any sense, in terms of the protests in Libya, politically, geopolitically, you can say what the mood is? Gaddafi’s a rather confusing and maybe confused figure. He comes off as being anti-imperialist. He’s actually really more or less joined the Western and American camp. So I’m not sure. Do the crowds blame the US for Gaddafi? Is there–you know, where are the crowds in terms of America, I guess is what I’m asking?

DABASHI: I think, Paul, for all intents and purposes America has become a nonentity. This has nothing to do with America, and they are not playing. In fact, most of the signs are in Arabic; they’re not even in English. What are driving these revolutionary uprisings from Morocco to Bahrain and Yemen are combination of two things, demography and economics: a young generation desperate for jobs; failure of neoliberal economics to provide jobs and opportunities. And in fact the petrodollar is used to expand the security and military apparatus of the regime, rather than generating job, and amassing of millions of dollars for the ruling regime. And as a result, I think, in fact, events that are happening in places, smaller places like Libya and Tunisia, are far more important than the focal attention which is on Egypt and Iran, because these are the places that will give you the indices of a global uprising that in fact extends to southern Europe. That is, to me what is happening in North Africa is not that different from a student uprising in UK and labor unrest in Greece, and even in Spain. Global neoliberal economics is facing a global crisis. And these manifestations are not underplaying the significance of Arab /sprIN/ and democratic revolutions for ideals and aspirations of a democracy. But I believe demography and economy remain at the roots of all of these uprisings.

JAY: In the short term, at least, you would think that in places like Libya, Egypt, I mean, all the countries we’re talking about in the Middle East where there’s virtually no democratic rights, just to introduce a kind of modern, perhaps European or Turkish style form of democracy, that might be enough for now. I mean, certainly that’s what the American plan is. If there’s enough of that kind of democracy, the basic economics can stay the same.

DABASHI: It’s open-ended question, Paul. So far as the crowd in Tahrir Square remains there (or other squares), remain there as a political force, we don’t know what will happen. You are right so far as Obama’s administration trying to micromanage the events in Egypt. Remember, in the upper echelon of the Egyptian military there are many, many, many Mubaraks waiting to come to power. So by no stretch of imagination the Egyptian revolution is complete. There is no doubt that European Union and United States wish to micromanage and perhaps use the Turkish model as a model for other countries, but I don’t believe what we’re witnessing is entirely in control of Obama administration or Europeans, nor do I think the model that emerged naturally in the Turkish context can be copied in other contexts. Every one of these states is a very proud and very dignified country. They have their own ideals and aspirations. They are very much looking up to what has happened to Egypt. So, so far as the political force and the demographic and economic factors are concerned, I think it’s an open-ended development. But so far as Europeans and Obama administration is concerned, you’re right, they are trying to micromanage it.

JAY: But what seems to be missing from all these movements is a political leadership with a different vision or a new vision for what a different new economy would look like in the Middle East.

DABASHI: You’re absolutely correct. It is. That is, the institutionalizations of democracy, in terms of not only freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom of peaceful assembly, but far more importantly, in my judgment, the formation of independent labor unions, women’s rights organizations, and student organizations, have never materialized in these states. That is, developments that should have happened, whether we’re talking with Mugabe or Ahmadinejad or Qaddafi, institutions of civil liberties and democratic aspirations that should have developed in the aftermath of colonization, was retarded. They never developed. But it doesn’t mean that the very revolutionary experiences that we’re witnessing, they cannot have catalytic effect on each other and learn from each other. Labor unions, women’s rights organizations, and student organizations, in my judgment, they are far more important than simply lip services to political parties and freedom of expression stipulated in the Constitution.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Hamid.

DABASHI: Thanks, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the donate buttons, ’cause if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.

End of Transcript

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Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He received a dual Ph.D. in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He wrote his dissertation on Max Weber's theory of charismatic authority with Philip Rieff (1922-2006), the most distinguished Freudian cultural critic of his time. Professor Dabashi has taught and delivered lectures in many North American, European, Arab, and Iranian universities.
Professor Dabashi has written twenty-five books, edited four, and contributed chapters to many more. He is also the author of over 100 essays, articles and book reviews on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, and comparative literature to world cinema and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). His books and articles have been translated into numerous languages, including Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Danish, Russian, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Urdu and Catalan.