To The Shores Of Tripoli

Muammar al-Gaddafi will not go gentle into that good night.

No one who knows anything about him, would ever have expected that he would.

Oriana Fallaci, who for years was the best journalist this world had, pretty much pronounced him, decades ago, a kook. During one of her several interviews with the Great Man, the Libyan potentate suddenly leapt to his feet and began maniacally shouting: “I am the gospel! I am the gospel! I am the gospel!”

“I had to quiet him down,” Fallaci told TV’s Charlie Rose, many years later, at around the time she was transforming into a crankified anti-Islamic jihadist.

Gaddafi is a sort of cross between a froot loop and a werewolf. He has been more or less allowed to roll like a loose cannon across the deck of this world for more than 40 years, solely because his nation is one of the most fertile petroleum-producing fields on the planet.

For decades the Soviets drank extremely heavily, and then went ahead and protected him. When there were no more Soviets, Gaddafi brooded darkly for a decade or so, then, post-9/11, bared to the Americans all the embarrassing details of his farcical “nuclear program,” which consisted of the functional equivalent of a brace of monkeys hooting over a block of uranium and some test tubes. His reward was forgiveness for his many real and perceived sins against the West—which in 1986 induced Ronald Racist Reagan to bomb unto death his four-year-old daughter—and the subsequent shoveling of vast sums of Western armaments and money his way in return for his oily crude.

When it came steam-engine time in North Africa, time for a lurch towards something approaching democracy—this time coming this month—it was inevitable that Gaddafi would be required to fall. But Gaddafi is not interested in falling. And so, he is killing his people.

As the Guardian said:

Libya is defying growing international condemnation of a bloody crackdown that saw troops and mercenaries firing at unarmed demonstrators as the death toll rose to more than 200.

The most violent scenes so far of the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world were seen in its most repressive country as Muammar Gaddafi appeared to be relying on brute force to crush what began last week as peaceful protests but may now threaten his 41-year rule.

When on February 3 on this blog I stuck my oar into the then still unresolved situation in Egypt, I opined that the Mubarak government was destined to fall, because, for various reasons, orders would not be given, or if given would not be followed, instructing the army to fire en masse on the Egyptian people.

I grounded this soothsaying in the Wisdom of Leopold Kohr, who in The Breakdown Of Nations observed:

Though the French had a series of revolutions, these were never directed against strong governments. Under Louis XIV and XV, they accepted the most outrageous decrees of royal exploitation, waste, arrogance, intolerance, and immorality without a murmur. But when the throne fell into the hands of Louis XVI, an impotent, humble, and well-meaning king, whose greatest extravagance was his tender affection for flowers, they at last staged the revolution that still overwhelms posterity with its exalted principles that were not French, and its daring that was not great . . . . People never revolt against tyrants. They only revolt against the weak. If the Germans had no great romantic revolution, it is not, as popular theory has it, that they are more submissive than others. It is because the historically necessary precondition to every popular uprising, the sudden weakening of a previously strong government, only rarely materialized in their case. When it did, as in 1918, they rebelled as lustily as their neighbors, dethroning not only one sovereign, the Kaiser, but all their kings, grand dukes, dukes, and princes. Space forbids us to present the mass of material, amusing and disenchanting, showing how all peoples, the English, the French, the Czechs, the Germans, have always been submissive to government power in proportion to its magnitude, not in proportion to their feelings of liberty or national character.

Because, for reasons set forth in that piece, Mubarak’s Egyptian army was not going to slaughter the Egyptian people, Mubarak was a goner.

Gaddafi, by contrast, has pretty much stated he will kill everyone in his country if that is what it takes for him to remain in power.

According to the Kohl formulation, that should ensure the survival of his state—for Gaddafi is behaving as a “tyrant.”

Except that Gaddafi’s “state” is slipping through his fingers, like sand.

The great weakness of the Kohl tome—committed to paper in 1957—is that it is concerned almost wholly with Europe, Europeanized Asia, and the United States. It barely touches upon the phony colonial constructs carved out of Africa and Asia by lazy, ignorant, retreating Europeans. These states, built on sand, so much more easily collapse into sand. So, as we see, with Libya.

For Libyan fighter pilots ordered to strafe the populace have instead defected to Malta; lily-livered members of Gaddafi’s own endlessly extended family have also sought sanctuary on that island. Libyan ambassadors to various and sundry nations are resigning from Gaddafi’s government and full-throating it for the opposition. Fire-breathing Muslim clerics have issued fatwas instructing the faithful to spurn Gaddafi’s commands, and, in some cases, even hunt Gaddafi down like a dog and turn him under the earth. The eastern portion of Gaddafi’s “country”—an artificial colonial construct crudely drawn by retreating Europeans—is now beyond his control, and agitating to become its own nation.

Gaddafi’s “state,” as al-Jazeera bluntly reports it this morning, “is disintegrating.”

Gaddafi is over. He can shoot as many people as he wants, but it will win him nothing. His state is not, per Kohl, “strong”; it is no longer even a state.

No foreign nation will come to his aid, and neither will his own people. He can jet out ahead of his end, or he can stay and hang by his heels. That, now, represents the reduction of his choices.

As I noted in the Egyptian piece:

Popular revolutions are never predictable. In Robert Anton Wilson world, there is a saying that goes: “it steam-engines when it comes steam-engine time.” Meaning, that when the time is right, right arises. And you can’t, really, foresee it.

It’s steam-engine time in Libya. Gaddafi is finished. He may be, as he told Fallaci all those years ago, “the gospel.” But, if so, his people have decided to close The Book.

In Bahrain too the government decided that The Thing To Do was to Shoot The People.

Bahrain, far more than Libya, is a nonsense country, an archipelago of thirty-three islands bequeathed to the Al Khalifa clan when the British surrendered direct colonial control of their holdings in the Middle East.

Both the Iranians and, to a far lesser extent, the Saudis, believe that the scattered slivers of earth known as Bahrain by some sort of historical or tribal right truly belong to them.

And, in the current ferment, a wild hair from out of the Iranian government has not at all helped matters by publicly repeating Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s apparent decree of three years ago that Bahrain should by divine right be absorbed as “Iran’s 14th province.”

This is the sort of thing that causes Power People in the West to change their pants hourly. For Bahrain is not only itself bloated with oil, it is also home to the United States’ Fifth Fleet, which anchors in these isles its efforts to maintain the Persian Gulf as a Safe Place for the extraction and transportation of First World-bound oil. The Iranians pouring in there—well, that might Ruin Everything.

The Al Khalifa are Sunni Muslim; those Bahrainis fed up with the Al Khalifa are, in the main, and like Iranians, Shiite Muslim.

A cranky old man of the Bahraini royal family monikered Khalifa bin Sulman Al Khalifa has served as prime minister for 39 years, and under his thumb the nation’s Shia have been systematically and deliberately devolved into dogs, deprived of jobs in the army, police force, and government, while Sunnis from abroad have been scooped up and granted Bahraini citizenship in order to skew the archipelago’s demographic balance.

When it came steam-engine time in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa clan ordered the army to just shoot people. And, on the 17th of February, the army began to do just that:

As protesters attempted to converge on Pearl Roundabout, a landmark in the capital Manama that has become the principal rallying point of the uprising, soldiers stationed in a nearby skyscraper opened fire.

Since they took to the streets, Bahrain’s protesters have come to expect violence and even death at the hands of the kingdom’s security forces. At least five people were killed before yesterday’s protests.

But this was on a different scale of magnitude.

As they drew near, they were met first with tear gas and then with bursts of live ammunition.

Many fled the first salvoes, scrambling down empty streets as the shots rang out behind them.

As they ran, terror and disbelief flashed across their faces. One man shouted: “They are killing our people! They are killing our people.”

Here in the US, the wingers are ululating that the steam-engine in Bahrain is actually the result of Iranian mischief, and does not represent the genuine needs and desires of the people. The truly surreal alternative reality that these people occupy is encapsulated in the lead from the afore-linked winger’s heavy-breathing piece:

Crown Prince Salman was forced to cancel Bahrain’s Formula One race because of the violent unrest that has gripped the country recently[.]

The Obama administration, by contrast, hasv repeated in re Bahrain the same message it has delivered to all these autocrats under steam-engine pressure: the shooting—cut that shit out. People have a right to peacefully protest.

Somebody got through to the Al Khalifa, because after the mid-February massacres the army was ordered to stand down. The army has retreated, the people are encamped in the capital square, and there is, as of this moment, a waiting.

The potentates of the Al Khalifa are, as of this writing, meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Who returned yesterday to his desert shiekdom after three months of medical treatment abroad. Pausing on the tarmac to announce that he would shower $36 billion on the people of his land in a naked attempt to ward off any steam-engining in his own fief. Then closeting himself with his buddy from Bahrain, King Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa, who had jetted in to consult with his royal neighbor on what the hey they should do with all these people who all of a sudden want to move into the 21st Century.

People like this Saudi woman, who gave her king’s ransom the back of her hand. “I don’t want money,” she said. “I want to know that I’ll be protected under a written constitution for the rest of my short life.”

And then there is China. Which in 1989 proved Kohl’s thesis.

For even as, in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, ultimately, elected to forbid Soviet troops from firing on his own people—or any other—thereby allowing both the people of his inland Empire, and those in his country’s Eastern European satellites, to go their own way, the Chinese government proved perfectly willing to slaughter their kinsmen, and in great numbers, in order to retain power. And so they did, in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese people may in 1989 have been prepared to steam-engine into something new, but the Chinese leadership quite definitely was not. And so, it didn’t happen.

Just as Kohl set forth, the Chinese, “strong,” retained their dictatorship. The USSR, “weak,” did not.

Now, inspired by the ferment in the Middle East and North Africa, plucky souls have emerged in China to encourage a “Jasmine Revolution” in that nation.

But the Chinese government is determined to put an end to any such nonsense long before anybody ever reaches the streets.

When an anonymous agitator last week called online for the Chinese people to protest at specified locations in 13 cities at 2 p.m. last Sunday, the entire weight of the state moved into downpresser mode. Within hours of the appearance of the online manifesto, some “100 activists were taken away by police, confined to their homes, or went missing.”

In the bad old days of the USSR, the KGB would begin tightening the screws, in their little “informal chats,” with the words: “Relax. If you’re honest, you have nothing to worry about.” These days, in China, the ball begins rolling with an invitation of “why don’t you come in for a cup of tea?”

Some young wits have even invented a new [Chinese language] character that combines the symbol for tea with the similar character for interrogation.

The normal routine is a few hours of questioning over, yes, some tea[.]

The website that featured the protest manifesto is available to few Chinese, as it is blocked by the government, and can be accessed only through the use of proxies or other tech-geek end-arounds. This, combined with the government’s determination to uproot any jasmine long before flowering, resulted in “protests” that consisted almost entirely of security officials and Western journalists.

At one of the designated protest sites—a McDonald’s outlet in Beijing’s central Wangfujing shopping district—the Wall Street Journal saw a crowd of several hundred people gather, along with hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police, shortly before 2 p.m.

The crowd, however, consisted almost entirely of foreign journalists and curious shoppers—many of whom thought there was a celebrity in the area—along with a handful of young people who said they had heard about the protest appeal and come to watch.

The only sign of protest came from a young Chinese man who was detained by police after laying some jasmine flowers outside the McDonald’s and trying to take a photograph of them on his mobile phone, witnesses said. At least two other people were detained after altercations with police, but it was not clear whether they were protesting, the witnesses said.

Meanwhile, in Shanghai, three people who arrived at the designated protest site in that city, and proceeded to complain there about high food prices, were quickly hustled off by police. The online appeal had urged people to “take responsibility for the future” and “to shout a slogan that encapsulated some of the most pressing social issues in China: ‘We want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness!'”

Early this week, the government filed charges against internet users it claimed had reposted the original call for protest. The charge: “inciting subversion of state power.”

The renewed call suggested that people didn’t have to actually actively protest, but could merely “pass by.”

“We invite every participant to stroll, watch or even just pretend to pass by. As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear,” said the announcement posted Tuesday on U.S.-based Chinese-language news website Boxun, which is blocked in China.

Meanwhile, the nation’s vice president, Xi Jinping, was rushed out to assure everyone that the government is Responding to their Concerns, and so there is absolutely no need for any messy street people.

In a nod to social stability concerns, China’s Vice President Xi Jinping on Wednesday urged greater outreach by the ruling Communist Party to handle issues related to education, employment, health care and housing.

“This is to resolve social conflicts, maintain social stability, and promote social harmony,” Xi said.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the government regards this as a particularly bad time for people to get uppity:

It came at a sensitive time, as China prepares for the March 5 start of the annual meeting of its parliament, the National People’s Congress. China’s leaders are also anxious to ensure social stability in the run-up to a once-in-a-decade Party leadership change next year, when [President] Hu [Jintao] and six other top leaders are due to retire.

China already employs the most sophisticated internet controls of any government on the planet. But according to grumbles emitted last week by the aforesaid Hu, present measures are Not Enough.

Although an increasing number of people are becoming aware of censorship and ways to circumvent it, Chinese authorities have also been largely successful in controlling the spread of information. Locally operated websites must delete any content the government deems “harmful,” and companies that store user information in China must comply if the government requests access to that information.

This has often enabled authorities to quickly identify and stop organized political action before it reaches too many people, all while staying under the radar of most ordinary citizens, who aren’t constantly searching for political content. It also makes heavy-handed crackdowns affecting large numbers of Internet users mostly unnecessary.

China blocks websites like Facebook and Twitter, which were used by activists in Egypt, and keeps out other undesirable foreign content, from criticism of China’s leaders to information about sensitive historical events, using Web-filtering technology.

President Hu called for even stronger Internet restrictions in his speech on Saturday at the Central Party School in Beijing, which trains rising leaders.

“At present, our country has an important strategic window for development, but is also in a period of magnified social conflicts,” he said. Among the steps Beijing had to take, Mr. Hu said, was “further strengthening and improving management of the Internet, improving the standard of management of virtual society, and establishing mechanisms to guide online public opinion.”

According to the Financial Times, this most recent crackdown is really just the continuation of a sort of rolling crackdown that has persisted for years.

[T]he state security apparatus [] has seen large increases in budget and personnel. In truth, this crackdown is only the latest in a series that stretches back to the March 2008 Tibet riots, taking in the Olympics, the 60th anniversary of Communist China in 2009 and last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing’s political activists have grown wearily used to the constant harassment.

My instinct, which I have at present neither the time nor the energy to bloviate about at length, is that when the steam engines come to China, they will—age of the intertubes or no—come from out of the countryside. Just as did the last steam engines to transform China.

As the Financial Times notes:

Beneath the surface of China’s non-stop economy, there is much more unrest than meets the eye. There have certainly been some powerful warnings. Yu Jianrong, an influential scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, last year warned of an upsurge in “venting incidents,” unauthorised outbursts of public rage, often about land disputes.



3 Responses to “To The Shores Of Tripoli”

  1. 1 Al 2012 February 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Great post you got here. I agree with you and will definitely look forward to your coming updates. Thank you and keep the great work up. It would be great to read something a bit more concerning this matter.

  2. 2 bluenred February 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm


    Things are not going well for “The Gospel.” His fief seems to have shrunk to Tripoli and surrounding districts. He went on state television to opine that all those who oppose him are teenagers controlled by Osama bin Laden and powerful drugs: “Their ages are 17. They give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafe.”

    In eastern Libya the people are beginning to set up their post-Gaddafi government. Says one man: “We started just as lawyers looking for our rights and now we are revolutionaries, and we don’t know how to manage. We want to have our own face. For 42 years we lived with this kind of barbarianism. We now want to live by ourselves.”

    “We now want to live by ourselves.” That’s what we all want; that’s what we all deserve.

    In eastern Libya the Troubles began when a 39-year-old human-rights attorney, Fathi Turbel, was imprisoned. Today he is a part of the new government.

    It began as a series of small protests over the imprisonment of a human rights lawyer and then, in a week of increasingly bloody battles, the residents of Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, found themselves, improbably, in charge.

    Just days after the last government forces fled, the city appears orderly, with cars stopping at traffic lights, stores open and a new local government emerging where once all forms of social organising were ruthlessly suppressed.

    “We were not planning to make a revolt, it happened all of a sudden,” said Fathi Turbel, the 39-year-old lawyer whose imprisonment sparked the protests.

    “People can’t imagine how it all could have happened so quickly.”

    Following the example of their Egyptian neighbours, the Libyans quickly formed popular committees to guarantee basic security and began to talk to local academics, lawyers and experts to figure out how to run the city they had inherited.

    The result, announced overnight, was a 15-person city council of prominent figures, including Turbel.

    In a country where, “under a 1973 law it was illegal for four or more people to gather together,” people are learning to say yes.

    New signs posted around the city say “Yes to opening bakeries, pharmacies, shops and yes to continuing normal life in Benghazi.”

    Good luck to them all.

  3. 3 soothsayer February 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Fascinsting post — thank you..

    Still thinking about the Leopold Kohr analysis —

    “People never revolt against tyrants. They only revolt agaist the weak…”

    Maybe it’s the other way around???

    Maybe the people will arise when it is just too much and arise even, and perhaps especially, in defiance of the most extreme state power???

    Here’s Howard Zinn from “The Optimism of Uncertainty”

    “There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability. This confounds us, because we are talking about exactly the period when human beings became so ingenious technologically that they could plan and predict the exact time of someone landing on the moon, or walk down the street talking to someone halfway around the earth…..

    No cold calculation of the balance of power need deter people who are persuaded that their cause is just. I have tried hard to match my friends in their pessimism about the world (is it just my friends?), but I keep encountering people who, in spite of all the evidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope…..Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.”

    Rest in Peace Howard and here’s to all everywhere who rage so mightily against the machine….

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When I Worked

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