In the wake of the crises and revolutions of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, European claims to moral leadership look highly dubious, says Richard Pithouse.
As the first unconfirmed reports of airborne attacks on protestors in Tripoli and Benghazi reached Al Jazeera the station crossed to a spokesperson for the European Union. There was talk of the need to affirm ‘European values’. Moments later the programme cut away to the story of the two Libyan fighter pilots who had landed in Malta and sought political asylum rather than obey orders to attack protestors in Benghazi.
Those pilots are not the first people to have arrived in Malta after crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. But most people who make that journey don’t arrive in Mirage F1s. Migrants take many routes into Europe. Some people cross into Greece from Turkey, others from Algeria into Spain. For many, the way into Europe is through the Sahara into Libya, across the ocean and into Malta and Italy. The migrants come from Somalia, from Chad, from Senegal, from Nigeria and from all over North and West Africa.
The journey across the Mediterranean in small and usually over crowded boats is perilous and many have sunk. If they are intercepted by the Italian navy the migrants are forced off the boats, often with clubs and batons that dispense electric shocks, and taken to prisons in Tripoli. In crass violation of international law no attempt is made to ascertain whether or not the migrants are political refugees or to enquire into their health or where the parents of children may be.
From Tripoli they are taken to European funded migrant detention centres in places like the tiny village of Al Qatran out in the dessert near the border with Chad and Niger. Al Qatran is a thousand kilometres from Tripoli and it may take three days for captured migrants to be moved across that distance in trucks. In the detention centres there may be more than fifty people in a room. They sleep on the floor. The routine sadism that always occurs in any situation in which some people are given absolute power over others is endemic. There are beatings, rapes and extortion. Suicides are a common response as are mass jailbreaks in which many migrants have been killed by the Libyan police. But some have escaped out into the vastness of the Sahara to make what they can of sudden freedom without papers or money in a desert.
It was in the early days of the 2003 Iraq war that Tony Blair first proposed the idea that migrants trying to enter Europe should be sent to ‘transit processing centres’ outside of Europe. There is a similar logic here to the way in which the United States has outsourced torture to countries like Egypt.
Muammar Gaddafi’s early attempts to show that he would be able to take on the policing of Europe’s borders were not a huge success. In August 2004 a plane was chartered to deport 75 captured Eritrean migrants from Tripoli but the passengers seized control of the plane in mid flight and diverted it to Khartoum where the UNHCR recognised 60 of them as legitimate political refugees.
But on the same day that the European union lifted its economic sanctions and arms embargo on Libya in October 2004 it was agreed to engage with Libya on ‘immigration matters’ and a technical team was sent to Libya the following month. The United Kingdom and France both moved quickly to sell weapons to Libya and in 2008 Italy and Libya signed The Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation between the Italian Republic and Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in which Italy agreed to invest five billion dollars in Libya in exchange for, amongst other things, a Libyan agreement to undertake to police migration into Europe via Libya. Silvio Berlusconi declared that closer relations with Libya are about “fewer illegal immigrants and more oil.” Since then Berlusconi and Gaddafi have, through the investment arms of their respective family trusts, become co-owners of a major communications company.
This sort of personal connection between an elected politician in the West and a despot elsewhere is hardly unique. The French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie spent her Christmas holiday in Tunisia as a guest of a businessman with close ties to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali as the protests against Ben Ali were gathering strength. The first response of the French state to the protests in Tunisia was to send arms to Ben Ali. The French Prime Minister Francois Fillon spent his Christmas holiday on the Nile as a guest of the Egyptian state. In March 2009 US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, commented, in a discussion about severe and routine human rights violations by the Mubarak regime, that “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.”
In recent years all sorts of European institutions beyond oil companies and security agencies made their own deals with the dictatorship in Tripoli. The London School of Economics accepted a £1.5m grant from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation for a ‘virtual democracy centre’. The Foundation is headed by the same Saif al-Islam Gaddafi who recently went on to Libyan television to tell protestors that his father’s government would ‘fight to the last minute, until the last bullet’.
The Europe of colonialism, slavery and genocide has no claim to moral leadership in this world. The Europe that backed the Mubarak dictatorship for thirty years and the Ben Ali dictatorship for twenty-three years has no claim to moral leadership in this world. The Europe that helped to smash Iraq in the invasion of 2003 has no claim to moral leadership in this world. The Europe that refused to allow the Haitian people to elect a leadership of its choosing by supporting a coup against that leadership in 2004 has no claim to moral leadership in this world. The Europe that has been directly responsible for the documented deaths of almost 14,000 migrants since 1993 has no claim to moral leadership in this world.
It is true enough that the modern form of democracy began in Europe with the French Revolution of 1789. But when African slaves in Haiti took the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity seriously and won their own revolution in 1804 it immediately became clear that the French did not intend democracy to be for everyone. That has been the European position ever since.
To choose democracy is not to choose Europe and it is certainly not to choose the United States of America, which has overthrown democratically elected governments around the world when electorates have had the temerity to elect the ‘wrong’ leaders. In fact, any serious commitment to democracy has to reject the moral and political authority of Europe and the United States of America. Any commitment to democracy has to assert, very clearly, that all people everywhere have the right to govern themselves according to their own will.
We cannot know the trajectories of the uprisings that have swept North Africa and the Middle East. But one thing is for sure. Whatever pompous claims to the contrary come out of Washington and Brussels, these are not revolts for American or European values. On the contrary they are a direct challenge to those values. They are revolts against a global power structure that is formed by an international alliance of elites with one of its key principles being the idea, the racist idea, that Arabs are ‘not yet ready’ for democracy. This, of course, is an echo of one of the common justifications for apartheid. But the plain fact of the matter is that anyone who says that anyone else isn’t yet ready for democracy is no democrat.
Ben Ali and Mubarak were little more than co-opted Bantustan leaders in a system of global apartheid. Gadaffi’s oil funded cruelty, megalomania and opportunism has taken him in many directions in his 42-year reign but have, in recent years, been leading him in the same direction. Democratising a Bantustan is progress. But democratising a Bantustan is not enough. The whole global system needs to be democratised.
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* Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.
* This article was originally published by The South African Civil Society Information Service.
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