Gaddafi and Somoza

Posted in 1 by Editor on September 27, 2011

The overwhelming sup­port given by the UN General Assembly to the resolution to hand Libya’s seat to the National Transitional Council confirms that there is an almost total worldwide consensus that the NTC is now de facto the government of our southern neighbour. A total of 114 states voted in favour of the resolution, 17 voted against and 15 abstained.

Speaking against a motion aimed at postponing this decision – a motion rightly voted into the dustbin of history – the Egyptian representative argued that this was “the moment of truth”. Failure to give Libya’s seat to the NTC without any further ado, would only serve to prolong the suffering of the Libyan people and to frustrate their will. There is no doubt that this has been an important step forward but it is by no means the end of the story, far from it. International recognition of the NTC as a government is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for Libya’s return to normality.

This is especially true if “normality” is to mean not more of the same but the successful establishment of democratic institutions that can ensure stability while promoting the change that most Libyans have been yearning for. Considering that Libyans have never really enjoyed such a state of “normality”, perhaps the phrase “return to normality” is inappropriate. One thing is certain.

Any idea that the templates of these institutions can be exported to Libya from elsewhere – be this from the West or from anywhere in the Islamic world – is widely off the mark. Nobody today is in a position to lecture anybody else about what is good for them. Which is not to say that some will not try.

They will try because within the footprint of these 1.8 million square kilometres lie what are possibly the seventh largest proven oil reserves in the world. A January 2011 estimate puts them at 46.4 billion barrels, certainly the largest reserves in Africa. Then there is gas too, about 55 trillion cubic feet of it, and other mineral resources. There are, for example, sufficiently robust indications of enough uranium to make it worthwhile for Canadian, French, Russian and Ukrainian companies to have signed exploration agreements with the regime.

The undoubted economic interest of the world’s great powers in Libya – which interests only the hopelessly naïve or the callously hypocritical will deny – does not justify opposition to UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973 of March 17. It is true that the language of the resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to “protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack” allows for interpretation when push comes to shove. But could it be otherwise?

Insisting with the Libyans – that rose against Muammar Gaddafi because they had enough of his corrupt dictatorship – that they should not ask for Nato to take “all necessary measures” to prevent the Colonel’s armed forces from killing them, is effectively to prop up a violent regime against the wish of the people. It hurts to hear people who should know better defend Col Gaddafi.

When Tripoli fell, Bayardo Arce, an economic advisor to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, is reported to have told a journalist who asked him if Nicaragua would welcome Col Gaddafi: “If someone asks us for asylum, we would have to consider it positively, because our people got asylum when the Somoza dictatorship was killing us”.

What an insult to the Sandinistas who died in the struggle to free Nicaragua from the dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s! If there is anyone in the Libyan context that can be compared to Somoza it is Col Gaddafi himself. Also, don’t some of the Colonel’s sons remind you of Somoza’s son, nicknamed El Chigüin, who in 1978 was almost certainly involved in the assassination of La Prensa’s editor Pedro Chamorro?

I have been watching Libya even more closely than usual ever since the first demonstrations in Tunisia in December last year. Contrary to the assurances of many of our own home-spun know-alls in business, civil service and politics in or around both parties – who swore that nothing could ever happen in Libya – it was clear to others that the Arab Spring would not spare Col Gaddafi.

True, I have the advantage of having been born there in a family that, from one side, had come down from Europe and settled in Tripolitania even before the Italian invasion, when it was still a Vilayet (province) of the Ottoman Empire. That sort of background teaches you something about political change in the country. It gives you a broader and more long-term view.

True, I also have the advantage of having to observe developments in Libya for professional purposes. But those that assured us that Libya could not change or that, at best, someone of “the family” or an old army comrade (say a Jalloud) would be brought in from the cold to replace him, were meant to know Libya well. The problem is that we Maltese, in spite of our vaunted experience of Libya, never ventured beyond that thin crust of Libyan society that constituted Gaddafi’s power-base.

The fall of the regime is only the beginning of a difficult but exciting journey. As I told a young friend who was in one of the first NTC teams to arrive in Tripoli from Benghazi to take over public administration: “You are privileged to be living a historic moment and I confess that I envy you for it.”

The original of this post appeared on September 26, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta. You can access at it at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110926/opinion/Gaddafi-and-Somoza.386404


Strickland in context

Posted in 1 by Editor on September 12, 2011

Victor Aquilina’s Strickland House The Standard Bearers And Launching Of The Times Of Malta, Book One: 1921-1935 makes fascinating reading. I recommend it to anyone who is no longer content with the dominant version of Maltese social and political history. Certainly not written by one with Labour credentials, this book’s concern with “re-evaluating” Gerald Strickland (1861-1940) provides numerous painstakingly documented opportunities for a critical reassessment of the formative years of contemporary Maltese politics.

… the Establishment is never a monolith
– Mario Vella

This is not the place for a systematic study of the man and his times, not even “only” of the man and his (The) Times (of Malta). Although such an undertaking, one to which Mr Aquilina has made an outstanding contribution, is urgently required, it must of necessity go beyond the scope of an occasional piece by a newspaper columnist such as yours truly. A project such as I am advocating needs to be a multidisciplinary team effort focused on the broader, historically specific (social, economic, cultural and political) context.

Although a number of scholars have been working at this project for decades, they have been swimming, as it were, against the current of this country’s academic mainstream. Some readers, certainly those that belong to our intellectual establishment, will no doubt question that there is at all some such thing as a “dominant version of Maltese social and political history”. Some of them will, I am certain, especially question the existence of a national intellectual mainstream whose interests are intimately intertwined with those of the country’s traditional political social, economic and political Establishment. I beg to differ.

The “elective affinities” between the attitudes of the intellectual and political establishments towards Lord Strickland is a good starting point for a case study of the common interests that have welded and continue to weld together academic mainstream and conservative politics. This too, however, lies beyond the scope of my fortnightly invitations – I almost wrote “provocations” – to rethink passively received views and sheer prejudices. Kindly be provoked.

Readers of Mr Aquilina’s Strickland House are advised not to stop there. Although some of them will not have needed my prodding to do so, I suggest that they familiarise themselves with the broader context within which Lord Strickland acted before, during and after his 15 years in the colonial service as governor of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies (1902-04), Tasmania (1904-9), West Australia (1909-12) and New South Wales (1912-17). As regards the “before” and “after” periods, they would also be well advised not to limit themselves to the Maltese context. He was, after all, Conservative MP for Lancaster during 1924-1928 when he was elevated to the peerage.

The point about the importance of context cannot be over-emphasised. The “meaning” of Lord Strickland in our political development can only be reconstructed from the context within which he operated and of which he was a part. This reconstruction can only be undertaken after caricatures of Lord Strickland as a lackey of the British empire and as merely tactless and arrogant pain in the neck – not that, as Mr Aquilina would be the first to concede, he was not tactless and arrogant – are themselves taken apart (deconstructed) and exposed as constructions by those elements within his social context that perceived him as a threat to their interests.

Complementary to the importance of context is the need not to fall to the temptation of what is called “essentialism”. This is especially important for an understanding of Lord Strickland’s role in Maltese politics. An essentialist approach to Lord Strickland, for example, would assume that, given that he was a Conservative MP in Britain, therefore his views could not be progressive because “conservative” and “progressive” are practically antonyms. This approach would make it impossible, for example, to appreciate his Commons speech of February 9, 1927, where he refers to the “aggressiveness against the trade union movement” shown by “extremely conservative and anti-progressive elements in Malta” (Hansard, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1927/feb/09/debate-on-the-address#S5CV0202P0_19270209_HOC_86 ).

One good starting point for a critical reassessment of Lord Strickland would be a study of the hysterical hate that he aroused in the Church and the Nationalist establishments. The pelting of him and his daughters during the campaign of 1927, the swearing of a false affidavit by Ettore Bono (Terinu) to the effect that 30 years before he had seen Lord Strickland dressed in full Masonic regalia (“the Nationalists’ nastiest move … which, for the greatest possible effect, they left up to the very last moment of the election”, Aquilina, p. 178) and his attempted assassination would have been unthinkable were it not for the atmosphere created by the establishment. As a friend of Lord Strickland congratulating him on his “marvellous escape” when one Gianni Miller, “a keen Nationalist supporter” took a shot at him at the law courts on May 23, 1930, remarked: “even a lunatic requires an atmosphere for his deeds” (Aquilina, pp. 227-232).

One good question a reader may ask is: But was not Lord Strickland himself part of the Establishment? If the Establishment is by definition conservative, then how could Lord Strickland be “progressive”? And, why would other elements of the Establishment, whip up an atmosphere that almost killed him? The point is that the Establishment is never a monolith. Establishments are made up of shifting alliances between different interests. Different social groups within the Establishment may also come into conflict. Understanding Lord Strickland requires a consideration of these conflicts. We’ll look at this next time.

The original of this post appeared on September 12, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110912/opinion/Lord-Strickland-in-context.384353