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An Interview

On Libya, the Arab Spring and Syria

by TARIQ ALI

Tariq Ali was interviewed on events in the Middle East by Swedish journalists  S. Eriksson, M. Fahlgren and P. Widén.

Question 1: In your text “What is a revolution” you start with the following sentence:

“Ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring there has been much talk of revolutions. Not from me. I’ve argued against the position that mass uprisings on their own constitute a revolution, i.e., a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change”.

Your article has been hotly debated amongst revolutionary Marxists in Sweden. Some say that you can’t differ between a social and a political revolution. A political revolution being a radical political transformation of power, but where the change might not include change of social system.

So our question is: How do you think these concepts (social and political revolution) should be used and how do you reach your view that what happens in the Arab countries could not be seen as a revolutionary process, not even a political?

Tariq Ali: I am fully aware of the concept of political revolutions. After all, that is what we hoped might happen in the USSR and Eastern Europe but what actually happened was capitalist restoration. My position on the character of revolutions was sketched out in the New Left Review debate with Asef Bayat some months ago and those interested can read both sides of the argument [http://newleftreview.org/II/80/tariq-ali-between-past-and-future]. The closest we have come to in terms of ‘political revolutions’ is in South America, though here too I have refrained from describing the mass mobilizations and subsequent electoral victories as revolutions. Why? Because even in Venezuela, despite important structural reforms (education, health, land distribution, an ultra-democratic Constitution) the traditional state structures remain intact and ultimately could lead to defeat unless new institutions and social changes take place. In today’s world especially political revolutions require an assault on the old regime and its institutions. Some of this has happened in South America. None of it has happened in the Arab world.

If we want to describe important uprisings for democratic rights and institutions as political revolutions, we can of course do so, but it creates illusions. Better to be hard-headed and recognize present day realities. The only result of this word-play has been to send tiny forces from the tiny far-left in the direction of imperialism. As if the latter was ever interested in arming or helping revolutions. This new way of thinking by some reflects the defeats of the last century. But if one is going to stand with Bernard Henri-Levy and act as NATO cheerleaders might as well go the whole way and give up all pretense of being on the Left.

Question 2: How do you view the fall of Qaddafi and how do you view the situation in Libya today?

Tariq Ali: Qaddafi was toppled by six months of NATO bombings. His friends in the West had got fed up with him and decided to take advantage of the uprisings and remove him from the scene, backed by the Qatari state and businessmen. I had, of course, no time for Qaddafi or his regime, but for anyone on the Left to support the so called ‘No Fly Zone’ and then the NATO assault raises numerous questions. How many did they kill themselves? Six months bombing is no joke and the ‘collateral damage’ is usually heavy.

Even if we leave aside the fact that the result has been a huge mess and the country is in a state of total disorder, as accepted now by some media commentators who backed the bombing raid (others don’t like returning to the scene of NATO’s crimes), the question remains. Should the Left ally itself with imperialism (sometimes referred to as the ‘international community’) in the new world disorder that threatens democratic rights in the Western world itself?  The question was first raised with the ‘humanitarian’ NATO bombing of Serbia during the Yugoslav civil war. It has carried on since, every time dividing the disintegrating forces of the left still further.

Question 3: In the debate amongst revolutionary Marxists in Sweden there are a few who even look positive on possible U.S. bombings.  But they are very few. But there are others who reject bombings but raise the slogan: “weapons to the secular and progressive fighters”. How do you view this?

Tariq Ali: The bombers faction should not restrict themselves to pathetic calls for action but with others of their ilk they should call for international brigades to go and fight with the ‘secular and progressive’ fighters. Who will supply arms to them?  NATO, the US, the EU? Who? It reminds me of when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and there was a debate inside the Fourth International. A Japanese comrade said we should fight alongside the Soviet Union. In that case, I told him, you better learn to fly since the bulk of the attacks are from the air. So who is going to army who?  Turkey, Qatar, the Saudis are already arming the rebels. It’s not enough. Hence all the hopes that were invested in Obama launching a few surgical raids to destroy the infrastructure of the regime and make a rebel victory easier. Secretly and not-so-secretly some of the leftists of the LBF (Laptop Bombardiers Faction) were hoping for this as well. What a confession of bankruptcy. We can’t win without Washington! Utterly pathetic. The Pentagon appears to have learnt the lessons of Libya, not the LBF.

Question 4: This is about the Sarin gas attack near Damascus in August this year. Most mainstream media and a part of the left are convinced that the Assad regime was responsible. Others are not so convinced.

In an article, “On intervening in Syria” (28 August 2013), you wrote about this, saying that you doubt that Assad it responsible because it doesn’t make sense: “Who profits? Clearly, not the Syrian regime.” You say also “It simply does not make sense. Who carried out this atrocity?”

And in a later article, “What is a Revolution? (14 September) you are not so categorical; saying: “Did the regime use gas or other chemical weapons? We do not know.”

Do you still believe that it makes more sense that the culprit is not the regime? Or do you think that the question is quite open?

Tariq Ali: We do not know. Even Washington admits there is no proof that Assad ordered the attacks. It could have been a rogue general. Well it could have been anyone. Given Obama had said their use would be ‘crossing a red line’ we can’t be sure who gave the order, who carried it out?  The Syrian civil war has outside states backing both sides. The Israelis are not simply watching and applauding as each side kills more and more people. They have an aim which is not a secret.  The Jerusalem Post of 16 September quoted Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, as saying: “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.”

Question 5:  You have been criticized for not being wholeheartedly in support of the Syrian uprising and appearing on Russia TV?

Tariq Ali: The first is a straightforward lie as anyone reading my texts knows full well. But much has changed since the beginning. The Syrian Left, among which I count many friends, old and new, is weak and could not retain control of the mass movement anywhere. They were strong in Aleppo and parts of Damascus but were soon overtaken by the Muslim Brotherhood and groups to its Right, backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Deserters from Assad were taken over by Turkey and France. So the character of the uprising changed by the end of the first twelve months. How can one not register this fact? The relationship of  the forces today does not favour any secular or progressive groups. To pretend otherwise is to be blinded by illusions or the requirements of intra-sectarian left politics. As for Russia Today television, yes I do give them interviews as I do to many networks. So what? They are biased, for sure, just like CNN and BBC World and al-Jazeera. It does not alter what I have to say.

Question 6: What do developments in Egypt teach us. You like everyone else supported the uprising and its aims. And now?

Tariq Ali: The Egyptian Events prove yet again that the political cannot be ignored. It was not a surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate won the election. It was not a surprise that he behaved as he did: deals with Washington, compromises with Israel to the extent of flooding the Gaza tunnels with sewage, no desire to break with the dominant forms of contemporary capitalism, etc. There was no attempt whatsoever to destroy or even reform the structures of the old regime, the central demand of the uprising. What did surprise me was the speed with which huge mobilizations (larger than during the uprising) were mobilized to topple Morsi. With no independent progressive political force capable of challenging the regime, an important section of the masses accepted the military’s embrace and celebrated the coup that got rid of the Brotherhood. I was and remain totally opposed to the new military dictatorship. The killings are a disgrace and otherwise intelligent commentators using phrases like ‘the Brotherhood has to be rooted out of Egyptian society’ remind one of Pinochet and others. The Brotherhood has mass support. It should be defeated politically. This necessitates the creation of new political organizations with a clear programme. Not easy in this world, but necessary all the same.

This interview also appears in the Swedish paper “Internationalen.”

Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).