Atmosphere in streets - Tripoli (photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Across Tripoli, revolutionaries have perched themselves on a dangerous dream. Author Khaled Darwish reflected in a recent New York Times dispatch from the capital’s battered streets:

I heard that Al Sarim Street was full of the bodies of the dead, including women and children who had fallen to snipers’ bullets and were left in the street because no one dared approach. … A few days ago, we were almost killed by one of these snipers who shot at us and then sped off. I found myself prostrate, then crawling until my glasses broke. This is how Colonel Qaddafi wants us to be: crawling. But no more: We have grown wings.

But elsewhere in the city, thousands have been languishing indefinitely in makeshift prisons, captives of a rebel government still grasping to establish control. Masses of dark-skinned people, many of them African migrant workers, have evidently been rounded up on vague suspicions of working as pro-Qaddafi mercenaries. Their bleak captivity, despite their protestations of innocence, suggest that even at a moment of supposed national liberation, some remain trapped in an oppressive past.

The new Libya now straddles these two contrasting scenes, its freedom struggle ruptured by infighting and pressure from foreign forces that have their own designs for the country’s future. Yet viewed from a wide angle, the revolution has cracked open a window for a new political vision, spanning the full spectrum of peril and promise that Libyans have long been denied.

Hijacking a Revolution?

Some tout Libya’s revolt as a vindication of what has been called President Obama’s strategy of “leading from behind.” To others, though, Libya’s armed uprising breaks ominously from the narrative of the Arab Spring—the ideal of youth-led, largely secular and nonviolent pro-democracy movements. Rightfully skeptical of the pretext of “responsibility to protect,” critics on the left are wary that oil-hungry Western powers simply want to replace Qaddafi’s reign with another government friendly to their interests. (Not long ago, the dictator was apparently a trusted ally in War on Terror, doling out brutality in partnership with Washington.)

The debate rages on about whether the emergent transitional authority will institute democracy, return to a non-democratic regime or just plunge the fractious country into all-out civil war. But amid the chaos, it’s clear that many, many Libyans want to see some kind of systemic change, though the trajectory of change will be steered by volatile internal and external struggles.

In an interview with the Real News Network’s Paul Jay, Hamid Dabashi, a Columbia University Islamic cultural scholar and ardent critic of U.S. foreign policy, took a nuanced view of Libya’s precarious future, distinguishing between enabling empire and supporting revolution:

Dabashi: The democratic uprising began before the U.N. resolution. NATO, U.S. and [the] U.N. resolution, they are riding on a democratic uprising of Libya. So we have to keep in mind that the initial site of this democratic uprising is perfectly legitimate, and the fact that the United States, NATO are using this situation to create a military foothold for themselves should not detract from the fundamental fact of the Libyan revolutionary uprising.

Paul Jay: When you say “not detract,” what does that mean? I mean people outside either have to oppose or support the NATO intervention, don’t they?

Dabashi: Well, in a very simple compound sentence, you support a democratic uprising and you oppose the NATO intervention.

Yet that simple sentence has complex inflections in the emergent post-Qaddafi Libya: already we see evidence of atrocities committed on both sides of the vicious battle, a resurgence of violent racism against black Africans, mysteriously looted munitions warehouses, and clashes within a fragile coalition of factions ranging from pro-democracy dissidents to Islamists to aggrieved tribal fighters.

It’s not a huge imaginative leap to compare Libya with a litany of other questionable NATO- and U.S.-led humanitarian interventions: the most disturbing recent examples are massive violence and instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the pre-9/11 era, Kosovo in the Balkans. John Feffer, an analyst with the D.C.-based think tank Institute for Policy Studies, told Colorlines that in a geopolitical arena that offers no good choices:

One could argue that the alternatives are even worse, as in the case of Rwanda when there was no military intervention…. So we’re basically comparing bad situations and worse situations, or in some cases worse situations and worse situations. But nevertheless, humanitarian intervention has not racked up a particularly successful track record.

But Feffer added that “it is possible that the Libyan scenario will prove to be one of the better cases,” if indigenous forces and organizations can move quickly to empower civil society and shift international support toward reconstruction.

Commentator Dan Hind sketched out a best-case scenario in which Libya protects itself from foreign manipulation by drawing on solidarity from regional pro-democracy allies:

Those of us outside Libya who wish the country well cannot do very much, but we can do something. We can pay attention. The democrats who brought down Ben Ali and Mubarak can offer solidarity and advice. Iraq’s oil workers have learned valuable lessons about the tactics of the Western powers in their brave campaign to protect their country’s assets from a foreign takeover. The demonstrators in Europe and the United States can weaken the forces of unaccountable power in their own countries by supporting democracy and natural justice in Libya.

Guarding a Movement

So the war to oust Gaddafi may well have been partially co-opted by outside agendas—and activists are right to be cynical about the U.S. and Europe’s selective military involvement in popular uprisings. But the spirit of the rebellion itself hasn’t yet been stolen, and at least some Libyans have proven their willingness to defend it at all costs. Yes, the idea of a NATO-backed revolution sullies the hope for autonomous grassroots movements taking flight. But if the core of the revolution manages to survive the mess, academic and social critic Mahmood Mamdani contends that other dictators in the region will find themselves on much shakier ground:

Whereas the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali directed our attention to internal social forces, the fall of Gaddafi has brought a new equation to the forefront: the connection between internal opposition and external governments. Even if those who cheer focus on the former and those who mourn are preoccupied with the latter, none can deny that the change in Tripoli would have been unlikely without a confluence of external intervention and internal revolt.

Foreign humanitarian interventions, particularly those that serve as a smokescreen for neo-imperialism, can never substitute for popular resistance—and indeed, often militate against it. As the country works to heal from war and generations of oppression, the survival of the Libyan revolution’s roots—spawned in a real indigenous movement for justice—will depend on whether activists have the strength to defend it on the ground level. Navigating that terrain means rediscovering the core of the struggle across the region. It’s the realization that genuine mass movements can’t be contained from the inside nor from the outside, neither by dictators nor by Washington’s post-9/11 military and economic hegemony.

However flawed the mechanics of Libya’s revolution have proven so far, the engine of people power can still relaunch itself. And now that the rebellion has moved past the old regime, it’s time for another hollow empire to get out of the way.

Cross-posted from Colorlines.com