The Benghazi Tea Party What does it take to be a revolutionary? Sophie McBain talks to those who would or did overturn the system in Libya, Britain and America
The Benghazi Tea Party
What does it take to be a revolutionary? Sophie McBain talks to those who would — or did — overturn the system in Libya, Britain and America
‘THE ELEVENTH OF February 2011, the day that Hosni Mubarak stepped down in Egypt, was one of the best days of my life,’ says Mark Bergfeld, a leading student organiser for the Socialist Workers Party in the UK. ‘It showed that ordinary people had the power to get rid of unelected, illegitimate, oppressive regimes. We saw the youth and students in the streets of Tahrir who looked just like us, and the fact that they were using revolutionary means to change lives was very inspirational.’
Bergfeld might easily have recognised himself in Nader Ettajouri, a Libyan who also says his political ideas were formed at university in the UK. He joined anti-government protests in Tripoli a week after Mubarak’s death.
After spending much of the revolution doing humanitarian work, Ettajouri took up arms against the government in the final months of the war. His decision was instinctive: ‘I wanted to fight my way back to Tripoli, because as a Tripolitanian I felt it was our war, no one else would do it better than us. My family was still stuck inside, and I wanted to liberate my city.’
Bergfeld made headlines last year when he condoned the use of ‘legitimate force’ against police during the student protests — but he says his position was misrepresented. ‘Looking back, I used the wrong word, because everyone latched on to it. But I think a lot of people don’t understand what legitimate force means,’ he says.
‘Legitimate force is effectively that the mass of ordinary people — students, workers, employees — are allowed to oppose government with force when it is no longer democratically accountable. And that means that if police start battering students, and almost killing a student — as they did with Alfie Meadows — students have the right to self-defence.’
The year 2011, like 1989, was a year of revolutions, this time in the Arab world. And while we may not have had revolutions in the West, it had been a long time since Western democracies had been faced with so many people on the streets. For activists in Europe and the US, the Arab Spring has been an inspiration.
‘Since 2008, we’ve seen that rulers can’t rule as they could before — we’ve witnessed intense repression, an unjust coalition and more exploitation because the system isn’t producing enough profit,’ says Bergfeld. ‘You could easily see Cameron or Clegg taking a step too far that will change the entire situation. What people who don’t believe in revolution don’t understand is how quickly things can change.’
If this sounds far-fetched, consider that I spent the night before the Libyan revolution at a diplomatic dinner in Tripoli where not one of the gathered political analysts and diplomats believed revolution would spread to Libya.
ON THE OTHER side of the Atlantic, the Tea Party is proposing a radical rethink of US politics, albeit from a completely different side of the political spectrum. Joanne Jones is vice-president of the Charleston Tea Party and has been organising political rallies since April 2009.
‘We want leaner government, lower taxes and government officials who are more responsible with their money,’ she says. This may not sound especially dramatic, but it’s a matter of degree. The Tea Party is calling for a fundamental refiguring of the modern state: Jones mentions axing social security and Medicare, and even the abolition of the Department of Education at one point.
‘We have seen what happens when you stop paying attention: politicians who spend too long in their jobs and get too much power forget that their real purpose is to serve the people.’
Although the Tea Party supports change through the ballot box, it is calling for greater political involvement from its members.
‘We encourage our members to get out and work for a local candidate, or on school boards, or local government,’ says Jones. ‘Regardless of where your interest lies, find a candidate, get involved in the process, find out what you can do to make a change and think, “What can I do myself?” When people say they aren’t happy with a candidate and say, “There’s nothing I can do,” then that’s just the easy way out.’
We’ll still be discussing the legacy of the Arab Spring for months to come: analysing current events in the Middle East and wondering if dictators in other parts of the world are still feeling jittery. What might be less discussed is the how indebted movements as diverse as the Tea Party in the US and Socialist Workers Party in the UK are to the Arab Spring. Wherever you lie on the political spectrum, wherever you are in the world, the idea that individuals have the power to overthrow governments can be very powerful indeed.
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