by Patrick Vibert
“Those people who took your sons away from you and gave them drugs and said let them die are launching a campaign over cellphones against your sons, telling them not to obey their fathers and mothers, and they are destroying their country”
-Colonel Muammar Qaddafi
As the Arab Revolt continues to engulf North Africa and the Middle East, Libya appears to be the next country on the brink of regime change. The oil rich eastern part of the country, including the city of Benghazi, has already fallen, and towns in the west are following suit. Qaddafi is currently holed up in Tripoli (the capital) with a few thousand mercenaries and loyalists, and everything he has said or done so far indicates that he is not going down without a fight.
Qaddafi’s handling of Libya’s unrest thus far indicates he is a man whose soul is every bit as ugly as his physical appearance. He sent out his thugs to stamp out the fire of the protesters using whatever means necessary, including going door-to-door killing dissidents, and ordered the Air Force to bomb protesters. At least two pilots refused, choosing instead to eject and crash their jets into the desert.
The rebels are closing in on Tripoli and the battle for Libya seems to be reaching the decisive point. Qaddafi is reportedly gathering his remaining loyal forces including something the press is ominously referring to as the “irregular army”. Whatever happens, there is no going back for Qaddafi and the citizens of Libya.
The case of Libya resembles that of Tunisia and Egypt, but several factors set it apart. Libya is a major oil exporter. The army is not respected by the people. Tribalism remains a powerful aspect of Libyan society. Qaddafi is not a rational actor. Libya has no civil society. The transition to democracy (if that is where Libya is heading) is unlikely to be peaceful and civil war remains a strong possibility. For our purposes, these are the key facts.
Muammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969. He was 27 years old. Qaddafi made it his goal to be the thorn in the side of America, becoming one of the world’s worst state sponsors of terrorism in the process. Libya began investing heavily in chemical weapons manufacturing.
After the US removal of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 however, the despot realized that there was little to be gained by being hostile to the world’s remaining superpower. Qaddafi agreed to halt WMD development and essentially “came in from the cold”, opening up Libya to foreign direct investment. Since then, Libyans have seen capital flooding into their sparsely populated nation, particularly from Europe.
Despite the increased presence of foreign dollars, Qaddafi maintained an iron grip on his citizens, ruthlessly punishing dissent. Some societies will tolerate totalitarianism if enough is gained in return in the form of stability and quality of life (see Saudi Arabia, whose GDP per capita is higher than Poland and Portugal). Unfortunately for Qaddafi, he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.
One could make the argument that Libya’s unrest is based on natural resources. Libya is in the top 20 exporters of oil and natural gas, and it has relatively small population of about 6 million people. The exact same thing could be said about Norway, which also is a lead exporter of oil & natural gas with relatively small population. Yet the difference in the quality of life between Norway and Libya is almost immeasurable*.
*While traveling in Jordan some years ago, I met two Americans who were working as civil engineers in Libya. They told me that they got a four weeks paid leave every third month (basically a month off every season) as well as a plane ticket to anywhere in the world. Astounded, I thought about this for a minute before responding, “Wow, Libya must be real shitty”. They each concurred with this assessment.
However, I have also heard that Libya has some of the best historical ruins (both Roman and Islamic) in the entire world, as well as breathtaking natural beauty. As a result of these two conflicting accounts, I am eager to find out for myself. Hopefully a post-Qaddafi Libya will be more conducive to tourism.
This must be frustrating for the people of Libya, who have watched the Qaddafi regime squander the country’s natural resources and make little improvement to the nation’s infrastructure over the last 40 years. Libya should be doing better. At the same time, they have watched other resource-rich countries like UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain provide a much higher quality of life for their citizens. Maybe the people of Libya realized that the world was quickly passing them by and placed the blame on their longtime ruler.
Throughout his tenure, Colonel Qaddafi made it a point to eliminate any semblance of civil society. From the LA Times:
Libyans stand almost alone among other Arabs for the extreme isolation they experienced not only under Qaddafi’s iron-fisted rule but over a decade of international sanctions for the country’s role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Until a few years ago, Internet communications were virtually nonexistent and the only local news source was state media. Satellite television, especially Al Jazeera, had opened Libyan eyes to developments in the world and region, but reports about Libya by international or independent journalists had been a rarity.
Libyans thus had little opportunity to assemble components of civil society. Political associations, human rights organizations, independent professional associations or trade unions were all strictly proscribed, and organized opposition to the “ideology of the 1969 revolution” was punishable by death. On my first visit to Libya in 2005, the specially selected “civil society representatives” permitted to talk with us, and even government officials we met, displayed anxiety about expressing any opinions outside their sanctioned talking points. They literally recited chapter and verse of the Green Book, Qaddafi’s small manuscript on governance. The performance was unmatched by anything I had seen in Syria and Iraq.
A strong civil society does not necessarily lead to a Jeffersonian Democracy (see Iran) but it can help, especially when a country attempts to find its way forward after 40 years under dictatorship.
Tribalism still plays a strong role in Libya. The only Libyan I have ever met (perhaps a testament to the country’s closed-offness) was in grad school. He told me that the state provided very little to people outside the major cities. As a result, a large portion of the population (over half, according to my friend) relied on tribal affiliations for social services.
If Libyans are depending on their individual tribes more than they are on the government, it does not bode well for the country going forward in terms of national unity. In a post-Qaddafi world, tribal differences could contribute to chaos in a fractured society as the various tribes vie for control. Here is a good summary of the tribal situation in Libya.
Even with officers defecting and pilots crashing their planes in refusal to bomb civilians, the military situation in Libya is vastly different from that of Egypt. In Egypt, the military was a respected part of society; it was responsible for protecting the country’s borders, not squashing civil disobedience. The Egyptian military’s strength was exhibited in the way that it handled the unrest, taking sides with the protesters against the police while stabilizing the country.
In Libya, the military is not as strong or trusted. A post-Qaddafi Libya could see various military factions competing for power, possibly along tribal lines. Libya’s tribal and military characteristics could contribute to chaos if the Qaddafi regime indeed falls, making the prospect of civil war far more likely than in Egypt or Tunisia.
Libya under Qaddafi has had an interesting relationship with the United States. For instance, in 1986 Qaddafi arranged the bombing of a Berlin disco, resulting in the death of two US servicemen. To teach him a lesson, Reagan ordered the bombing of targets in Libya, which resulted in the death of Qaddafi’s adopted daughter. In retaliation, Libyan agents arranged the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. This explains Libya’s frosty relations with America, 1969 to 2011.
The combination of Libya’s small population and vast supplies of oil and natural gas (as well as its geographic location) should have led to a far wealthier and educated Libyan society. It hasn’t, and the people are fed up. Libya’s manifestation of the Arab Revolt will not go as smoothly as it did in Egypt or Tunisia. A weak and untrusted military combined with the complex tribal affiliations of Libyan society should contribute to post-Qaddafi chaos. As the situation in Libya grows more unstable, so does its leader, who could turn to his chemical weapons arsenal as he becomes more desperate in his bid to retain power.