By Yousef K.B.
When former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali left Tunisia after he lost control of the state following massive protests that gripped his country in January, Arab leaders were silent, each looking on with shock at the prospects of people overcoming their fear and toppling a vicious security state much like theirs. The only voice that spoke up was Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, the president of Libya, known for his off-the-cuff remarks. He told the Tunisian public: “I am very pained by what is happening in Tunisia. Tunisia now lives in fear … Families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or the American Revolution. … What is this for? To change Zine al-Abidine? Hasn’t he told you he would step down after three years? Be patient for three years and your son stays alive.” Seeped in hubris, Gaddafi could not imagine that he was in line to be toppled by his own people.
In just over a week, protests that started over 1000 km in Benghazi have reached the Tripoli the capital of Libya. What is happening in Libya? What is the Libyan government doing? Gaddafi is different than Mubarak in that he has isolated his country from the outside. Information is hard to get from Libya, and most reports from the country cannot be confirmed. However based on these reports and what we know of Gaddafi’s regime, I have put together some thoughts on the situation.
Basic Facts About Libya
Libya is the 4th largest country in Africa and 17th largest in the world. However it is sparsely populated with a population between 6 and 7 million people. About 1.7 million people live in Tripoli, the capital. Libya has one of the largest oil reserves in Africa, and given its small population, it has one of the highest GDP per capita in Africa. I lay this out to suggest that Libya is a very wealthy country based on its natural resources, making Gaddafi’s regime a very rich one. However this has not translated to average Libyans. A semi-official Libyan newspaper issued a report in 2009 that had unemployment at 20.7%, with 16% of the population having no stable source of income, and 43.3% having only one source of income. The reality is probably much more grim. Gaddafi blamed the large gap between the rich and the poor on bureaucratic corruption and inefficiency.
Gaddafi: a Saddam Trying to be More Like Mubarak
Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi in his last televised address (check out an informal translation of the speech) repeated that Libya was not Tunisia and Egypt. I agreed with him on that point, because Gaddafi’s regime can be seen as a mixture of the regimes of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Gaddafi took power in 1969 after deposing King Idris in a bloodless coup by junior military officers. He has ruled of Libya ever since constantly changing the name of his position and how he referred to himself such as Prime Minister (from ‘70-‘72), Colonel, Brother Leader, King of Kings, Guide of the Revolution, and others. Initially Gaddafi’s political economic vision, which he published in the Green Book was a welfare system (which he termed Socialism) economically, and “direct democracy” through “people’s committees and congresses” politically. Sometimes referred to as Islamic Socialism, Gaddafi in recent years has strayed from this type of rhetoric. He decreased his involvement in the Arab League and began to portray himself as more of a Pan-Africanist calling for a EU type United States of Africa.
In this stage of Gaddafi’s rule he resembles Saddam Hussein of Iraq. They claimed Arab nationalism at one point and a twisted sense of Socialism. Using their oil revenues they built a welfare system that provided services. They both initially saw themselves as exporters of revolution, sending aid to popular resistances. However this was part of their eccentric qualities often making outlandish statements and built a state based on a cult-like following of their persona. This state was composed of a security state with an extensive intelligence services that spread fear throughout the population. Their power was based on people fearing them. Their states did not have extensive institutions and a civil society. Power was centralized within the families of Gaddafi and Saddam, and those closest to them. In both cases their sons Qussai in the case of Saddam and Khamis in the case of Gaddafi were in charge of elite military units that were above the formal military and both stroke fear amongst people. The Khamis Brigade was reported to be responsible for the initial shootings at protesters in Benghazi. In both cases power was heavily militarized, it lacked complex institutions, and it was arbitrary based on the changing views of Saddam and Gaddafi.
Beginning in 2001, Gaddafi began shifting his foreign policies and tried to look for ways to change his more anti-Western stances that had characterized him in the 80s with the Reagan administration. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 only quickened this process of change for Gaddafi. In December 2003 he announced that he was abandoning his nuclear and other “WMD” weapons programs. This was followed by a 2.7 billion dollar settlement with the families of Lockerbie plane that was bombed by Libyan agents in 1988. This set in place an easing in Libyan relations with European and American administrations, with former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visiting Libya.
Gaddafi shape shifted once again into a promoter of free markets. In 2004 Libya began accession process into the WTO. Gaddafi began to reduce subsidies, privatized more than 100, of which 29 were completely foreign owned, allowed Libyan banks to enter into partnerships with foreign investors, and eased British Petroleum and Exxon Mobil from entering its lucrative oil sector. There were estimates of more than 2 billion dollars of Foreign Direct Investments in 2009 and investors salivating over the potential tourism sector that can be built in Libya much like the one in Tunisia.
Gaddafi’s son Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi headed Libya’s market oriented reforms. He played a similar role to that of Gamal Mubarak the son of Honsi Mubarak the former ruler of Egypt. Saif and Gamal were favored to replace their fathers (by their fathers and their loyalists), and both were entry points for Transnational Corporations to enter into their respective countries. They received large sums of money, which they siphoned off into the Gaddafi and Mubarak family funds. Gaddafi wanted to become more like his the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents who had opened up their countries and benefiting from the investments monies that was going into their pockets.
They had figured it out it was easier to let Transnational Companies to do the work of generating profits and giving parts of it to them, than they having to develop the infrastructure to generate profits for themselves. Gaddafi retained much more power in himself as compared to Mubarak. His state centralized all power and refused any opening for civil society to be created, relative to what we saw in Egypt’s nominal opening. Political parties in Libya were completely wiped off, whereas in Egypt there were still some parties that functioned albeit in a very limited way.
Gaddafi is different than Saddam in that he opened up his country to capital (which Saddam was hinting at, but wasn’t allowed to), and is different than Mubarak in that he controls a much more centralized state.
Taking a Play from Saddam’s Playbook
As protests have rocked Gaddafi’s state in the last week, Gaddafi’s response is looking more like Saddam’s response to the 1991 revolt than Mubarak or Ben Ali in the last months. Centralized governments without a complex institutional infrastructure are much weaker, because power physically lies in the capital in select buildings that house the president, his bureaucracy, and key military establishments. The state does not have any trenches outside of a single fort. If people can penetrate that fort, then the state collapses. The Egyptian government through its institutions such as the military, the judiciary, the media, the ruling party, and others had developed trenches (albeit few) beyond the fort that could 1) protect the state from falling, and 2) re-construct the state once the central fort had collapsed. What we see in Egypt now is a battle in the trenches, whereas Libya is a battle for the fort itself that is looking to collapse at any moment.
The by-product of such a centralized state is that it can and often does resort to extreme violence once it feels that it is under threat. The Egyptian state and the elites behind the state understood that their rule was untenable under Mubarak. Thus they gave him up and are currently hard at work with the help of the Military to reformulate their power under a new political structure. The governing elites in Libya are more dependent on Gaddafi and do not have any other institutional trenches. The Libyan state lives and dies with Gaddafi. This was the case in Saddam’s Iraq.
In 1991 following Saddam’s defeat in the hands of the first Bush administration in Kuwait, Iraqis especially in the Shi’a South and the Kurdish North rose up and pushed Saddam’s Revolutionary Guard almost close to Baghdad. Saddam feeling the collapse of his regime with the permission of the US and its allies put down the protests in the most brutal fashion, shooting people down from helicopters, tanks, and heavy artillery. What we are seeing in Tripoli today is a similar response by Gaddafi. He has cut off communication, attempted to isolate the protesters and has unleashed vicious military strikes against the protesters. He initially used mercenaries and the loyal Khamis Brigade for fear of defections by his military, but Gaddafi feeling more and more desperate is increasing the level of violence, with reports of heavy artillery and planes bombarding protesters.
What we are witnessing in Libya is an astonishing sign of the power of people who have lost their fear. It is however not the first of its kind. The people of Iraq rose up against Saddam and were brutally suppressed. Their blood was invisible to the world and their voices not heard. Instead they became victims of a 10 year sanctions campaign by the United States, only to become the victims of “Shock and Awe.” What happened to Iraq in 1991 must not be repeated.
The people of Libya are continuing to struggle in the face of unfathomable brutality. We must begin digging trenches behind the front lines in Benghazi and Tripoli, not for the state, but trenches for a resistance movement. We must support the Libyans as we did the Egyptians, the Tunisians. We must support Bahrainis, Yemenis, Algerians, and Moroccans. What we are witnessing is a global insurgency, that manifested itself in 1994 in Chiapas, across Latin America, and now it can be seen in North Africa and the Middle East. We must build a new collective consciousness and new trenches of support for this transnational movement.