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Books on Libya

Update No: 086 - (28/01/11)

A Wind of Change from Tunisia
The general secretary of the Arab League, Amr Moussa recently addressed a gathering of Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh. The meeting was marked by the ‘eerie’ absence of president Ben Ali. Even as President Mubarak tried to shift attention away from Tunisia, Amr Moussa opened the gathering stating: "The Arab citizen entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration….The Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession."

The popular uprising in Tunisia, and to some extent the riots in Algeria, have brought the Arab citizen’s frustration and anger to the frontline of political debate in North Africa and the Middle East. The uprising, which culminated in the departure of president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 and his temporary exile in Saudi Arabia, has raised many questions about regional stability, especially as the events leading to the collapse of the Tunisian government happened so quickly. The uprising also prompts the question as to whether or not the Tunisian revolt, now popularly known as the Jasmine Revolution, will lead to more democracy in North Africa and the Arab world in general. Doubtless, several Arab countries present similar grievances to those expressed by Tunisians who took to the streets in December and early January demanding radical changes from Ben Ali. Most Arab countries have an overwhelmingly young population, high unemployment - and underemployment - and few avenues for educated people to develop their skills and widespread corruption and cronyism. The cost of living has increased throughout the region at a fast pace, but the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ is far more a revolt in the Iranian ‘green’ style of 2009, or even the style of the Iranian revolution of 1979 (before it was hijacked by Imam Khomeini and his ‘Velayat-e-Faqih’ principle) than it is a ‘bread revolt’.

This is what makes it so important; it represents a spontaneous uprising against a powerful dictatorship prompted by inherent structural and political motivations. Inevitably, given the presence of similarly large populations of educated and unemployed youth in many parts of the Arab world, there has been much speculation as to what effects Tunisia will have on its neighbors. Despite the similarities, each country also presents unique sets of conditions and scenarios that make imitations more or less likely.

What effect will Tunisia have on Libya?
The Libyan leader, Qadhafi, said he was "very pained" to witness the collapse of “his friend Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime”, fearing that Tunisia would collapse from fear and insecurity. He wishes that Tunisians were more patient: “What is this for? – wonders Qadhafi - To change Zine El Abidine? Hasn't he told you he would step down after three years? Be patient for three years and your son stays alive”. The Tunisian uprising appears to have inspired popular revolts in Egypt over the past few days; this was foreseeable given the botched legislative elections last November and the forthcoming presidential election in September. Egypt is well equipped to ‘manage’ revolts and the Mubarak regime is not under immediate threat, though it is all but certain that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, by many considered the likely successor to the leadership of the government NDP party, will have to give up any such ambition. It is too early to say, but even if that were the only positive outcome, many would feel it to have been worthwhile.

In Libya, however, there is little likelihood of any Tunisian ‘contagion’. Certainly, the Libyan leadership noted the uprising in Algeria and Tunisia, taking pre-emptive action by increasing subsidies for basic consumer goods, abolishing taxes and duties on imported food to address higher food costs of rice, wheat, sugar and baby formula. Nevertheless, apart from a potential for street protests in Benghazi, which has typically been more susceptible to episodes of violence than other parts of the country (episodes which should be averted by the pre-emptive efforts to curb prices), Libya’s stability relies on tribal allegiance that buttress the leadership of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi.

The lower population density and overwhelming use of the oil wealth to co-opt the population, for lack of other mechanisms to establish legitimacy, and a well-known legacy of state violence against dissidents should be sufficient in isolating any mass demonstration, preventing it from gaining the kind of countrywide momentum seen in Tunisia. This is not to suggest, however, that young and educated Libyans are not longing for the kind of opportunities to develop as their counterparts in Tunisia; it’s simply that the hydrocarbon wealth in Libya gives the leadership more tools to absorb potential threats than Tunisia. If prices are too high, oil sales can be used to subsidize lower prices. Had the Tunisian protests occurred in a period of low oil prices, such as the late 1980’s and mid-1990’s, the threat of contagion would have been greater. It was during those years that Libya faced some of the most serious challenges to the regime, marked by food riots, increased Islamist activity in Benghazi and at least two attempts on Qadhafi’s life. Nevertheless, the Libyan regime is not immune from having to implement changes.

The Tunisian revolts have raised the issue of the Libyan succession saga once again, even as it seemed that in the past few months the conservative elements had succeeded in alienating the reform minded Saif ul-Islam al-Qadhafi to the benefit of his younger brother Mu’tasim Bilal, who has close ties to the armed forces and the Revolutionary Committees – that is to say the ‘conservative’ establishment. Even as Libyan politics remain stagnant at best, seeing as high (and potentially higher) oil prices are absorbing any latent pressure for change, Saif’s fortunes have risen to the fore in view of a recent wave of scandals involving his more ‘conservative’ brothers over the new year. Saif has managed to preserve a favorable image with the very kind of Libyans that would have sympathized with the Tunisian protests, the technocratic, educated youth, eager for more opportunities for personal development rather than simply ‘bread’.

The main effect of the Tunisian revolution in Libya will have been to prompt a new wave of infighting within the Qadhafi family. It might be said that Saif ul-Islam himself represents the aspirations of Libyans who long for the ‘Tunisian effect. Saif has used his media company, al-Ghad, to publish articles attacking senior military officers about corruption, urging the defense ministry to be handed over to civilian control. Saif also accused the army of being too large for Libya’s actual needs, questioning the quality of its training. In December, the al-Ghad group was forced to move out of Libya after a crackdown by security forces in the wake of the accusations against the armed forces. Over the course of 2010, Saif ul-Islam frequently clashed with the old guard, including his brothers, surrounding his father. Saif’s political position, which not so long ago appeared bright as the likeliest successor to his father, has become far less certain in the past year. The Tunisian revolution has boosted his political value seeing as for many Libyans and outsiders, Saif has earned the reputation of being a champion of human rights and political reform. The Qadhafi family feud is on.

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