The wave of unrest and revolt sweeping the Arab world has spread to Libya, a country which lies between Tunisia and Egypt. This goes along with unrest recently in Yemen, Algeria and Bahrain. In all cases the situation is fluid and government violence has sparked anger. But while the numbers injured or killed remain relatively low in most countries, Libya’s 42 year long dictatorship under Muammar Gaddafi is striking back with force. Reports are that Libyan military aircraft are bombarding protesters and African mercenaries have been hired to slaughter them.
Libyan diplomats and officials are resigning in protest as the Gaddafi regime digs in, with Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam vowing that they would fight against the unrest, noting that Libya is not Egypt. In the UN talk grows of war crimes being committed, while Lord Owen, former British foreign minister, openly contemplates military intervention. Simply, this regime seems determined to use its power to do everything possible to avoid falling.
Yet the people do not seem to care. As in Egypt, the prospect of death and injury seems worth the risk to those who want to rid Libya of a dictator that is not only brutally repressive, but also has squandered oil wealth on his own pet projects of building a large military and involving himself in African conflicts. He’s been oblivious to the changes in Libya, ignoring the “youth bubble” – the median age is 24.
If Gaddafi falls, then its a clear sign that the day of the dictator is over in the Mideast. With oil wealth, it was assumed that Gaddafi, like the Saudi royal family, had the capacity to buy off enough people and isolate his regime from public pressure. If the Libyan revolution succeeds, it is a strong sign that this will continue to spread, remaking the Arab world.
At this point, it does not look likely that Gaddafi can survive. Yet if he has enough troops loyal to him he could try to spread chaos, sabotage Libya’s oil industry, and create a situation where civil society falls apart completely. In a worst case scenario Libya could become like Somalia. Gaddafi would have his revenge on the tribes that he believes betrayed him, and if oil prices climb due to his sabotage, get back at the West for their support of the uprisings.
Like Mubarak, Gaddafi blames al jazeera. To the dictators Al Jazeera is a trouble maker, trying to stir up political dissent in a way that is irresponsible and disruptive. Authoritarians hate a free media. Just as the US was mad at the Qatari based news agency when it reported the truth coming out of Iraq, even bombing the station’s Baghdad facilities and killing one reporter, Gaddafi considers the satellite news outlet to be an enemy. Gaddafi extends his propaganda to criticize Qatar’s government, claiming the Qataris are using Al Jazeera to topple governments in the service of the United States.
People like Gaddafi don’t understand how the world has changed since the days when state run media could control what people knew. A mix of propaganda, state spending and repression could keep a country subdued. After decades of power they came to believe their own propaganda, seeing themselves as legitimate and even indispensable leaders. As Louis XIV said, “L’etat c’est moi.” They blame Al Jazeera as a nefarious and evil agent of subterfuge, when it is really a symbol of how the world is changing. Nobody believes the propaganda any more, especially not the youth, and more than ever they are willing to die to try to force change.
Word early Wednesday morning (Libyan time) is mixed. Gaddafi is said to be ready to use all force at his command to crush opponents, including the air force, bombardment from ships, and the military. He cites China’s Tienanmen Square military action of 1989 in positive terms, and he and his son Saif show no hesitancy to blame the Americans and pretend to represent the true Libyan people. On the other hand, word is that the state is collapsing, the military is not loyal, and countless diplomats and government officials are resigning. Libya’s former Interior Minister Abdul Younis, who just resigned, claims Gaddafi tried to have him killed so he could blame it on the protesters. Supposedly Gaddafi is not so much defiant as frightened, desperate and out of touch.
Even the most defiant and resilient leader cannot hold out when the military and state bureaucracy remove their support. If the people remain steadfast, and pressure from the international community is real, those important actors will recognize that Gaddafi represents a regime that has become obsolete and that they are better off siding with the protesters.
What this means for the region is unclear. Europe modernized over centuries, with bloodshed and rivalries tearing the continent apart. The US modernized in relative isolation, though its superior technology seduced the early Americans to conquer natives and violently expand. Modernization and democratization have always been messy processes, and usually not successful right away. Reactionary forces will also strive to halt change, such as Islamic fundamentalists.
Still, one shouldn’t begrudge the Arab youth their optimism and idealism. They have to overcome a legacy of violence and oppression, and economic reality doesn’t change over night. Once Gaddafi’s anti-American anti-Western tirades won him praise from many corners, and were enough to convince his people that he represented an Arab defiance of the past colonizers. Now as the defiant yet obsolete Gaddafi trots out those old bits of propaganda demonizing the US and the West he simply looks pathetic and out of touch.
The world is changing, get ready for a wild ride.