Power is a strange thing. Political power comes from having the capacity to control what others can say or do. In the US, that power rests on democratic principles; if anyone goes too far astray in exercising political power they are punished at the ballot box. In authoritarian societies power rests on a calculation: citizens must be satisfied enough and fearful enough to decide that going along with the regime in power is better for them personally than protesting or acting against it.
The leader has two major threats. The most immediate is from other elites. Having power in a country like Libya means numerous perks and advantages, thanks to the oil revenue the country brings in. Other elites would like that power, power draws ruthless people like moths to flame. So a dictator/authoritarian must make sure he is surrounded with security forces loyal to him, and that enough elites benefit from his largesse to the point that they would choose not to risk it all by challenging the leader. Moreover, they would also oppose the challenge of another, since the other is not guaranteed to continue that largesse. Job one, therefore, is to buy the loyalty of elites while maintaining a strong security force.
The other danger, that of popular rebellion, is easier to prevent. Severe repression, including imprisonment, torture, beatings and even death, send a message that resistance bears a high cost. A strong security force with an extensive domestic spying network can pretty much break up any challenge that might start to arise. Individuals don’t resist because they know it will lead to no change in the system but could destroy their lives and families. On top of that, leaders can make people feel comfortable enough — assure basic services, social welfare benefits, and security — that they citizens accept the rationale that the government means stability. Without it, who knows what kind of chaos and horrors could ensue?
Gaddafi apparently had that calculation right for 42 years. Building a cult of personality around himself, connecting with foreign leaders, and buying off the support of tribal chiefs he essentially eliminated the idea of a coup from within. Keeping the public satisfied seemed easier. He felt untouchable in his control of Libya, even after it became clear that his early dreams of uniting the Arab world under his vision of pan-Arabian socialism wasn’t going to happen. He staked out a radical anti-West position, held out against pressure after it was discovered Libya was behind a terror attack against a Pan-Am flight that exploded over Scotland, and leveraged oil resources to bring the West to a grudging acceptance of his rule.
Like Mubarak, however, he didn’t see the domestic world changing around him. This is also similar to the case of Communist leaders in the USSR. Despite warnings from below that the economy was collapsing — in the 70s the Soviet KGB warned that their economy would disintegrate within ten to twenty years — the leaders felt comfortably in charge, buoyed by their international status. In the case of Communism the change was brought by an economy that was fundamentally flawed and unable to innovate or grow. In the Arab world demography and technology were key.
Gaddafi had controlled what his people heard or saw of the outside world. State TV and the press told the government’s side of the story, few people looked elsewhere. Moreover to his generation he was a nationalist hero, someone who overthrew the King and fought against the last vestiges of colonialism. He kicked out the remaining Italians, and seemed to symbolize Libya for the Arabs rather than the Europeans. A desire for security and stability was strong in that generation, and their docility was easy to buy and maintain. Even if they soured on his leadership after awhile, they were used to it, and it seemed the norm.
The youth rising up, however, do not see Gaddafi as a symbol of anti-colonialism, but rather of corruption and repression. They also realize that the vast oil revenues flowing in too often went to Gaddafi’s personal ambitions, be they building projects at home, adventures in African conflicts, or building a large military. The oldest of this new generation led a push for more contacts with the West, something that seemed harmless enough, and would bring more money into the country. The younger, however, embraced this alongside real information about the outside world. As in Egypt al-jazeera brought images of what life could be like (Presidents can be elected rather than simply serve for life!), and laid bare the corruption and stagnation in the Arab world. Resentment grew and all it took was a spark.
Tunisia was that spark; unexpected and sudden, it told the youth that apparently embedded dictators could be overthrown. Technology helped overcome the state’s usual calculation that repression could thwart any protest. Through social media such as facebook and twitter enough people could gather that would get notice — and not be easy to put down. Once a critical mass is reached, such opposition becomes ever harder to put down. The state starts crumbling. That is where Libya is now.
Yet Gaddafi is unable to accept reality. He is so used to power and authority that he and his family cling to it at all costs. His honor and dignity, already sacrificed, seem more important than his country and the lives of Libyans. Power has numbed him to ethical principles. Power is all that matters, he is addicted to it, he’d sooner go down in sea of blood (he’s used that image) than recognize that the world is changing and his time is over. 42 years of power is an impressive run; he’s old, certainly he could find a place of refuge to live out the remaining years in relative comfort.
But no. He can’t imagine that. He sees himself as indispensable, entitled to lead Libya, and betrayed by foreigners and nefarious media organizations. He likely doesn’t understand the youth dynamics, he’s been isolated from the common folk for four decades. The Libya he thinks exists has changed. His state media put out claims that al qaeda is controlling the East (to scare the Europeans) and tries to wrap itself in the anti-colonial symbols that played so well for him in the 1970s. The people tune it out, they know state television is rubbish.
So now we watch as the body count rises, violence grows, and people try to figure out what to do about the situation. Do we intervene, or would that make matters worse? What about the rising cost of oil, and the chance this could spread? One lesson is clear though: power not only corrupts, it addicts.