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Don't put Libya in the 'revolutions' basket

Suhasini Haidar suhasinih

Updated: March 8, 2011, 4:51 PM IST
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It's a slap that echoed around the world -- and without exaggeration, struck fear in the hearts of dozens of regimes across it. Every cliché from 'forest fire' to 'dominos' to a 'house of cards' has been used in the past weeks to describe what's happened in West Asia ever since 24-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi was pushed around by a policewoman in Tunis. The slap was reportedly the final straw of humiliation for the vegetable seller, already weighed down by inflation and the responsibility of caring for his mother and six brothers and sisters. Bouazizi protested in the most horrific way imaginable, setting himself on fire. That fire grew unbelievably quickly and within a couple of weeks claimed Tunisian President Zinedine Ben Ali's position and forced him and his family out of the country. The pictures of hundreds of thousands swarming Tunis's main boulevard were dramatic, yet had this been the end of it, the world could have moved on.

Except within days, crowds were gathering at other capital city centres in the region, and then another -- Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Pearl roundabout in Manama, the University main square in Sana'a, and on and on -- until about 20 contiguous countries saw mass protests. After Ben Ali, it was Hosni Mubarak's turn to go, and the next may be Bahraini Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa, or Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In many places like Jordan the people were given assurances that the current rulers would not seek a re-election. Other regimes have tried to throw money at the problem. The Emir of Kuwait simply handed out bonuses of 1,000 dinars (about $3,000) transferred to every bank account, the Saudi Arabian King Abdullah injected $37 billion in pay rises and grants to students -- many Gulf countries have raised oil and fuel subsidies, Tunisia promised 1,00,000 new jobs, while even Muammar Qadhafi offered to recharge mobiles with 100 Libyan Dinars each time someone sent an SMS out in praise of him.

To put Libya in the same basket of other 'revolutions', though, would be a mistake. To begin with, each of the countries that are seeing demonstrations has more or less weathered them. Often, because the 'real' power has been not the head of government, but someone else. In Iran it is the Mullahs; in Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, it is the monarchy that holds the key. In Bahrain, it is the Crown Prince Salman bin-Hamad Al-Khalifa, who has been able to broker peace with the protesters who want the Prime Minister (the King's uncle) to go.

In Egypt, it is not the monarchy, but the military that fulfills that role. Many now say the Tahrir Square protests may have pushed Mubarak out, but the real break came some months earlier, after he rigged elections and proposed his son a successor, and the army felt he had broken his contract with it. That may explain why, in a move without any precedent worldwide, the Egyptian military put out a statement clearly supporting the 'legitimate struggle of the people', and refused to open fire on the protesters. The 'M' factor of the power behind the seat of power has in fact led to a strange scenario -- where pro-democracy protesters are targeting their Prime Ministers and Presidents, but not their Army or royalty.

Libya's Gaddafi, and as a result, Gaddafi's Libya are different. Col. Gaddafi seized power in 1969 when, with the help of his own militia and the backing of other tribes, he deposed King Idris. In the decades that followed, he never disbanded his own militia that remains loyal personally to him. He also never allowed his army to be strengthened, spending more resources on building a strong intelligence network instead, that has kept a closer eye on revolt within the country than on an attack from outside. In addition, his sons command their own battalions, and his Al Qadhadfa tribesmen hold key positions in the government and the forces. Despite his comic utterances, Gaddafi's grip on his government is so tight that Indian officials dealing with getting clearances for evacuation flights from Libya, reported the sense that he was personally deciding every landing permit himself.

Also, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya is less susceptible to pressure from the outside world. In his bestselling book, 'The Prize,' Daniel Yergin calls oil Gaddafi's 'jackpot', detailing how the country's vast reserves of crude ensure that Gaddafi has had less to worry from the West cutting ties with him, than the West has to worry if he decides to shut off his pipelines to the Mediterranean. To add to that the IMF now estimates that the Central Bank of Libya has about $110 billion in international reserves, enough to cover at least three years of imports.

Meanwhile, as talk of sanctions and a no-fly zone gain ground in the international community, it must also be remembered that before Gaddafi's rehabilitation in recent years, he spent decades as an international outcaste. After he was charged with ordering the bombing of two planes -- one French and the other American -- that left 400 dead in the 1980s, Libya fell under and withstood strict sanctions till 2002. Gaddafi's own home was bombed, a fact he won't let anyone forget, even as he stood to give one of defiant speeches last week from one of the shelled buildings still preserved from that era.

Gaddafi understands the symbolism of that and many other gestures that frighten both the West and his own people. His bombing of key oil-terminal towns and opening artillery fire on protesters are far more serious than the surreal scene in Cairo's Tahrir Square, when pro-Mubarak riders on camels and horses rode in to attack the crowds.

Clearly the revolt in Libya may have begun as a copycat effect of regional unrest, but its leader Gaddafi will have more to do with scripting how it ends -- whether he digs in for a long and bloody civil war or in the chaos he will leave behind after.

(The piece appeared in The Hindu on March 7, 2011)
First Published: March 8, 2011, 4:51 PM IST

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