Reflections on the Libyan Uprising

News Release Date: 

Reflections on the Libyan Uprising

As published in its entirety from The Ohio State University College of Arts & Sciences
Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hassan Aly, professor of economics, has been in Egypt since January 17. He is currently in Alexandria, watching the events in Libya unfold. Here are his thoughts on the Libyan uprising -- the history and context in which these events should be observed:

Libya is going through a major and unprecedented unrest that has now spread from Benghazi east to the outskirts of Tripoli west. As of today, February 20, 2011, reports of at least 200 protesters killed by live bullets, government building being burnet, hired mercenaries attacking demonstrators, threat by the Libyan government to the European Union not to encourage protesters, are filling the airwaves. The question now is Libya going to catch up with its two neighbors (Tunisia and Egypt).

Following a 1969 military coup, Colonel Muammar Gaddafy led Libya for the last 42 years as the revolutionary, visionary, and absolute leader. He introduced his own political system, the Third Universal Theory, manifested in what is known as the “Green book” as a combination of socialism and Islam derived in part from tribal practices. The system is to be implemented by the Libyan people themselves in a unique form of "direct democracy."

Libya is a mono-carbon resource economy that depends chiefly on the revenues from the oil sector, which contribute about 95% of export earnings, 25% of GDP, and 80% of government revenue. Accordingly, Libya is considered one of Africa’s wealthiest nations - with the continent’s largest proven oil reserves and the third largest African producer behind Angola and Nigeria.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Gaddafy used the oil funds to promote his own ideology outside Libya, through some unsuccessful adventures. He supported subversives and what he considered revolutionary movements abroad. In 1973, he started military operations in northern Chad but was forced to retreat in 1987. In the 1990s the regime started suffering from UN sanctions and isolation following the downing of Pan AM Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The economy stagnated and only after Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, and announced it would abandon programs to build weapons of mass destruction when the process of lifting sanctions started. Only on June 2006, all sanctions were removed and Libya started to fully join the community of nations. A timid process of liberalization started in the 2000s and initial steps to lay the foundation for a transition to a more market-based economy were taken.

The recent global financial crises did not impact Libya much. The lower commodity prices eased inflation to approximately 2.5% in 2009, as compared to 10.4% year-on-year before. Furthermore, the high oil prices in the last few years have created surpluses that cushioned Libya’s budget and helped in establishing the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). LIA is the largest sovereign wealth fund, created in 2007 with a starting capital of USD 65 billion and used by the government to assert regional and global influence. LIA has investments in Europe, Africa and Latin America. However, the development programs in Libya are still timid and lack vision and directions. Reformist actions in the government (represented by the Gaddafi’s son- Saif Al-Islam) are always resisted by old guards and beneficiaries of the current status.

Libya shares with its neighbors the following characteristics:

                                             Tunisia                     Egypt                      Libya

Youth Rate of Unemployment      30%                        34%                          30%

Median Age                               29.7                        24                          24.2

Literacy Rate                             74.3%                    82.6%                      71.4%

GDP per capita                   $9,472.07            $6,224.54              $13,778,63

CPI                                            4.5%                     11.7%                        4.5%

Population (Million)                  10,589                   80,471                      6,461

From the table above, it is clear that Libya shares the main economic indicators that are considered the culprits behind the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt: The rate of unemployment among the youth (over 30%) and the median age (under 30s). Libya however has the smallest population size and the highest per capita income.

The current unrest started, as in the other two cases, by the activists calling for a day of protests on February 17, the fifth anniversary of protests in Benghazi in 2006. Websites and web-pages have been set up (especially by Libyans in exile) to encourage and promote action against the regime.

In late January, the authorities declared a state of emergency and tightened policing and security in eastern Libya, in towns such as Al-Beida, Benghazi, Derna and Tobruk and also arrested some political activists who had been calling for protests. However, in a conciliatory move, the regime set free over one hundred prisoners from the Islamist movement.

Muammar al-Gaddafy is the longest serving president in the Arab world (42 years). Libya's political system under Gaddafy has been stagnant for decades and political reform has been very slow and the system thought to be lacking any reformists or mavericks except for Gaddafy's own son, Seif al-Islam.

The same issue that incited bitterness and created a lot of resentment in Egypt. Gaddafy is delegating many powers to his second son (Saif al Islam) in order to groom him as the next candidate to inherent the father presidential office. Like their bordering Egyptians neighbours, many Libyans view the idea of dynastic succession with a lot of distaste.

Majority of Libyans regard Gaddafy a little more than a dictator. Despite his official position only as 'supreme leader of the revolution' and 'brother leader', Gaddafy's power is absolute. He uses brutal police state forces to kill, jail, and destroy any opposition. Thus, survivors, relatives of victims, and others (inside and outside Libya) harbour memories of crimes and abuses committed by the regime, such as the Abu Slim prison massacre in the late 1990s.

Gaddafy’s seven children have accumulated economic and political interests and fostered heavy resentment by the public. In addition, some of the children attracted negative attention for thuggish behaviour and disregard of the rule of laws, even outside the country.

Gaddafy’s major sin is the waste, inept, and poor management of the country’s wealth. Pursuing personal political adventures to assert himself as a global leaders did cost Libya billions of dollars. As a consequence, he engaged the country in major projects that were either total failure or simply poorly managed. The building of neo-clear facility that was given up latter is a prime example. Payments of huge financial compensation to families of victims of terror acts, committed by Gaddafy’s cronies, are another example. The regime failed in doing more for the poor, failed to improve urban infrastructure, and overall, corruption went on almost totally unaddressed as seen from the table above and the cases in Egypt and Tunisia, the large cohort of people between 15 and 40 years of age, coupled with a high rate of youth unemployment is the recipe for explosion.

The regime in Libya depends on creating fear and terror as deterrents to challenging it. Libya's population of 6.5 million is sparsely distributed over a large country. The long distances between towns and cities, and especially between Tripoli and Benghazi (over 1000 kilometre), is an advantage for the government to suppress protest incidents, however, it is also plays in favour of separatist movements. Also, the government owns or controls all print media, mobile telecommunications and internet services. In addition, Libya’s wealth (200 billion dollars in foreign exchange reserves alone) can be used as new subsidies or cash distributions in order to command public loyalties and buy favours.

Nevertheless, a number of particular characteristics of Libya are likely to carry events to a more dramatic conclusion, notably:

•The regime is known for its brutality and the security forces and army in Libya have no training on issues such as human rights and dealing with protesters. Most likely, the response will be crude and vicious. Thus, the level of violence and death will be high and once blood is shed, it will be hard for the regime to stay on.

•Once protesters cross certain lines (i.e. calling for Gaddafy’s ouster) there is no going back. Due to the brutality of the system, protesters will fear being pursued jailed, and killed if they go back. Thus, they will stay in the streets and go all the way to destroy the regime (kill or be killed).

•Tribal composition of Libya makes it different than Tunisia and Egypt but easier to ignite. If the government forces kill one individual from a certain tribe, it becomes a personal fight between the tribe as a whole and the army or the police force in order to revenge the killing.

•Tribal loyalties may supersede national loyalties and soldiers or police officers could split on tribal lines (the recipes of civil war).

•Most of the Libyan intellectuals live outside Libya and they are forming an important pressure group, and mobilizing international opinion against the regime. International and outside pressure could play a major role in pushing the regime to give up, especially since Gaddafy knows what international isolation and economic sanctions means.

•The sparse population in the country and the long distance between the population centres (east and west) makes it easier for protesters to control remote cities and thus calls for separation movements is much easier.

The outlook for Libya does suggest that contagion is possible and Libyans, as much as their Tunisians and Egyptians neighbors, can be mobilized in a sustained manner to challenge the regime. The current unrest could muster the power to overthrow Gaddafy or at least to form a separate movement that will divide Libya between its eastern part (BenGhazi) and western part (Tripoli).

Hassan Y. Aly,
February 20, 2011