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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dominoes: Tunisia --> Egypt --> Libya (?)

Yours, with thoughts in North Africa, Analyst,


Libya lies to the south of the Mediterranean and in sandwiched between Algeria in the West and Tunisia in the North West and, and Egypt in the East.  Muammar al-Gaddafi has ruled the country since 1969.  Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia in presidential capacity since Oct 1981 and Nov 1987 respectively.  They have now departed.  Will  Muammar al-Gaddafi be next?  Let us begin with a very brief background:

Protests in Libya began on Feb 15.  Human Rights Watch has reported over a 100 deaths.  What started in Benghazi has spread to Albayda and Derna.  The rage continues (which makes twitter a more appropriate medium than a blog).

So then, is it spring or is it a false spring for democracy in Libya?

The situation in Libya is developing at the time of this writing.  What I engage in below is predictive analysis.  Back to the Q, I place my bets on the latter.  We will find out in a few weeks whether I am right.  Time tips it all!  Before we discuss further I must mention one critical assumption I make - foreign powers will not act decisively enough to tip the balance in Libya.

1. Harbingers Gaddafi has had the advantage of Tunisia and Egypt serving as harbingers of a surge in youth power.  This has given him adequate time to (re)identify those he can rely on, the sops he can throw at those with genuine grievances but without a thirst for political power, prep up counter-protesters and, find lines that he can hold should the situation escalate (which has already happened).

2. Internet Penetration Social networking sites were critical to sustaining the momentum in the recent protests.  The internet penetration in Egypt is 16%.  In Libya, it is a meagre 5% [1].  The unrest in Libya has thus far remained concentrated in regions that are geographically distant from the seat of 'real' power (see more on this below).  The dependence of momentum on internet communication is far greater in Libya than in Egypt where protests began in Cairo itself.

3. Power Structure in Libya

3A. The Current Structure There are two power centers - the Revolutionary Leadership, led by Gaddafi, and the People's Congresses.  However, the Revolutionary Leadership can neither be voted out nor dismissed.  The executives of the People's Congresses are elected every four years.  The candidate list that the electorates choose from is approved by the Revolutionary Leadership which also enjoys veto power over any decision made by the Congresses.  The armed forces in Libya, unlike those of Egypt, neither have their own independent power structure nor do they derive their strength from foreign links.  It is true though that the lower rungs have dissatisfied elements.  Indeed, they appear to be involved in the protests.  However, as mentioned before, they do not have surprise on their side.  In all  past uprisings around the globe that I know of where lower-ranked officers have succeeded, the surprise factor has been essential.

3B. Comparisons with Pre-revolutionary Iran Hydrocarbon-related industries accounted for about 50% of the GDP and oil income accounted for about 80% of government revenues in pre-revolutionary Iran.  In Libya hydrocarbon and mineral extraction related industries account for even higher - at a staggering 95% of the GDP.  As a result, the state's tax extraction capability is weak and therefore and therefore information channels are not organized to identify productive sectors or regions of the economy.  Therefore economic dynamism in  Libya  relies critically on patronage structures.

Pre-revolutionary Iran had an urbanization rate of over 50%.  Libya is even more urbanized - nearly 90% of its population lives in urban areas.  The urban unemployment rate in Libya is much higher.  Youth frustration would therefore appear worse in Libya.  However, unlike pre-revolutionary Iran, Libya lacks autonomous Persian bazaars [2].  Also, unlike pre-revolutionary Iran, it lacks religious authorities who could provide a rallying point for moral authority.  Thus while urban frustration may indeed be higher in Libya 2011 than it was in Iran 1979 (it appears so, but I really do not know), it is without avenues for organized expression. [added Feb 25, 2011, 2355 Hrs GMT: After the Soviets were sent packing from Afghanistan in early 1989, the battle-hardened surplus fanned out across the globe; some of them ended up in new foreign lands (e.g., in Jammu & Kashmir, India) and some returned back to their home countries to replicate their Afghan triumph.  LIFG was formed by an assortment of such  returnees who mainly hailed from the same eastern towns where Libya-2011 protests took seed.  Between the mid to late 1990s LIFG carried out assassination attempts on Gaddafi and his regime members.  In the late 1990s however Gaddafi succeeded in fisting this group into submission.  At least that is what appears if you consider ground-action by LIFG as a measure of its existence.  Could this measure however be incorrect?  If yes then, that would falsify my conclusion that "urban frustration ... in Libya 2001 ... is without avenues for organized expression".  I am humbled by the fact that the Shah of Iran having crushed opposition from the religious authorities in the 1960s and early 70s continually scoffed at the idea that they are anything but a spent force.  History however took a different trajectory - the Islamists attracted both the religiously motivated and the secular modernists.  By the time the Shah smelt his coffee it was too late.]

4. Geographic Location of the Protests The protests started in Benghazi which is the industrial and commercial center of Libya.  Then they spread eastwards to the towns of Alquba, Albayda and Derna (see the map) and have thus far remained centered in the eastern part of the country.  Tripoli, the seat of power of Gadaffi, however lies in the far western end of Libya [3]

Map 1: Geography of Libyan protests: Protests in the East (B, C, D).  Political power in the West (A).

It appears that the protesters have chosen to gain strength in parts of Libya where oil wealth is not the only source of economic activity.  That this region is geographically far from Tripoli affords them protection from immediate reprisal and insulates their movement from confusion  or dilution that strong counter-protests can induce.  It also suggests, contrary to reports in the international media, that the unrest is directed at the local government and not at Gaddafi himself [4].

Now, even if the protesters manage to hold on to their gains in the East (I doubt it as they are without an effective leadership or an ideological anchor), how would they carry their movement into Tripoli where counter-protesters and a ruler who has had the time to prepare in advance awaits with forces, who on several occasions in the past have demonstrated staunch loyalty to Muammar al-Gaddafi?      
[1] 2008 est. source: World Bank, self-estimates
[2] The Persian bazaars acted as a magnet for those disaffected with the Shah's system.  It is where such people found camaraderie, employment and developed social networks.  Even though the bazaars enjoyed substantial autonomy from the Shah's governance apparatus, oil wealth would flow there in the form of contracts for pieces of work outsourced to SMEs by those belonging to the thin layer of the Shah's patronage structure. 
[3] By road, Tripoli is over 1000 km from Benghazi and over 1300 from Derna.
[4] Gadaffi proclaimed a few days back that he would join the people in their protests against the government!

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