The Arab world I have known and worked with over the last fifty-plus years has plenty of cards in it, including an assortment of kings and knaves, but Muammar Qaddafi stands out as the number one wild card. Nutty as a fruit cake, he dressed and looked like an escapee from an asylum. His little “Green Book” supplemented the Quran for his subjects, earning him the dubious distinction of heretic in the eyes of conservative Muslims elsewhere in the region. In 1980, jealous of the Iranians for stealing all the front page headlines, he ginned up a mob of young hooligans who stormed our Embassy in Tripoli and wrecked it, while our Charge, my friend the late Bill Eagleton, vacated the place with his staff out a back door and up an alley. And then of course there was the shooting down of the plane over Lockerbie. Plus much more, but I think I’ve made my point.
Now he is establishing his unique position in the pantheon of toppling Arab dictators by strafing his own people with his Air Force, causing many casualties and leading many of his own diplomats to defect. Well, if you turn the keys of the nuthouse over to the nuttiest inmate, what do you expect?
Anne Applebaum made a good point in yesterday’s Washington Post when she pointed out that we are not just dealing with a single movement in the Middle East, but rather with a whole series of country-specific events, each of which has to be treated as a singular happening understandable only in the light of its own circumstances. Here are some features of Libya that may help us explain what is happening there now and what to expect:
It is a big country with a very small population where traditional tribal affinities are still very important. The colonial experience under Italy didn’t change this very much, as the Italians never were obsessed with a sense of “civilizing” their colonial subjects, the way the French and British were. Qaddafi was fairly clever in using these tribal bonds, which is one reason he was able to stay in power as long as he did.
Another important reason was oil, and the enormous revenue it produced. Though many Libyans were privately unhappy at having a clown as their chief of state, they couldn’t grumble too much about economic hardship, as the regime spread the wealth around enough to keep the people that mattered fairly satisfied. Meanwhile there was plenty of money to pay to educate Libyans abroad and generally pay for the emergence of a modern educated class.
These are among the factors that distinguish Libya from Tunisia and Egypt. I would not be surprised if the current leaders in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were more concerned about Libya right now than they were about its next-door neighbors. I would be.