Libya vs Egypt: Why there is a difference

Updated on Feb 22, 2011 01:23 AM IST

Why isn’t Muammar Qaddafi going the path of Hosni Mubarak? The answer is crucial to the future of the jasmine revolution. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri reports.

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Hindustan Times | ByPramit Pal Chaudhuri, New Delhi

Why isn’t Muammar Qaddafi going the path of Hosni Mubarak? The answer is crucial to the future of the jasmine revolution. After the ease with which the Egyptian and Tunisian rulers fell, there was a sense the Arab revolts would prove less destabilizing than expected. But the bloodshed in Libya and Bahrain has sent a warning that, if anything, the biggest political bombs are yet to explode.

Tunisia and Egypt are among the handful of Arab countries that are effectively detribalised. Egyptian leaders did not depend on the support of clans and tribal confederations. They banked on institutions like the military or a party system. When these institutions, most notably the army, declined to support them, their game was up.

Qaddafi represents what is the Arab norm. For all his talk of pan-Arab socialism, he was a tribal leader. His support derives from his own Qadhadfa tribe. The last attempt to overthrow him, an abortive 1993 coup, was carried out by a coalition of two larger tribes, the Magariha and Warfalla. It failed because the Qadhadfa controlled the air force and bombed the mutineers into submission.

The present Libyan revolt is proving too much for Qaddafi’s tribal rule. The protests first broke out in eastern Libya, an area where he has no kin. By Sunday, when it was clear his attempts to cow the rebels with gunfire was failing, tribal chiefs began coming out against him in public. Tweets coming out of Libya indicate this led soldiers from these tribes to refuse to obey orders. And the ace in Gaddafi’s sleeve, the air force, is useless against a protest that has spread to every city in Libya.

Gaddafi’s willingness to spill blood to stay in power reflects his adherence to tribal politics: chieftains who fall lose everything, including their lives. His clowning ways have meant his best international friend is Italian ruler Silvio Berlusconi, who says his bunga-bunga dances were inspired by Gaddafi.

Here’s a rule of thumb regarding the next wave of the jasmine revolution: the more tribal the polity, the more violent the government’s response. What is worrying for the Persian Gulf states is that their oil revenues have allowed them to escape forging genuine nation-states. Their wealth has bought them social peace without social unity.

They will take some solace in evidence Gaddafi never learnt how to use his oil money to buy the support of other tribes. But tribal regimes are fragile. Another oil-rich state which disintegrated rapidly was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. His support base was his Tikriti clan – which is why his army declined to put up a fight when the US invaded. The other emerging rule of thumb: when the revolt spreads wide enough, all bets are off.

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