Joining the ranks of previous and ongoing uprisings in Tunisia , Egypt , Bahrain, Yemen, and Jordan  comes news of a very serious uprising in Libya. I must admit that it is not surprising that with the successful overthrow of dictators in two of Libya’s neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, it is not at all surprising to find the nutty but cruel dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi under difficulties. What is surprising is to hear rumors that he has fled the country to Venezuela after only a week of uprising which even Gaddafi’s own son admits have taken over the eastern city of Benghazi , which would be an indication that Gaddafi’s rule is tottering and near collapse as well.
Unlike some nations where there is clearly a longstanding Islamist pressure (like Egypt or Yemen) or a clear ethnic and religious divide between rulers and ruled (as in Bahrain), Libya would appear to have at first glance no such pressure, not being known for its lengthy Islamist revolts and being made up largely of Berber and Arab-Berber stock. What is notable though is that Libya’s sparse population has a somewhat artificial nationality that has led to ferocious federalist pressures between the capital of Tripoli, on the west side of the country, and its second city of Benghazi to the east.
This federalist tendency, which so far as I can tell has not been handled competently since Italy’s conquest in 1911 forced the previously separate provinces into a union under Italian colonial rule, is mirrored by weaknesses within the Gaddafi regime, where some of Gaddafi’s family members are seeking to develop their own fiefdoms within the family business of Libyan government, adding some mixed nuts to the nutty dictator’s regime. Saif al-Islam, who has conceded that the Gaddafi regime has lost control of the Eastern cities, has been seeking in recent years to curry favor with the powerful military units of one of his brothers in ways that may not be fully approved by the regime itself . A civil war within the Gaddafi family weakens their own ability to hold on to power against a popular revolt. A house divided cannot stand, after all.
What is remarkable is that the apparent stability of so many of these Middle Eastern regimes appears to have been superficial but lacking in depth. People can be in power for many decades and believe their power is secure because of their ability to schmooze with foreign leaders, receive foreign aid that goes directly into palaces and personal bank accounts and not the people, with a complete disregard for serving the people one governs or doing anything useful for anyone outside of one’s clique or family. But the lack of legitimacy of that authority, in the light of deep divisions papered over by a superficial unity in name only, eventually come to light in hostile and ferocious uprisings. There is a lesson here somewhere that others can pay heed to.
If I were a dictator or monarch in any North African or Middle Eastern nation right now, I would be very concerned. When your regime has reached the level where unarmed young adults who are engineers and other conservative professionals are willing to march against tanks and mercenary soldiers and face death rather than suffer in silence under your regime, your time is up. After all, engineers and other well-educated professional types (I speak as one myself) are hardly the most radical of revolutionaries. When people would rather die than submit, and are willing to videotape repression on their cellphones and send it to CNN so that the word gets out to the world at large, there are very few steps that one can take to recover the situation.
I was reminded of this rather forcibly this weekend when listening to Anderson Cooper on CNN. I take Anderson Cooper to be a very moderate internationally-minded sort of fellow, but being attacked in Egypt by pro-government forces appears to have made him very hostile towards the regimes in North Africa and the Middle East and the fact that he has a bully pulpit at CNN allows him to bring the voices and faces of the people of these nations before an international audience where they can find support and encouragement from internationally-minded Westerners. To hear a civil engineer around my age willing to risk his life to provide his real name to CNN and call from Benghazi on a cell phone is a rather sobering thing–the raw materials for such uprisings exist not only in the Middle East but many other parts of the world as well. It is not only a religious and cultural problem but a widespread generational gulf of missing opportunities and growing conflict and crisis.
So pass the mixed nuts and please put your seatbacks and trays to their upright positions. It’s going to be a bumpy flight.