“political” vs. “economic” motivations

Posted: March 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

The day before yesterday (May 25), I shared a cab from the Libyan-Egyptian border to Tubruq with Xavier, a reporter from Barcelona’s La Vanguardia. After giving me some great insights into Algerian politics (he spent a month in Algeria observing protests there), Xavier asked me whether the motivations behind the 2011 Libyan revolution are political or economic.

The answer, of course, is “yes.” On one hand, most people in Libya — and certainly in the east — can offer many political reasons to hate the Qaddafi government. Every free-speaking person in Libya (presumably with the exception of regime supporters, whom I’m unlikely to be able to interview) has stories to tell about the Qaddafi regime’s restriction of civil liberties.

For example, people are sick of being nervous about what they can and can’t say. “When I was a little boy,” a 31-year-old government bureaucrat told me, “my dad told me to keep my mouth shut outside the house. He didn’t want me to get myself in trouble.” He went on to explain how the state security apparatus, including the feared Revolutionary Committees, has informers in every neighborhood and mosque. Some of them are open about their status as government informers, but many aren’t.

A 30-year-old butchery employee put it more succinctly: “Qaddafi had a hold on Benghazi like this,” he said — clenching his fist. “But no longer. Now, we’re free.”

In Al-Marj, I spoke with a man in his 50s who spent eight years (1998-2006) in prison. According to him, he had been targeted by the government merely for showing up at the mosque too often. The Qaddafi government accused him of being an Islamist instigator. (The 1990s were a period of crackdown against suspected Islamists; there have been several such periods under Qaddafi.) He went on to talk about a colleague who had spent 31 years in prison, including seven in solitary confinement — where the imprisoned didn’t even see prison guards, because their food was pushed to them through a slot at the bottom of the cell door. (Note that this may be similar to solitary-confinement practices in the United States prison system.)

Libyans also tell of less dramatic but nevertheless stifling restrictions on individual freedom. I’ve heard countless complaints about restrictions on foreign travel and even internal movement (“if I show up in, say, Benghazi but I’m from Tubruq, a soldier might stop me, demand to see my papers, and ask what the hell I’m doing there”). And everyone I talk to wants a government freely elected by the people, bearing all the features of a liberal democracy — free speech, the consistent rule of law, and so on.

These political motivations for rebellion are the ones that tend to filter through the news media to the outside world. In ten-second sound bytes, it’s a lot easier for both ordinary Libyans and representatives of the interim rebel government to talk about democracy, elections, and freedom of speech and movement than it is to talk about jobs, the welfare state, government education policy, the inequitable distribution of oil rents, and the fact that it’s tough to earn enough to buy a car and get married.

Interim-government officials are aware of this. I find that they tend to have a pro forma response to questions about the motivations for the revolution and the future of Libya. (This is one of many ways in which the eyes of the outside world are shaping this uprising, and all of the 2011 Arab uprisings.) Liberal-democratic discourse has gone utterly and completely global, and is now reflecting back upon itself — by no means disingenuously, but certainly self-consciously.

In other words, anyone in a position of formal authority in the interim government — from national-level leaders to staff at the rebel-run Media Center in Benghazi to town-level representatives of the interim government — is aware that “democracy” and “freedom” are bywords that will portray the “new Libya” in the right international light. (They’re also careful to argue that there will be no partisanship (hizbiyyah) and no tribalism (qaba’iliyah) in the new Libya.)

This is not to downplay the tremendous significance of political motivations — the desire for civil liberties, for the rule of law, and for democracy — in giving rise to the 2011 revolution. It’s just to note that socioeconomic concerns are also vital. Some people will start a conversation about the revolution by talking about political freedoms, but will end up talking about the distribution of oil rents a minute later. Others dive straight in, criticizing the Qaddafi government for its cronyism. Here are some typical quotes:

“Libya produces 1.6 million barrels of oil a day. [Every Libyan seems to know this number.] But where does the money go? Into the pockets of Qaddafi, his children, and his friends.”

“Look at the United Arab Emirates. They have beautiful buildings and great infrastructure. Why isn’t Libya like the UAE? Or like Qatar? Our oil is of even higher quality than theirs, and we’re a country of only six million people. [Libyan crude traditionally commands relatively high prices on the world market because of its quality, and every Libyan knows this too.] Instead, look around you. We’ve driven through the desert for 100 kilometers, and there hasn’t been a single proper road sign. All you see are those faded milestones — and they date back from the era of King Idris [1951-1969]. We’re running out of gas, and there’s no way for me to know where the nearest road sign is! Would this happen in a developed country? Would you see this in the United States?” [N.B.: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Libya’s state of perceived developmental backwardness compared to Qatar and especially the UAE.] “Did you know that in the days of King Idris, Sheikh Zayed [the late ruler of Abu Dhabi and the father of the United Arab Emirates] visited Tripoli and Benghazi, and told King Idris that he hoped one day Abu Dhabi would look like those cities? Can you imagine?”

“Look, the Libyan people are a simple people. What does a young Libyan guy want? A job, a house, and a car. So he can get married. These are the things he’s really concerned about.”

“To get a decent job here, you need to have been in the army. Employers ask to see that you’ve done army time. But even after you get out of the army, it’s hard to get a job. I make 300 dinars a month [as an accountant in the state-owned oil sector]. 300 dinars a month! [That’s approximately US$180 at the current black-market exchange rate.] I got my job in 2005. Do you know when I got my first paycheck? 2007. And even then, they’d only pay me every two months.

So while I was working without pay [between 2005 and 2007], how did I get by? Well, I’d go to work at 7 am and stay until 9 am. Then I’d leave and drive this car here [points to his circa 2000 Hyundai] as a taxi for four hours. My boss couldn’t give me a hard time about it — he wasn’t paying me anyway! I’d clock back into work at 1 pm, and stay for a few more hours.”

“If you have connections with Qaddafi, then you can get a great job, and you can just sit at home as the money rolls in. But for regular guys like me [he’s a 40-year-old kebab-restaurant employee], there isn’t much.”

[An unemployed 25-year-old who is now fighting with rebel forces] “I was in university, studying engineering. But I saw that none of my friends were getting jobs after they graduated. So I quit school. What was the point?”

“Africa, Africa, Africa. Qaddafi is always talking about Africa. In school, we had to study African history. But why should Libya have connections with [sub-Saharan] Africa? Look how backward those countries are. Why can’t we have good relations with the West instead — with Europe, the United States? With developed countries that have something to offer us? What good does Africa do us?” [N.B.: This is a reference to Qaddafi’s turn toward African unity, and away from pan-Arabism. This turn began in the 1990s.] 

“Who suffered from the Lockerbie bombing? And from the Germany incident? [This is a reference to the bombing in the 1980s of a Berlin nightclub frequented by US military personnel.] We do — the Libyan people. We’re the ones who suffered from all the years of sanctions, not Qaddafi.”

[While driving through central Benghazi, a few hundred meters from the city’s central square] “Look at these roads! [Points to potholes in a bumpy unpaved road.] In the middle of the city! Can you believe it? That’s Qaddafi for you. Forty-one years, and this is what we get.”

“In Al-Marj, during the era of King Idris, a hospital was built in just a few years. But under Qaddafi, they closed it down — and then they said they were going to repair it. Do you know how long it was closed for repairs? Fifteen years! For repairs! That’s how things work under Qaddafi.”

In order to understand the significance of these kinds of comments — which I hear everywhere — it’s important to understand the creaky character of the Libyan rentier state, which has been malfunctioning since the start, partly because of its poor fit with Qaddafi’s revolutionary socialistic Green Book ideology, partly because of Dutch disease, partly because of reliance on expatriate labor (both inside and outside the oil sector), and so on. (On this count, and on other matters concerning Libyan politics and the forces that shape it, I highly recommend Dirk Vandewalle’s excellent A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge University Press, 2006).)

Parallels with the Soviet Union also abound: a revolutionary ideology and charismatic leadership raised expectations in the 1970s, but then the regime disappointed the masses as it ossified, with a state-dominated economy failing to produce improvements in standard of living from the 1980s onward. (The timing doesn’t coincide with the USSR’s trajectory, but the general contours do.) Qaddafi’s foreign adventurism and his turn toward Africa have, in many Libyans’ eyes, only exacerbated the problem.

  1. Sarah Anne says:

    hi ryan, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts & observations via the blog. it’s excellent! and here’s a question: are you talking to libyan women, too? what do they say about the rebellion? are any women among the organizers or rebels? thank you! stay safe & well, sarah anne

    • ryanmcalder says:

      Sarah Anne,

      Thanks for your comment. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.

      The short answer: No, I’ve hardly talked to Libyan women at all. I very much want to. So far, I’ve been interviewing those people who are most comfortable speaking to me openly, in a public setting or in a shared taxi, spontaneously. And so far, that’s been men. In those cases when I’ve gone to people’s homes for lunch or dinner, I’ve only eaten with men, and I haven’t known the people well enough to ask for an arranged conversation with “the women of the house.”

      In other words, I haven’t expended the time or effort yet to speak with women, because I’ve been moving very fast as events transpire. This is a serious shortcoming of my research. I’ve been hoping to conduct a focus group of some kind with women, or to make an effort to interview women in public places, but to be honest, I haven’t been in one place for long enough to do so. I regret this. Even such focus groups and targeted efforts would suffer from treating women methodologically as a “marked” population. But under the circumstances, I think they’d be a good idea.


  2. Yara says:

    Ryan, I am a Libyan who is enjoying your posts which provide more depth than news reports, but about the woman issue. Not denying Libya is a conservative place and women don’t have a top leadership role but I know 2 of my mothers old uni friends salwa and her sister iman bugaigis are in the council, I have seen them and other career women like Hana algalal on TV. I was actually wondering if more ‘traditional’ women might also be involved in organisation and palnning or just confined to offering food and medial care to fighters.

    • ryanmcalder says:

      Dear Yara,

      Thank you for the comment. I agree with you 100%. Women are playing a huge role in this revolution. Each evening, for example, there is a mass of politically active women who gather in front of Benghazi’s courthouse. Women waving flags, speaking out, appearing on television, and being active in political life generally are everywhere in Libya.

      Also, at the heart of the the media center of the February 17 movement are three women who make the entire operation run. Without them, I don’t think it would stay together. I’m planning to interview them in the next few days. And frankly, based on observations in Bahrain as well, I’m starting to believe that administration of any kind only works properly in the MENA region (and probably anywhere in the world) when women are central to it.

      To your point on women’s involvement in the council — you’re correct there as well.

      My specific experience at dinner was in two farmhouses on the outskirts of one town (Al-Marj), in a relatively “traditional” part of the country (al-Jebel al-Akhdar). Thank you for pointing out that this is not representative of all of Libya.


  3. Yara says:

    Thank you for the reply, I hope it didn’t come across as criticism because like I said I am really enjoying your insightful reports. I hope you do get a chance to interview some of these women, but realize the social segregation we have even in cities like Benghazi and Tripoli will limit that. I was actually shocked to learn from following the twitter feed of Jenan Moussa from Alaan TV that she met a woman with the fighters, but the danger is women being confined to more limited roles again after the upheaval is over.

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