For over 40 years, Muammar Qadhafi has had a way of surprising the world. This time, the surprise is on him. His people are rising against him.
As I write, the government is reported to have lost control of Benghazi, Libya's second city, and much of the eastern part of the country along with it. Still, Benghazi has long been a site of anti-Qadhafi protests, so it was even more remarkable that the protests reached the capital, Tripoli, a few days ago.
Qadhafi wasn't the only one surprised. Recently I noted that the oil-rich autocrats in the Middle East had a firm hand on power, even with turmoil in oil-poor states Egypt and Tunisia. But now the protests have spread to Bahrain, Algeria and especially Libya. (Bahrain isn't oil-rich but tends to act like a petrostate because of subsidies from Saudi Arabia.)
I should have noted the fact that petrostates have not one but two characteristics that are relevant for current events. On one hand, oil gives incumbents political power, so incumbent leaders remain in office far longer than in non-petrostates (Africa's longest leader until recently was the president of oil-rich Gabon; when he died in office after 43 years in office, Qadhafi became Africa's longest serving leader). On the other hand, oil tends to weaken political institutions in petrostates (through patronage and corruption), meaning that they also have a higher proclivity towards civil wars than non-petrostates: think Nigeria, Angola, Algeria. This creates an odd paradox: is oil a force for stability or instability? Political scientists are still working that one out -- and clearly the debate is not just theoretical.
For the time being, let me just draw attention to two differences between Libya and Egypt or Tunisia. First, Libya has oil. Second, Libya has Qadhafi. Both of these are going to make the confrontation in Libya a good deal more bloody than its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia.
Libya's oil money allows Qadhafi to afford an extensive security apparatus, and a patronage network for a hard core of regime supporters. It also allows him to hire foreign mercenaries to fight the protesters, in the event that some or all of the Libyans in his army defect. All of these things make it harder for the protesters, and violence more likely. There is even the possibility that the protesters might be able to get foreign mercenaries of their own, drawn by the promise of oil money once the government has been toppled.
Libya also has Qadhafi, and he is no Mubarak. Mubarak was personally corrupt and clearly enriched himself at the expense of his people. Qadhafi is a megalomaniac. Characteristically, he said yesterday on Libyan television: “Muammar Qaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution.” This is a man for whom being the "Brother Leader" is central to his identity, not just a means to get rich. That makes him even harder to dislodge.
Qadhafi's son, Seif, promised 'rivers of blood' in the event of a civil war. Civil wars are rarely if ever won on the battlefield. It is the loyalty of the armed forces that usually determine the outcome, as it did in Egypt. The loyalty of Libya's armed forces is already showing cracks and strain. Still, it has not yet broken, and even if it does, Qadhafi might have enough mercenaries to make up the difference.
The outcome of the Libyan struggle is far from certain, but I fear the prospect of 'rivers of blood' looms mightily.