There is something funny about Arab “democracy.” Forget the straightforward monarchies that litter the Middle East, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Jordan to the Gulf statelets. Even in the so-called republics, the monarchical spirit runs deep.
Look at Syria. The long-serving Hafez al-Assad (now late) was seamlessly succeeded by his son Bashar, never mind that he was happy as a doctor and hardly a politician. Before the latest tempest caught up with him, Egypt’s 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak was overtly grooming his pushy son Gamar.
Even in Muammar Gaddafi’s supposedly egalitarian Libya, a talkative princeling called Seif al-Islam has been hovering in the wings, waiting for the day – surely not imminent – when his dad will expire.
Talking of Libya, the place seems to be actually different. The upheaval that is rocking the Arab world has miraculously by-passed the place. And that notwithstanding Gadaffi’s rash lament for his old friend Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, the deposed Tunisian despot. There’s been no whiff of a copycat repeat, not even the Facebook and Twitter rumblings that are egging on the Egyptians.
Why is this? Libya is not less autocratic. Gaddafi doesn’t hold elections. If we talk of obscene longevity, he beats the Mubaraks and Ben Alis by miles (he has ruled uninterrupted since 1969!). And it can’t be that Libyans are zombies and that Tunisians or Egyptians are more wild. Of course, Libya’s copious oil wealth helps. Apart from the wacky posture Gaddafi cuts abroad, he has created one of the most generous social welfare systems in the Arab world, certainly the best in Africa.
Still, that does not adequately answer the puzzle why Libyans are content. Tunisians were coddled almost as well despite lacking the oil, plus Ben Ali ensured he got the most educated population in North Africa – not that this has helped him. Egypt, though poorer by comparison, has long made it a policy to pour subsidies that ensure the price of bread is the cheapest in the Middle East.
Where Gaddafi is different from his fellow Arab leaders is the way he relates to his people. Ronald Reagan may have once called him a ‘mad dog,’ but many Arabs and certainly the Libyans see in him a proud exponent of Arab pride in a world which, seen from Arab eyes, has been unkind to their aspirations, especially over Palestine.
Where outsiders see in Gaddafi a needlessly flamboyant figure who loves to strut the global stage, his people see a whiff of the beloved Abdel Nasser about him. And that Bedouin tent he drags along in his foreign travels makes him look authentic.
Contrast that with the Saudi or Gulf royals and their garish yatchs, palaces and well-stocked harems. (WikiLeaks told us of a certain Ukrainian “nurse” who never leaves Gaddafi’s side, but mercifully there was no word of harems). Old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for one, is known to have hankered like a child wanting a toy for a personal Boeing jet outfitted exactly like the US President’s Airforce One. He never got one, but not for want of money.
The Gulf sheikhdoms are rich and can afford to pamper their citizens. No wonder they are not joining – as yet – their brethren from Egypt or Yemen into the streets. Yet the gulf between the truly gaudy lifestyles of the ruling classes of these sheikhdoms and the rest of the population – call it a comfortable middle class – is still as wide as the Persian Gulf. That is where Gaddafi is different. He makes sure such obscene disparities don’t show up in Libya.
But the thing which makes the Libyan to be admired above all else is steadfastness to the causes close to the Arab heart, topping the list being the emotional matter of liberating Palestine. The Mubaraks and Abdullahs have perfected a style of winking to the Israelis and fawning over the Americans. The average Arab man finds that craven. They know Gaddafi has no means to oust the Jew from occupied Palestine, much less roll back America and her Islamophobia.
But in his own way, he stands up against these forces the Arab masses have come to hate so much. His fellow Arabs know he will never be compromised by the Americans.
That, at least, is what will make Gaddafi survive the current tempest.