Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

What Changes Will Result From Current Uprisings In North Africa?


How might the uprisings in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt affect global politics? And, what role should the United States play in shaping the future of the Middle East and North Africa? We discuss the latest news on the political unrest in Libya and its surrounding countries.

How might the uprisings in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt affect global politics? And, what role should the United States play in shaping the future of the Middle East and North Africa? We discuss the latest news on the political unrest in Libya and its surrounding countries.


John Warren, editor and publisher of San Diego Voice & Viewpoint

Michael Smolens, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune

Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: Seems like the stars are aligned for protest and turmoil. Libya is in the throws of painful and potentially dangerous change. Here at home, a battle is ridging over the rights of labor unions to negotiate for workers' benefits, and there's a lot of fancy footwork going on to preempt the governor's plan to eliminate redevelopment agencies. With me at the rounds table today to discuss all this are John Warren, editor of San Diego voice ask viewpoint. Good to see you, John.

WARREN: Good morning, Alison. Thank you.

ST. JOHN: Michael Smollens, the government editor for the San Diego Union Tribune. Thanks for coming in, Michael.

SMOLLENS: Thank you for inviting me, Allison.

ST. JOHN: And Tony Perry, the San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Always Great to see you, Tony.

PERRY: Always great to be here.

ST. JOHN: So, we'd also love to have you join the discussion. Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. Let's start, then, the world's gaze has been riveted on north Africa as countries from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and now Libya are exploding, watching from Afar, it's difficult to keep up with the drama that's developing. John Warren is our point person here, so John, Hasni Mubarak in Egypt, you know, is not doing the same kind of thing as Muammar Gaddafi. There's a whole different set of dynamics at stake here in Libya. Explain a little bit of the difference between Libya and what happened in Egypt.

WARREN: Well, there are a number of differences, if you look at the similarities that both of these guys have been around for a very long time. Egypt has been a good ally. In terms of the military, we've pumped a lot of support, had a relationship with them over the years. When we look at Libya in contrast, however, even though they have this fantastic oil supply that's so important to us, we have not had the same kind of diplomatic relationship with Libya. And so that's been a factor in terms of us standing back. But the bigger issue is what's happening throughout the entire region, as we look at Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen --

ST. JOHN: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia.

WARREN: The whole place in terms of what's taking place here. And it's so significant. Because it's probably the most important upheaval since the 11th century. If you look at the past 1000 years, there have been people in charge, sheiks and local kings but they were always under some kind of influence, and a lot of people in the person world don't understand the history of this, how the area was carved up by Britain and France following World War I, then the struggle after World War II between Russia and the US in terms of an influence, and now coming to this period of time where we are today, where we have a whole new generation that's not locked into any of that, and the importance of technology, and twitter, and all of these things coming together. So it's like this, the coming together of a perfect storm over a region that is making change in spite of old world tactics, in terms of power. Libya is most important, over 300 people killed, the UN taking a position against them, fighting today, in the streets of the capital, half of the country already under control of opposition forces, and it's moving towards Saudi Arabia, the old green movement's been activated in Iran. So it's a situation that can no longer be controlled by old power plays and diplomacy.

ST. JOHN: So you're bringing us right up to the present moment, and this morning, we've got knowledge that there's probably fighting going on in the streets in Tripoli, right?


ST. JOHN: The interesting thing is, he seems to be able to pull in forces from other parts of the continent, you know, like from Darfur and Sudan so that he's getting people to fire on his own population in a way that in Egypt wasn't possible.

WARREN: Well, there's always been a mercenary element in that part of the world, and they're referred to as contractors and consultants, but these are guys who are fighters trained from other wars, looking for war to continue what they do, and they have no loyalty other than to the people who are paying them. So they have no problem coming in and killing local people. And I think this whole thing has backfired on Gaddafi.

ST. JOHN: Michael?

SMOLLENS: Well, John made an interesting comment, we talked about old world tactics versus new world technology, and I think that's been one of the things that has stunned so many people, as to what's happened across the Middle East, Egypt certainly. We almost calm this the Facebook revolution. And how this all plays out into historical context remains to be seen of what's interesting is that so often we look at the Middle East in this grand geopolitical way, what's al Qaeda up to, and what's the Muslim Brotherhood up to. But it really does seem now, that these are the frustrations of the people out there that's bubbling after their repression for so long. What I don't think anybody knows, and if anybody does, please speak out, how this plays out. It is kind of interesting that Gaddafi, you mentioned him being an enemy, basically, of the United States , but he started playing nice in recent years as he gained.

WARREN: Yes he has 678.

SMOLLENS: Gained some sort of acceptability, internationally, and now finally that happened after decades, he's gonna be out probably before we finished this show.

ST. JOHN: So Tony, I think we've heard some compelling radio with people winging for help from Tripoli, it's been heart breaking of I think the United States is -- what is the role that the United States can play in this situation?

PERRY: We have very little leverage. We had a lot of leverage over the Egyptian army, over a billion dollars a year we were giving them, they have a thousand tanks that are US tanks, we do joint training with them all the time. So the Egyptians were very close, their general officers to our general officers of Libya, are not at all. That's a rogue state. Yes, we buy some of their oil roundabout through the market. But we have no relationship with them 678 so we have very, very little leverage. I would only say watch out what you hope for, there's the routing in this country that the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people should be answered, and Gaddafi should leave. Well, that's the al Qaeda position too. They would like him to leave. And of course, in Egypt, we were all hoping that Hasni Mubarak would take his retirement down at Sharmel Sheik, and he did. Well, that was the position the Muslim Brotherhood, so what happens after these loathe as much, in the case of both of that's folks, these loathe as much dictators, after they leave, what happens? Watch out what you hope for, with the people that follow them in terms of U.S. interests could be worse for us than the people we've been dealing with for decades.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call if you'd like to join the editors at the Roundtable here at KPBS. John, what were you about to say?

WARREN: I was about to say, in the case of Egypt, the military position has sorta suppressed or repelled -- and repelled the Muslim brotherhood, and the brotherhood has been somewhat more subtle in terms of maybe it's just waiting for the smoke to clear, but that's a factor that we've been concerned across the board, what would be the position of the brotherhood in these countries if they rise up? And it appears if they have such plan, they're waiting for the transitions to take place before they get involved.

SMOLLENS: And the Egyptian army, really, they're in business. They own resorts and factories, and by one figure I read, they produce 15 percent of the gross national product of Egypt. They're in business. At some time, Hasni Mubarak became bad for business. And when he became bad for business, Sharmel Sheik or some other alternative, now, over in Libya, we're having an out and out revolt, armed revolt, people fighting in the streets in a way we did not see in Tunisia and Egypt. Who know where that's gonna go? Who knows who is gonna emerge as the strongest of the strong men what are now fighting in the streets?

PERRY: As you were talking about earlier, Tony, yeah, this is such a short period, what happens in the subsequent years, really, not just weeks and month. And I think it depends on what kind of structure is there, as John mentioned, or you mentioned there, the military in Egypt is very strong. Will there be a structure there? Al Qaeda, the brother hood love vacuums, that's what happened in Afghanistan and elsewhere, so whether Libya is more right for that kind of usurping of power, we'll see, but it's too confusing right now to see how that is gonna shake out.

ST. JOHN: And it seems like Libya has so much wealth in oil, that it all comes down to who is actually gonna gain control of that wealth. It's much more sort of union dimensional economy than Egypt. And I don't know whether we have any sense of who is likely to step in.

PERRY: The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, admiral Mollin, and the commander of US Central Command, they've spent some time in Oman in the last few years trying to assure the Omanis that we're still with them, and the Omanis are still with us, they've been, very, very good friends to us. Mollin then went on to Bahrain, where the 5th fleet is headquartered, we have a lot at stake, and I'm sure, secret phone calls and secret visits to Riyadh, a great stake in stability, unfortunately, we have bet on the side of dictators to provide us that stability, and now we're reaping the whirlwind in Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia and Libya.

ST. JOHN: John.

WARREN: We have a lot of discussion and comments about the role of the president and the position he's been taking, but I think he's exercising caution. Of in the case of Bahrain where the royal family is close to us, and woo have the fleet station, as you indicated, we have encouraged the people, but we've encouraged them without coming in conflict with those running the country. And that's kind of a delicate balance, if looks like we're taking each country case by case in term was what we do and what we say. And I think that's important. But we also have other things happening in the region, we have Algiers where they just lifted that martial law factor that they have had for 20, 30 years in terms of it, and all of these things are taking place, not connected and yet connected in terms of the outcome.

SMOLLENS: And Yemen, which is at the choke point of the Red Sea, the Red Sea being awfully important to the Suez canal. You go to Bahrain, and you start to see the Iranian influence. And I know the reporters over there are saying these demonstrations are not provoked by the Iranians. But the Iranian influence is there. You walk down a street and you hear through translation, Hezbollah message blaring from their mosque. You look, as I did once, I was buying something at a souq, and I looked in the back room where they were ringing up my credit card, and there was a large picture of Obama Bin Laden. So the Iranians and some other bad actors are there in Bahrain, spreading their influence, I don't know that they're pushing their agenda, who knows if the Khalifa family is to be toppled, which I don't think is gonna happen, who would follow them. In that whole region, the power structure is it up for grabs.

ST. JOHN: And there's this interesting theory that in fact the monarchies are less at risk than the republics. Michael?

SMOLLENS: Well, you hit on a point that I was gonna touch on, it's kind of ironic that some suggest they have a little more flexibility, because they can basically get rid of the government, and still stay at least at that figurehead, but it is interesting that some of the monarchies are making moves to try to, appease the folks, so that'll be a good study to see, does it spread across uniformly or are they able to mollify enough to keep a lid on things? I don't know, we'll just have to see.

PERRY: It's interesting, though, there are occasions where -- where there is a semblance of democracy, a vote, if you will, a parliament, Kuwait's a good example. The folks that win are to the right, to the right of the ruling family. Of the people who think that ala told them they have the right to rule 678 for example, in Kuwait, the king was -- he's all ready for some sort of rights for women. Wild thought. Not the parliament. No rights for women.

ST. JOHN: Ah, ha.

SMOLLENS: So you throw it open to democracy, and you get what you get.

ST. JOHN: You don't not what's gonna come up.

SMOLLENS: Exactly.

ST. JOHN: Saudi Arabia's an interesting case, and in this case, the kind Abdullah has offered billions of dollars to mollify, it's almost like buying off the people here, you can have good mortgages, interest free mortgages and unemployment benefits, but just don't protest in the streets. Do you think that's gonna working John.

WARREN: Well, Saudi Arabia's unique. As Michael was saying, you have this ruling family that from the beginning has been in charge. It's not like all the others where some outside influence propped them up. And yet the oil interest we have there is so strong. I know the money might work as a -- what do you call? A tranquilizer for a period. But there's so much already brewing there. I mean, the young people are up in arms, they don't like the old ways, the dress, the restrictions put on them in terms of social contacts, and there has to be a carry over into the Saudi, in spite of all the money, what they're offering, there still has to be a carry over.

ST. JOHN: You guys were just saying that you thought maybe Gaddafi would end up in Saudi Arabia.

PERRY: That's tended to be where the African dictators who get deposed go. I think the Asad family has a stake in the idea that, yes, you're a brutal dictator, but you gotta go on and live somewhere else. And we'll take you in. Almost as if they're weighing some credibility for later when they're in control. The Saudis are very interesting. I mean, they're very wealthy. And they're very large, there's hundreds of them. An they are at the cusp of the clash between modernity, and an ancient way of doing business. And what breaches the two of those? Oil. That's the rub. I remember being in Oman once and looking out of my I think it was a fourth story hotel, and in the far distant, they had just built a new mosque, and there were folks, including women, totally clothed with only the eye slits, very, very conservative, going to pray, and in the foreground, real close to me, I look down at the swimming pool, and there was the KLM stewardesses in bikinis, and I'm thinking, this is a culture clash. Some day it's going to lead to something. Now, Oman is more stable. The Sultan is a very good friend of ours, and he doesn't talk about it, but he's a very good naval base, air base, and of course we give him all sorts of jet planes to play with, basically, and we tell him, in the Yemen ease ever come across his border as they have in the past, we're there with you in one fashioner another. But so much of that region skipped modernity. And now modernity, by way of Facebook, Al-Jazeera, it's come calling, and it's come calling with a crash.

ST. JOHN: You just mentioned Facebook, and I think that's -- and twitter, that's one of the things that's really been an ingredient in this whole thing. And right now, we're just watching what happens in Tripoli, how many people have to die before this resolves itself.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.