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Uprising In Libya Latest Example Of Changing Arab World

A Libyan pro-Democracy poster.
A Libyan pro-Democracy poster.
Uprising In Libya Latest Example Of Changing Arab World
What's fueling the political uprisings that are happening across the Arab world? How is the unrest in Libya different from the events that recently took place in Egypt? We speak to a pair of local experts about what these changes could mean for Northern Africa and the Middle East.

What's fueling the political uprisings that are happening across the Arab world? How is the unrest in Libya different from the events that recently took place in Egypt? We speak to a pair of local experts about what these changes could mean for Northern Africa and the Middle East.


Mounah Abdel-Samad, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Public Administration and Policy, and Director of the Institute of Public and Urban Affairs at the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University.


Michael Provence, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History at UC San Diego and the Alexander von Humboldt senior fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin.

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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.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. News is he canning out of Libya this morning that violate confrontations are continuing between protesters and the government. Witnesses say ten people were killed when pro-Gaddafi forces attacked opponents at a mosque east of Tripoli. Well, no matter how the uprising in North Africa and the Middle East turn out, the upheaval is creating some very tense situations. Refugees who can leave countries in rebellion are doing so. Economies are at a stand still, and the price of oil is rising. The threat of widespread violence is increasing. There's so much going on in so many different nations, we're lucky to have guests this morning with a comprehensive knowledge of the region. I'd like first to welcome Michael Provence, he's associate professor of eastern history at UC San Diego, and the Alexander von Humboldt senior fellow at the Zentram Modena Orient in Berlin. And Michael, good morning.

PROVENCE: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Mounah Abdel-Samad is assistant professor of public administration and director of the institute of public and urban affairs at San Diego state university, and Mounah, welcome to These Days.

ABDEL-SAMAD: Thank you for having me.


CAVANAUGH: Now, let me start out with you, Mounah, and ask you, how is this up riding taking place in Libya? How is this different from the other protests that are happening across the Arab world now?

ABDEL-SAMAD: Well, it seem enforce Libya that it's concentrated in the east part of the country for now. But they're all coming from the same ideas. They want democracy, they want the right to determine -- a set determination, and they want the regime to change. And we have several factors that led to all of these in different kitchens, it could be poverty, it could be income disparity, it is democracy, or the designation, like, that you wanted to be represented. Because Libya doesn't have, really, good representative institution at all. And it's a hardcore dictatorship, while Gaddafi sits at the top, with no official title, so he is just the father of the revolution or the leader of the revolution, and there's no accountability or anything. And the compensation of Libya, at least the structure of it, is very tribal. And so you have these different levels where tribes are represented here and there. And I think ben gauzy has been -- this is the second largest city in Libya, ben gauzy has had up rising, I think it was 1996 or 19 nor, I can't remember the exact date. But they have a history of up rising against Gaddafi. So in a way, I see similarities in all these countries, up riding for more representation, rising for more to determine what you want, and rising to be part of the decision making process.

CAVANAUGH: Some people have pointed out a specific similarity with Egypt in that you have two elderly leaders who have been in power for quite some time, on the brink of being succeeded by someone, perhaps, in their family, their sons. And the population becoming very rest of saying, okay, we did 30, 40 years with the older gentleman, and we don't want to do anymore with his son.

ABDEL-SAMAD: I think that could be one reason. I think the key element is -- 'cause if you look at Egypt, Mubarak was going to leave, and Omar Suleiman was going to come after him. But the people rejected even Omar Suleiman, even though he's not the kid of Mubarak. So I think it's the continuity with the same regime that people are rejecting. And I think that's the key element that's similar. And you can see -- whether you see it in Yemen, because in Yemen, supposedly, he doesn't have his son prepared, although people are talking about it, but you see an up rising. You see it in Bahrain, in Bahrain, it's a monarchy, so of course it's a different case. Tunisian, there was no son for Zain Abideen Ben Ali to a certain extent. So this is -- it could be something, but I think people are fed up with the current system or the current regime, and that's why they're reacting. And to a certainty extent, what's happening, which is very interesting, it seems there is -- I'm going to second call it, like a psychological empowerment that has really spread all over the whole Middle East. Once Tunisia succeeded and Egypt succeeded, everyone now thinks they could succeed. And there is a momentum for this success. And so even you notice, for example, that in Yemen, they started some form of reform, and dialogue, in Syria, they started reform. So people know now that you have to start reform, otherwise you're doomed to be, basically, the next coming country.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Professor Provence, let me get you in on this. You have seen widespread up rising against repressive regime back in the late '80s. Tell us the similarities you think [CHECK AUDIO] what's happening in the Middle East right now. Are there similarities.

PROVENCE: Well, I think that there are. I think that the population, the people who are deciding to go out on the street, especially in the first instance, they're people who are young, like Mounah said, the leaders of these countries, they're dictators, some of them are in alliance with the United States, most of them, in fact, so far. Including Gaddafi. The dictators are old, the people who are -- their people are upset by what looks like, as you say, a continuity with old governments that are not changing. And people feel that they have to change. And you know, it's a matter of -- I'm sure that Mounah is correct that there's a kind of a hope that things are changing, the psychological optimism, but people have to be very, very courageous and empowered to be the first group, the first people who are going out on the street and willing to confront a government that is armed with weapons and has shown not to hesitate to use them. So this is similar. And the courage of those young people, the commitment of those young people, I think is almost exactly the same as the first people who challenged the dictatorships of eastern other than Europe in 1989.

CAVANAUGH: Mounah, we haven't heard a lot from Egypt because our gaze is now on Libya. But the LA times reported this week, the streets are not safe in Cairo, especially not for women. Who is happening in Egypt now that the spotlight is off it, at least in the western world?

ABDEL-SAMAD: I think Egypt is starting to get back on track, slowly. But basically we have to take into consideration, that the ministry of interior and the police force is really not trusted in Egypt at all. And they have been trying to do some demonstration to say, we are with the people, and so on and so forth. Buff there are two levels here. First they are no longer effective, 'cause people are not afraid of them, once. That's the first level, the second level is they might be also afraid to engage in really harsh movement or harsh crack down on people. So Egypt now is really very interesting, because you need to go with a stable country until you reach a place that you can have, basically, an operational country.


ABDEL-SAMAD: The other thing that's happening, that Egypt -- we have forgotten about it, there are still demonstrations. And so what ended up happening, is once they opened up with a big demonstration, they removed the regime, then we have seen that there were so many hidden levels of dissatisfaction, reaching from all the unions going to the street, because really what they were being paid is nothing. And you can compare that with Libya. Libya, for example, has 800000 employees working in public sector, and they were paid extremely low, and so they had to go out on the black market to find other jobs in order to survive. So the thing is, one revolution removing a leader and his vice president is not enough. This is a series of reform.

CAVANAUGH: A series of reforms that's on going, but perhaps we're just not watching it as closely as we were a couple of weeks ago.


CAVANAUGH: We do have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue our discussion about the up rest -- the up risings and unrest in northern Africa, and the middle east. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: And you're listening to these days on KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. And my guest are professor Michael Provence, and Doctor Mounah Abdel-Samad, and we talking about the uprisings in north Africa and the Middle East, sort of getting an update because there's so much happening, and it's hard, actually, to keep track. Now, Mounah, one of the things that we heard today was that Muammar Gaddafi claims al-Qaeda is drugging the coffee of young Libyans with hallucinogens, causing them to protest, which leads me and mane people to ask, is Gaddafi in his right mind?

ABDEL-SAMAD: I think -- I don't want to say he's lunatic, because people will say, the man has do governed the country. I think he's rational, but he's very disillusioned. If you have seen his yesterday's -- his speech that went for 75 minutes issue the man was really disillusioned. He was saying he's going to bring nations to come to Libya, and Libya leads the world, and Libya and Libya. And I have read in the Arabic newspaper that one of his closest friends, his united nations ambassador, said that Gaddafi thinks of himself as Noah, as the Saviour, as the prophet. So this is it an extreme level of narcissism. And you can be a narcissist and still rational and control the country. But it really poses a lot of danger for Libya, because if you believe you have divine right to rule a country, then basically you're not going to leave the country until it's either in a civil war or it's extremely bloody. And we have seen some of that. We have seen planes bombing neighborhoods in Tripoli. Navy going to bomb Benghazi, and we have seen the factions going to Malta, and so on and so forth by air force officers, and some of the Navy pieces, some of the ships. So the man is really -- his speech really shows you that the revolution is going to be bloody, and it's unfortunate that that's going to be the case. And hopefully there will be some form of solution where Gaddafi can be taken out of the country in some way or some form and not get to the extent.

CAVANAUGH: Michael Provence, I'd like you to weigh in on this as well. I know that we can't diagnose Muammar Gaddafi on radio, but how is it someone with these notions or at least these proclamations has been able to stay in power for such a long time?

PROVENCE: That's a good question. He's been there for 42 years. And you know, he was a real enemy of the Reagan administration.


PROVENCE: And the first Bush administration. And then he became a kind of a poster child for the success of the policies of the second Bush administration. And all this time, he was the same guy. And I think that his, you know, delusional aspects are -- you know, they're in character. He's the person he's always been. The problem, or the situation in Libya, is different from the situation in other countries like Egypt because Libya's military is very small, and it's closely linked to him, to Gaddafi. And it's highly personalized, and so there's not much leverage that any external group has. In the case of Egypt, president Obama could address Mubarak and say that he has to go, and this is understood by the army that that means you don't have to go if you make sure that he does go. And this is the message that they received. But in Libya, this is not the case. And there isn't any. So it's a matter of units defecting, of parts of the military, of parts of the higher state apparatus abandoning Gaddafi, and going over to the side of the protestors. And hopefully that will continue to happen and will accelerate until there's no one surrounding him but his immediate family and his courtiers.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mounah made the point that given the mind set of colonel Gaddafi that there's the possibility that this could be a protracted up rising, perhaps even a bloody up rising. This morning we heard from a NATO official with that there are no plan enforce any kind of no fly zone or any military intervention from NATO. Do you see either the UN or the U.S., Michael, playing any role to resolve the conflict in Libya if indeed it resolves into bloodshed?

PROVENCE: No. I mean, it's already pretty bloody. We don't really know how bloody.


PROVENCE: But what one hopes will happen, and what usually does happen, is the people who are -- the elites of the state decide that their future, if they have one, lies not with the head of state. And they turn away from him, and he has to go. And this is what happened in 1979 in Iran, and this is what happened last -- a couple weeks ago in Egypt. And this is what has to happen there. People who are -- who have power who can command military units have to decide that their future doesn't lie -- that the regime is -- that their own skin is worth protecting more than their regime or maybe the regime is going down, and they decide not to go with it. The outside -- the United States in particular can't do anything about this in this case.

CAVANAUGH: That's what we keep hearing from various experts. Mounah, you were talking to me a little bit during the break about what you see as coming not, perhaps, after Libya but simultaneously. What is the next headliner we may read from that region?

ABDEL-SAMAD: Well, I was -- hike I was telling you, Maureen, we might see Yemen coming into the forefront, because it seems the news that has been coming from Yemen, which has been for the last couple of weeks, but they were over shadowed by Egypt and now Libya, is that everyone is going against Ali Abdullah Saleh. The southern part of Yemen is against Ali Abdullah Saleh. Even people from his own tribal federation, the Hashed tribes are even going against him. There are defections in his ruling party. I read the report today that 12 provinces have been participating in this uprising. And so we may be seeing Yemen coming soon. But the thing is, it's a very interesting thing, because the Arab population is feeling this whole empowerment, you never know where it will explode next. So it's really interesting. At the same time, and I know it's kind of tangential, but the interesting thing that's happening now is there is more of a feeling of an Arab identity that is shared by this whole region. Because for a while, it was over ridden, if you want, by the Islamic identity. Now we're coming to see an Arab identity that goes from north Africa all the way to Levant, and that part of the world, and the gulf. And that's a very interesting thing.

CAVANAUGH: I think that's very interesting. And something that must be talked about a little bit more. Because I think we in the west have defined this area of the world by religion for such a long time. And now what you're saying, what we're seeing rising up or may be seeing rising up is a sort of more of a cultural identity. ; is that right?

ABDEL-SAMAD: Yeah. It's an identity that exists for everyone. Because the Middle East is very diverse in terms of religion. So I'll give you just an example. Egypt has 8 to 12 million, the numbers are contested, 8 to 12 million Coptic, Copts, which are Christian. Lebanon has around 40 percent Christian. Syria has a couple of million. So everyone you have Christian, Jews, other small minorities, Alawites so on and so forth. And what gets them together is not an Islamic identity. It's more an Arab identity. At least writers in the Arab world are starting to talk about it. And they're talking about it, I read a very interesting article, it's not as your Arab identity will go against your national identity, but it's two levels of identity where you are an Arab and a nationalist. And if you're a Democrat, you're not a traitor, but you are part of this group. Because before that, if you were a Democrat, you were with the west. Now, no. If you're I Democrat, you are a nationalist. And you work for your country. And so that's an interesting change.

CAVANAUGH: It's all fascinating. We are out of time. I want to thank you, Mike will Provence, thanks for speaking with us.

PROVENCE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Mounah Samad, thank you so much.

ABDEL-SAMAD: : Thank you very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: If you'd like to comment, please go online.