Like Iran and Myanmar before it, Libya’s relative isolation gives its rulers much more diplomatic flexibility to mount a bloody crackdown than counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia or Bahrain — but that may not be enough.
Early on Monday, one of the sons of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi said his father would fight a popular revolt to the “last man standing.”
Rights groups estimate the death toll in Libya in recent days far outstrips anything seen during protests elsewhere in North Africa, but reporting restrictions and blocked communications have kept most events out of sight, Reuters reports.
“The thing that makes Libya different is that it is much more relatively isolated,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s almost a North Korea. There are no foreign journalists, very little civil society. It’s much harder to get information out and to have influence.”
Gaddafi has built up his ties to the West — and to oil firms — in recent years since giving up his nuclear weapons program. But Western capitals still have much less leverage with him than longer-term allies such as Egypt’s military, Tunisia’s elite or Bahrain’s royal family.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power earlier this month by a popular uprising that followed swiftly the ousting of Tunisia’s president, and protests have rippled across the region, from Algeria to Bahrain to Yemen.
Countries heavily dependent on U.S. and other Western aid have found that ordering troops to fire into crowds may be diplomatically and politically impossible. But Libya is in a very different position.
LITTLE LEVERAGE, INFLUENCE
The European Union could suspend trade talks and encourage tourism and energy firms to pull out. But — as after the crushing of Iran’s 2009 “green revolution” or Myanmar’s 2007 crackdown — Western governments and rights campaigners find they have little real influence.
Libya’s rulers survived decades in the wilderness before beginning to mend fences with the West in recent years.
“The Libyans are very self-confident,” said Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to both Libya and Iran. “The state of its international relations is not much of a factor in their domestic decision-making and the European Union and others will not have much leverage or influence.”
So far, news footage from Libya has been limited largely to snatches of jumpy material filmed on mobile phones. Foreign broadcasters have managed to grab occasional telephone interviews with those inside the country, but little more.
On Friday, wall-to-wall coverage of Bahraini troops firing at demonstrators prompted angry calls from Washington to local rulers, who pulled the army off the streets. In contrast, the start of the Libya crackdown was relegated to second place on many news bulletins.
“Newspapers have sent their entire teams to Bahrain because they can get visas,” said Whitson at Human Rights Watch. “The front page ends up being all about Bahrain with barely any mention of Libya. But the use of force in Libya has been far out of proportion to anything used in Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere.”
Libya has less Western investment than its neighbors but much more than Myanmar or Iran. Ultimately Gaddafi, like other African leaders, will know he can turn elsewhere — particularly China — if western firms are put under pressure to drop him.
Sudan, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Iran have all benefited from trade, aid and diplomatic support from Beijing in the face of Western criticism and sometimes sanctions over alleged rights abuses. But few see an immediate exodus of Western investment from Libya given its lucrative oil reserves.
TURMOIL INTO TSUNAMI
Most outside financial commitment to Libya has been limited to resource-related foreign direct investment, difficult to suddenly withdraw without taking huge losses. In contrast, Egypt, Tunisia and to an extent Bahrain were heavily exposed to Western portfolio investment that could flee much faster.
Internet penetration is also much higher in those three countries — and crucially, their economies have increasingly focused on services. That makes long-term Internet shutdowns hard to sustain without considerable economic damage.
Most experts say that how events play out in Libya will depend far more on domestic political factors than outside influence. The lesson of Egypt and Tunisia, they say, is that autocrats fall when they can no longer command the security forces to restore order.
“A major factor is the commitment of those prepared to carry out violent repression,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the US Naval War College. “In Egypt … the rank and file military were not going to follow through with what needed to be done to secure Mubarak’s political survival.”
In contrast, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and militia, and Myanmar’s military, have long proved much more willing to do whatever it takes to protect their masters. Most believe Libya’s military will do the same, their fate seemingly tied to that of the Gaddafi family.
But that might not be enough. Libyan protesters may feel the tide of history is with them.
Nomura political analyst Alastair Newton said he believed regime collapse might be imminent, and warned that the rising tide of regional unrest had reached the stage of threatening global energy supplies.
“The 11 February ousting of President Mubarak of Egypt is proving to be a pivotal moment in turning turmoil into a tsunami,” he wrote.