A Libya Primer

The unrest in Libya has thrust the major oil supplier into the global spotlight. Dirk Vendewalle, a professor at Dartmouth College and author of A History of Modern Libya, discusses the developments.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Some background on Libya now. From Dirk Vandewalle, he's a professor of government at Dartmouth, and he's the author of "A History of Modern Libya." Welcome to the program.

Professor DIRK VANDEWALLE (Government, Dartmouth College): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And, first, one thing we identify Libya with is, of course, oil. How important are Libyan oil exports?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, Libya exports slightly over two million barrels a day. And even though that is not one of the top producers in the world, it is an important overall producer. But it's perhaps more important in part because the European countries in particular are quite dependent on Libyan oil. Libyan oil is also very high quality. So it's eagerly sought after. So, not the major producer, but certainly an important one.

SIEGEL: And for the six-and-a-half million or so Libyans, how important are those oil exports?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Absolutely crucial because 95 percent of all government revenues comes from oil.

SIEGEL: Now, in all of the recent uprisings in Arab countries, we always hear about the role of the army and of the security forces. In Libya, how do those institutions play out in Libyan national life?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, they're actually quite different from neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. When Gadhafi came to power in 1969, he was particularly eager not to kind of recreate a military that would at any point perhaps form an opposition to him. And so, Libya has never really had a professional army the way we have seen them in Egypt and in Tunisia.

As a result, what has emerged in Libya are these very powerful security organizations that really became the watchdog of the regime. And of course what we've seen, since they are both the first and the last defense of the regime, they tend to be very vicious because if they lose the battle with the population, for example, then, in a sense, they may be the ones put against a wall and shot. And, of course, the other part of this is that if the security organizations fold, there is really no more defense for the regime in Tripoli.

SIEGEL: In Libya's neighbors, when we've seen great political upheaval, there of course has been a complaint against entrenched dictators who govern without being chosen, without being elected. But there's also been some economic backdrop of crisis and high unemployment or rising - the rising price of staples. Are those problems true of Libya as well, or no?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: To a much lesser extent. We should remember that this is a major oil exporter that has made an enormous amount of money. There is a little bit of poverty. But nevertheless, I would argue overall, somewhat egalitarian distribution except, you know, for some of the elites in Tripoli.

But the point is that Libya, with all the oil money that it has made, should have been much further along. This is a country in which the economy barely functions. It has really no efficient bureaucracy. It has no good educational system. And I think it's this kind of relative deprivation, rather than absolute deprivation, that has really sparked a kind of unrest because a lot of the money was squandered, including oil and military hardware and overseas foreign adventures by the Gadhafi government.

SIEGEL: Professor Vandewalle, this has been obviously a season of enormous surprises in that part of the world, I'm curious, as a historian of Libya, when you followed events in Tunisia and then Egypt, did you think naturally Libya will be right in there with them or never in Libya? Or something in between?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Oh, I argued for a long time that the Libyan system was so impervious to these kinds of uprisings, that it would take an enormous amount of energy to really replace this government. So I was quite surprised, frankly, also that in the eastern part of Libya, we had this kind of political energy that had been hidden, people being scared to come out in the street for literally 40 years, suddenly reaching a tipping point where it looks like the regime may actually be in serious trouble.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Dirk Vandewalle of Dartmouth, the author of "A History of Modern Libya." Thanks for talking with us.

Prof. VANDEWALLE: My pleasure.

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