What Anti-Gadhafi Protests Mean For Libya

Libya's leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi has vowed to crush an uprising against his 42-year-long rule. In a televised speech last night, Gadhafi told protesters he would fight to the death and die a martyr in Libya. He has called himself a revolutionary and, during his reign, has championed pan-Arab and pan-African rights. Host Michel Martin discusses the Libyan demonstrations and what they mean for the region and the African continent, with Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International and Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

He's come under fire from those who say they lost their livelihood from the gulf oil spill. He's been criticized for working too slowly, not listening, being insensitive to people's needs. We're not talking about the chair of BP, we're talking about the man charged with putting things right. Today we'll check in with him, Kenneth Feinberg. He first supervised the 9/11 victims' fund, now he's tasked with doling out billions of dollars from the Gulf Coast claims fund. He'll be with us later in the program.

But, first, Libya. Over the past week the North African nation has been shaken by protests and a violent crackdown by the government and its supporters - a crackdown that is said to include the use of thousands of foreign mercenaries. Libya's strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi, said yesterday, in a rambling speech to his country, that he will fight to the end.

Colonel MOAMMAR GADHAFI (Leader, Libya): (Through interpreter) I will not leave the country and I will die as a martyr at the end.

MARTIN: This was a clip from Al-Jazeera. Colonel Gadhafi calls himself a revolutionary and has ruled Libya for the past 42 years. In that time, he's championed pan Arab rights and pan African rights. He was, in fact, instrumental in the foundation of the African Union.

So we wanted to know more about the relationship between the rest of the continent and Libya, and, of course, what's going on there now. So we've called upon two analysts who know the region well, Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al-Jazeera International, which has been leading the coverage of the events in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region.

Also with us, Emira Woods. She's co-director of foreign policy and focus, a program with the think tank called the Institute for Policy Studies. And she's their Africa expert. They're both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

Mr. ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA (Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Jazeera): Great to be here, Michel.

Ms. EMIRA WOODS (Co-director of Foreign Policy and Focus, Institute for Policy Studies): Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, I was noting that Gadhafi is the longest serving leader -if I have that right - in both Africa and the Arab world. How has he held on to power for so long?

Mr. FOUKARA: Well, it's interesting how he went from being the hero of millions of - not just Egyptians, but the millions of Arabs beyond Libya; and also, in other parts of the world, sub-Saharan African, Latin America - to being a tragic hero in the ancient Greek sense of it, now, where people just want him to go.

MARTIN: But he's known in the West for what many people view as just erratic personal behavior, attended by, you know, female bodyguards. Attended by a Ukrainian, so-called, nurse. I mean, this is what, you know, Westerners see when he's come, for example, to address the United Nations. So given his, what seems to be some very erratic, many people consider disturbed, personal behavior, how has he managed to hold on to power?

Mr. FOUKARA: Well, I mean it's a combination of two things. One, Gadhafi has always sold himself to people inside Libya and outside, as a revolutionary against imperialism, against colonialism, against the West and so on. And that's how he's consolidated his hold on power.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, you mentioned that he had tried to become kind of a regional pan Arab leader. That doesn't seem to have gone very well. He's also turned his attention to, you know, the rest of the continent. How is he viewed in the rest of the - he's still invited to Arab Union meetings. He's still a key player at these meetings and so forth. Emira, so, talk about that if you would.

Ms. WOODS: In fact, Gadhafi played both roles. He had one foot in the Arab League and was, in fact, chair of the Arab League while also having one foot in the African Union. And up through January of this year, he was chair of the African Union, providing leadership for the pan African body and actually putting forward some courageous stances.

He was calling for greater trade within the region. He was calling for even a joint currency and a greater customs union within the African continent. So there was a pan African vision that many people embraced, that Gadhafi actually promoted, while at the same time there was this sort of schizophrenia that I think you referenced where, you know, Gadhafi would also be funneling resources, tremendous resources, to rebel forces.

I'm from Liberia, you know, Michel, and that history goes back to the 1980s when Charles Taylor got his weapons and training from Libya, at a time when Libya was standing up against the U.S. and saw Taylor as his person to help counteract U.S. dominance in the West African region.

MARTIN: Talk to me, if you would, though, about the foreign mercenaries, actually. It's been widely reported that there are thousands of foreign mercenaries, sort of acting on his behalf, firing indiscriminately at protesters and acting, sort of, in behalf of keeping him in power. Why are they there?

Ms. WOODS: Well, first we have to say, you know, a lot of these reports we're getting from Al Jazeera and from, you know, reactions on the ground, many of them have to be validated. But what we're hearing is that there are people whose skin color is dark who are speaking French or other languages, and what we know is that there's been a relationship that Gadhafi has had with rebel forces - whether in Mali or even in Darfur and Sudan in a number of countries where Gadhafi was seen as providing financial, and, in fact, political backing to some of these rebel forces.

So I think there is almost a relationship that's been in place, going back in some instances, a decade or more. And that relationship could make it easy for Gadhafi to then call in the chips and saying, you know, we need some added forces here to support him in his quest to hold on to power.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about events in Libya. We're speaking with Emira Woods, that's who you just heard of the Institute for Policy Studies. She's their Africa expert. Also with us, Abderrahim Foukara of Al-Jazeera international. We're talking about Libya and what it could mean for the rest of the continent.

I also want to mention that, for Americans, Gadhafi might be best known or most widely viewed as a sponsor of international terrorism, dating particularly to the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in Scotland, resulting in, you know, U.N. sanctions and isolating Libya considerably. And then in 2003, Gadhafi relinquished his inventory of weapons of mass destruction. Libya eventually claimed responsibility for this - the perpetrator was, you know, arrested.

But then, when he was released in 2009, received a hero's welcome in Libya, which kind of reawakened a lot of feelings of anger. But I do want to ask you, Abderrahim, what are the conditions in Libya that you feel, that your reporting indicates, have led to this. You know, in Egypt we've talked a lot about how, you know, economic progress has stalled, political progress has stalled. What about Libya? It is an oil-rich country.

Mr. FOUKARA: Libya is not only an oil-rich country, it has a far, far smaller population than Egypt or even Tunisia, six million people. And you think that through the oil revenues of Libya, which vary between 30 and $40 billion annually, you think that those six million people would actually be living in a north African paradise. They are not. Unemployment is rife. In parts of Libya there's no infrastructure and a lot of people feel that they just have not been part of that oil bonanza in Libya.

Where has the money gone? It has been lavished on various movements in Africa. It was lavished, in the '80s, for example, on the Irish Republican Army in Europe. So all this now is coming back to roost and Libyans are saying in more or less what we heard in Tunisia. Not only have our social and economic conditions been bad, but the freedoms that we were supposed to have enjoyed under the revolution of the leader, Moammar Gadhafi, we haven't had them.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, Abderrahim, we've been asking you consistently and you've been very good about kind of keeping us apprised of events, you know, throughout the region - when we watched events in Egypt, you were also, well, first there was Tunisia and then it was Egypt and also there have been protests in Bahrain and now in Libya. Are there other countries that we should also be keeping an eye on? And Emira, I'm going to ask you the same question, particularly about Sudan.

Mr. FOUKARA: I think absolutely. I think every country should be watched because we don't know where this thing is going to go next. It's interesting that he gave the first sign that things may be coming to Libya after the president of Tunisia fled. Two days later he gave a speech in which he told Tunisians, you should've kept President Ben Ali for life because he's the best thing you've ever had. And he was obviously talking about himself. He was talking to Libyans by talking to Tunisians.

I just want to say quickly that in various parts of the continent - the continent in 2011, we'll see elections in about 20 different countries. Everyone is watching what's going on in Libya. Everyone has been watching what's going on in Egypt. And people in sub-Saharan Africa may not have had their own Al-Jazeera to actually bring attention to what's going on in their countries. But they are watching what's going on in North Africa.

They may not have oil, although Nigeria and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa are oil exporters. But I think it is really a shame that so much attention has been focused on North Africa, especially Egypt, because of U.S. national security, because of Israel, because of oil, because of all this. And very, very little attention is being paid to the rest of the continent.

MARTIN: So, Emira, if you would, give us a final thought on that. Abderrahim is telling us, you know, of the 53 countries, now 54 with the referendum in Sudan, elections in 20 countries coming up (unintelligible) and now we find - and speaking of Sudan - that President Omar al-Bashir says he's not going to run for reelection. Is this a surprising development?

Ms. WOODS: Well, it is a surprising development in Sudan. But I think we have to recognize that in Sudan...

MARTIN: Well, I do want to mention that elections would be held in 2015.

Ms. WOODS: Right.

MARTIN: So this is rather far off in any a case.

Ms. WOODS: But I do think it is important to recognize that the students in Khartoum have been organizing. There have been demonstrations in the streets led by students. You have seen also demonstrations in Gabon, in Cameroon. The list of countries - the list is growing. And I think the commonality is in each of those countries you have very repressive governments that have been in power for much too long, for decades, sometimes two or three decades.

You have young people, this youth bulge that people talk about, but young people who are educated for the large part and cannot find jobs, that are taking to the streets.

And you have economic discontent, people who cannot put food on the table to feed their children. There is a sense that people must have their voices heard, must have their will respected. And Tunisia, Egypt, you have seen that there's this change that's underway, a change where people feel like their power can be expressed.

MARTIN: Emira Woods is co-director of foreign policy and focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for Al-Jazeera International. I thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. FOUKARA: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. WOODS: Thank you, Michel.

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