Libya, among the richest nations in Africa is on the boil. At the time of writing this comment there is intense fighting between the anti Gaddafi protesters and the regime loyalists in and around  the capital – Tripoli. Accurate reports are hard to come by but there is speculation that the number of people who have been killed in the last ten days may be upwards of a thousand.  Will Libya follow Tunisia and Egypt  and  become the third  nation where the people  overthrow a dictator ?   And how does the  current turbulence in the strife-torn  African  nation affect India?

To place Libya in the appropriate context, it merits recall that Libya is very different from Tunisia and Egypt. An oil-rich nation, Libya is  a huge country with a sparse population base and has the highest per capita  income among the   geographically bigger countries of the developing world.. With an area of   1.76 million sq. km  (India is 3.28 mn sq km) , it has a relatively small  population of 6.5 million people. Estimates for 2010 indicate that it had a GDP of 78 bn US $ and a per capita of almost 12, 500 $. In more equitable circumstances, and with an enlightened political leadership, Libya could have been a Kuwait or Switzerland of Africa. However the Gaddafi era  which began in September 1969 has spelt unmitigated  despair for the people of Libya.  At the time a determined group of army officers led by  the mercurial Colonel Gaddafi  deposed King Idris in a swift coup and established a  peoples Republic -  ‘Jamahiriya’ – or  a state for the masses. 

Regrettably the last 41 years have seen  the riches of  Libya being   appropriated by the Gaddafi family and the tribal coterie  around the revolutionary  supreme leader.  Assuming the role of a messiah of the people and a pan-African and Arab leader, the delusional Gaddafi  was  seen as an unpredictable  and  ruthless  ruler. The oil wealth that accrued ensured that the  major powers chose  to live with the  artificial stability that Gaddafi represented over any kind of meaningful support for the peoples  legitimate rights and aspirations.  ‘Jahmahiriya’ had become a joke and  like most revolutions  , the 1969 coup  turned against the people   and   repression was the order of the day while the Gaddafi family and friends appropriated the national wealth.  But the hot winds of democratic yearning and freedom from oppression that  were born in Tunisia  and engulfed  Egypt  have  now come to Libya.  The Gaddafi regime is   seriously challenged and my assessment is that as with former President Mubarak  in Egypt, the ‘game is over’  for the Colonel.

In a broader context it may be inferred that what the Arab world is now witnessing is the  beginning of a new phase that began with the end of  the colonial era.  The  long cycle of modern history  has been punctuated by three  movements – the  rise of fascism that led  to World  War II;  the emergence of communism  and the Cold  War decades from 1945 to 1991  whose early phase was characterized by the end of colonial rule in large parts of Asia and |Africa including India.;  the post Cold  War  years that  were  dominated  by  the  tacit  support  to authoritarian   regimes   particularly in oil rich states  even as  assertive  and militant  Islam  shocked  the world w wit  the enormity  of   9-11.

Paradoxically technology  that  shaped the current era of rapid  globalization  and the shrinking of the  primacy of the state as an entity  has contributed  to  the success of the democratic forces..  In Asia , two large ASEAN states  Philippines and Indonesia are illustrative of how  peoples power  can succeed   in a limited manner and till recently it was assumed  that    West Asia    and  North Africa which had numerous  authoritarian regimes  were immune from this  social  fervor.  But deteriorating  socio-econmic conditions and  the rise fof the audio-visual medium and the cell phone have empowered the people in an unprecedented manner.   Tunisia and then Egypt (along with Bahrain and Yemen among other states) have shown how  a single straw can break the camels back in a  metaphoric sense. 
Libya  is now  joining the list of  countries where  the people have  chosen to brave bullets to  reclaim their republic  and the  ‘jamahiriyat’  that was promised to them.  As in the case  of Egypt, the role  of  the military will always be crucial to  the survival  of the hated regime and in t  Libya, large sections of the military  and the other organs of the government have chosen to  throw their lot with the democratic upsurge. Currently it is reported that apart from the small group of Gaddafi loyalists  drawn in the main from the  same tribal affiliation , a large number of mercenaries from Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh  have been   recruited  to  put down the protesters.  The most deplorable  Gaddafi action has been the use of air-power  to  fire on the  protesters – which is why the death toll may be much larger than what is now  estimated.

India which has almost   18,000  nationals working in Libya  has an immediate challenge – to bring them back to safety.  Naval ships are likely to be sent soon  to aid this effort  and as in the past when  a  massive evacuation  had been  carried out from Leabanon  (  July  2006)  , this will be a major politico-diplomatic and logistics   challenge for New Delhi.

The turmoil in Libya was inevitable and the Gaddafi regime  is on its last legs  but regime change does not automatically lead to rhythm change  - as the world is seeing in Iraq.  The real hard work begins  now  and  the people  of  the Arab world  and elsewhere  will need patience and  prudence  to  consolidate their new found freedom.  If  the  Indian experience is a  guide, even after 60 years, the fruits of  democracy and freedom  can remain elusive  for   the  masses.