Old habits die hard

With a travelling entourage of tents and elite all-female bodyguards, perhaps Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi is not too far removed from that other entertaining figure (of derision, even?) of world politics, one Silvio Berlusconi.

But unlike Italy, Libya remains far from the top table, and as the Economist reports, has been throwing its toys out of the pram with a diplomatic squabble with Switzerland that resulted in banning entry to Libya by all Schengen-area citizens, that has come to an end as the EU lifts a travel ban of its own on some senior Libyan officials. The main thrust of the Economist piece is on the rather unstable economic environment created by Gaddafi’s political whimsy, as reason why standards of living remain stagnant.

Libya is a fascinating case of how a country suddenly decides to try to rehabilitate itself into the international community – settling compensation for victims of the Lockerbie bombing, declaring an end to any intention to acquire weapons of mass destruction, trying to take a leading role in the African Union – in the hope that its oil reserves will draw in the sorely-needed expertise and investment of Western companies. In short, a wish to be treated as a ‘normal’ state and not as a pariah (and one that was surely not all that far down an axis of evil list).

But Gaddafi’s bluster is a sign of just how hard it is to shake off the habits and thought processes accumulated from years and decades of railing against the West. Retreating into this old comfort zone offers a modicum of assurance and security, at a time when the self-definition of what Libya ‘is’ is trying to evolve. Is it trying to be Dubai, in its wholehearted embrace of the trappings of Western affluence? Or is it trying to hold out as a vanguard of (depending on the situation) the African or Arab community?

In a sense, this transition isn’t dissimilar from the one that China is trying to navigate – for if the ‘other’ is no longer the imperialist West, then what is the governing regime’s claim to its legitimate right to rule? If he can’t justify autocratic rule on the basis of protecting the Libyan people against the insidious influence of the West, then how can that rule be justified? The CCP finds its legitimacy premised on its ability to deliver economic prosperity, and Gaddafi doesn’t quite have that yet to point to.

So every now and then, it finds itself slipping into the populism of old, even if doing so is probably counterproductive in the long run to economic prosperity. Particularly for an old-style strongman like Gaddafi and in a country where his individual will goes far, this will be all the  more tempting. Such then, is the nature of the bumpy, uneven road from revolution to a place of respect from the powers that be. And by no means is getting there guaranteed either.

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One thought on “Old habits die hard

  1. […] a post last year, I was struck by the path Libya was attempting to travel, from “rogue” state to being considered part of “civilized” international […]

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