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Upheaval in Qaddafi's Libya isn't just another Arab uprising

Libya's motley modern structure is largely tribal – without centuries of nationalist history or a strong military like Egypt or Tunisia. Libya is an ideologically driven oil state, but Qaddafi's grip has prevented real economic reforms. The tides are turning his brutal hold, but what happens next?

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The remarkable spread of the 2011 Arab revolts across the face of North Africa causes many journalists to portray the current Libyan uprising as fueled by similar factors to those at play in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. There are more differences than similarities. True, most Libyans are under 30 years old and youth unemployment is painfully high. Granted, many Libyans are justifiably frustrated by 42 years of a kleptocracy that squanders Libya’s vast resource wealth and denies freedom of expression. And yes, increased access to the Internet and social networking sites has allowed the disenchanted youth to organize themselves in a way that can no longer be effectively monitored and repressed by the regime.

But this is where the key similarities between Libya and her neighbors end. Tunisia and Egypt have been coherent nation-states for well over a century. National sentiment is strong, while tribal identification applies to only a minority of the non-urban population. Libya is the opposite. The country consists of three provinces of the Ottoman Empire (Tripolitania, Cyreniaica, and Fezzan) gradually lumped together by the Italian colonizers from 1911 onward. In 1951 it was molded into an independent federal kingdom to secure British and American strategic interests in the cold war. Although Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, during his 42-year rule, has rhetorically denounced regionalism, he has wisely drawn the top tier of his supporters from his native town, Sirte, and from tribes loyal to him around Sebha, where he went to high school. Therefore, one would have expected that these key props to his regime would be unlikely to abandon him now, just as they remained loyal when exclusively Cyrenaican uprisings donned Islamist garb in 1996 and 2006.

IN PICTURES: Libya protests

On this motley structure modern Libya has been built, an ideologically driven oil state that has massively benefited from a decade of consistent economic growth spurred by improved relations with the West. Yet, due to the regime’s outdated ideology, horrifically inefficient bureaucracy, and opposition by those with vested interests, true economic reforms have not been undertaken. Now it appears to be too late, and efforts to rehabilitate Libya from its former international pariah status by renouncing terrorism, giving up its weapons of mass destruction, and seeking to privatize its economy appear to have come to naught. In his current moment of need, Colonel Qaddafi is being deserted en masse by both his own diplomats abroad and by the very same Western countries that courted him to secure lucrative oil contracts. By the time you read this, he may be very well have been overthrown, be going into exile, or be facing a UN resolution with (or without) teeth.

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