Hot and cold: Libya and the Arctic oil deal

In part I of this posting, I spoke to the courage of pro-democracy activists in Libya.  I asked at the start:  “How will historians in the year 2100 treat current events?  They will face the same conundrum all historians do: how does one reconcile individual actions, and actors, with systemic shifts?  The events in Libya right now offer a great example.”  Having dealt with the individual actions half of the equation, let’s turn to the systemic shifts.

Our historian of 2100 might consider the Libyan situation as the latest installment in the Great Natural Resources (GNR) War that has dominated world politics since the 1980s.  That war has involved brutal proxy fighting: the war in eastern Congo, funded by mining of rare metals, especially “coltan”, essential for electronic devices (like the one I’m typing on right now), has killed an estimated 5 million people, giving it the dubious distinction of the most lethal front of the GNR War.  Such wars can encompass other factors, like ethnic conflict:  the Congolese war cannot be separated from the Rwandan genocide.

Great Powers and the GNR War

Oil – Iraq

My now-deceased (and much beloved) cousin, Tom, who worked for many years in the oil business, claimed that many top oil executives viewed the 2003 Iraq invasion as a logical outgrowth of fears about Saudi Arabia’s stability (in light of 9/11, carried out essentially by Saudi nationals).  Only Saudi Arabia and Iraq, he argued, had oil reserves large enough to stabilize world markets:  the West relied on Saudi Arabia to do so, but instability there meant the West had to gain certain access to the Iraqi fields, to be assured of future supplies.  Exxon-Mobil, of course, moved its Middle East headquarters out of Saudi Arabia

The deals between Western oil companies and the regional government in the Kurdish north, in particular, lend themselves to that interpretation.  Interestingly enough,

In a recent [Feb 2011, with Agence France Presse] interview, Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has said that the production-sharing agreements (PSA) signed by the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region will be “respected” by the central government in a move confirming that a broad deal over the region’s oil autonomy has been struck, which officially will remove the legal uncertainties and open the growing Kurdish oil play up for investment by larger oil companies.

Read the full story at:, in its recent story on the 10 largest oil fields of the future, lists as numbers 2, 3, and 4 fields in southern Iraq, in the Shi’a dominated region (and, as #5, another one directly across the border in Iran, in the area abutting that part of Iraq).  No great surprise that the first major conflict of the GNR War, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, took place literally on top of these four fields.


Aside from Saudi Arabia (#1 and 7), the other members of the Forbes top 10 coming oil fields included Venezuela, Brazil, and Kazakhstan [and you are wondering why Russia, Brazil, and Venezuela are leading the charge against “civilian casualties” in Libya?].  Given that Alaska’s North Slope rounds out the top 10, we can probably expect to hear Sarah Palin soon denouncing the intervention in Libya. :)

For example, China seems upset about civilian casualties.  Hmm, any guesses as to who built the 1050km-long pipelines for gas and oil that run to the port at Mellitah (right next to Az-Zawiyeh)?   Do the initials CNPC ring a bell?  China National Petroleum Corp.  Go to their website for Libya and read all about it.


Compounding the internal Libyan contradictions – and we can see the tensions created everywhere by the coalition of young idealists seeking democratic reform and opportunistic politicians and military men hoping to use these movements to take power themselves (Yemen being the poster child of such a process) – we have the undoubted Western economic motives.  Europe’s reliance on Libyan oil and gas is obvious enough, but the rise of Mamhoud Jibril, former head of Libya’s main economic think tank, to official leadership of the insurgents (al-Jazeera story, 23 March), brings in the US, too.

WikiLeaks posted (in January 2011) the US Ambassador to Libya’s cable about his January 2010 meeting with Jibril, in advance of a February 2010 trade mission.

“Summary: Mahmoud Jibril, head of Libya”s premier think-tank — the National Economic Development Board — told the Ambassador on January 21 that US business enjoys “a competitive edge” in the field of technology in Libya, and argued that now is the time for US business to capitalize on opportunities for trade and investment in Libya. He welcomed a February 20-23 Department of Commerce-led Trade Mission and offered to speak with GOL officials who could help facilitate the visit. Exploring areas for future bilateral cooperation, Jibril recommended that both countries work together to implement joint projects aimed at “building trust,” which would help to erase the historically negative perceptions that each has of the other. He described an idea for a high-level dialogue between US and Libyan policymakers and scholars, to combat such misperceptions, and discussed building connections between US and Libyan academic institutions.”

The cable later states that Jibril has close ties with Saif al-Islam, Muammar Qaddafi’s son, who has been quite prominent on our tv screens in the last few weeks. The ambassador wrote:

“His [Jibril] confidence in his own ability to approach Saif al-Islam with a new idea, as well as to raise the Trade Mission with GOL ministers, indicates that he is well-connected within the regime. As the head of a think-tank that reports directly to the Prime Minister-equivalent (who called him during the meeting), without the burden of an official policymaking role, he may have a unique ability to influence decision-makers without challenging their authority.”

Now, it seems, Mr. Jibril is challenging their authority, with American and European military support.  Choosing someone who had direct and close ties with Saif al-Islam may increase the chances of effective negotiation between the two main parties.  Anointing an insurgent leader someone who has an avowed interest in tying Libya more closely to international capitalism certainly adds grist to the mill of those seeing the intervention in such terms.  Judging from press reports, damage to Libyan oil and gas installations has been very limited, which suggests that all sides, while happy to slay their fellow Libyans (and the mercenaries, like the Serbians who actually fire Qaddafi’s cannons), are not yet ready to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

We might contrast the Western eagerness to save Benghazi, and, not coincidentally, to allow the insurgents to try to regain control of the coastal region down to Ras Lanuf.  As for Misrata, so long ignored, it was the “shorebase for our exploration drilling operations” of ExxonMobil in Libya. The company set up a rig starting in 2009 but that rig, the Noble Homer Ferrington, has been idle since April 2010, due to a dispute between ExxonMobil and BP, seemingly resolved in favor of the latter, given that it has announced drilling in those waters in 2011.  Ras Lanuf  has refineries that turn out over 200,000 bbl a day.  On the western border with Tunisia, Az-Zawiyeh, right next to the Melittah terminus of the gas pipeline to Sicily, has been the scene of particularly brutal fighting; press reports suggest Qaddafi used 50 tanks to retake the city (March 10th).  Little wonder why.

Euro News recently interviewed a retired French admiral about the military situation.  He argued that it has two possible outcomes: those around Qaddafi force him to leave [clearly the outcome favored by Western governments, and one constantly and openly stated by, among others, Secretary Clinton]; or the country gets split into two parts.  He focused on Tripoli and Cyrenaica (around Benghazi) as the division, but Ras Lanuf is part of Sirte district, thus of Tripolitania, not Cyrenaica; Misrata is clearly in Tripolitania.  Even worse, the Waha oil fields (see below) lie on both sides of the fault line.

If there is to be a division of Libya East-West, then Qaddafi will have to keep Az-Zawiyeh and the insurgents the fields that drain toward Cyrenaica: the main fight will be about the Waha oil fields, that drain towards Ras Lanuf, and the nearby offshore potential fields.  Don’t look for any serious efforts to stop the fighting until the insurgents get control of the central region.

The largest known oil field, however, lies in the east (the Sirte field).  It was producing about 220k barrels a day, under direct control of Libya’s National Oil Corp., but Libya recently (2008) negotiated a deal with a company called TNK-BP to improve the facilities, with a view to doubling production.  Who is TNK-BP?  Read on.

As they say, you can’t know the players without a scorecard, so let’s check them out, starting with the home team.

Libya, Russia, BP

Russia, the world’s second largest oil producer, has been laughing all the way to the bank: oil prices have risen 24% in 2011, mainly due to the Libyan crisis, so Russia has reaped a financial windfall from the events of the past few weeks.  I’m sure they will be happy to have Libyan oil offline for a few more weeks, so long as they get to keep access to some of the main fields in the long run.

In 2010, a Russian company, Tatnaft,  discovered new oil reserves in Libya’s western Ghadamis field.  Rinat Galeyev, Tatnaft’s longtime director, has ties to Lukoil, which has also helped Libya develop fields in that area.  The American company, ConocoPhillips, is the largest stockholder in Lukoil (20%).  Conoco also has a 16% stake in Libya’s centrally located Waha field (see below).

The Russians, hedging their bets in case Qaddafi stays in power, will want to make sure that he still has control of the oil fields and pipelines that focus on the Az-Zawiyeh-Melittah area.   On BBC’s Hard Talk, Mikhail Margelov argued that the time for political talks is fast approaching, and that they should take place early in this coming week.  Putin, of course, has called the Western intervention a modern Crusade.  Qaddafi has already played this card (March 14th), saying that he will expel Western oil companies and allow Russia, China, and India to exploit Libya’s oil.  [The head of the Libyan National Oil Corporation contradicted him the next day, saying all agreements with Western companies would be kept.]

Ok, so what’s up with Russia and Libya?  Wrong question:  what’s up with Russia, Libya, and BP?  That’s what we need to know.

Eight years ago BP struck a deal with Russian investors (collectively known as AAR) to create a joint venture:  TNK-BP, with each side owning 50% of the company.  It’s been a highly successful venture: in 2010, TNK-BP produced 25% of BP’s total profits.

In 2008, the CEO of this company was one Robert Dudley.  In a typical Russian-style power play, the Russian government accused him of violating Russian laws (BP, violating laws, I’m shocked, shocked) and forced him out, changing the basic agreement by allowing TNK-BP to compete worldwide with BP, and installing a Russian CEO.  This conflict had been going on for some time:  on 3 June 2007 the British newspaper, The Independent, in its business section, ran a story under the headline: Gazprom v BP: Russian roulette – and next stop, Libya. How Putin’s Russia is putting the squeeze on Britain’s energy giant.  Just by coincidence (?), at precisely that moment BP, under the leadership of Tony Hayward (whom we all remember fondly for his deft handling of the Deepwater Horizon spill), got a contract for off shore drilling in Libya.  The US Senate closely questioned Hayward about the connection between that contract and the release of the Lockerbie bomber, al-Megrahi, and WikiLeaks documents (among other sources) make it obvious the deals were connected.  So, we have BP getting off shore drilling deals and TNK-BP negotiating to develop the large Sirte field (Libya’s largest known reserve) in 2008.

Fast forward to March 2011.  What’s been in the news this month?  Why, the West has intervened militarily in Libya and quickly driven Qaddafi from the east.  On March 23rd, long after the initial imposition of sanctions, the US Government finally announced it was adding National Oil Corp (Libya) to the list:  among the subsidiaries included are, ta-da, Sirte Oil, Waha Oil, and Ras Lanuf Oil (see below on Waha and Ras Lanuf).  Now, AMAZINGLY enough, Vladimir Putin announced, on March 4th, that he supported changing Rosneft’s partner in Arctic drilling for oil from BP to … TNK-BP.  If you’ve been reading other news, you know that a Russian court just (March 23rd) upheld an injunction against a share swap between BP and Rosneft (it would get 5% of BP; BP would get 9.5% of Rosneft), the key part of the joint Arctic venture.  And who protested, on the grounds that it violated a shareholders’ agreement?  Why none other than TNK-BP.  Let it be noted that Gazprom (whose former CEO was Russian President Medvedev) and Rosneft are in the midst of a ten-year joint exploring venture.

The Big Picture [those of you old enough to remember 1950s television will recall that the US Defense Department used to sponsor a show of that name during Saturday morning cartoons.]

Ok, taking the above into account, how about a brutal Realpolitik analysis of what’s going on.  Let’s go back to our French admiral and ask, is Libya just the latest chapter in the GNR War?

If so, the home team, China and Russia, defending the human rights of the “civilian casualties” in Tripoli, are trying to make sure that Qaddafi does not lose power in a way that jeopardizes their investments in the western oil fields and pipelines.  Putin also want to ensure that TNK-BP, and not BP, gets full authority in the Sirte field.  Are we looking at a compromise in which BP gives up to TNK-BP the Arctic rights, and, in return, BP gets the Sirte field?  Or just the off shore drilling rights in Libya?  By all reports, the Arctic field is larger, but Libya likely has a lot of undiscovered oil.

The visiting team, the US and EU, are standing up for the human rights of the insurgents in Cyrenaica, hoping to get control of the eastern oil fields, like Sirte.  {Poor Uncle Silvio: the gas pipeline to Sicily runs from the western fields.} The large Waha field – jointly developed by Libya and a trio of American companies (ConocoPhillips, Marathon, each with 16%, and Hess, 8%) – drains toward Ras Lanuf.  Conoco’s website has an excellent map of the fields.

Two relevant facts about Conoco:  1) their Board of Directors includes former Bush II Undersecretary of State, Richard Armitrage, a national security expert, and former Reagan White House Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein;  2) as noted above, Conoco owns 20% of Lukoil.  Why relevant?  The presence of Armitrage reminds us that oil business issues are intimately related to national security, for all these countries.    Oil and high politics, including war, cannot be separated.  The astoundingly intricate network of ties among all these companies show that one has to hedge one’s bets: viewing these conflicts as A against B is very difficult when A owns part of B and vice versa.

The situation on the ground right now (3/26) is that the Americans and Europeans have the eastern fields, the Russians and Chinese have the western field, and the real fight is just about who is going to get Waha and the terminals near and around Ras Lanuf, the so-called Sirte basin.

The Russians and Chinese are hoping to use world opinion to stop the intervention before the insurgents get to Ras Lanuf; the coalition wants the insurgents to get control of Ras Lanuf before a real cease fire goes into effect.  The Realpolitik “negotiated” settlement might leave Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown, in his hands – and the rhetoric can focus on Sirte, to allow him to save face – but allows Jibril et alia keep Ras Lanuf, which is what matters to the West.  Conoco, with its 20% stake in Lukoil, looks like the smartest player: even if Qaddafi keeps Waha, Conoco’s 16% share there can simply be transferred to Lukoil, if Qaddafi puts into effect his nationalization of the Conoco-Marathon-Hess share of Waha.  [For the record, Marathon Oil sold its Russian oil holdings in 2006 to Lukoil, but they were relatively small, as the price was only $787 million.]  Interestingly enough, one stock touting website, as of March 24th, was promoting the shares of Lukoil, Conoco, and Marathon as three of the top five oil company stock values. One of the other top five was BP.

Ok, back to BP.  Remember, they seem to have supplanted ExxonMobil as the company in charge of offshore exploration.  Between April and June 2010, ExxonMobil had to shut down its drilling operations (April) and then lost the rights to BP (June).  BP was to have started up the drilling early this year.

As for BP and Russia, it’s perhaps worth noting that Hayward and Dudley have basically just changed chairs.  Dudley, former CEO of TNK-BP, is now CEO of BP, and Hayward, former CEO of BP, is now a member of the Board of Directors of TNK-BP.

As for the Russians themselves, are the public differences over Libya voiced by Putin and Medvedev really about a split over the Arctic contract between TNK-BP (Putin), which has a contract to develop that eastern Sirte field, and Rosneft-Gazprom (Medvedev), which wants to squeeze TNK-BP out of the Arctic?

Sticking with our American TV theme, Let’s Make A Deal.  I’ll bet Monte Hall would propose something like this.

The West guarantees TNK-BP’s stake in Sirte; ExxonMobil gets to share off shore drilling rights with BP;  the three American companies keep their stake in Waha; Rosneft gets to deal directly with BP in the Arctic.  China keeps its pipeline.

Or will greedy Mr. Putin want both the Arctic and Libya?

Our 2100 historian will naturally know what happened; as for us, we’ll just have to stay tuned.

Liberty: Fenians and Libyans

John O'Neill

How will historians in the year 2100 treat current events?  They will face the same conundrum all historians do: how does one reconcile individual actions, and actors, with systemic shifts?  The events in Libya right now offer a great example.  Masses of Libyans have risked their lives to demand democratic, responsive government.  Their courage, like that of their brothers and sisters in East Central Europe two decades ago or across the Arab world today, can only be admired.  Many of them have paid with their lives, or lost loved ones.  I am deeply saddened when I see postings that suggest such people are frauds.

Why do people rise up against tyranny?  Why do they risk their lives, taking up arms against forces far more powerful than themselves?  Those who impugn the motives of the people of Libya (or Egypt or Bahrain or …) cannot understand, perhaps, the power of the drive for justice, for respect.

I quote here from a speech by “General” John O’Neill, one of the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (aka, Fenians) in the USA after the Civil War.  O’Neill had been a captain in the Union Army; badly wounded (he seems to have lost the use of one arm) in 1863, he left the cavalry and became a captain, commanding a company in the 17th US Colored Infantry.  After the Civil war, O’Neill led the faction of the Fenians who wanted to invade Britain’s nearby colony, Canada.  He did so in 1866, winning a minor skirmish against Canadian irregulars (the so-called Battle of Ridgeway) before turning himself and his men over to the American army [promised supplies and reinforcements had not shown up].  O’Neill led two other abortive Fenian raids into Canada; in his 1870 abortive raid, in Vermont, he got arrested and stood trial.  On 30 July 1870, he made the following speech [the judge sentenced him to two years in jail; Pres. Grant pardoned him].

“As one of a persecuted race [the Irish – for those of you not familiar with 19th-century usage of the term “race”, the Irish were a race, the English were a race, etc.] – as one who had suffered at the hands of tyranny and oppression in my native land, I came to this country full of hopeful confidence that I should enjoy that liberty which was denied me at home.  I came to America like thousands of my countrymen, because I had been oppressed at home. … I could not, while fighting in the armies of the United States, when face to face with those who would haul down and trample beneath their feet the flag of freedom, and baring my bosom to their bullets – I could not forget that I was born in another land – a land oppressed and tyrannized over.  I cannot now forget it; I never shall forget it.  No matter what may be my fate here – I am still an Irishman, with all the instincts of an Irishman. … I may have been imprudent in my endeavors to ameliorate the condition of my native land.  There is a diversity of opinion on that subject, as there always must be upon such subjects.  Had George Washington failed in his endeavors, he would have been a rebel, and treated like a rebel by this tyrannical government that I would like to strike a blow against.”

We look back in wonderment at the folly of O’Neill’s invasion, or of the incessant risings in Ireland throughout the 19th century.  Yet do we not hear the echo of his sentiments in the cries of those in Benghazi, or, before them, in Tunis or Cairo, or today in Manama?  How much did John O’Neill in 1866 differ from Mohammed Nabbous (the Libyan blogger shot by a sniper in Benghazi just hours before the French airstrike) in 2011?  Every time I see that word “rebels” attached to the insurgents in Libya, I think of John O’Neill’s comments about George Washington.

How does a French historian come to know this story of US and Irish history?  John O’Neill had no children; his brother, Charles, was my great-great-grandfather.


We have had so many examples of the bad sides of human nature in the last few weeks (Libya, Yemen, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, and the international response to many of the problems in each place, just for starters), that I’d like to take a minute to honor those who show the best of us.

Saturday’s Le Monde had some excellent articles on the nuclear problems at Fukushima; several of them focused on the workers (one with a nice look back at the workers still alive from the Chernobyl disaster).  One of those articles mentioned that among the heroes working at Fukushima are about 20 people who had been evacuated from the site when the problem started, but who volunteered to go back to help seal off the plant.  As the article said, most of them believe they are giving up their lives for the sake of the nation.  If you look at the news on Libya or Yemen (etc.) and despair, consider for a moment the astounding courage and selflessness of these volunteers, and, indeed, of the fire fighters and nuclear plant workers who risk their lives in what Le Monde called “terrifying conditions”, to prevent a meltdown.

Egyptian Constitution

As shock and awe night arrives for Libya, let us not lose sight of what’s going on in Egypt and elsewhere.  Saleh (Yemen) made the kind of ridiculous public statement about the mass murder of demonstrators that one expects from an out-of-touch autocrat.  Further proof, if any were needed, that he is on his way out.

As for Egypt, the constitutional change will surely pass, but it will be interesting to see by how much.  If it gets more than 70% yes (my guess, in the neighborhood of 80%), then we will have witnessed the complete marginalization of those who made the revolution.  Whatever they thought about the changes (which are reasonable enough, even though they are far from sufficient), I think they should have realized the changes would pass and that opposing them will just marginalize their movement.  The MB figured that out, and supports the changes.  If that scenario plays out, the two clear winners - the 'reformed' Mubarak party and the MB - can then dominate the Parliamentary elections, if the reformers don't move quickly.

The judge heading the Const Commission has set it up so the new Parliament comes first (June), then the President.  If they keep the two-round system, it will put the MB in a fascinating bargaining position.  They can cut a deal with the opposition groups, or with the old gov't forces.  I'm guessing the MB will hold the balance in most districts, because the other two groups cannot make a deal with each other.

If the yes gets more than 65%, the reform guys better get it in gear and start cutting a deal with the MB (and they had better monitor closely, district by district, what the result in the constitutional vote is).  Preempt the MB from making a deal with the Mubarakites. The MB, as the best organized force, may well cut localized deals, to ensure itself a position of strength - not necessarily a majority, which may be unattainable, but a group of deputies large enough to prevent any substantive action without their support - in the new Parliament.

Ok, reformers, how about a simple deal?  In a district in which the No gets 10 percentage points or more greater than the national average, the reformers get to run the joint candidate; in a district in which the No gets 20% or less of the vote, the joint candidate comes from the MB; in the districts between those figures, both groups run candidates in round one and the top vote-getter between them gets to run in round two.  Just a suggestion.

Tea leaf reading: Yemen falls

Reading the Tea Leaves: Yemen Falls

From an e-mail sent to my colleague Osama Abi-Mershed, on Jan 15, 2011: “I think of all the conversations I've been having with Marcus Rediker [renowned historian of the 18th-century Atlantic World, whose most recent (prizewinning) book, Slave Ship, has been an international sensation], going back at least 5 years, about living in a revolutionary moment, with the entire system on the brink.  I'm more convinced than ever that such is true, and that one sees it in little things as much as big ones.”

[Ok, I exaggerated, Marcus and I have been having those conversations since fall 2008.  From 28 Jan 2011 e-mail to Marcus: “seems to me we have been talking for the last two or three years about how revolution is at hand.  nice to see our historical training wasn't wasted.”]

That comments raises the question, once the pot is stirred, how do you read the tea leaves?  “I do not see how a society (like Tunisia) can go on providing substantial education to its young people and then offer them no realistic hope of a decent job.  Rising expectations and stable or, even worse, reduced performance are a revolutionary mix.” Osama and I have been convinced since the second week of January that Ben Ali would fall, that Egypt would follow Tunisia (a point made in that same 15 January e-mail), that the events of January 2011 to the present are a Revolution, not local regime crises.  Those who have seen the C-Span video know that we urged media to shift from the term “crisis” to “Revolution” and that, likely by coincidence, places like CNN and al-Jazeera did so later in that week.

That comments raises the question, once the pot is stirred, how do you read the tea leaves?  “I do not see how a society (like Tunisia) can go on providing substantial education to its young people and then offer them no realistic hope of a decent job.  Rising expectations and stable or, even worse, reduced performance are a revolutionary mix.”

A recent story in the NY Times, one remarkably convenient from the standpoint of US policymakers btw, that presidents like Ben Ali and Mubarak would fall, but that monarchs (of whatever title) would survive (because they can blame and dismiss governments), seems premature, to say the least.  The monarchs of places like Bahrain and Oman may well survive, but Revolutions have no problem disposing of monarchs (alas for revolutionaries, the monarchs sometimes come back, albeit in drastically changed institutional frameworks).

What do the tea leaves say about Yemen?  Saleh, personally, is almost certain to go.  Yemen differs dramatically from Tunisia and Egypt, however, in that what will replace his regime is highly unlikely to be what is possible (but far from definite) in places like Tunisia.  {See post on What’s Next, Doc?}  In this post, I’ll look mainly to discourse; in the second post, you can see what a longue durée approach will tell us.

Tea leaf reading 101.

First, look for evidence within regime rhetoric of cognitive dissonance on the part of rulers.  Ben Ali’s regime showed those signs on January 13th (Ben Ali parliamentarian, on an al-Jazeera panel) and, of course, on January 14th, the night Ben Ali warbled his swan song.

Ali Abdullah Saleh

Just as the Tunisian deputy’s idiotic rant about “foreign” agents and criminals – idiotic precisely because everyone was watching the actual demonstrations on YouTube, so we all knew she was full of a barnyard substance – marked cognitive dissonance, so, too President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ridiculous charges that Israel is orchestrating the Revolution of 2011 warns that the end of his regime is nigh.  Saleh, relying on the old accuse-your-enemies-of-what-you-are-doing trick, also claims the US is behind the Revolution, and particularly behind the demonstrations in Yemen.  Given that Saleh’s government cooperates with US efforts to combat al Qaeda in Yemen (which John Brennan, the Deputy National Security Adviser, with special responsibility for homeland security and counterterrorism, claimed in mid December 2010 was more dangerous than al Qaeda in Pakistan-Afghanistan), we get a sense of Saleh’s desperation in making such a claim.  The use of anti-Semitism by Arab autocrats is another classic diversion.

Saleh, like Ben Ali and Mubarak before him, does not understand the new media age.  Relying on their control of state media – tv, radio – they cannot even imagine what it means to have some ordinary Yemeni or Tunisian or Egyptian reach thousands, even millions of people around the world with video of police brutality, at the touch of a button.  Being in power for 30 years, they have become far more out-of-touch than, say, someone like Pres. George H.W. Bush infamously showed himself to be during the 1992 election campaign (after he had spent 12 years as either Vice-President  or President): what American of a certain age can forget Bush’s amazement at encountering a scanner at the supermarket check-out line?  Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, Qaddafi – all of them were in power in 1981, too.  Is it any wonder that in 2011 they have long since lost touch with the societies they have been looting?  Saleh’s Israel comment is his checkout scanner moment.

So, they speak of “foreign terrorists” (all four of them), of al Qaeda (Qaddafi), of an Israeli plot (Saleh).  They make contradictory accusations, because they must appeal to varied audiences – to their own people, to the West, to the UN.  This kind of rhetorical inanity is a sure sign of pending regime collapse.

Second, watch for the desertion of key establishment religious figures, another certain sign of desperate times for a ruler.  We saw that in Egypt: when the leader of Al-Azhar in Cairo abandoned Mubarak, his regime was over.  In Libya, we have seen the major religious figures forsake Qaddafi – he’s still holding on to power in a small area, and will doubtless still cause the deaths of thousands of his countrymen, but his regime is finished.  In Yemen, yesterday, Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani openly sided with the protesters.  Clerics of whatever denomination, particularly those in positions of authority, must be very cautious in political upheavals, lest their “church” suffer for their indiscretion.  When they come out against a government, the government is on the brink of collapse.

Third, watch for the practical problems created by the cognitive dissonance (#1). When a government offers reconciliation, as Mubarak did by offering to step down in September 2011, and then orders a brutal crackdown the next day, thereby destroying what little credibility they might have had among non-demonstrators, they must go.  How many middle-aged people interviewed by al-Jazeera, BBC, et alia after Mubarak’s fall mentioned the cavalry episode in Tahrir Square as the turning point for them?  Of the ones I saw (between 10 and 20), all of them.

Saleh’s “Israel” charge means he is about to crack down, hard [writing here on Tuesday morning]: tying the demonstrators to Israel is an effort to dehumanize them, thus making it easier to justify killing them.  (Think of Qaddafi’s “cockroaches” comment, followed by use of aircraft to spread “pesticides,” in this case, for human cockroaches, bombs and bullets.)  The repudiation of Saleh’s regime by a leading cleric – known to all, thanks to modern media – will instantly trump the Israel card.

From Ben Ali to Saleh, the dictators have all blamed the media, especially al-Jazeera.  In a sense, they are right: the problem is precisely that the tyrants do not understand modern media.  I keep hearing Strother Martin telling Paul Newman, before administering yet another brutal beating in Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”  For Saleh, having failed with the only verbal language he knows, having failed with the language of patronage (the money he distributed to tribal leaders last week), he will have to turn to tyrantspeak: murder.  My guess is that message won’t get through, either.

TFR Table

Country Outcome TFR 1990-95 TFR 2010-15
Full Transition to Democracy 1990-2010 


Argentina 2.9 2.2
Brazil 2.6 1.7
Indonesia 2.9 2.0
Turkey 2.9 2.1
Partial transition to Democracy 1990-2010
Philippines 4.1 2.9
Likely transition to democracy
Tunisia 3.1 1.8
Partial transition to constitutional rule (dem or const monarchy)
Bahrain 3.4 2.1
Morocco 3.7 2.3
Algeria 4.1 2.3
Slower transition to const. gov’t
Libya 4.1 2.5
Jordan 5.1 2.8
Egypt 3.9 2.7
Oman 6.3 2.8
Little or no chance for democracy
Iraq 5.8 3.7
Yemen 7.7 4.7
Afghanistan 8.0 6.3
1979 Revolution
Iran 7.0 in 1980 1.7

TFR, selected countries, political outcomes in the last 30 years; possible outcomes in 2011

Source of data:  UNDP, Human Development Report, 2010, accessed at

Data on Iran in 1976-80 from a UN document: Mohammed Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, “RECENT CHANGES AND THE FUTURE OF FERTILITY IN IRAN”, p. 1; the rate was only 6.0 in 1976.

What’s next, Doc?

What’s Next, Doc?

If we can get away from politics for a moment, to look at two developmental factors, total fertility rate and education, we can get some hints about what is possible in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere.  I have posted a table with all TFR figures.

Total fertility rate (TFR - number of children that would be born to a woman of a given age cohort if she lived through her entire range of fertile years).

In an advanced post-industrial society, a TFR of 2.1 means a stable population; the US has roughly this level (higher among immigrants, lower among indigenous population, especially indigenous white population); Western Europe and Japan are often down around 1.3 to 1.5, which means their native population is declining.

The TFR places Tunisia within the European pattern, at 1.71 (France is 2, Germany is 1.4).  Egypt and Libya remain higher, 2.7 and 2.5, but continued to trend down, much as places like India (2.5) and Brazil (1.7) have done over the last generation, as they move to the profile of an industrial society transforming into a post-industrial one (the rate in the US in the 1960s, for example, was 2.65).  Among the other countries that have had some recent unrest, Algeria, Bahrain, and Morocco have a TFR of between 2.1 and 2.3, while Jordan and Oman are 2.8.  Yemen, in contrast, has the profile of a pre-industrial society: 4.7.

Among functioning world democracies, the high end of the TFR is India.  A Middle Eastern country that has transitioned both demographically and political in the last 20 years, Turkey, fits a profile similar to that of Brazil, Indonesia, and Argentina, all of which dropped from just under 3 in 1990 to around 2 today.

In terms of demographic statistics, Tunisian belongs to Western Europe.  Look for Tunisia to make an effective and rapid transition to real democracy.

Jordan, Oman, and Egypt probably go into the category of a place like the Philippines (2.9), which has a very fragile democratic system and continuing problems with local warlordism.  Some sub-Saharan African countries, like Nigeria and Kenya, have TFRs of 4 or even higher and have fragile democratic systems (as the Kenyan electoral violence showed three years ago), but we might look to Côte d’Ivoire (4) as an illustration of the difficulties of democracy in a place with relatively low literacy, low tertiary education levels, continuing gender differentiation in education, and a high TFR.  Egypt and Jordan do have solid educational statistics for this level of development, which bodes well for a more effective transition.

Note to American policymakers:  Afghanistan has a TFR of 6.3; Iraq has a TFR of  3.7.  The chances of real constitutional democracy in either are low; in Afghanistan, with its dismal educational statistics and grotesque discrimination against women, the chances are zero.  Iraq at least has decent educational numbers and did have (prior to 2003) a positive picture on gender discrimination.  Afghanistan ranks close to Yemen in discrimination against women and has dreadful education statistics: only 12.6% of women in Afghanistan can read.  “Exporting democracy” to such a place is literally impossible.

TFR highlights another country in the region: Iran has a TFR of 1.7 and high educational levels, yet has an autocratic government (a blend of theocracy and military state).  Iran’s government is really a throwback to the society Iran was in 1979 (TFR between 6 and 7); the problems they have had, and continue to have, reflect the fact that Iran’s government no longer accurately reflects its society.  The numbers suggest Iran’s current system will collapse under its own weight sometime in the next decade, indeed, quite possible even sooner.

Egypt, with its 82 million people, could follow the paths of Indonesia and Brazil, each of which since 1990 has moved away from:  1) a military-dominated political systems, 2) an under-educated population, 3) a catastrophic gender education imbalance, and 4) a TFR of 3.

Indonesia’s TFR dropped from 5.6 in the late 1960s, to 3.3 in the late 1980s, to 2.3 by 1999, and 2 today.  Brazil was also 3.3 in 1986, and 2.5 by 1994; today it’s down to 1.7. Both of them arguably went through the transition to effective democratic government as they moved from a TFR of 3.3 to one of about 2.3 (just above replacement level). Egypt’s TFR in 1990 was 4.6, so the current rate of 2.7 shows it going through a similar process in population dynamics.  Now it needs to have the political change.

The Tale of the TFR

IF, a big IF, the TFR proves to be an accurate indicator, we would expect the following outcomes:

Tunisia, functioning constitutional democracy

Egypt, Libya, Algeria, somewhat slower transition, but democratic elements, functioning democracy by about 2025

Yemen, continued autocratic rule (strongman, military, theocratic all possible)

Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, perhaps constitutional monarchies or democracies, developing a bit more slowly than Tunisia, with Bahrain in position to move the fastest.

Education and Gender Imbalance

The education statistics from Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen tell starkly different stories.  Tunisia’s average length of schooling is supposedly 15 years but surely at least 12; moreover, the rate for females slightly exceeds that for males.  Female literacy rates lag behind those of males (65 v 83%), but that discrepancy mainly reflects earlier gender discrimination.  In Egypt, school expectancy is 11 years, but UN statistics show that a significant proportion of Egyptians (on the order of 20%) do not get anything like that amount, and the nationwide average is more like 6 to 9 years.  Girls still face educational deficiencies.  Literacy rates are similar to those in Tunisia – 83% for males, 59% for females – but hide a generally much lower level of education among a large group of the population.

That said, both Tunisia (one-third) and Egypt (one-quarter) have a very impressive percentage of young women in the eligible population (first 5 years after the end of secondary education) enrolled in tertiary education.  Yemen, in contrast, has only 4% of eligible women enrolled in the tertiary sector, and only about one male in eight. (Afghanistan has 1%, yes 1%, enrolled in the tertiary sector.)  Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Libya all fall into pretty much the same categories in education as they do in TFR, because of the close correlation between female educational attainment and fertility (female educational level is the single most highly correlated socioeconomic variable in fertility rates).  Morocco lags behind on education, and Oman is last, both in education and TFR.

For effective democracy, it helps to have 30% of eligible students in the tertiary level, for the percentages of women and men to be about the same, and for average educational years to be roughly full secondary education (12).  The much-touted Western democracies got to these levels only in the 1960s.  It would be hard to argue that Western Europe, for example, had overwhelming success with democracy prior to that time and the US, while in some ways better, still essentially disenfranchised large numbers of blacks (mainly in the South) and the itinerant poor (almost everywhere) until the mid 1960s.

Tale of the Tertiary Sector

Tunisia, solid tertiary level, gender balance: democracy

Egypt, Libya, , Bahrain, Jordan, solid tertiary level, some continued gender imbalance in Egypt:  on the road to democracy.

Algeria lags a bit on the tertiary level, as does Oman.  Unclear outcome.

Morocco, lags in school years and has very poor tertiary statistics.  Gender balance is close to mainstream group:  slower progress toward constitutional monarchy.

Yemen, very poor tertiary level, grotesque gender imbalance (UN statistics show that Yemen has the worst gender discrimination inequalities in the world): autocracy

Overall assessment

Having looked at what the two categories on their own would imply, let’s put them together.  The two categories are pretty consistent.  Tunisia has great prospects for success, while reform, but of unclear extent, seems likely in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan.  Oman will likely lag a bit behind, and Yemen seems certain to slip into some sort of new autocratic regime and/or civil war.

Demographic and education data diverge a bit in some cases:  Morocco’s poor educational record will likely hold it back, while the TFR in Jordan, Oman, and Egypt is a bit high to fit the classic quick transition to more democratic government.  Oman also lies at the low end of the TFR outlook. Bahrain has an important religious division and large numbers of temporary migrant workers: they form about 1/3rd of Bahrain’s population, an ‘x’ factor not present in the other countries.  That said, Bahrain basic numbers are very good.

Transitions with limited violence, as in Egypt, Tunisian, and Bahrain (so far), have considerable advantages over those of higher violence and destruction, as in Libya.  Tunisia’s substantive constitutional reform committee, its recent dismissal of the tainted prime minister, and its underlying positive numbers should make it a model for democratization in the Arab world.  With determination and a bit of luck, the numbers say Egyptian reformers can pull it off, too, but it will be more difficult.

Combined Rating

Country                        TFR                                  Educ. years               Tertiary %               Gender = educ.

Tunisia        1.8                15*           32                    yes

Bahrain        2.1                14            30-50*                yes

Algeria        2.3                13            24                    yes

Morocco        2.3                10            13                    moving toward

Libya          2.5                17*           55                    yes

Egypt          2.7               “11” (prob.9)* 31                    no

Jordan         2.8                13            38                    close

Oman           2.8                12            26                    no

Iraq           3.7                10 [11m/8f]   16                    yes

Yemen          4.7                9 [11m/7f]    10                    no

Afghanistan    6.3                9 [11m/7f]*   1 (sic)              no

*The two Tunisian education numbers – level (15 years) and tertiary percentage (32%) – are contradictory, so I would guess years of education is overstated. For Bahrain, the two UN sources I consulted gave 30% and 50%; given the 14 years of education level, I suspect the 50% figure is more accurate.  I would also be certain that the figure refers only to Bahrainis, and excludes the large in-migrant population of workers.  Libya’s statistics are probably the least reliable, but the ability of children to go to school in Afghanistan has to be questioned, too.  For Egypt, I think 9 years is more accurate, because UN data show such a large group there (about 15-20%) essentially has no access at all to education.

No-fly zone, updated

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows, to judge from those calling for a no-fly zone over Libya.  I am generally a strong opponent of US military action abroad, but I think a no-fly zone is justified in this case, to prevent further massacres.  One recent evacuee from Libya claimed a single bombing session in Tripoli had killed 590 people, and overall casualty estimates have already mounted into the thousands.   As noted in an earlier post, the great complication with respect to a no-fly zone is the astonishing number of foreign workers in Libya.  If Qaddafi is ready to massacre his own people, we can only assume he’ll gladly do the same to foreigners.  Workers from poor countries, like Bangladesh (a reported 30,000), run particular risks, because they have no effective governmental protection.  To the extent that a no-fly zone will help limit Qaddafi’s forces to a much smaller geographic space, the advantages of no-fly for people like these Bangladeshis likely outweigh the risks of doing nothing.

If one accepts the need for a no-fly zone, how to get one over Libya?  First, all those Libyan diplomats who have resigned or, like the delegate to the UN Human Rights Council, have declared they now represent the Libyan people, and not the Qaddafi regime, could band together and demand that the international community protect Libyans from Qaddafi and his hired murderers.  Libyan Ambassador to the US, Ali Aujali, could speak for his colleagues and make such a demand, aimed specifically at NATO.  Second, a delegation from the liberated Libyan cities like Benghazi could demand protection from the international community and place itself under the UN’s aegis.

Thumbs up to the UN HR Council for creating a committee to look into human rights violations in Libya.


Sitting in Paris, March 19th, first day of the no-fly zone.  The sad part is that taking so long has meant the air attack will be far more substantial than it would have been three weeks ago.  Based on previous no-fly zones, we can expect bombings of airports, air defense systems, command and control centers, and, in this case, perhaps naval resources, too.  This attack will also hit ground forces, given their proximity to (and shelling of) Benghazi.   Hard to know how precisely it will work, without far more detailed military knowledge of Libyan capabilities (and damage already done to them). It’s easy to forget, when thinking about how large conventional armies are ill suited to occupation of hostile areas, how efficient the major power militaries are in conventional conflict: Libyan forces are unlikely to be any more successful than Iraqi ones were in 2003.  That said, the direct military efficiency, vis-a-vis the opposition military, does not mean efficiency in avoiding civilian casualties.  The truly awful part of the need for a much broader attack now than would have been needed three weeks ago is that civilian casualties will surely be much more substantial.   These bombings, accurate though they might be in historical terms, still create widespread carnage.

Surely everyone wishes for it all to end as quickly and as peacefully as possible, so that the sufferings of the Libyan people, which seem to have been largely ignored in all the geopolitical machinations, can come to a merciful end.  Alas, it seems that will happen only when Qaddafi is gone: at this point, after all that has been said and done, no compromise is possible with him or with his sons.  The West has now committed itself to regime change.  Given the widespread desertions by high-ranking members of the old Q regime (for example, among diplomats), one might expect in the next week to see some sort of coup d’etat, followed by a ceasefire and negotiations.  Given the situation in Libya, the most likely scenario is the death of the Qaddafis: it’s hard to see them surrendering.

The good part is that the charade of the cease fire has brought so many more countries on board; even Chancellor Merkel is here in Paris today.  One can only wonder if Saudi support for the bombing of Libya comes with the quid pro quo of doing nothing about Bahrain.

An Odd Couple: Libya and Oscar

An Odd Couple: Oscar and Libya

QaddafiEvents in Libya continue to outpace the world community’s response to what is happening.  Yet, like any action film, in our hearts, we already know the final result: Qaddafi will lose power.  What we don’t know is how many people will die in the process.  The drama playing out, however, brings to mind that it’s Oscar month, so it’s time to hand out the awards in some special categories.

Our first category is, Most Ridiculous International Response.  Voters had great difficulty choosing a winner, because there were so many nominees.  Not surprisingly, the vote ended in a tie:  French President Sarkozy and US Senator Kerry, for proposing economic sanctions against Libya.  Voters wanted to know what possible good are sanctions against a man who has just publicly announced that he will burn his country to the ground?

The comedy Oscar for Most Buffoonish Response goes to PM Berlusconi of Italy for his statement that it would be inappropriate to “disturb” his close friend Moammar Qaddafi at this time.  Many voters objected to Berlusconi’s eligibility in this category: they believed a professional buffoon should not be permitted to get an award for acting like a buffoon.

The Oscar for Most Despicable Response had a surprise winner.  Not to be outdone by Berlusconi and the Right, the Left had its own champion step forward, Pres. Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.  Ortega denounced the demonstrators and called Qaddafi to express his solidarity in these “moments of tension.”

The Oscar for Most Devious Response goes naturally enough to a wily old tyrant, Fidel Castro, who offered an oblique and vital rhetorical strike on behalf of his old friend: he warned that NATO was about to invade and conquer Libya.  Mr. Castro’s verbal sally, designed to put that intervention in terms odious to many people, and states, around the world, might be the most effective support Qaddafi has thusfar received.

Given the universal hypocrisy of world leaders, voters thought it might be unfair to award a single Oscar for Most Hypocritical Response, until Pres. Ahmadinejad of Iran came out with his hilarious comments about how awful it was that the head of a government would use force against peaceful demonstrators.   He seemed shocked that any legitimate head of government would countenance the shooting of his own people, and stood up forthrightly for the right of all humans to express freely their opinions.  To be fair to the Iranian government, it did follow legal procedures with respect to its own dissidents:  the Iranian Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the execution of two of the presumed leaders of the recent demonstrations.

Voters wanted to offer special awards to Hu Jintao, Ban Ki-Moon, and David Cameron.  Hu Jintao and the Chinese Government get the under-the-radar award for their creative response to potential demonstrations in China: using electronic surveillance, they simply arrested the potential demonstrators at their homes, before they could start any public protest.

Ban Ki-moon and PM Cameron received great sympathy from voters, because, virtually alone among world leaders, they seemed genuinely disturbed at events in Libya and, reading their body language, genuinely frustrated by their inability to convince others to join them in effective action.  Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed “outrage” at the use of aircraft against civilians: in the diplomatic-speak of the UN, “outrage” is the equivalent of a nuclear response.  He has used the word only once before, for the Israeli air attack on the UNRWA building in Gaza in 2009, that is, precisely for the use of air power against civilians.

PM Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague have been the most forceful Western statesmen; Cameron stated, the “vicious repression is appalling,” much sterner terms than those used by any of his NATO peers. One might even suspect that Cameron used Lord Owen to float the idea of a no-fly zone without directly tying it to his government: the contrast between the proposals of Kerry and Owen pretty much sums up the difference between Cameron’s obvious desire to do something useful and Obama’s desire to do nothing.  Cameron’s body language in Egypt suggested that he was biting his tongue about Libya: the sudden parroting of the Obama Administration line about getting a unified international response came as a bitter pill to swallow, to judge from the look on Cameron’s face in front of the cameras in Cairo.

Our final category is Most Feckless Response: the vote was unanimous, Barack Obama.  A British newspaper quoted an unnamed government source there saying of Obama, “he’s spent the last two weeks playing catch-up rather than trying to shape the course of events, which is not what we have come to expect from the leader of the free world.”  Pretty hard to argue with those sentiments.  Given that Sen. Kerry is often a foreign policy stalking horse for the Obama Administration, surely his ridiculous proposal of sanctions had to be cleared with the White House.  The American line that we have to have a “unified international response” sounds good, but given that autocratic governments hold two vetoes in the UN Security Council, and that dozens of governments around the world get their power from the barrel of a gun, calls for unified international action, such as creation of a no-fly zone or use of UN peacekeepers, will get nowhere on the Security Council.  (The SC’s toothless statement today, 2/23, just confirms the obvious.) Autocrats will not like the example of the UN defending a tyrant’s people from his murderous, lunatic rage.  The chances of a unified response that will save Libyan lives are Slim and None.

There remains some hope.  Qaddafi made the critical mistake of threatening to sabotage the oil fields:  killing Libyans does not seem to matter much to any Western leader other than David Cameron, but cutting off oil supplies is a different matter.  The natural gas pipeline from Libya to Italy has already been shut off, so the oil threat is all too real.

Voters felt that Pres. Obama could yet qualify for the Hero Award.  As the “leader of the free world,” he could take three immediate steps:   1) airlift desperately needed medical supplies to affected Libyan cities, like Benghazi; 2) enforce a no-fly zone; 3) send NATO forces to protect NATO nationals in Libya.  Western leaders have rightly shied away from step 2 on its own, because taking step 2 without taking step 3 will lead to an immediate massacre of Italian, French, British, etc. nationals in Libya.  Press reports from Malta suggest that Special Forces units from several European nations are already there, ready to be airlifted to Libya to protect their citizens.  Time to fly, before Slim leaves town.