Saturday, October 29, 2011

Livin' la vita Libya

So how do you make a country?
First, you’ll need a chunk of land. Pervasive though the iCloud is about to become, you can’t live there, at least not until the iPhone 5 comes out. There aren’t any real restrictions on size: the Soviet Union was about 22 million square kilometres and got along fine until some bloke got his Glasnost on, forcing several bits of the country to drop off and rename themselves UnpronouncableStan. Things get fiddly at the other end of the scale: Vatican City is only half a square kilometre, but it’s less a country and more somewhere for the Pope to stash his bling. Monaco comes in at 2 square kilometres, most of which is racetrack, casino or money. Nauru is next at about 20 square kilometres originally, a whole lot less now as most of the land mass was fossilised bird poop, which they exported as fertiliser and plot material for the Twilight movies (zing!) Another jump gets you to Tuvalu (26 square km). They decided not to export their island, and now make a bundle of cash selling their domain name (.tv) for American sitcom websites, so they have the same export industry as Nauru (bam!)  All these countries are small enough to hide behind Rosie O’Donnell, but all are still fully-fledged nations in their own right. So you don’t need much land to get on the scoreboard.
The reputation of the Vatican's elite Swiss Clown force is legendary

And if you can’t find a slice of land even that small, there are still options. One chap decided to set up the country of SEALAND on an old World War 2 coastal fort off the UK, making it the nation with the highest anti-aircraft gun-to-people ratio in the world. It’s been invaded by a German nutjob, burned down in an electrical fire, its passports were mass-forged (at one stage the  hundred-metre long country had 150,000 ‘residents’), it’s been offered for sale  and is now recruiting its own football team, so not having a scrap of actual land hasn’t stopped them living a history every bit as colourful as any dirtbound nation. Somewhere to plant a flag, build a presidential hut and gesture defiantly at your neighbours is all you need.
"Welcome to Sealand. Mind your step."

Second, you’ll need a bunch of people to a) govern it, and b) be governed. The second of these should generally be the larger group, or it can look a bit naff come election time when there are more folks on the ballot than in the booths. You usually don’t have to look far for citizens; if you’ve completed step 1 you’ll probably find they come with the package. If you’ve brought your own people it’s probably a good idea to try to get along with any folks who were there first, or two hundred years later the nice big bridge you built to impress the queen is going to get blocked until you say sorry for the whole, you know, taking away their land thing.

Sorry we pinched your country. We built you a bridge though...?

You also want to be careful about how you bring in new citizens for your budding nation; the general rule is that if you have to club them and tie them up to get them to come, you probably need to revise your immigration policy. Endless experience has shown that slavery might get the canals dug faster, but it leads to all sorts of horrors like segregation, apartheid and Snoop Dogg. Capturing, buying, owning or pretty much doing anything to slaves except setting them free is not cool, and no matter how good it looks on paper, even thinking about it makes you kind of a jerk.
Abe Lincoln. Not a jerk.
So you’ve got your chunk of land. Maybe a nice one, with a view of the Mediterranean. If you’re lucky you’ll have a little oil or some such under your feet, although if you’re not careful this can lead to pollution and Americans. The people thing is sorted without you having to get all “Come to the Colonies!” on tv about it because there’s a whole bunch of people who have lived on that land for ages. They really like it there, they’ve got a favourite little café not far from the bungalow their great-grandfather built after the war no not that war the one before that, and they’re pretty keen on sticking around thanks to the oil and the Mediterranean and the No Americans So Far. They’re keen to be a country too, so everyone’s looking at you and waiting to see what you’re going to do next.
"Come to the Colonies! Blue skies! Room to move! Um, rocks!"
So what do you do?

This is roughly where Libya is at right now. They’re not starting from scratch, they didn’t come from afar, but they’ve gone from stable nationhood to Who’s The Boss in the space of a few bullet-riddled months. The evil overlord is gone, the NATO bombers have parked up for a spell while the pilots pose for sunglasses commercials, and now the ENTIRE WORLD is watching to see what they do next. Where do you start?
Luckily, a lot of the basic stuff is already in place. There are folks to deliver the mail, pick up the garbage, connect your broadband and hand out perfume samples at department stores. So long as the last guy didn’t kill all of them trying to stop you taking his country off him, your citizens can sleep safe at night, knowing there’ll be someone to wave a poker hand of stinky cardboard strips at them next time they drop in to pick up a three pack of undies from menswear. Most folks don’t like change, and after one as terrifying as their entire government being blown up by French warplanes, they’re going to appreciate the sense of familiarity they get from commuter traffic, overpriced café lunches and that jerk who keeps leaving the office coffee machine set on triple espresso Yes I’m Looking At You John. Gaddhafi spent a lot of oil money ensuring Libyans had a reasonable standard of living, maybe even going dollar for dollar on the amount he siphoned off for gold-plated pistols and dictator haute-couture. It wasn’t the socialist paradise he promised, but the garbage was getting collected, the trains ran on time and people had enough money to afford some simple luxuries. It was a smart play on his part: I suspect he knew that once folks have air conditioning and Internet, the thing most of them want is to keep their air conditioning and Internet. So what a lot of Libyans want is for things to get back to some kind of normal as fast as possible without anyone getting too sweaty or not being able to YouTube up some Kanye any time they want.
Kanye. Surprisingly big in Benghazi.
But this is how folks are at the bottom of the political pyramid. Start from anywhere in Libyan society and follow the chain of command (or the chain of money) upwards, eventually you bump into someone who got there because they were good at telling Gaddhafi how pretty he looked in green, or how much the people loved him, yes even those guys over there with the machine guns and the “Kill the tyrant!” banners. This tends to be the way with dictatorships; one bloke and his hired goons kick out the previous bloke/goons combo, grab the treasury and start making a lot of people’s lives more comfortable, so long as they keep the new regime sweet with palaces and appointments with Condoleeza Rice.

"Hey Condi baby, let's lose the dork with the orange tie so I can show you my, huhuh, Scud stockpile."

 It doesn’t matter if your nation’s main export is oil or broccoli; so long as you control most of it you can get enough folks on your side to oppress the 99% who aren’t getting any of that sweet broccoli revenue. Broccoli makes for smaller palaces than oil, but it conveys the advantage that the US aren’t as likely to drop by for tea and cluster bombs. You get your new paid-up buddies to run the army, the police, the media and everything else they can use to control the way things roll in the country. Everyone above a certain level is kept on side by broccoli money, everyone below that is too scared to make waves.
"Oh sure, oil will make you rich. But broccoli is full of niacin! AND vitamin C!"
And when that changes? Revolution! The reasons it happens are best left to another blog, maybe one with less jokes about cruciferous vegetables, but whatever tips it off, it usually means the bloke and his goons won’t be smiling and waving to a hand-picked crowd at next year’s  mock elections. And all the folks they’ve been keeping onside with government money? The odds are that the revolutionaries know who they are, and while the bandanna-camouflage-and-AK47 set don’t have nice condos in Sirte, they do have 23mm anti-aircraft guns cable-tied to the back of their mate’s Hilux, and having the latter usually means you get to decide who holds the keys to the former. It might take days, it might take years, it might not even work at all, but in this case it did, and Libyans who chose Team Moammar back in the ‘60s are currently wondering if maybe they should have bought themselves a nice retirement doer-upper in Tuscany back in ’97 like the wife said they should.
"Tariq? Yeah, hi. Look, about your ute..."
So with the Big Bad gone, his heirs out of the picture and a passel of suspiciously well-dressed Sirte refugees with suspiciously bulging briefcases all applying for Sealand passports, how do the bosses-in-waiting,  the so-called National Transition Council or NTC, begin?
Very, VERY carefully.
The Libyan revolution was very much of the people. There wasn’t a foreign army backing the rebels. There wasn’t a charismatic figurehead leading the charge. There wasn’t even a Soviet-backed insurgency to blame like back in the good old days of impending nuclear annihilation. As far as it was possible to tell from the outside, the whole thing kicked off when a bunch of pissed-off locals got their hands on enough AK-47s to start thinning out the local Gaddhafi henchmen. The sound of gunfire echoed across Twitter and Facebook and before anyone had time to duck, the man himself was being unceremoniously hauled out of a culvert. And even though he’s gone, even though his sons are gone and the whole apparatus of tyranny has collapsed in a bloodstained heap, the rebels are still heavily armed…
"Hey fellas! He's in here! Get Condi, we'll lure him out!"
And this is the issue for the NTC. If they put a foot wrong, if they don’t live up to the expectations of the rebels (actually, since they’ve won I think I have to call them freedom fighters), then the next blurry phone camera footage that gets posted to YouTube might feature the head of the NTC in a central and fairly bloodstained role. So they will need to tread carefully through the minefield of statehood if they don’t want to be remembered as second up against the wall when the revolution came. Revolutions often beget revolutions (Russia went through a couple before the communists came up with the devastating one-two combination of killing your opposition then killing anyone who might become your opposition), and the NTC are no more bullet-proof than Gaddhafi wasn’t.
They’re not flying blind here though. History has provided some lessons on a few things they shouldn’t do:
Don’t sack the army
The US administrative genius, L. Paul Bremer, appointed to run things in Iraq decided this was a good idea. The Coalition rolled in, killed a fair slice of the Iraqi army, took their country off them, then told the survivors they were out of a job. He somehow decided the best way to build a new Iraq was to give a whole bunch of free time to a hundred thousand trained killers with a grudge against the invaders. If you actually WANTED to start an insurgency, this guy wrote the manual. It’s going to be tempting for the NTC to get a little tit-for-tat on the one-time forces of repression, but making sure they’re all in the one place and all wearing the same coloured clothes is a great way to keep tabs on the biggest pool of potential counter-revolutionaries.
The elite Iraqi Clown force. Not as pretty as the Pope's lads, but still awesome.

Don’t rush it
You can hold an election easily enough. Print some papers, set up some cardboard booths in a few primary schools, put up notices saying what day it’s on and away you go. When people start bleating about democracy, you remind them nicely that you just held an election, and if they’d bothered to read the community noticeboard behind the dumpsters at the derelict shopping centre inhabited by starving wolves, they would have known about it. Depressingly, this doesn’t wash with a lot of bleeding-heart latte-and-biscotti socialists who insist on gasbagging about transparency and not taking the opposition leaders’ families hostage and other such impediments to efficient rule. They expect you to let your rivals recover from their shrapnel wounds, pick out some candidates and start sharing their idiotic ideas with the people before you can go about winning the election.
"Just put an X in any box. We'll fill in the names later..."
While the NTC might be thinking this, they’d better not act on it. People need not only to vote, they need to believe their vote can actually make a difference. The ballot paper needs more options than 1) NTC 2) Gaddhafi’s corpse or 3) Please send an armed re-education squad to my home address.  An election that will keep the anti-aircraft guns on Hiluxes out of the democratic process needs to be one hundred percent legitimate or…yeah, drain pipes and phone cameras a few years down the track. Luckily the international community has all sorts of Idiot’s Guides to this stuff, and a clique of political has-beens all too keen to snatch one last moment in the limelight to give your new democracy some cred.
Don’t be dicks
This seems to be the hard part. When the Shi’ites finally got Saddam Hussein on trial, they were dicks about it, up to and beyond the moment he stepped onto the gallows. Revenge may be a dish best served cold (what the hell does that even mean??), but given the choice of the respect of nations or a big plate of cold revenge, I’ll take door number one thanks. Stalin was a dick; he killed more of his people than most other nations have people in total, including most of the blokes who gave him a leg up in the early days. He and his successors held most of the world to ransom for decades after that, but when the end came for the world’s mightiest military machine, it was just embarrassing to watch. Or Zimbabwe: from Africa’s bread basket to Africa’s basket case in a few short and bloody decades. That particular boil is yet to be lanced, but the clock is ticking, and every second is one more Zimbabwean crossing the border into a less dick-governed country.
Zimbabwe. Mugabe made everyone a billionaire in a country with no shops.
If you want to see how NOT to be a dick, look at South Africa. Generations of apartheid, but when Nelson Mandela got the guernsey, did he start kicking white farmers off their land? Did he send out revenge squads to have a quiet chat with his former prison guards? South Africa still has issues, but thanks to Mandela’s deep reserves of personal Awesome, they’re on the path to building a country they call all be proud of.
"Hmm. I wonder if they've noticed I'm wearing pyjamas."

And while the NTC are busy not sacking the army, not rushing it and not being dicks, they need to piece humpty together and get him back on the wall. Between the celebratory firing of automatic weapons (where do those bullets come down??) and the next election, they need to get the factories working, the oil flowing, the roads open, the kids back to school and all the blokes who turned out to shoot the anti-aircraft guns back into their old less murder-oriented jobs. Sure, the institutions are still there; if they need the water pipes fixed, they can ask the Water Commission to get onto it, if they want the roads cleared of burning tanks, they can tell the Department of Roads to fire up the bulldozers. But what if the heads of the departments say no? What if they say they don’t want to do what an unelected ‘government’ says? Sure, you could send the cops in to arrest him, but then what if the Police Chief says no? Soldiers? Tanks? Internet bans? How far can you go before you run out of bigger sticks?
"Send two bulldozers. Maybe three. This thing's BIG!"
You can see how this can all go horribly wrong. The whole mechanism of a nation is still there, but with the Big Bad gone, there’s a great big empty right in the middle. This is late-game Jenga: the bottom half-is swiss-cheesed all to hell, there’s this big heavy bit at the top that wobbles every time you breathe out, it’s your turn and that clown next door in Tunisia keeps ‘accidentally’ bumping your elbow when you’re about to make a move. And, just like Jenga, a collapse means everyone reaching for the Ak47s and NATO bombers.
"Uh...can we just play Pictionary now?"

Most of the pieces are still there. But the whole machine will only work if the good people of Libya are willing to trust the NTC and do as they’re told. Right next door, the Egyptians agreed to let the army run things after Mubarak foolishly stepped out of his office for a ciggie, but with troops back on the street a few months later, the Egyptian people are wondering if all they’ve done is swap a despot in a suit for one in a uniform.
If the NTC do the same, the much better-armed Libyan reb...uh, freedom fighters might just clean house again.