Louis Delvoie, Senior Fellow for International Relations, Queen’s University

EVENT DATE: April 13, 2011
TOPIC: Egypt and Libya: Causes, Differences and Consequences

Louis Delvoie was the replacement speaker (for Paul Wells who had to withdraw because of Federal Election commitments) for the subject luncheon held, as usual, in Minos Village Restaurant.  He provided a very enlightening perspective on the past, current, and possible future events and activities in the North African nations of Egypt and Libya.

Louis Delvoie has had a most distinguished career in the Foreign Service and since then in academia.  He is a Senior Fellow in the Centre for International Relations at Queen’s University and a visiting lecturer at the Canadian Foreign Service Institute in Ottawa.  He has written extensively on Canadian foreign and security policy and on international relations.

In the Foreign Service, he served as Ambassador to Algeria; Deputy High Commissioner to the United Kingdom; and High Commissioner to Pakistan.  Earlier postings included Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Belgium and Yugoslavia.  In Ottawa, he served as Director General for International Security and Arms Control in the Department of External Affairs; and Assistant Deputy Minister for Policy, Department of National Defence.  He was educated at Loyola College, University of Toronto, McGill University, and the National Defence College of Canada.

This is a summary of the highlights of the speaker’s subject presentation, which he characterized as “a very brief and superficial overview of the topic”.


The Mid-east and Arab worlds are usually treated as unstable regions.  However, in fact, there has been remarkable stability in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya.  Changes of regime have only been by death or coup, with the exception being Lebanon.  Hence, the recent ouster of the President of Tunisia, by popular uprising, was revolutionary.  The resulting shockwaves throughout the Middle East triggered popular unrest in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Algeria.  The focus of this presentation is on Egypt and Libya – causes, differences, and consequences.


The causes are long-standing and systemic, exacerbated by short-term triggers.  Such realities as the massive youth unemployment and under-employment, where youth represent an ever increasing proportion of total population,  coupled with unfulfilled expectations, is part of the uneven distribution of benefits of economic progress.  Massive political and bureaucratic corruption compounded the situation of growing despair with the continuing repression of all political opposition, especially Islamist-based.  The virtual police state nature, with its arbitrary arrests, torture, and denial of political and human rights, in a climate of fear, eventually was overtaken by seething discontent.

There were three principal factors which precipitated the recent unrest.  First, news of the Tunisian example spread quickly and widely.  Second, the contribution of the increasing array of social-based media, much of it on-line via the Internet, was immense in overcoming the previous isolation, and provided an improved potential for organization through communications.  Third, the extreme discontent caused by increases in the prices of food and other basic commodities combined with the previous two to produce an explosive mixture.


The two nations of Egypt and Libya were, however, very different in terms of at least the regimes and the basis of the populations.  Egypt is very old with a strong sense of national identity and corresponding national unity.  Libya is a relatively young country deeply divided among its tribes and geographic areas (Cyrenica and Tripolitania).  Whereas Egypt has strong, albeit flawed, institutions (cabinet, parliament, judiciary, and national armed forces), Libya has nothing comparable (one-man rule supported by an army more like a praetorian guard than a national institution, supported by a separate security apparatus).  President Mubarak, despite his flaws, was a rational leader, whereas Colonel Gadhafi, while a skilled political tactician, displayed two strains of mental illness – narcissism and megalomania.

Thus, when the situation unravelled in Egypt, the leadership of the Armed Forces eventually decided that it was in the national interest that Mubarak should retire, and he accepted that verdict.  No such institutional response occurred in Libya, and Gadhafi reacted to events totally differently.


In Egypt, the revolution is anything but complete.  The situation remains fluid, with the outcome thoroughly unpredictable at this stage.  There are three possible scenarios:

a.         first, a continuation of military rule by the Generals, whether direct or indirect, with a promise of democratic elections;

b.         second, an elected government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (not because a majority of Egyptians are Islamists, but rather the Brotherhood is the only organized opposition movement); and,

c.         third, an elected government dominated by secular and nationalist forces drawn primarily from the educated middle classes – business/professionals.

In Libya, there would appear to be two possible scenarios in the short term:

a.         first, the continuation in power of the Gadhafi regime, weakened by revolutionary events, but still able to maintain control through the unscrupulous use  of the regime’s military and security apparatus (a reign of vengeance/terror?); and,

b.         second, the overthrow of Gadhafi, followed by a period of chaos and civil war as various tribes jockey for position and power (accentuation of the east-west split between the Cyrenica and Tripolitania, with the possible break-up of the country).

Hence, for both Egypt and Libya, a period of uncertainty and perhaps instability, lies ahead.  In the wider Arab world, events in both Egypt and Libya may serve to encourage further popular uprisings the resultant instability.  This, in turn, will foster further uncertainty in the world-at-large.  Indeed, the effects of that uncertainty are already evident in the sharp rise of oil prices, fuelled just as much by fear and speculation as by the realities on the ground  (Libya accounts for only 2% of world production, although it is of the preferred “sweet crude” variety favoured for production of oil-based products).  This situation may put in jeopardy western alliances with Arab countries, with the associated economic consequences, plus the security consequences in the struggle against Islamist extremism and terrorism.  Regionally, all this could inflame confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the attendant implications for armed conflict and nuclear weapons proliferation.  Some of these difficulties are currently playing out in Bahrain.  This may also complicate the efforts of the USA to complete its withdrawal from Iraq.  These events could have important political and security implications for Israel, particularly in the form of an Egyptian government less committed to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, and one less interested in playing a constructive role in Arab-Israeli affairs.

Finally, the decision of a number of western countries to intervene militarily in Libya, under cover of a UN Security Council Resolution 973, coordinated via NATO, is fraught with uncertain outcomes.  This mission is ill-defined as to both methods and objectives.  Is it simply the creation of a No-fly zone?  Is it the protection of all civilians against the forces of Gadhafi?  Is it the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime?  This mission has already provided serious divisions within NATO and the European Union.  It will continue to do so as disagreements persist regarding objectives and exit strategies.

Louis Delvoie entertained several questions on the topic.  These related to Mid-East areas other than Egypt and Libya, e.g. Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and the UAE.  He provided well-reasoned, but succinct, responses to complement his already highly effective coverage of the topic.

Summary by Colonel (Retired) R. Bruce Morris