Gaddafi's Last Stand

The new Arab revolution confronts a dictator determined to keep power at all costs. Expect a bloody old-fashioned civil war

  • Victor Sokolowicz / Bloomberg / Getty Images

    Leave it to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi to show the world how a tyrant goes down: with bluster, belligerence and blood. Not for him, the quiet escape of Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali or the noisy — but broadly peaceful — exit of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. When the Arab youth uprising that has toppled despots on either side of his North African nation arrived on his doorstep, Gaddafi gave notice that the region's longest-surviving dictatorship would not succumb to revolutionary rap songs, Facebook pages and nonviolent demonstrations; he dispatched tanks and jet fighters to pound and strafe protesters. Hundreds were killed — the exact toll is impossible to know, since the regime shut out the world's media and shut down most communications.

    Neither the King of Bahrain nor the President of Yemen, both of whom have used violence against popular revolt in recent days, would dare such a slaughter. But Gaddafi, rich in oil and poor in friends, has rarely conformed to the rules by which other autocrats govern. Whether backing terrorist groups in the 1970s and '80s, funding civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s or hectoring world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, Libya's so-called Brother Leader — he wields absolute power with no formal title — has always done what he pleased and mostly gotten away with it.

    This time he may have gone too far. Gaddafi's cruelty against his own people disgusted even longtime cronies and set off a wave of defections that, within a week of the first demonstrations on Feb. 15, left the regime deeply — perhaps fatally — wounded. Several military units mutinied and joined forces with protesters; two jet pilots flew to Malta rather than obey orders; a string of top officials, especially diplomats, quit their jobs and added to a chorus of voices calling for the dictator's end. Soon much of eastern Libya, including cities like Benghazi and Tobruk, had declared itself liberated from the regime.

    Some have taken to calling the eastern provinces Free Libya. Walls of houses and shops in Tobruk have been sprayed with signs saying FALL GADDAFI. On Feb. 22, when the first foreign journalists arrived in Midan al-Melek, a square in the center of town, men were still joyous, chanting, milling about and firing off celebratory gunshots. "The protesters finished a few days ago, and now we are just celebrating," said one man in the crowd. "From Tobruk to Benghazi, it is all out of Gaddafi's control."

    Gaddafi didn't seem to have gotten the message. That evening he delivered one of his characteristic televised rants, this one aimed at his countrymen. He accused Libyans of lacking gratitude for all he had done for them and blamed the protests on terrorists, foreigners and young people on drugs. He managed to work in references to a range of violent crackdowns, from Tiananmen Square to Waco, Texas, to Fallujah. Bizarre as it was, the speech left no doubt as to the dictator's intentions: "I am a warrior," he said. "I am not going to leave this land, and I will die here as a martyr."

    One of his sons, Saif al-Islam, had delivered a similar diatribe 48 hours before, promising the regime would fight to the last man. But coming from Gaddafi himself, the threat carried much more menace. "I have not yet ordered the use of force, not yet ordered one bullet to be fired," he said, with typical disregard for facts. "When I do, everything will burn."

    New Call, Old Response
    So Libya threatens to be different. in Gaddafi, the Arab youth revolution faces a foe unafraid to push back brutally — and the watching world sees a ruler immune to reproach or reason. The U.S., having only recently begun to normalize relations with Libya after shunning it for nearly three decades, has little sway over the regime; the same is true for other Western democracies. (Outside the Arab world, Libya is closest to its former colonial master, Italy — which dreads the possibility of a wave of refugees fleeing the violence.) Unlike in Egypt and Bahrain, for instance, the Obama Administration has no leverage with the military in Libya: Gaddafi's generals will not be getting calls from fellow West Pointers at the Pentagon urging them to hold their fire. Nor will the threat of sanctions — President Obama said the U.S. and its allies were considering "the full range of options" — hold much terror for a regime that has endured long periods as an international pariah.

    So what began with the hope of regime change in the new, nonviolent way is now devolving into an old-fashioned African civil war, complete with shifting tribal allegiances and foreign mercenaries. Libyans' chances of being rid of their ruler of 42 years lie in their ability to endure his jet fighters; many hope more of his soldiers will mutiny. Gaddafi's survival may depend on whether he can rally support among his own and other tribes and bolster his forces with hired guns. (Reports from Tripoli say protesters have been fired upon by foreign gunmen.)

    For the rest of the world, a Libyan civil war would mean a humanitarian disaster — Egypt and Tunisia, like Italy, are bracing for refugees from the fighting. There seems likely to be a global economic impact too: Libya is a major oil exporter, and several oil companies have halted production, accelerating a rise in crude prices — which rose 2% the day after Gaddafi's speech. But unlike the revolutions roiling other Arab nations, Libyan chaos does not immediately threaten the regional order or global security. There's no domino effect to worry about: Libya's neighbors have already had their regimes changed. Nor is there a serious threat of Islamic extremists' rushing into any leadership vacuum in Tripoli. And instability in Libya doesn't directly threaten the interests of an important U.S. ally, as the prospect of instability in Egypt did those of Israel. Even so, the Obama Administration is wary of "the [possibility that] you have more than one entity that controls territory in Libya," says a senior Administration official. Especially if one of those entities is Gaddafi: although he's been relatively well behaved in recent years, the official points out, "go back 20 years or so, and he was a significant sponsor of terrorist acts who had a nuclear program."

    Mad Dog of the Middle East
    By the time Gaddafi had that dubious title bestowed on him by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, the eccentric Libyan colonel turned dictator had been in power for nearly 17 years and had proved a nuisance to Arabs and Westerners alike. His nation's oil riches and tiny population — Libya has the world's ninth largest known deposits and just 6.5 million people — allowed him to spend money freely on pet causes, including the Palestine Liberation Organization and a number of Islamic groups. Relatively little was spent on his people: a Gallup poll released last year showed that 29% of young Libyans were unemployed and 93% described their condition as "struggling" or "suffering."

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