Monday, February 21, 2011

Libya: The end of the road for Kaddafi's tyranny?

When anti-government protests spread around the Arab world from Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan to Bahrain, I pointed out that in the most oppressive societies, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia, no such movements had arisen. I thought this was because they had stagnant economies and their brutal regimes would countenance no mild sit-ins filled with protesters carrying placards and asking for change. They would plow their homes, kill the protesters and torture their loved ones before anything could get going. And the citizens of those lands, long afraid of their rulers, understood that.

The last time there was a protest movement in Syria, the Al-Assad regime had murdered roughly 20,000 opponents (mostly Sunni Islamists), killing them with military weaponry and covering their corpses with asphalt. Thomas Friedman, who witnessed the tarmac of death in Hama, Syria, called this response of the regime "the Hama rules."

But right now it appears I was completely wrong about Libya. It looks as if Col. Kaddafi (which can be spelled many different ways*) is losing his grip on power. This is what the New York Times is now reporting:

The 40-year-rule of the Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi appeared to teeter Monday as his security forces retreated to a few buildings in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, fires burned unchecked and senior government officials and diplomats announced defections. The country’s second-largest city remained under the control of rebels.

Security forces loyal to Mr. Qaddafi defended a handful of strategic locations, including the state television headquarters and the presidential palace, witnesses reported from Tripoli. Fires from the previous night’s rioting burned at many intersections, most stores were shuttered, and long lines were forming for a chance to buy bread or gas.

Unlike in Egypt, where American reporters were able to cover the story from on the ground amid the protesters, none of what is happening in Libya is transpiring on my televsion. Nonetheless, this sounds like very bad news for Col. Kaddafi. His opponents are obviously not taking over cities and government buildings without some violence of their own. At the same time, they are surely outgunned by Kaddafi's military and police. So it must be the case that Kaddafi's forces are defecting in large numbers or just refusing to fight.

In a sign of growing cracks within the government, several senior officials — including the justice minister and members of the Libyan mission to the United Nations — announced their resignations. And protesters in Benghazi, the second-largest city where the revolt began and more than 200 were killed, issued a list of demands calling for a secular interim government led by the army in cooperation with a council of Libyan tribes.

Kaddafi's official henchmen would not be leaving their posts if they didn't think the Colonel was going to be deposed from his throne in Tripoli. It's also a positive sign, from my secular perspective, that the protesters want a secular government. I would imagine, nonetheless, that some protesters against Kaddafi are Islamists.

The ubiquitous posters of Colonel Qaddafi around the capital had been torn down or burned, witnesses said.

You know you are in a shit-hole of a country when they have ubiquitous posters and statues and so on of the dictator. It's a message which says: 'I am the state. It's about me, not you, folks. You better bleeping kiss my ass or else.'

Tripoli descended into chaos in less than 24 hours as a six-day-old revolt suddenly spread from Benghazi across the country on Sunday. The revolt shaking Libya is the latest and most violent turn in a rebellion across the Arab world that seemed unthinkable just two months ago and that has already toppled autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.

Not that the governments in Egypt or Tunisia were democracies, but it's quite unfair to them to even be mentioned in the same breath as a tyrant like Moammar Kaddafi.

In a rambling, disjointed address delivered about 1 a.m. on Monday, Mr. Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, played down the uprising sweeping the country, which witnesses and rights activists say has left more than 220 people dead and hundreds wounded from gunfire by security forces. He repeated several times that “Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt, ” neighbors to the east and west.

As Saddam Hussein's sons found out, it's not so good being the son of a toppled dictator. I would imagine that the Colonel's boy will soon be fleeing Libya. I'm not sure where he will wind up. Maybe Switzerland? I doubt he would enjoy living in a theocracy like Saudi Arabia.

News agencies reported that several foreign oil and gas companies were moving on Monday to evacuate their workers from the country. The Portuguese government sent a plane to Libya to pick up its citizens and other residents of the European Union, while Turkey sent two ferries for its construction workers in the strife-torn country, The Associated Press reported.

If this revolt in Libya does not end in a clean victory for the rebels or for Col. Kaddafi, I would think that world oil prices will go up for it. There was some of that with Egypt, just out of fears that the Suez Canal would shut down. However, Egypt is not a major oil producer. Libya is.

Oil prices jumped on Monday because of the ongoing turmoil in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, warned protesters on Sunday that they risked igniting a civil war in which Libya's oil wealth "will be burned." By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark crude for March delivery was up $3.10 to $89.30.

The New York Times story notes that the Libyan regime is trying to protects its petroleum facilities:

The Quryna newspaper, which has ties to Colonel Qaddafi’s son Seif, said that protests have occurred in Ras Lanuf, an oil town where some workers were being assembled to defend a refinery complex from attacks.

Quryna also reported that Mr. Qaddafi’s justice minister, Mustafa Abud Al Jeleil, had resigned in protest over the deadly response to the anti-government demonstrations.

How could one be a 'justice minister' in Kaddafi's government and be at all surprised that the Colonel's response to protests would be anything but deadly? I guess Mr. Al Jeleil thinks that Kaddafi is going to lose and that by quitting now the protesters will not want to kill him. I suspect, though, that there are going to be a lot of recriminations against Kaddafi's vassals, if the Colonel is driven from power.

Al-Manara, an opposition website, reported that a senior military official, Col. Abdel Fattah Younes in Benghazi, resigned, and the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Colonel Qaddafi ordered that one of his top generals, Abu Bakr Younes, be put under house arrest after disobeying an order to use force against protesters in several cities.

This is the sort of thing Hitler did when Nazi Germany was in its final days. It makes me wonder if Kaddafi won't end up taking his own life, just as Hitler did.

Protesters remained in control of Benghazi on Monday. Online videos showed protesters flying an independence flag over the roof top of a building in Benghazi, and a crowd celebrating what they called “the fall of the regime in their city.”

If Kaddafi makes a comeback, he is going to level everything in Benghazi. It has been from that second city where the protests against his regime have been strongest.

The younger Mr. Qaddafi blamed Islamic radicals and Libyans in exile for the uprising. He offered a vague package of reforms in his televised speech, potentially including a new flag, national anthem and confederate structure. But his main theme was to threaten Libyans with the prospect of civil war over its oil resources that would break up the country, deprive residents of food and education, and even invite a Western takeover.

With no tradition of democracy and with no free capitalist class, it would not be too surprising if theocrats come into power. If so, then the liberty won will soon enough be lost. Time will tell. However, I am heartened that the protesters' only published demands call for a secular government.

With little shared national experience aside from brutal Italian colonialism, Libyans tend to identify themselves as members of tribes or clans rather than citizens of a country, and Colonel Qaddafi has governed in part through the mediation of a “social leadership committee” composed of about 15 representatives of various tribes, said Diederik Vandewalle, a Dartmouth professor who has studied the country.

That makes it sound like Libya might break up into multiple new countries.

Over the last three days Libyan security forces have killed at least 223 people, according to a tally by the group Human Rights Watch. Several people in Benghazi hospitals, reached by telephone, said they believed that as many as 200 had been killed and more than 800 wounded there on Saturday alone, with many of the deaths from machine gun fire.

Compared with Egypt, 223 is a large number. Compared with most historical revolts and civil wars, 223 is nothing. I am somewhat surprised the number of deaths is not yet much larger.


*This is what The Straight Dope reported about the spelling of Kaddafi's last name:

I count at least 12 different ways to spell the colonel's handle, including Qaddhafi (New York Review of Books), Qaddafi (New Republic), Gaddafi (Time), Kaddafi (Newsweek), Khadafy (Maclean's), Qadhafi (U.S. News & World Report), Qadaffi (Business Week), and Gadaffi (World Press Review). Libya's UN mission, in an effort to spread further confusion, spells the name Qathafi, and I know I've seen Gadaafi somewhere. To make matters worse, the Library of Congress and the Middle East Studies Association, to whom one would ordinarily look for guidance, have a fondness for Qadhdhafi, which is an abomination unto God. I think you now begin to grasp the dimensions of the problem.

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