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  Print view: Muammar al-Qaddafi in extremis
COMMENTARY:

Muammar al-Qaddafi in extremis

by Chris Knipp
Libya is the worst-case scenario for the Arab revolts.

Ten days later the world isn't focused on Cairo any more. On February 26 military police brutally attacked protesters in Tahrir Square and in front of the Parliament, a sign the old order and means of repression are not gone. Not that all hope is lost: slowly, steps are being taken to move toward a new democratic government. And as for the wave of revolutionary fervor, that continues throughout the Arab world. On Friday Iraqis staged their own "Day of Rage" and the biggest oil refinery was shut down. Additional tribal leaders joined the opposition in Yemen and it's looking more and more as if Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen will have to step down, not wait till 2013, his Mubarak-like initial offer. Revolt is strong in Bahrain too. A Shiite leader returned from exile to Manama and thousands marched to call for the PM's removal. Demonstrations were weaker in Algeria and Tunisia, but they happened.

All the attention of course is on Libya. This is the worst-case scenario for the Arab revolts. A mad dog leader (Reagan's words), isolated, eccentric, and deranged, has made the country an empty shell. The small population is scattered into disconnected tribes. Qaddafi and his No. 1 son Saif al-Din are pledged to fight to the end. Only Libya's oil riches may protect the country from future chaos. If oil income is distributed among the population, that may foster domestic tranquility (which happens in the princedoms and makes them more secure against revolt). But Libya's revolution can't have been as planned and coordinated as those of Tunisia and Egypt. It's more a spontaneous impulse, inspired by news of the Arab world. One can only hope that the revolutionary spirit and the Arab connectedness symbolized by Al Jazeera will somehow also inspire Libya to rebuild itself and avoid the truly worst-case scenario of descending into another Afghanistan.

Qaddafi
There is no semblance of decency in Qaddafi. He ordered his own air force to strafe demonstrators, and is hiring outsiders to kill his own people.

There is no semblance of decency in Qaddafi. He ordered his own air force to strafe demonstrators.  Some defected in protest and piloted their planes to Malta. Here is a leader who is accusing the demonstrators of being not only foreign-inspired, but run by al-Qa'ida, while he is hiring outsiders to kill his own people, and openly threatening to attack them in their houses, burn the land, turn the country into a living hell, distribute arms to all his remaining supporters.

Citizen rebels hold Benghazi, which represents a bastion of freedom, a city-wide Tahrir Square, and other towns have followed. But Quaddafi fores still control other strongholds, including the capital, Tripoli—which was done over in a day to present a tidy, peaceful front for foreign journalists. The dictators' favorite western media contact lady, Christiane Amanpour of ABC, got to interview Saif al-Din. But he has already raged on state television, and this man does not wear well.

Libyans used broken TVs as barricades. Al Jazeera broadcast an extraordinary film last week. It showed the video stream of Quaddafi's khaki-swathed rant, also on TV, being projected huge on a wall, and as the mad dog waved his Green Book and threatened to make his people's lives hell, protesters threw large objects at the flickering image and shouted.

While Egypt has the danger that its old regime is too solidly entrenched, Libya has the danger of having no structure to hold it together at all.

The revolution in Libya has the dubious but, for the revolutionaries, very real advantage that the government hasn't (like Egypt's republic) a thread of legitimacy. The fabric of Egypt's regime would have shredded more completely if its cadre of ministers, military officers, and ambassadors had publicly resigned and declared their allegiance to the revolt as has happened in Libya. But while Egypt has the danger that its old regime is too solidly entrenched, Libya has the danger of having no structure to hold it together at all.

Now, Obama still presents a pale image of American "democracy," because Sarkozy and Cameron spoke up directly while he dithered again. Two good reasons this time, though: oil and Americans working in Libya. If Obama had called for Quaddafi's removal early and oil prices had gone up, as they are anyway, that would hurt Obama's reelection chances. He did not want to drive the crazy leader to take Americans hostage, and bad weather was delaying their escape to Malta.

American and indeed all policy of the western powers is based on expediency rather than morality, and their official reprisals may be feeble or harmful, anything but helpful, just diplomatic gestures to make them look good later. Sanctions against Libya threaten to harm the people more than help their cause. The United States isn't written "US" for nothing. It's all about us, not them.

Libya, though just next door, is not providing a picture of the beautiful, mainly peaceful revolution that we witnessed in Egypt. It's an ugly process with no end in sight and not easy to watch. But it is an even stronger picture of the courage, determination, and democratic drive of the Arab people. And this too is being called by Libyans a "revolution of youth."


©2011 Chris Knipp. Visit his blog here.



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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on February 28, 2011.

 

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