Far exceeding the retaliatory efforts of other besieged regimes across the Middle East, Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi responded to an internal uprising on Monday with deadly force. After the bloodbath, in trademark bizarreness, Qaddafi briefly appeared on state television via helicopter and, under the umbrage of an over-sized umbrella, told the people not to believe rumors that he had absconded to Venezuela. With unrest expected to continue and many regime officials siding with the protesters, the eccentric dictator’s days appear to be numbered. There is concern, however, that without a central leader, tribal and regional divisions will make it difficult for the country to remain cohesive, and will possibly lead to a civil war.
After more than 40 years in control of Libya and with a long history of brutal repression, measured restraint in the face of a popular uprising is the last thing one would expect from Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. Reports, in fact, paint a chilling picture. Sunday, after intense fighting in the east, a mass protest broke out in the western city of Tripoli, which is the nation’s capital. By all accounts, the response was swift and merciless. Special forces and mercenaries shot freely on the streets and at protesters. Witnesses reported explosives being dropped from airplanes, while helicopters overhead sprayed protesters on the ground with bullets.
A Libyan official from the U.N., Omar al Dabashi, told the BBC, “The information that we are getting is that the regime is killing whomever goes out on the streets. He [Qaddafi] has clearly declared a genocide against his own people.” It is not the first time such an accusation has been made.
The death toll from the incident is difficult to determine given the chaos and the oppressiveness of the Libyan regime. Foreign journalists have not been allowed in the country, phone services have been disrupted, and the Internet has been largely inaccessible. Much of the information gathered comes from phone conversations and is difficult to corroborate. The Wall Street Journal confirmed with Human Rights Watch that at least 233 have been killed since protests began, but some believe the actual death toll is far higher. Countless others have been injured. A doctor at the Tripoli Central Hospital told the Journal that his facility was so overrun with patients, many with severe gunshot wounds, that newcomers had to be turned away.
Before the regime’s crackdown, momentum appeared to be on the Libyan people’s side. After protesters had overtaken most of Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, the government withdrew into strategic locations. Benghazi is in the east of Libya, where much of the anti-Qaddafi movement was fomented and where large areas were taken over by anti-regime forces, before opposition manifested in Tripoli. Residents of Benghazi reported that regime forces fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns into the streets.
Scores of government and military officials resigned after the government’s brutal response to the uprising. Although regime forces (including, witnesses say, foreign mercenaries) did use deadly force, some elements have demonstrated a reluctance to fire on their compatriots. At least two fighter jet pilots abandoned their mission to bomb Benghazi and instead flew to Malta, local sources reported. The Libyan delegation to the UN, based in New York, also defected and called on Qaddafi to step down and leave the country. Libya’s representative to the Arab League resigned and a general was reportedly put under house arrest for defying Qaddafi’s orders. In the city of Baida, witnesses reported that the local police turned on military forces after the latter allegedly opened fire on protesters.
Monday night, Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, issued a conciliatory, but foreboding statement to the opposition on state television. Yes, the response was harsh, but if the Qaddafi regime was brought down, a civil war would ensue and “rivers of blood” would flow, he warned. Although this was certainly intended to frighten demonstrators into submission, the remark is not without a modicum of truth.
Libya, which is primarily a Sunni Muslim country, has a strong tribal tradition that has remained intact throughout the modern era. Qaddafi’s regime, which came to power in a military coup when Qaddafi was 27, has kept the country rather artificially unified for the last forty years. Before the overthrow of King Idris in 1969, power had been concentrated in the east, where the monarchy was located. Under Qaddafi, power shifted to the west. Tripoli was made the capital city, and spoils from Libya’s oil industry were circulated predominantly in the west, despite the fact that many of the major oil fields lie in the east. A strong rift deepened between the east and Qaddafi, and it is no surprise that the uprising emanated from this region.
But in the west, and in Tripoli, support is still palpable for Qaddafi. Pro-regime supporters, no doubt fond of Qaddafi’s oil-funded largess, were broadcast on state television waving flags and pictures of the dictator. Much of the military is also still loyal to the Qaddafi regime. If a civil war-type conflict does emerge in Libya, it will likely divide east and west, and control over the OPEC country’s oil resources, the country’s chief export, will be no inconsequential factor in that battle.
Not to be overlooked, like most countries in the region, Libya has an aggressive and troublesome Islamist movement. An outgrowth of the anti-Qaddafi east, the Islamist movement began to pose serious challenges to the Qaddafi regime in the 1990s. In 1996, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group attempted to assassinate the autocrat. That same year, the government cracked down on the opposition movement by massacring over a thousand jailed protesters, many of whom were Islamists and eastern political prisoners, according to information obtained by Human Rights Watch.
Still, there is a glimmer of hope in the terrible scene. After anti-regime success in Benghazi, opposition leader Fathi Terbil called for a secular interim government to be instituted. Broadcasting over an online stream referred to as Free Libya Radio, Terbil also was keen to point out that protesters had “liberated” the city; they did not “overtake” it. If indeed a productive democracy can be erected in Libya, it would be a vast improvement for both the people of Libya and the international community. Although in recent years the Qaddafi regime has become less hostile and reclusive (it abandoned its nuclear weapons program after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and is no longer listed as a state sponsor of terror), it still provokes anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism.
Whatever the outcome, the U.S. does not appear remotely interested in influencing the situation in Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, joining the compendium of Western wallflowers, released a short letter of condemnation on the regime’s use of deadly force, but did not demand that the dictator step down. Calls for protests continue, and the world can only hope Libyans are up to the task of creating a peaceful resolution alone.