02.22.11

Libya Protests: Muammar Gaddafi's Leadership Vacuum

A defiant Muammar Gaddafi has slammed rumors he’s fled as hundreds of protesters reportedly die. But Eliza Griswold reports the Libyan ruler is quickly losing his teetering grip on power.

The Daily Beast’s Eliza Griswold reports on Gaddafi’s downfall and why Libya isn’t Egypt. Plus, shocking Twitter images from Libya's streets.

The last nine days in Libya are bringing the bloodiest of all recent revolutions to pass. Over the past 48 hours in downtown Tripoli and to the east, in the city of Benghazi, which has long opposed Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule, Gaddafi has declared war on his own people, using fighter jets, helicopters, and possibly anti-aircraft fire, as well as African mercenaries to gun down Libyans who dare to oppose him. Due to a media blackout, very few images have emerged from the country.

Video screenshot

Libyans have turned, instead, to Twitter, logging in voicemails of eyewitness accounts of the mounting brutality on Enough Gaddafi. Numbers of dead and wounded are impossible to verify. Human Rights Watch has confirmed at least 233 dead, most in the east. As in Egypt, Libyans have begun to record the fallen on 1000memories.com.

One of Muammar Gaddafi’s greatest fears is that of ending up “in a hole” like his former friend and colleague, Saddam Hussein, M. Jibriel, a senior Libyan economic adviser told me.

But Libya is not Egypt. “This isn’t a Facebook revolution. It’s more like Holler—people calling to each other from the other side of the street,” Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan poet and professor at the University of Michigan, says. Mattawa, like many other members of the exiled intelligensia, has set up a makeshift situation room in his Michigan basement, from which he supplies information to reporters and fellow Libyans.

When it comes to a functioning civil society, Libya is a near total vacuum. It is home to six million people, not Egypt’s 80 million, who have lived in almost total isolation for 41 years. Internet access is limited. So are opportunities for study abroad for anyone whose last name isn’t Gaddafi. Unlike Egypt, the country is filthy rich, but that money is meaningless for those outside of the regime.

In Libya, global forces have held a limited sway. Unlike Egypt, there are not millions of tourists arriving every year. There are only a small handful of international visitors, many of whom (including me) have received direct invitations from the Gaddafi regime to come watch their petro-dollar Potemkin village function as an “opening” state.

On Monday night, in The Leader’s signature bizarre fashion, he appeared on national television to quell rumors that he had fled to the safety of his good friend, Hugo Chavez. “I am still in Tripoli, and not in Venezuela,” he said in a brief, less than minute-long speech. He was wearing a fur hat and carrying an open umbrella speaking through the open door of a white truck.

One of Muammar Gaddafi’s greatest fears is that of ending up “in a hole” like his former friend and colleague, Saddam Hussein, M. Jibriel, a senior Libyan economic adviser told me.

To safeguard his teetering grip on power, Gaddafi is willing to openly slaughter protesters in droves—a practice he has long carried out in secret.

For the past decade, The Leader has also put forward his son, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, 37, as the poster boy of a post-modern Libya open for international business. Saif was the slickster heir apparent, who is close with Nathaniel de Rothschild, the baron in waiting, as well as his former politics professor, Benjamin Barber, and he wrote his dissertation in comparative democracy at the London School of Economics.

Until recently, Saif was Libya’s only glimmer of hope at reform. His foundation, The Gaddafi Foundation, was the only human-rights organization allowed to function in the country.

In a $10,000-a-night hotel suite in downtown Tripoli, the Libyan capital, last spring, Saif told me that of all the reforms Libya needed, the most pressing was a new constitution. Since 1977, when Saif’s father, Muammar, abolished the old one, Libya has had to limp along without a constitution, the foundation of any true democracy. Of his father, he said, “He’s not very enthusiastic about this project,” Saif admitted, “but hopefully one day he will accept it.”

The veneer of reform has been wearing thin for a while now. Although Saif has continued to score isolated victories, such as releasing the most damning human-rights report in decades, he was forced to withdraw from the field altogether in December when he announced that his foundation would no longer address human rights of any kind. Infighting with his hard-line brother Moattism, Libya’s national security adviser, has also weakened his position. Gaddafi pere has cast his sons against each other in an effort to divide and conquer, as he has done to his nation.

Saif’s total fall from grace and legitimacy culminated in his appearance on national TV two nights ago, when he threatened Libyans who opposed the regime with “rivers of blood.” “We will die to the last bullet…” he claimed, saying that tribalism would cast Libya into civil war if the Gaddafi regime fell. But this threat of tribalism is largely an empty one. His father has long pitted different clans of Libyans against one another to hold onto power. The young people of Libya are far more interested in national unity—in democracy—than in their grandfather’s clans.

Now Libya’s future leadership is anyone’s guess. The most coherent opposition to the Gaddafi regime for the past two decades has come from Islamists who have launched several failed attempted assassinations against Gaddafi. One of Saif’s greatest successes had been to reintegrate Islamists into society and pull them out of the notorious Abu Saleem prison. There are also a few older, well respected members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, and their role in the coming days has yet to emerge.

The army, too, may be a viable part of a transitional solution. At least 10 senior military leaders and members of Gaddafi’s central advisers on the revolutionary council have openly called for him to step down, and refused to fight against the Libyan people. As a result, many have been massacred, hacked to death, and had their corpses set on fire.

As for Saif, his slick, well-oiled promise of reform has gone up in flames.

As Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch says: “Before Saif’s speech, I would have said that he should have a role in moving country toward reform. It’s too late for. He’s finished. He can’t play that role anymore. Now there’s an even bigger vacuum than there was before.”

Eliza Griswold, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Tenth Parallel.