Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has eluded assassination attempts and survived military coups, Western-backed opposition, and failed foreign wars and international sanctions, not to mention a stroke in 2007. Some call him a master tactician with a nose for survival.
But with the revolt that engulfed Tunisia and Egypt and knocked down Gaddafi pals Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak now raging in Libya, the supreme leader’s luck may finally be running out. Faced with high unemployment, a skyrocketing youth population, and anemic economic growth under a political system that is more or less a theatrical façade for his own absolute rule, Gaddafi’s regime faces the first challenge it may not be able to outmaneuver.
More than 100 Libyans were killed across the country over the weekend after snipers opened fired on demonstrators, and the death toll is rising. The earthquake that swept the Middle East in the last two months was not only a surprise to U.S. and European intelligence services, it came as a total shock to all the Arab regimes in the region. They all relied on the politics of fear to keep their people in check, and in the absence of fear, all their emergency and contingency plans became obsolete.
• Mike Giglio: Libyan Protesters Rise Up in CapitalOld habits die hard. The Libyan regime, alarmed by the departures of Ben Ali and Mubarak, did not heed the lessons of recent events. While Libyans demanded meaningful political and economic reforms, Gaddafi’s government resorted to its old tricks of intimidation, buying loyalty, and offering superficial incentives. Yet the regime’s maneuvers haven’t quelled popular outcries for reform; quite the opposite, they have added fuel to the flame of the protests.
The violent response by Gaddafi’s regime to the Libyan demonstrators on Feb. 15 changed everything. The fear factor that was one of the regime’s strategic weapons crumbled, and with it came a change in the demonstrators’ demands. “Our demands were about a constitution, fighting corruption, and removing corrupt and failed officials,” said Libyan lawyer Abdulsalam al-Mismari. “As a result of the violent repression and after being attacked by mercenaries and thugs employed by the regime, our demands have evolved to regime change.”
It seems the regime was not confident in the loyalty of its own security forces to carry out its orders and suppress the uprising, as it resorted to private foreign fighters recruited from several African countries, calling them “the African Legion.” Mostly from Chad and French-speaking, those fighters were responsible for the first massacre in the city of al-Baidha, in Libya’s eastern region, where several people were killed.
“As a result of the violent repression and after being attacked by mercenaries and thugs employed by the regime, our demands have evolved to regime change.”
Video posted on YouTube showed several members of the “legion” being arrested and beaten by demonstrators. Using foreign fighters and thugs to quell the uprising not only failed, but further enraged the Libyan people and sparked uprisings in other cities, said Mismari and other witnesses who requested anonymity.
The internal debate within the regime has been how much superficial reform to offer in order to modernize the country and quell internal disaffection, while at once maintaining domestic stability and control. Gaddafi’s government has been hesitant to consider true reform, let alone real changes that may curtail the power of the leader and his closest supporters.
According to a 2011 assessment by Jane’s Defence magazine, Gaddafi and his advisers relied on “buying off” certain sectors of the population, including offering them interest-free loans in return for loyalty.
As the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ViewsWire reported Feb. 17, Gaddafi relied on Libyans’ deep fear of his regime and its extensive security apparatus: “The regime has not shied away from cracking down on dissent with brutal force in the past, and it has considerable financial resources to buy opponents.”
Buying the loyalty of major tribes and relying on the fear factor while blaming the West for domestic problems may have worked fine in the past, when the country was isolated and under sanctions. Now, said Ahmed Gabriel Fituri, a Libyan analyst close to the regime, “What Saif al-Islam [a son of Gaddafi] offered in lieu of reform could have saved the regime and transformed it at the same time.”
But Saif’s struggle with the traditionalists, largely from Muammar Gaddafi’s revolutionary committee movement, who dislike change and feared that Saif’s reform program would threaten their own privileges and interest, was ended by Gaddafi himself in 2008, in favor of the traditionalists—ending Saif’s attempt for gradual reform.
Many young Libyans who embraced Saif’s “Libya al-Ghad” plan were left angry and in despair. Their hope that the regime might understand and respond to their economic needs and their yearning for more openness and freedom were dashed, said Tahani Tarapolisi, a writer and activist.
Still, like any other authoritarian, Gaddafi is not ruling alone. He may be the decision taker, but he is not the only decision maker. To create balance and to keep everyone busy, he has kept several competing groups around him. Their main role is to keep each other in check so he can be the final arbitrator or judge.
The Libyan regime is under siege right now, and conflict within the inner circle about what should be done next is intensifying. The hardliners are calling for more repression and extensive use of violence to end the uprising, while the more moderate elements are looking for a peaceful compromise.
As the conflict intensifies and spreads, the regime’s internal front will suffer more cracks and will eventually crumble under the weight of events.
Credible reports form Libya on Saturday mentioned the resignation of a few key regime members, among them possibly the interior minster and the justice minster. Both are respected figures.
Gaddafi’s sons are said to be at odds, as was the case between Mubarak’s two sons during the last couple of days of his presidency. The struggle between the more mild-mannered Saif and his hardliner military brother Mu’tasim Billah, national security adviser to his father who enjoys the support of tribal traditionalists, illustrates the nature of the regime’s internal fissures.
A castle coup by the nationalist moderate reformers within the regime may save the country many lives and more destruction.
If the hardliners continue to sideline the moderate side, more violence can be expected as the regime tries to take back the eastern cities and as the people continue to fight back.
Libya is a country steeped in tradition, a complex mix of guns, tribes, and a ruthless regime that is willing to use foreign mercenaries against its own people. For 40 years, Gaddafi has been able to deftly play one element against the other to suppress popular discontent and entrench his inner circle’s hold on the reins of power. Yet the recent wave of popular-driven reform and regime change in the region may prove too much even for this master tactician to endure.
Fadel Lamen is a journalist, writer, and Middle East/North Africa expert and cultural adviser based in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent traveler to the Middle East and has been published in Arabic and English newspapers and magazines. He also has been interviewed by major media outlets in English and Arabic on issues related to the Middle East, Islam, and American foreign policy.