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Libya protests spread as barrier of fear crumbles

The son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi tried to intimidate Libyans Sunday, warning in a TV speech of civil war and foreign plots. But Libya's wave of democracy protests is strengthening as protesters ignore violence that has claimed more than 200 lives.

By Staff Writer / February 21, 2011

Libya protesters wave a flag in this undated picture made available on Facebook Sunday. The image was purportedly taken recently in Benghazi.


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Saif al-Islam, a son of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, appeared on Libyan state television late last night with a simple mission: Restore the fear.

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He failed.

Libya's wave of democracy protests, which has gathered momentum even as Mr. Qaddafi's troops have shot hundreds of people, swept into the capital of Tripoli today. While Mr. Islam's threatening speech wheeled out the tropes of Middle Eastern autocrats – only they stand between the people and chaos; democracy protests are neo-imperial plots; change will lead to the imposition of harsh Islamic law – the people aren’t listening, making Libya just the latest example of citizens breaking through a barrier of fear that enabled their countries' dictatorships.

Human Rights Watch reports that more than 230 have been killed since protests began, and activists say foreign mercenaries have been let loose on demonstrators. Col. Qaddafi’s 41-year reign in oil-rich Libya, a country sandwiched between Egypt and Tunisia, is now looking very shaky. Both countries recently pushed out longstanding dictators.

Reports today from the capital, Tripoli, said police stations were burned, and there were unconfirmed reports that protesters had stormed the State Television building that broadcast Islam’s address. Al Jazeera Arabic reported that most of the police in Benghazi, a Mediterranean city to the east of Tripoli that has been the heart of the revolt, are now siding with the protesters.

“My sense that the regime’s willingness and eagerness to use not only extreme violence but all sorts of horrific tactics, shooting with the intent to kill, tricking people into a sense of safety and coming near the gates of buildings and then shooting them, hiring mercenaries to attack people and to go to protesters’ houses and damaging their property and so on … is working against it,” says Hisham Matar, a Libyan-American novelist in touch with people in Libya. His 2006 novel “In the Country of Men” was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

“There’s absolutely no turning back, is the sense that I’m getting," he adds. "People have been provoked by the violence of the regime, crowned by that speech we all heard yesterday which seemed to take no responsibility for the killing.”

The crumbling of fear has been the binding factor in protests happening from Algeria to Iran. A near-totalitarian state like Qaddafi’s, a run-of-the-mill autocracy like Egypt, a monarchy like Bahrain, and a religiously guided state like Iran are all very different.

Some have been in the Western fold for decades. Some, like Iran and Libya, are pariahs of the West. But in all of these countries, their people are refusing to be cowed or distracted by efforts to blame outsiders for domestic ills they know stem from their leaders.


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