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How is Muammar Qaddafi still hanging on?

Muammar Qaddafi, clinging to power in Tripoli, has now faced down more internal and external pressure than fellow autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.

By Staff writer / March 1, 2011

A supporter holds a picture of Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi in Sabratha, about 46 miles west of Tripoli on Feb. 28. Supporters had followed a convoy of journalists from Sabratha's town center, to the archaeological site and then onto the highway returning to Tripoli.

Chris Helgren/Reuters

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Benghazi, Libya

Muammar Qaddafi is ringed by financial sanctions. The United States and European powers say they are mulling further steps, including extending a no-fly zone over the country to protect the uprising against his rule. The country is split, with large swathes of territory out of his hands and opposition forces closing in on the capital.

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Yet Mr. Qaddafi, still clinging to power in the capital, has now faced down more external and internal pressure than Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali combined. His country’s situation is more chaotic, and as a percentage of the population, he has killed more of his own people in an effort to put down the democracy uprising.

Muammar Qaddafi: Five ways Libya's leader has held on to power

So how is he hanging on? Two main reasons: Libya's divided armed forces and Qaddafi's apparent tolerance to see his country torn apart by civil war.

Libya's weak military

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where the militaries have a tradition of loyalty to the state and to the armed forces as an institution, the regular Libyan military has been kept deliberately weak and divided by Qaddafi – who seized power as a 28-year-old Army captain with a few hundred confederates in 1969.

The best-trained and equipped forces in the country are paramilitaries commanded by his friends and family members, who answer directly to him. There is quite simply no general with the power to tap Qaddafi on the shoulder, tell him “time’s up,” and have the whole military stand behind him.

“We simply don’t have the forces to go to Tripoli and confront him,” says a former officer in his Air Force, who’s helping to organize the defenses around liberated Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. “There’s been lots of talk of sending people against him but we don’t yet have the weapons, the training, to really get through.”

While there are some well-trained troops who have technically rebelled, it’s unclear if they’d be willing to take offensive action against Qaddafi.

For instance, Interior Minister Gen. Abdel Fatah Younis was dispatched to Benghazi with a unit of special forces to put down the armed protesters who eventually overwhelmed the Benghazi barracks. He immediately defected from the regime and said he refused to shot protesters.

But many of the youth fighters in Benghazi who sparked the uprising say he also provided safe passage out of town to regime loyalists, who have reinforced Qaddafi's supporters in Tripoli and his hometown of Sirte.

Qaddafi is no run-of-the-mill despot

As much as Mr. Ben Ali or Mr. Mubarak resisted their departures, they seemed to take seriously concerns about plunging their countries into a civil war.

But almost since Day 1, Qaddafi has not only warned of civil war, but also seemed to invite it. He has consistently described democracy protesters as drug addicts, terrorists, and tools of foreign powers in moves that seemed practically calculated to turn his own people further against him.

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