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.
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.
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.
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.
Qaddafi is no run-of-the-mill despot. Human rights organizations have frequently documented torture by his regime. He’s also used terror strikes against his foreign enemies. His recently resigned Justice minister told a Swedish newspaper last month that Qaddafi personally ordered the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 that killed 273 people over Lockerbie, Scotland.
He’s successfully bullied foreign powers, such as when a Swiss businessman in Tripoli was arrested in what appeared to be a tit-for-tat move after Qaddafi's youngest son, Hannibal, was arrested in 2008 for assaulting two of his female servants in a Geneva hotel. The charges against Hannibal were soon dropped.
The US suspended diplomatic relations with Libya after the Lockerbie bombing, though all sanctions were lifted and the relationship normalized by 2006.
Libyan intelligence agent Abdelbaset Megrahi, the only person convicted in the bombing, was released from a Scottish jail on Aug. 20, 2009, at a time when British companies were vying for rich oil contracts in Libya. He was released on “compassionate” grounds, with Scottish officials saying he had three months to live. He is still alive today in Tripoli.
Is Qaddafi mad? 'All my people love me.'
Qaddafi and his sons have also had an “up is down” take on events in Libya in their public statements, leading some to question his grip on reality.
In interviews with the BBC, ABC, and the Sunday Times yesterday, Qaddafi asserted there are “no demonstration at all in the streets” and that “all my people are with me, they love me.”
Challenged on the uprising that wrested control of Benghazi from him, he dismissed most of the demonstrators as “Al Qaeda” though he allowed that some youths on “hallucinogenic drugs” may have also joined the alleged Al Qaeda members.
He’s also accused the US and the foreign reporters who entered the country illegally from the eastern border with Egypt of working with Al Qaeda.
“I guess we’re all Al Qaeda now,” laughs Omar al-Jetlawi, who works at the main radio station in Benghazi. “But really, that man is mad.”
Of course, many Libyans in and around Tripoli have benefited from Qaddafi’s rule, and probably fear what’s in store for them if he falls.
Yesterday in Tripoli, Qaddafi’s son Saif Islam, who has a PhD from the London School of Economics and has sought to position himself as a reforming successor to his father, led a rally with hundreds of supporters, appearing to urge them to crush the rebellion.
“You’ll get all the support you need … facilities and weapons,” Saif told a cheering crowd, who chanted “only God, Muammar, and Libya” in response. “You will be victorious,” he told them.
That was a far different picture than the one he sought to paint in an interview with ABC over the weekend, in which he insisted there was no violence against his father’s rule in the country.
One wild card for Qaddafi is money. Most of Libya’s oil production is now in rebel hands, and his access to Libyan funds abroad has been cut off.