Embattled Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi turned in a stunning television harangue this evening that repeatedly called for democracy protesters to be executed, describing them as “rats” and “cockroaches” in the service of foreign agents.
It's true: Qaddafi’s Libya is something else again – a state in which everyone answers to the caprices and whims of the “Leader and Guide of the Revolution,” as he styles himself. The only real regional analogue in recent memory is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but even there the megalomania and cult of personality didn’t run as deep.
Egypt and Tunisia, Libya's immediate neighbors, may have been ruled by autocrats. They may have stifled political dissent with arrests and torture. But they also had public institutions that acted separately from those autocrats, a tradition of rhetorical respect for the rule of law (if not always in practice), and military establishments that decided to push out their leaders rather than plunge their nation into chaos.
Unlike those leaders, Qaddafi seems perfectly willing to plunge his country into a brutal war to preserve his power. The key test will be whether his military, an institution where direct loyalty to him is paramount, will stick with him. If he plunges Libya – an OPEC member with Africa's largest proven oil reserves – further into conflict, oil prices are likely to skyrocket, something he's probably hoping will prevent outside powers from fully assisting the protesters.
Now Qaddafi, who spoke from what appeared to be the ruins of a Tripoli barracks bombed by the United States in 1986 in retaliation for a terrorist attack, is promising violence. As the United Nations Security Council meets to decide whether to take action, Libyans and much of the world are holding their breath.
He called several times for the death or execution of protesters in places like the eastern city of Benghazi, where disgruntled citizens have already wrested control from him.
“This is a small number of terrorists trying to turn us into an emirate for Bin Laden and Zawahiri so the US can come take control,” he said, referring to the group's chief ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian living in exile.
“Come out of your homes, attack them in their dens,” he urged Libya’s citizens. “Withdraw your children from the streets. They are drugging your children, they are making your children drunk and sending them to hell.”
He repeatedly warned of Libya being turned into an Afghanistan, being plunged into civil war, in tones that sounded more like a threat. He said he would “cleanse … Libya house by house.”
What law did he refer to when insisting that all those who oppose him should be put to death? Not a Libyan constitution. Instead, he brandished his own “Green Book,” a 34-year-old manifesto in which he promised Libya a hybrid of socialism, Islam, and “direct democracy,” but which has been used to support one-man rule.
He also disavowed responsibility for what Human Rights Watch has said is 300 deaths at the hands of his security forces so far. He promised never to step down, and warned of violence if protesters continue to try to push him out.
"I have not yet ordered the use of force, not yet ordered a bullet fired…. When I do, everything will burn."
Mutiny in the military?
Qaddafi’s rhetoric has emboldened opposition supporters and ratcheted up the fears of human rights activists, who say as many as 400 have already been killed.
Today, before Qaddafi spoke, a coalition of mostly exiled Libyan reformers called on the UN Security Council to "mobilize immediately” and asked for a no-fly zone to be established over the country to prevent Qaddafi from using his air force against protesters.
At the moment, large parts of eastern Libya – the heart of the country’s oil production – appear out of the hands of the central government. Reporters making their way over the Egyptian border today said they were greeted by civilian militias welcoming them to “liberated Libya.”
But if Qaddafi can rally enough support in his military, the protesters' position could prove very shaky.
There have been strong suggestions out of Libya that some units have mutinied, but it appears that most of the military is on the fence. At least one of Qaddafi’s sons is in command of a brigade-sized force, and Qaddafi's speech tonight could be a harbinger of an all-out assault on places like Benghazi.
Not all Arab revolts end well
Qaddafi’s rhetoric, including his repeated claims that protesters are trying to establish “Islamic emirates” in places like Benghazi are certainly ominous, and not all Arab revolts have happy endings.
In 1982 in Syria, Islamist opponents of the regime of Hafez al-Assad led a mutiny in that country’s city of Hama. Assad rallied his forces and bombarded, then stormed the city. The confrontation killed as many as 35,000 citizens as well as 1,000 soldiers, though estimated death tolls vary widely.