Forty-two. That is how many years the Arab world’s longest-serving ruler has
been in power. Muammar Gaddafi, technically only the guide of the 1969
revolution which overthrew the incompetent King Idris, is a brutal maverick of a
dictator who has ruled the oil- and gas-rich North African country with a
combination of fear and terror.
The recent fall of two neighboring
dictators, including his despotic counterpart Hosni Mubarak, has enshrined the
idea of popular protest in Libya, a country of nearly six
Although rumbles of discontent started in Tunisia, Libya’s tiny
western neighbor, and were witnessed in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen, the thought
of Libya following suit was a surreal and distant idea to many.
put, however, the writing has been on the wall for some time in Egypt and
Tunisia, but in military republics like Libya, where a dreaded army and secret
police run every level of the state’s institutions, the despotic nut is harder
Gaddafi’s reaction summed it all up. In a smug but controlled
manner, he spoke of how Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster was a great loss, and a
harbinger of chaos. In effect, he was trying to say Libya was enjoying peace and
tranquility; to follow in the footsteps of Tunisia was to invite danger and thus
The question on everybody’s mind now is whether the regime
is panicking. Was Gaddafi’s speech meant to put off any Libyan who dreamed of
regime change? Suddenly, on Tuesday, February 15, broadcasts on Arabic stations
began to spread the news that Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, was awash
Almost as quick as the news came in, reports of soldiers
firing into crowded areas and mass detentions – not unusual in dictatorships –
began to come through.
It summed it up perfectly. Ordinary Libyans, long
economically deprived – with two-thirds living below the poverty line – were
roaring for change, while the regime, led by a man who deserves the dubious
honor of being one of the world’s most erratic tyrants, was scurrying for
On February 17, a “day of rage” was called, as a longsubdued
population struggling to free itself from tyranny began to make the regime truly
nervous with a blatant call for an end to fear.
The very day on which
some 50 people were reported killed, demonstrations were being held in the
country’s eastern cities, such as like Benghazi, Al Bayda and Tobruk – which
have a history of antagonism toward the regime. Police stations, courthouses and
security headquarters were burned, a regional security chief was sacked, a
statue of the leader with his Green Book was toppled, and round-the-clock
arrests to keep a domino effect from reaching Tripoli – the capital – began in
earnest. But the Libyan people, as patient as they are, did not yield.
I write, the uprising has spread to the country’s west, crucially in and around
Tripoli. Meanwhile, state television gives the impression of a nation in love
with its leader. In reality, the regime has sent its goons to kill without
mercy, with reports of African mercenaries being brought in to slaughter rioters
infuriating the crowds. While human rights organizations said between 100 and
200 have been killed (in a country where the regime has gone beyond blocking
Internet sites and mobile phone connections, and completely shut off electricity
to areas where demonstrations are rampant), the true figure is likely to be much
THE REGIME is feeling the heat. The latest reports speak of towns
in the east being under opposition control; speculation is rife that Benghazi
airport has been closed and surrounded by anti-government
Massacres at funerals, slaughter in hospitals and
counterattacks on military barracks give an idea of the intensity of the
In Islam, the country’s official religion, for every death
there is a mourning period of 40 days. In conservative Libya, there is no
question this will be adhered to.
The question on Gaddafi’s mind is that
if 40 days of mourning are required for every one of the citizens he puts to
death, not only is this nation going to be in constant grief, but with every
death is he not digging the hole beneath him even deeper? This battle is for
Libya’s future. The real question on the Libyan people’s minds is how many
martyrs – 10, 100 or 100,000 – will it take before the leader is finally brought
The writer is a PhD candidate in in Political Violence at the Department
of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, London.
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