Advancing a Free Society

Libya’s Tragedy

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

We will fight until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet,” the son and heir apparent to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi announced to the nation. It was not defending Libya from foreign invasion, but defending their repressive rule from the resentment of its own subjects he was describing. Be careful what you wish for. A government that threatens to kill every single person living in the territory it controls sacrifices all legitimacy. This is the cold, hard face of tyranny, a government with no respect or kindness for those it governs.

While difficult to know exactly what’s transpiring in Libya, its central outlines are clear: protests began peacefully, the government severed internet and cell phone links, police disappeared from the streets, government security forces shot protesters, Qaddafi’s government declared itself unyielding, protests widened, enraged protesters are burning government buildings and fighting security forces. In a very bad sign for the Qaddafi regime, prominent figures – including the government’s justice minister– have defected to the protesters and Muslim religious leaders are unified in calling for security forces not to use force against protesters. The country’s second largest city, Benghazi, may no longer be under government control; hospitals there report 200 dead and 800 wounded on Saturday alone.

Much is being made in the Commentariat of Qaddafi’s shrewd manipulation of tribes: key leaders participate in a governing council, military and security forces are divided among fiefs. Revolution is considered less likely in Libya as a result. But as Policy Review editor Tod Lindberg often observes about arguments premised on continuity, “that’s true until it isn’t.” Tribal chiefs, too, have to negotiate their power. Will they defend the Qaddafi’s choices?

Qaddafi has taken the alternative course to late-stage appeasement of protesters offered by the autocrats of Tunisia and Egypt. Rather than cede power to accommodate grievances, he – so far – insists on his unaccountability. His heir warned the protests would lead to civil war and foreign intervention, were the work of dangerous Islamists. In leaving no space for political accommodation of the public’s grievances, Libya’s rulers have collapsed the range of choice to a binary outcome: they will terrorize their own subjects into silence or they will be violently driven from power.

John Kennedy said “those who make peaceful political change impossible make revolution inevitable.” The Qaddafi family just did.