With the indiscriminate slaughter of protesters that has occurred over the past few days, Libya’s eccentric leader appears to be trying to do what Hafez al-Assad did successfully in the Syrian town of Hama in 1982.* The extent of the massacres in Libya has not been played up enough in the Western press, but it certainly has in Arab media outlets. Al Jazeera, which continues to blow all other news channels out of the water in terms of its coverage, has been running regular accounts of the strafing of protesters from the air, the alleged use of African mercenaries to slaughter demonstrators, and the indiscriminate use of lethal force by local Libyan forces. Qaddafi, in no uncertain terms, is trying to wipe out the massive anti-government movement that has emerged in opposition to his regime.
Sayf Al Qaddafi, his charmless and arrogant son, threatened as much in his televised appearance the other day. In a long, rambling statement broadcast on Libyan TV, the haughty and out-of-touch Qaddafi raised the specter of Algeria (which experienced a devastating civil war in the 1990s) in an attempt to discourage additional anti-government protests. He made quite clear that his father’s regime was going nowhere and that Libyan forces would not tolerate any group who attempted to disrupt the country’s “public order.” The speech was highly threatening and, as I see it, amounted to an ultimatum to anti-government demonstrators: either stop what you’re doing, or we’ll wipe you out. (There’s some irony here in the younger Qaddafi’s position, given his rather lofty-sounding graduate thesis on civil society and democratization that he wrote as a student at LSE.)
His father, who followed up his son today with about 70 minutes of incoherent ramblings, proved once again that he is a chief contender for #1 most batshit crazy world leader. Drawing on language like “cleans[ing] Libya house by house,” Qaddafi vowed defiantly to fight until the last (“I will die a martyr,” he said). Nor did he back away from calling for a massacre of the Libyan opposition movement. “You men and women who love Gaddafi…get out of your homes and fill the streets,” he said. “Leave your homes and attack them in their lairs…starting tomorrow the cordons will be lifted, go out and fight them.” [GlobalPost's translation] Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who has broken from the government and called for Qaddafi to resign, characterized the Libyan leader’s speech as genocidal. “I think the genocide has started now in Libya,” he said. “The Gaddafi statement was just code for his collaborators to start the genocide against the Libyan people. It just started a few hours ago. I hope the information I get is not accurate but if it is, it will be a real genocide.”
The Obama administration, as well as the West more broadly, continues to be impotent in the face of the Libyan government’s brutality. Rather than work to head off what has the potential to be a horrible series of massacres, or even the sparks for a Libyan civil war, the West has contented itself with a fairly tepid series of rebukes of the Libyan regime. How cowardly. President Obama himself, despite his high-minded rhetoric in Cairo back in 2009, continues to follow the confused, spineless, cold-hearted realist politics of his predecessors.
Yet Qaddafi, it seems to me, is not likely to get away with his “Hama moment” in the same way that Hafez al-Assad did. Times have changed. Whereas Assad remained the leader of Syria for another eighteen years, such a scenario is virtually impossible to imagine in Libya. The Syrian government instituted an effective media blackout of what it did in Hama (most Syrians, to this day, know nothing about it); Libyan authorities, in contrast, cannot hide the truth of what is going on. Regardless of the fact that foreign journalists have been kicked out of the country — not even Al Jazeera has any reporters on the ground — the truth is getting out. Protesters are using cell phones and cameras to transmit videos to YouTube and Facebook of the massacres and demonstrations that are occurring.
With a team of staff working overtime to track down this latest footage, Al Jazeera is able to rely on this type of “eyewitness” reporting to provide updates on events as they occur (other news networks, following their lead, are now doing the same). Consequently, despite the suppression of independent journalists, Qaddafi — unlike Assad in the 1980s — cannot easily cover up his crimes. And even if he does manage to hold on to power, his reputation will be permanently tarnished and his government fatally weakened. Cell phones and digital cameras have made history the notion of a media blackout. Which makes it that much harder for tyrants like Qaddafi to get away with their crimes.
There’s much more to be said about what’s going on in Libya, and I’ll have more in the next day or two.
*There is no similarity with Hama in terms of the scale of the killings, of course. The comparison I draw here is in these leaders’ brutal, indiscriminate, and uncompromising approach towards their anti-government oppositions.