As of this writing, it’s reasonable to assume that the 42-year reign of Muammar Qaddafi, the craggy-faced lunatic who long ago stole Libya, is coming to an end, though not without an astounding level of brutality. Having retained power through coercion, terror, and violence, it was almost assured that Qaddafi’s response to the uprising in Benghazi—which has now spread across the country—would draw upon the wrong lessons of history. As he is discovering, Green Square in 2011 isn’t Tiananmen Square in 1989. The higher the corpses pile, the more likely the kleptocratic thugs in Tripoli will end up, if they are lucky, house guests of Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Reports that Qaddafi fled the country he destroyed to the one Chavez is currently destroying have proven premature. Though we do know that members of the Libyan air force have absconded to Malta with two Mirage F-1 fighter jets, refusing to fly missions against their fellow citizens (while plenty of other pilots abrogated moral responsibility and carried out Qaddafi’s orders). And we know that Libyan ambassadors in Sweden, the United States, and China, and representatives to the Arab League and United Nations, have either resigned in protest or demanded that Qaddafi stand down. The country’s border with Egypt is now controlled by anti-government forces and reports suggest that the regime has completely lost control of Benghazi, the country's second-largest city.
In other words, the criminal enterprise controlling Libya could hold on a bit longer—to the “last bullet,” as the fraudulent “reformer” Saif al-Islam Qaddafi warned protesters—but the game is up. Pity Saif al-Islam, whose promises of political change—interspersed with schizophrenic threats against regime critics—have been so effective in fooling credulous Western journalists but are powerless against Libyans, for whom the squalid reality of life in the Jamahiriya acts as a fact check against the dauphin's frequent promises. So now the face of modern Libya has morphed into a rambling Enoch Powell impersonator, promising that resistance to the dictatorship would result in “rivers of blood” flowing through the streets.
So in his discursive televised speech to the nation, Saif al-Islam dismissed the protesters as drug and drink-addled fanatics who would deliver the country to Islamist extremists, invoking the clichéd refrain of the Arab despot—demonstrators are being guided by perfidious “outsiders,” though this time the enemy wasn’t the puppet masters at the CIA but Arab-language news networks. And in some ways he’s right: Al-Jazeera does cause problems for crooks like Qaddafi and many of the anti-regime protestors are rather more religious than the “Islamic socialists” of the current government. Indeed, protesters chant that Qaddafi, a longtime enemy of the United States, is, in fact, a stooge of the United States; after protesters captured a state-run radio station in Benghazi, an Arab journalist told me, it was “all God, all the time”; and the regime's last minute reprieve of the remaining jailed members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was seen as a sop to fundamentalist protestors.
But watching low-resolution video images of the mangled, charred bodies of protesters, hearing the panicked calls of doctors and students to Western media outlets, in which we are told of military aircraft bombing demonstrators and of mercenary troops raining mortar shells upon civilians, should allay fears that a post-Qaddafi government could be worse, more destabilizing, and more morally corrupt than the one responsible for the Lockerbie bombing (and the often forgotten UTA Flight 772 bombing).
But as the death toll rises, the United Nations has predictably refused to sit in judgment of Qaddafi, only promising, as of this writing, to hold “informal consultations” on the situation in Libya. Indeed, there is probably no better demonstration of the uselessness of the UN than last year’s election of Libya to the Human Rights Council (UNHRC), that rarified club of scumbags and halfwits, sinister monarchs and absurd military dictators, who monitor member states (i.e. Israel) for human rights violations. The Saudis, Libyans, Cubans, and Bahrainis are, according to the UN, “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.”
If you still doubt that the UNHRC is worthless—after all, its members say all sorts of reasonable things—this very useful website run by Libyan dissidents, brimming with YouTube clips, tweets, digital photos, and eyewitness testimony, is all one needs to know about which countries the United Nations considers avatars of human rights.
An aside on the role of social media in the Libyan revolt: The once heterodox opinion that the value of social media in spreading revolution is overrated has hardened into orthodoxy. How did people revolt in 1789 or 1848 or 1989, the argument goes, without Twitter and Facebook? This is like denying that trains are helpful at ferrying people because, after all, in 1848 people managed to get between Paris and Berlin using other methods. The importance of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in a completely closed society like Libya—a country which, unlike Egypt and Bahrain, journalists generally cannot access—cannot be overstated.
When I was in Tripoli last year, as a guest of Saif al-Islam’s Qaddafi Foundation, a journalist from a major American newspaper told me that he accepted the Qaddafi-sponsored junket (though paying his own way) because, after six years of trying, he could find no other way of getting into the country. It was only after the revolutionaries seized control of the Eastern part of Libya that a handful of Western journalists managed to cross the border.
And with the United Nations twiddling its thumbs, the Security Council failing to rebuke the Libyan government, the Obama administration finding that it has little leverage to affect the violence, let’s hope that more journalists manage access to (and provide more images of) the ongoing military crackdown and help hasten the end of the Qaddafi crime family.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor at Reason magazine.