“We need to create a problem for the world,” Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi declared on Libyan state TV Sunday, in what Reuters describes as his first major speech since a popular uprising toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak last Friday. The problem Gaddafi would like to create, as he explicitly urged in his speech, is a siege of Israel. Saying “this is a time of popular revolutions,” Gaddafi called for Palestinians to mass along Israel’s borders, by land and sea.
These are the words of a dictator who has a big problem of his own. Gaddafi’s real problem has nothing to do with Israel, or with the Palestinians. Gaddafi’s problem is Libya, where Libyans have even more reasons to hate him than the Egyptians had to hate Hosni Mubarak. Since Gaddafi came to power in a coup in 1969, he has ruled for more than 41 years — that’s 12 years longer than Mubarak ruled Egypt. Like Mubarak, Gaddafi has been arranging to turn his dictatorial rule into a dynasty, with one of his sons, Saif al-Islam, being the heir apparent. For decades Gaddafi has lived large, funneling his country’s oil wealth into schemes to maintain his own power, while crushing his countrymen. Whatever terrorism he might have abjured abroad in order to get out from under international sanctions, he still rules on the basis of terror at home. His regime — with its ruthless secret police, ghastly prisons, and jailing or outright murder of those who dissent from his crackpot controls over virtually every aspect of life — is exactly the kind of rotting relic that an angry, captive populace might wish to sweep aside.
Now come the popular revolts and the ouster of ossified dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, opponents of the regime have called for a Day of Rage this Thursday, Feb, 17th. That day is the fifth anniversary of protests that began as a staged demonstration in 2006 against the Danish Mohamed cartoons — and then spun out of control. Libyan security forces fired on the crowd, killing at least 10. Over the next three days, as American-Libyan human rights activist Mohamed Eljahmi reported shortly afterward, protesters expressed their fury with the regime by burning government buildings, police cars, and branches of Gaddafi’s revolutionary committees. The Libyan government had to bring in special forces to regain control.
Faced with the possibility of a replay inspired by uprisings that have actually succeeded in kicking out the despots, up pops Gaddafi, with a page right out of the aging dictator’s playbook: When you’ve got trouble at home, try to deflect it toward somebody else. Libyans who wish for freedom in their country have higher hurdles than did the Egyptians. Gaddafi rules Libya as a much more closed society; access and communication are more difficult, and it is unlikely that an endless parade of international camera crews would be able to materialize on the streets of Tripoli or Benghazi. But neither are Libyans entirely cut off from the world, or from each other. Libyans have one of the world’s worst tyrants to contend with. The risks of opposing him are enormous — for a sample of where even the most peaceful dissent can lead in Libya, recall the case of a brave outspoken dissident, Fathi Eljahmi (brother of Mohamed Eljahmi, cited above). But Libyans who wish to throw off 41 years of Gaddafi’s tyranny have two things in their favor right now. They have just seen that elsewhere in their despot-infested region, it can be done. And Gaddafi, for all his wealth and power and brutality, does not sound confident. He sounds scared.