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How Long Can Moammar Gadhafi Hang On?

Feb 24, 2011 – 8:11 AM
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Lauren Frayer

Lauren Frayer Contributor

It's the million-dollar question the Libyan people, the rest of the world -- and perhaps even Col. Moammar Gadhafi himself -- are asking: How long can he hang on?

As is becoming abundantly clear, Libya is different from other Arab countries experiencing popular revolts in recent weeks. Tunisia's ousted president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled his country before any major violence could erupt, ensuring himself a comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia, which has long offered refuge to shamed dictators from across the Muslim world.
Moammar Gadhafi
Alaguri, AP
A protester holds a placard portraying Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi as a pit bull held on a chain by a youth, with writing in Arabic that says "Dog for sale" and, on the youth's arm, "Youth of Free Libya."

"To his credit, Ben Ali saw the reality, and that was it, he skedaddled," Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East scholar at London's Chatham House think tank, told AOL News. "But others, in Egypt until recently and certainly in Libya, are in a great bit of denial."

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak clung to power a bit longer amid fierce street protests, but ultimately stepped down quietly, with his deputy delivering the actual announcement of his resignation. There's been speculation that Mubarak's sons shielded him from reports about the true strength of Egypt's pro-democracy rallies, and that the president wasn't fully aware of what was going on in his country until it was too late. He retreated to his Red Sea resort villa and hasn't been seen publicly since -- apparently content to at least live out his remaining years on Egyptian soil, as was his request.

That does not appear to be the case with Gadhafi, however, though his sons have also played a prominent role in his regime and its defiance. His son Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, long thought to be a reformer, took to state TV earlier this week to proclaim that his father was still very much in control and would "fight to the last minute, until the last bullet." The elder Gadhafi appeared a day later, vowing to die as a "martyr" on his home country's soil.

"I am paying the price of staying here. My grandfather is Abdessalam Bouminyar, the first martyr in Khoms, in the first battle of 1911," Gadhafi said in a televised speech filled with rambling historical references. "I cannot bring shame to this great ancestry. I cannot leave my grandfather's grave in Marghab. I shall die as a martyr beside him in the end."

Over the past 41 years in which he's held power, Gadhafi's eccentricity and volatility has been rivaled by only a handful of other dictators, North Korea's Kim Jong Il or Iraq's Saddam Hussein, perhaps. Kim still controls his reclusive communist state, and it took a U.S. invasion to dislodge Saddam from power. Such an invasion is unlikely in Libya's case. And Gadhafi has long survived international sanctions. So what would it take for him to fall?

The International Crisis Group, probably the world's most respected independent think tank, published a list of steps it suggests the international community could take to stop atrocities in Libya, if not oust Gadhafi altogether. It recommends sanctions against Gadhafi and his family, safe haven for Libyan pilots who refuse to bomb their countrymen, cancellation of military contracts with Libya and imposition of an arms embargo. It also called on the U.N. Security Council to condemn violence in Libya, prepare to establish a no-fly zone and investigate alleged crimes against humanity there.

Gadhafi's grip on power has undoubtedly proved more resilient than that of his neighbors. But many see his fall as inevitable -- even though it could take some time.

"I expected that Gadhafi would fall any minute. He's as vulnerable as Mubarak, or more so. But I think what we're seeing now is the shock waves of what started with the fall of the statue of Saddam Hussein [in Baghdad's Firdous Square] in 2003," Shehadi said. "I think that once the idea of these dictatorships collapsing exists, it's only a matter of time before the regime actually does collapse. Once you can see beyond them, they're already dead.

"But people walking dead can be so for a long time," he warned.

If Gadhafi continues to cling to power, the biggest concern is the possibility of civil war. Tribes and militia in eastern Libya have already declared themselves free from Gadhafi's rule. Soldiers who've switched sides to join pro-democracy protesters are manning checkpoints with a semblance of civil governance in cities like Benghazi, Tobruk and Baida. If Gadhafi holds power in the capital Tripoli or cities farther west, that could set up two power bases within Libya -- essentially an east-west split.

If that happens, the human toll could be horrifying. Gadhafi has already demonstrated his willingness to use violence on his own people, apparently hiring foreign mercenaries to do so as well. On Wednesday, two Libyan air force pilots parachuted out of their bomber and allowed it to crash into the desert instead of following orders to drop bombs over opposition-held Benghazi. But their orders from Gadhafi's regime were clear.

Whereas Mubarak saw his power diminish after plainclothes Interior Ministry agents attacked unarmed protesters, sparking an international outcry, Gadhafi's behavior suggests that violence is something he's not afraid of. He believes he can win at that game.

Another concern in the case of a possible civil war is already being felt -- the economic costs. Already, half of Libya's oil industry has reportedly been forced to shut down, sending oil prices spiking to more than two-year highs. There's also word from inside Gadhafi's regime that he's ordered security forces to start blowing up oil pipelines toward Mediterranean ports. If that infrastructure is damaged severely, the economic impact and time it takes to rebuild could stretch even longer than Gadhafi's time in power.

"It depends on how long the crisis goes on for. If there was a civil war that went on for months, obviously that would create major problems," Charles Gurdon, a Libya expert who runs Menas Associates, a political risk consultancy in London, told AOL News. "But I don't think it's going to happen that way."

Another factor that could play into how long Gadhafi stays in power is the possibility of international intervention. President Barack Obama said Wednesday that Libya's "violence must stop." The president also said the U.S. was drafting a list of options to force that end. The list likely includes possible sanctions or even U.S. combat air patrols.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Gadhafi's speech in which he vowed to cling to power "very very frightening," saying he "virtually declared war on his own people."

But any coalition military invasion like the one that toppled Saddam Hussein isn't likely to happen in Libya, if only because of the backlash the Iraq invasion caused across the Arab world. Washington is skittish about being accused of meddling in Arab countries' affairs, having too long propped up despotic regimes there in the interest of stability.

Human rights activists say there are some situations, however, where intervention is necessary and just, when leaders are abusing their people. Hisham Matar, a renowned Libyan novelist who lives in London, said the current situation in Libya is one of them. He's been active in Libya's pro-democracy movement from abroad and has appealed to the West to intervene.

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"The world now is watching a massacre, and history will hold the international community responsible," Matar told the Democracy Now report. "Not only because we are watching a dictatorship, an unelected dictatorship, massacring its own people, but we are watching a dictatorship that the world has profited from close relations with."

The British government, under former Prime Minister Tony Blair in particular, has been accused of having too cozy a relationship with Gadhafi's Libya. Prime Minister David Cameron apologized today for the Libya situation, but carefully focused his remarks on his government's delay in evacuating U.K. citizens from Libya, avoiding any comment on his country's past efforts to reintegrate Gadhafi into the diplomatic community.

Cameron was in the Middle East earlier this week to attend an arms conference -- overseeing the very kind of weaponry deals, often with despotic regimes, for which his government has been criticized.
Filed under: World, AOL Original, Arab World Unrest
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