The Coward’s Last Stand: Revolution In Libya

Meanwhile, if you want to see what I was terrified to think the protests in Egypt might devolve into, you need look no further than to next-door neighbor Libya, where dictator Muammar Gaddafi appears to have fewer compunctions about releasing the dogs of war on his own people than Hosni Mubarak did:

Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, called Monday for the U.N. to take key steps, including shutting airspace over Tripoli to prevent Gadhafi’s regime from restocking its military. He accused Gadhafi of carrying out “genocide.”

Dabbashi said the toll in clashes so far could be as high as 800. Human Rights Watch said Monday that at least 233 people have been killed during the unrest. CNN has been in contact with medics and witnesses in Libya, whose accounts appear to corroborate the Human Rights Watch report.

The rights group said Tuesday that witnesses in Tripoli “have described Libyan forces firing ‘randomly’ at protesters” this week and that sources from two hospitals in Tripoli reported at least 62 bodies.

Witnesses have told CNN that helicopter gunships fired into crowds of protesters.

Of course, in any uprising rumors run rampant, so it’s hard to know from my vantage point how much of this is true. (And also unlike Egypt, the Libyan security apparatus has thus far managed to keep the international media from getting into the country, so there’s no live video feeds from Tripoli or Benghazi the way there were from Cairo and Alexandria.) But while the exact tactics being used to crack down on Libyan protesters are in dispute, it seems indisputable that some form of violent crackdown is taking place.

For me, at least, the irony in the contrast between the paths the dictators of Egypt and Libya have chosen to respond to their subjects’ revolutions is that in both cases they are exactly the opposite of what I would have expected them to choose.

First, Egypt.  For all his personal corruption and autocratic rulership, Hosni Mubarak was a soldier who had shown no small amount of strength and will in his life; he led the Egyptian Air Force during the Yom Kippur War in one of the few battles where an Arab air force managed to defeat the Israelis, and when he rose to the Presidency of Egypt he maintained the policy of détente with Israel established by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, even after that policy got Sadat blown up in a grenade attack while Mubarak stood next to him.

A man like that is not the sort you expect to be pried from power without a fight, which is part of why I considered the outcome of the Egyptian revolution to be a minor miracle. Mubarak didn’t go completely peacefully — his regime did encourage pro-Mubarak Egyptians to confront protesters, and near the end he appears to have unleashed a campaign of violence against foreign journalists and aid workers, hoping to scare them off — but in the end he did go without bringing on the Götterdämmerung that seemed so tragically likely.

Muammar Gaddafi, on the other hand, is — not to put too fine a point on it — a coward.  He has a long, long history of picking fights with opponents great and small (including the US, in 1986), only to fold like a house of cards.

The War Nerd ran through Gadhafi’s whole sorry history of cave-ins in an epic 2004 profile:

Qadafi’s such a wimp that he didn’t just “buckle” to the US and Britain way back in the 80s, but he even “buckled” to Chad, the lowliest, most messed-up country in the world. What the hell does Libya have to do with Chad, you’re wondering? Well, it was like the only date Qadafi could get to the prom — the only country even more messed-up than Libya…

There were so many little wars going on in Chad in the late seventies that Qadafi could pick which ones he wanted to fund. And boy, was he fickle. He started out doing the obvious thing, backing Muslims in the north rebelling against Christians in the south…

With new money and arms, the Muslim leader, Habre, made his move and captured the capital, a mud-brick hellhole called N’Djamena.

This was strictly by the book according to the rules of African warfare, which state “the worse the hellhole, the harder they fight for it.”

The rest of the civil war went by the book too. The black Christian southerners fled the city, headed south to stay with relatives, and started killing any Arabs or Muslims they could find. They found about 10,000, by all accounts, chopped them up and felt better about losing their city gig. Then-and once again, this is strictly old-school, by-the-book stuff — the winners started eyeing up each other, looking for weakness, and not even bothering to thank the foreigners who’d bankrolled them. Once he’d taken the capital, Habre wouldn’t even return Qadafi’s calls. In his classic drama-queen style, Qadafi flounced around his tent, sulked, and did what he always does: gave money to his ex-best-friend’s worst enemy. Habre’s worst enemy happened to be a Southern-Chad Black Christian Colonel named Kaougoue. Qadafi funded him anyway. So much for Islamic unity.

Then he switched his backing again, to a group of Chadian rebels who had migrated south from Libya. The idea was to lead up to annexing the northern half of Libya. So much for African unity.

When that failed, Qadafi decided to withdraw from most of Chad, but he gave himself a little going-away present, annexing a piece of northern Chad called the “Aozou Strip.”

Then came the ultimate humiliation: Qadafi’s army and air force couldn’t even hold onto that…

That was it for Qadafi. He did what he always does when somebody fronts up to him: he caved. Since then he’s been very, very polite to the Chadians.

You get the picture? This is a man who has no guts and no shame. Getting him to “buckle” is nothing new, and nothing to brag about. You want to do something impressive? Get Kim Jong-Il to sing “Give Peace A Chance.” Yeah — big televised duet with Yoko. That’s when I’ll be impressed.

So count me surprised that when the revolution finally came it saw Mubarak slinking away quietly to a retirement villa, and Gaddafi turning to bombs and bullets in a last desperate attempt to hold on to power.

We don’t know, of course, if Mubarak’s restraint in using force against the protesters actually came from Mubarak.  It may well be that both dictators gave the fatal order to their military officers to turn their guns on their own people, and Libya’s officers chose to follow it while Egypt’s did not . If that’s the case, there are a cadre of anonymous heroes in the Egyptian armed forces who deserve the respect of the world — and a cadre of anonymous villains in Libya’s who deserve only a short noose and a long drop.

UPDATE (Feb. 23): It’s worth noting that not all of Libya’s soldiery is without conscience:

Two Libyan Air Force fighter pilots defected on Monday and flew their jets to Malta where they told authorities they had been ordered to bomb protesters, Maltese government officials said…

The two said they decided to fly to Malta after being ordered to bomb anti-government protesters in Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi, the sources said.