Demonstrations led to the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. There are protests in Bahrain, Yemen. Jordan, Algeria and new demonstrations in Iran, a nd minor incidents have occurred in Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Morocco. Repressive regimes around the world must be very nervous. Is Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's Libya next?
On February 16, 2011, Libyan police clashed with thousands of anti-government protestors in the coastal city of Benghazi, calling the demonstration "a day of rage." These protestors joined a smaller demonstration in support of arrested human rights activist and lawyer Fathi Tarbel, who represents the families of over 1,000 prisoners massacred at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison in 1996. (Tarbel was subsequently released.) Benghazi is a hot bed of anti-government sentiment. There were also demonstrations in Baida, Misurata, and Zentan, as well as pro-Gaddafi demonstrations in Benghazi, Tripoli and elsewhere. Reportedly, as many as 200 anti-government protestors have been killed so far. Regime opponents have called for a nationwide strike.
Qaddafi tried to allay unrest by proposing the doubling of government employees' salaries and releasing 110 Islamic militants who oppose him. In addition, Gaddafi had lately met groups of students, journalists, lawyers and others to hear their complaints. Obviously, this was not enough for protestors.
The Libyan grievances are similar to those in Tunisia and Egypt: high youth unemployment, and the harsh suppression of all political activity under an autocratic rule which has lasted decades in this oil rich country of 6.5 million. Libyans want the ouster of Qaddafi, a constitution, and political and economic reforms.
Libya had emerged from isolation in 2003 when Qaddafi announced that Libya would relinquish its nuclear, chemical, and biological programs and opened its sites to international inspection. In addition, Qaddafi renounced terrorism and promised to compensate victims of the 1986 La Belle disco bombing, that killed two and injured at least 120, including more than 40 Americans, and the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. The optimism that swept the country at the time of Qaddafi's announcement slowly gave way to economic realities of rebuilding Libya's moribund economy.
In 2006, the United States removed Libya from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism.
Let's look back on the beginning of Qaddafi's reign. On September 1, 1969, an obscure group of military officers seized power while King Idris was seeking medical treatment in Turkey. There was very little opposition to the coup and few deaths. About a week after the coup, the 27-year old Qaddafi emerged as the head of the Revolutionary Command Council and as the country's new leader. Riding on an anti-imperialist anger, Qaddafi closed all British and American military bases, expanded the Libyan armed forces, exiled or arrested senior officers with connections to the monarchy, and closed all newspapers and churches, banned political parties, and jailed political opponents. In the mosques, Sanusi clerics were replaced by more compliant religious leaders. Banks were nationalized and foreign oil companies were threatened with nationalization.
All assets in Libya belonging to Italians and non-resident Jews were expropriated. Close to 30,000 Italian settlers were deported. Why this animosity towards Italians? Probably, as revenge for three decades of brutal Italian colonial rule, which ended during WW II.
Then President Ronald Reagan called Qaddafi, "The most dangerous man in the world."
Will Qaddafi's Libya become another Egypt? Will people power be enough? Unlikely. In Egypt, the military remained relatively neutral during the demonstrations leading up to Mubarak's ouster, did not fire their weapons, and probably precipitated Mubarak's departure, whereas Libya's military -- where many of its leaders date back to the 1969 coup --appears solidly behind Qaddafi and, unlike in Egypt, will probably be willing to use bullets to prevent the toppling of the Qaddafi's government. If Gaddafi is ousted, it will be only after a bloody fight.