Leave it to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to show the world how a tyrant goes down: with bluster, belligerence and blood. Not for him, the quiet escape of Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali or the noisy but broadly peaceful exit of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. When the Arab youth uprising that has toppled despots on either side of his North African nation arrived on his doorstep, Gaddafi gave notice that the region’s longest-surviving dictatorship would not succumb to revolutionary rap songs, Facebook pages and nonviolent demonstrations; he dispatched tanks and jet fighters to pound and strafe protesters. Hundreds were killed the exact toll is impossible to know, since the regime shut out the world’s media and shut down most communications.
Neither the King of Bahrain nor the President of Yemen, both of whom have used violence against popular revolt in recent days, would dare such a slaughter. But Gaddafi, rich in oil and poor in friends, has rarely conformed to the rules by which other autocrats govern. Whether backing terrorist groups in the 1970s and ’80s, funding civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s or hectoring world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, Libya’s so-called Brother Leader he wields absolute power with no formal title has always done what he pleased and mostly gotten away with it.
This time he may have gone too far. Gaddafi’s cruelty against his own people disgusted even longtime cronies and set off a wave of defections that, within a week of the first demonstrations on Feb. 15, left the regime deeply perhaps fatally wounded. Several military units mutinied and joined forces with protesters; two jet pilots flew to Malta rather than obey orders; a string of top officials, especially diplomats, quit their jobs and added to a chorus of voices calling for the dictator’s end. Soon much of eastern Libya, including cities like Benghazi and Tobruk, had declared itself liberated from the regime.
Some have taken to calling the eastern provinces Free Libya. Walls of houses and shops in Tobruk have been sprayed with signs saying FALL GADDAFI. On Feb. 22, when the first foreign journalists arrived in Midan al-Melek, a square in the center of town, men were still joyous, chanting, milling about and firing off celebratory gunshots. “The protesters finished a few days ago, and now we are just celebrating,” said one man in the crowd. “From Tobruk to Benghazi, it is all out of Gaddafi’s control.”
Gaddafi didn’t seem to have gotten the message. That evening he delivered one of his characteristic televised rants, this one aimed at his countrymen. He accused Libyans of lacking gratitude for all he had done for them and blamed the protests on terrorists, foreigners and young people on drugs. He managed to work in references to a range of violent crackdowns, from Tiananmen Square to Waco, Texas, to Fallujah. Bizarre as it was, the speech left no doubt as to the dictator’s intentions: “I am a warrior,” he said. “I am not going to leave this land, and I will die here as a martyr.”