Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s vanity and reliance on repression led him to underestimate Libyans’ anger against him.
But the unrest sweeping the tribal nation is a sign that after four decades in power, Kadafi has lost the support of key clans and loyalists, and has steadily relied on repression to stay in power. It is as if he failed to grasp the dynamic of change emanating from Tunisia to his west and Egypt to his east.
“Kadafi’s biggest mistake was that he built his whole regime on pure fear,” said Omar Amer, a member of the Libyan Youth Movement, a protest group that spreads its message through Facebook. “He totally abandoned civilizing Libya. He neglected education and development projects. He left the majority of his people in the dark ages and built his might on fear through torturing and killing political dissidents in public.
“But the fear that Kadafi built his empire with is gone, and that was his last shelter,” Amer added.
Kadafi lost the eastern city of Benghazi to demonstrators, and protesters roamed the streets and set fires in the capital, Tripoli. Fighter jets streaked overhead. Government buildings burned; holes were punched through his portraits. Such scenes, captured on cellphone videos streaming out of his isolated country, revealed the vulnerable edifice of a leader who once seemed unconquerable.
“There had been an idea across the Middle East that the regimes were very strong and they cannot be changed or challenged,” said Lahcen Achy, an expert on North Africa with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “With the changes that happened in Tunisia and Egypt, everyone began questioning this idea. Libya is another case. People thought Kadafi could not be challenged.”
Kadafi has cast a curious political shadow across North Africa and the Middle East throughout a 41-year rule in which he has veered from terrorist plotter to oil-rich opportunist. But the man with the trademark sunglasses and unchained verbosity has never encountered anything like the protest movement that has flared across his cities, leading several top officials to abandon him and two large tribes to side with demonstrators.