Like Sinatra, Moammar Gaddafi has always done things his way. When Egypt- and Tunis-style public protests failed to dislodge the Libyan leader, a full-scale rebellion erupted, only to be met with the uncompromising brutality so familiar to longtime Gaddafi observers. For now, Libya appears stalemated, with rebels controlling the eastern half of the country while regime loyalists dig in around Tripoli and the west. As the international community worries about if, when and how Gaddafi might fall, let’s topple a few misunderstandings about the mercurial leader.
1 Given — Gaddafi looks like a deranged dictator. Homicidal attacks on his own people? Check. Wacky ideology? Try reading his incoherent ramblings in“The Green Book,” a manifesto published in the 1970s. Bizarre public statements? Listen to his 90-minute tirade against the world before the U.N. General Assembly in 2009. Add to the mix his all-female Amazonian Guard security force and the Bedouin tent he pitches during trips to Rome, Paris and New York, and the evidence suggests that we’re dealing with a crazy person.
But Gaddafi could not have held on to power for such a long time in a country as divided as Libya without being a canny political operator. He has adapted over the years, adjusting his message to appeal to different constituents with pan-Arabism, pan-Africanism, anti-Westernism and an idiosyncratic take on socialism. He has used every means at his disposal to achieve his sole objective: staying in power.
Libya’s oil wealth enables Gaddafi to buy loyalty. When loyalty can’t be bought, he uses intimidation and violence to extract it — witness, for example, the brutal suppression of student Islamists in eastern Libya in the 1990s. He has methodically removed his enemies, keeping the military weak, tribes divided and Islamic radicals fearing for their lives. He’s kept his foes bickering instead of working together to unseat him. He’s even manipulated his own children, stoking their rivalries to prevent any of them from becoming too powerful.
Until last month, Gaddafi managed to control everything and everyone in his country while claiming that he had no official position within it. That’s a crazy argument, but the man spouting it has been too successful to be dismissed as a madman.
2 After President Ronald Reagan called Gaddafi “the mad dog of the Middle East,” many thought the dictator would die before stepping down. Though surrender won’t come easily to the man who has vowed to oppose the Libyan rebellion “to the last drop of blood,” Gaddafi’s past suggests that he is capable of stepping back from the precipice.
After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Gaddafi feared that his regime could be next. So he gave up his nuclear weapons program and paid compensation to the families of Lockerbie bombing victims in return for an end to U.S. trade sanctions. If he’s given ground before, why not now? Arab media reports suggest that he hasn’t ruled out stepping aside in exchange for immunity from prosecution and asylum abroad for himself and his family. Quiet retirement in Caracas or Harare cannot be dismissed as the rebels gain ground.
3 It’s not so straightforward. Fighters from neighboring Chad and Niger as well as Syria, Serbia and Ukraine have flocked to Gaddafi in his hour of need, but the Libyan leader’s core support comes from domestic constituencies. These include special forces units commanded by his sons, formidable internal security and the fealty of his own tribal group, the Qadhadhfa. Some members of the more numerous Warfallaand Magariha are also in his corner. And many of Libya’s “foreigners” have lived there for many years. They came from Chad, Mali and Niger as far back as the 1970s to join Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion, a militia group intent on securing Libyan control of North Africa, and became naturalized citizens long ago.
Racism is also at play. Many Libyan natives resent the country’s foreign nationals — around 500,000 out of a population of more than 6.5 million. Unrest offers an opportunity to settle scores against foreign workers by falsely accusing “black Africans” of committing atrocities on behalf of the regime.
4 Very unlikely. Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and senior generals have balked at the cost and risks of destroying Libyan air defenses. In any case, the most significant attacks by the regime against the rebels haven’t been mounted by warplanes, but by ground forces and helicopters capable of evading a no-fly zone. There’s also an awkward diplomatic reality: Intervention would struggle to win support in NATO, where Turkey is opposed, or in the U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia are likely to say no.
And even if a no-fly zone would topple Gaddafi, why would President Obama want to establish one? Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are a big part of the debate about Libya. The United States is cautious, fearing another messy intervention in a Muslim country and wary of interfering in an organic, grass-roots rebellion in the Middle East. Unless Gaddafi begins using planes to inflict mass casualties, a no-fly zone may only level the playing field so that the two sides of Libya’s civil war can fight more evenly — and Gaddafi isn’t the underdog in that battle.
5 Gaddafi’s rule has had one benefit: It has kept a divided country together. His exit would leave a power vacuum. Gaddafi did such a thorough job of eliminating his opposition that there is nothing — no party, no ideology, no clear successor — left to replace him. Politically, Libya is a blank slate.
The rebels are united by little beyond their hatred of Gaddafi. Secularists, monarchists and even former jihadists rub shoulders with one another in this fight. Tribal loyalties further complicate efforts to forge a common front. All the factions call for international action to oust Gaddafi, but they are divided on what form it should take. Only since the Interim National Council was set up in the rebel-held city of Benghazi on Feb. 26 has Gaddafi’s opposition begun to coalesce.
But these are early days. For almost a week, former justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil battled with Benghazi-based lawyer Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga for leadership of the council. Jalil wasn’t confirmed as its head until March 5. Even if Libya’s rebels can achieve victory on the battlefield — a big “if” — the task of building a national movement in a divided society will prove even tougher.
Richard Downie is the deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.