Fear of Freedom: Democracy Virus Has Dictators Fretting
First it was Ben Ali in Tunisia, then Mubarak in Egypt. Now Libya's Gadhafi is under pressure. From Cuba to China, dictators are watching events in the Arab world with alarm, with full knowledge that ideas are spreading to their populations via the Internet -- and that they could be next.
It's safe to say that Moammar Gadhafi has flamboyant taste. His clothing is always dazzling and extravagant, from his canary-yellow, blood red or pristine white tunics to his purple cashmere scarves and ochre socks. His collection of sunglasses looks as if it had been dreamed up by some eccentric avant-garde designer. The revolutionary leader once even wore a crown of sorts when he had himself symbolically celebrated as Africa's "king of kings" before assembled potentates in Tripoli.
His flamboyance also extends to other areas. For example, his "Green Book," distributed to millions in the country and required reading for schoolchildren, university students, civil servants and people in the military, is expected to be understood as an important piece of writing and as a "universal theory." Gadhafi himself put it this way: "The Green Book presents the ultimate solution to the problem of the instrument of government, and indicates for the masses the path upon which they can advance from the age of dictatorship to that of genuine democracy."
His Excellency Moammar Gadhafi, 68, Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution, a megalomaniacal, ruthless and brutal dictator who was long a pariah before becoming the West's partner, is undoubtedly a unique figure in international politics.
'Psychopath' and 'Mad Dog'
He is terrifying. In the past, he provided financial support to practically every terrorist organization around, from the Basque ETA to the Irish IRA to the Palestinian Abu Nidal group. He had his own intelligence agents hunt down American soldiers at the "La Belle" nightclub in Berlin. Then he renounced all violence in 2003, abandoning weapons of mass destruction and offering his services as a partner to the West, supposedly as a reformed man.
He is extravagant. He appears with his powerful-looking female bodyguards and, on foreign visits from Paris to New York, insists on staying in the Bedouin tent he has brought along, sometimes accompanied by one of his eight children. But he is always in the company of a Ukrainian nurse the American ambassador famously described in a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks as a "voluptuous blonde." Or rather, he was: The nurse reportedly flew home to Ukraine on Sunday.
He is erratic. He speaks for five times as long as the time he has been allotted before the United Nations General Assembly and tears up the UN charter at the podium. In addition to making reasonable suggestions, such as changing the composition of the Security Council, he seeks to convince the world that Israel was responsible for the assassination of former US President John F. Kennedy and describes current US President Barack Obama as "our son."
"The guy is a psychopath," the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat once said. He predicted in 1978 that Gadhafi would see an early death at the hands of an assassin. But Sadat, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was wrong: He, not the Libyan, was the one who would be assassinated.
Former US President Ronald Reagan called Gadhafi the "mad dog of the Middle East" and ordered his main base, the Bab al-Azizia military barracks in Tripoli, to be bombed in 1986. The Libyan dictator's adopted daughter was killed, but Gadhafi escaped unscathed.
The Clown among the Major Powers
This man has ruled Libya for almost 42 years. Since he and a group of young officers ousted former King Idris in a military coup, Gadhafi has seen eight American presidents and six German chancellors come and go. He once wore a single white glove to a summit meeting of the Arab League. The eccentric leader explained that he wanted to be sure not to "become infected" when shaking the hands of leaders who had already had contact with Israeli officials. All that was missing was a chimpanzee on his shoulder to make Gadhafi the Michael Jackson of the Arab world.
Gadhafi, with his fantasy uniforms and shrill remarks, has often been dismissed as a class clown among the major powers, being seen merely as someone who engages in extraordinarily bizarre behavior. But this does not do justice to his role. In his early days as a revolutionary leader, he was a sort of Arab Ché Guevara for many leftists. His convictions that education should be free and should be mandatory for girls, that people should not be allowed to earn money from housing and that the masses were capable of governing themselves through "people's committees" -- all of this sounded fascinating, at least on paper.
Gadhafi is the ruler of a country with more than 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, and until recently he was cooperating with the European Union to stem the tide of refugees from North Africa to Europe. Though not the West's favorite partner, he has been one with whom deals could be made, and someone whom it was best not to "disturb," as his "friend," Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, recently put it.
Is it even possible to say that he is the ruler of this country anymore, now that rebels have captured large parts of Libya?
And what happens if Gadhafi remains holed up in the capital with his brutal mercenaries, ordering those members of his air force still loyal to him to pick off civilians as if they were rabbits and sending out his thugs to loot and murder? Will the world be forced to intervene to prevent genocide, a second Rwanda or Cambodia, by imposing economic sanctions and militarily enforcing no-fly zones?
Winds of Change
The winds of change began blowing in the Arab world eight weeks ago. What started as a fresh breeze became a storm and has now turned into a hurricane, one that promises to upset and sweep away everything that existed before it. Ironically, all of this is happening in a region whose problems have remained unsolved for decades, whose societies appeared to be frozen in time. The popular uprisings forced Tunisian kleptocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile and the Egyptian "Pharaoh" Hosni Mubarak to step down. A class of committed and fearless young revolutionaries had successfully tried out the power of the street.
They denounced the corruption of their rulers, demanded jobs and called for democratic freedoms. Almost as astonishingly, they were not chanting any anti-American slogans and hardly any anti-Israeli ones. And the Islamists, so feared by the West and portrayed as bogeymen by the autocrats (who liked to cultivate the image of being the only bulwark against fundamentalist chaos), were at most just riding along on the bandwagon.
The revolution in Libya, where demonstrations began less than two weeks ago and where rebels soon captured the eastern part of the country and the second-largest city Benghazi, is not entirely the same as the other Arab youth and democracy movements. In this former Italian colony, no one knows how much the revolution owes to traditional tribal rivalries and how much to Libyans' hatred of the Gadhafi clan and its excesses. And there has been more bloodshed in Libya -- a lot more.
It is clear, however, that the colonel's children long ago abandoned all ideals of the early period of his rule and have shamelessly enriched themselves or simply squandered government funds. One son paid millions to have pop singer Mariah Carey perform on his vacation island in the Caribbean and, a year later, threw what was likely an even more expensive party, featuring top stars Beyoncé and Usher. Despite press censorship, the news about such escapades quickly spread among Internet-savvy Libyan youth who, in addition to witnessing the Gadhafi clan's excesses, have to deal with a decaying healthcare system and a lack of professional opportunities.
'Stay Up All Night'
Gadhafi made several bizarre appearances within the last week. First, on Monday night, he appeared before a television crew while standing in the door of his version of the Popemobile. He held up an umbrella and said that he would like to join the pro-Gadhafi demonstrators on Tripoli's central Green Square, but that it was raining too heavily. Hours later, he gave a dramatic address to the people from a venue he had apparently chosen for its symbolic value: the palace the Americans had once bombed.
Gadhafi ranted against the "dirty rats" protesting against him in the streets, announced that he would cleanse the country "house by house," and characterized the brutal actions of the Chinese authorities on Tiananmen Square in 1989 as reasonable. In his blind rage, the revolutionary leader went so far as to threaten to kill anyone who did not abide by the Libyan constitution -- apparently forgetting that Libya does not have a constitution. Giving up was out of the question for him, he shouted, adding that he would become a martyr if necessary and vowing he would fight "to my last drop of blood."
On Thursday, Gadhafi, who holds an honorary doctorate from Serbia's Megatrend University, issued another bizarre statement, speaking this time by phone and broadcast on government TV. Terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was the true cause of the Libyan crisis, Gadhafi postulated, adding that the protestors were high on drugs. His advice to his countrymen: "If you want to kill each other, go ahead."
Gadhafi's third outrageous appearance in a fateful week happened late Friday afternoon, when he appeared in person on the central square in the capital. Speaking to a few hundred supporters, and dressed in a plain hunting outfit and a fur hat with earflaps, he said threateningly that his government would arm everyone in the country if necessary. "We will continue to fight, we will defeat them. We will die here on the dear soil of Libya." He called on the youth of the county to "stay up all night" and dance and sing, adding "Moammar Gadhafi is one of you."
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