Other regimes emboldened by Kadafi's tactics

The dictator has used brute force to stay in power. Arab leaders in Yemen and elsewhere are following suit.

March 18, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • An RAF pilot lands at an air base in Scotland. UK defense forces will help to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.
An RAF pilot lands at an air base in Scotland. UK defense forces will help… (Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — Moammar Kadafi has ruled this country for four decades using tools also at the disposal of other Arab leaders. He shrouded his dirty deeds in nationalist ideology. He tactically doled out the country's oil money. He kept tabs on his enemies here and abroad.

But in the end, it was Kadafi's willingness to use brute force and the tools of his police state that has helped him so far avoid the fate of neighboring autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt who were swallowed up by popular revolutions.

Regimes in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria appear to have taken note, confronting their uprisings with a hard wall of state-sponsored violence.

Photos: A journey from Libya back to Egypt

On Friday, government agents fired on a peaceful protest in Yemen, security forces in Syria reportedly killed several demonstrators, and Bahrain's ruling monarchy tore down a 300-foot sculpture at Pearl Square, where protesters had been routed in a deadly confrontation just two days earlier.

Just as activists in Bahrain gleaned lessons from protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and as Egyptians adopted the slogans of revolutionaries in Tunisia, so too have Arab autocrats been learning from one another's missteps and successes.

Libya's so far successful use of force, including the deployment of heavy artillery and warplanes against opposition-held areas, has offered a chilling lesson.

"They are willing to kill, even with their words," said one Libyan scholar, an opposition activist in the Tripoli, describing her country's leadership.

The relatively unrestrained use of force in Libya transformed a popular uprising against Kadafi's rigid rule into a civil war, one from which he may still emerge victorious despite the United Nations decision to impose a no-fly zone over his country. Even some of Kadafi's fiercest opponents concede that his strategy has demoralized some of those arrayed against him.

"When you use extreme force, you instill hopelessness and helplessness in the people," said Essam Gheriani, an opposition spokesman in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

The popular movements facing off against Middle East autocracies are not all battling the same kinds of regimes. And they must galvanize vastly different societies.

Libya and Yemen, for example, remain connected to their tribal roots, while Egypt and Tunisia are modern urbanizing societies. Large constituencies in Jordan and Morocco appear to support their monarchies, even as they protest the governments that those rulers oversee. Algeria is more of a military dictatorship, while ruling families in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula states run the show.

Libya, like the regime in Iran, dresses the authoritarian aspects of its state in the cloak of left-leaning populism and oil-financed largesse.

"Libya has been a regime that didn't really brook opposition," said Lisa Anderson, a Libya expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who is president of the American University in Cairo. "Libyans are facing a much more take-no-prisoners regime than the Egyptians or the Tunisians. The Libyan regime has never had any qualms about killing people."

But authoritarian rulers throughout the Arab world appear to be concluding that using state violence, rejecting political compromise and maintaining tight control are a better route to survival than agreeing to the kind of fundamental political reform pressed by the Obama administration.

This week Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, all close allies of Washington, appeared to ignore U.S. entreaties for reform and instead addressed demonstrators' demands with truncheons and gunfire. The Bahraini government's destruction of the Pearl Square monument that had become a symbol of that nation's protest was a totalitarian gesture that Kadafi might applaud.

Both the violence in the Arabian Peninsula and the crisis in Libya show those long worried about political stagnation in the region may have to do more than sit on the sidelines as calls for political change rattle the Middle East and North Africa.

"As these movements are going forward, if there's something useful for outsiders to do, they have to do it," said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. diplomat now working for Rand Corp.

Kadafi's staying power may also offer other lessons, for both Arab autocrats looking to maintain their grip and those seeking change in the Middle East. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya is endowed with oil money, and just like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran, Kadafi has used his petroleum wealth to buy off constituencies and quell discontent.

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