Gaddafi's Rule Shaken By Anti-Government Protests

Protests across the Middle East have spread to Libya, where Col. Moammar Gaddafi has ruled the country for more than four decades. NPR's Loren Jenkins provides an update on Gadaffi's violent crackdown on protesters, and Libya expert Ronald Bruce St John explains what may lie ahead for the country.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

It's still hard to know what's going on in Libya, but over the past few days, it's become clear that protests have spread across the country, to the capital of Tripoli, and that the government has cracked down.

There are conflicting reports on the number killed, about two dozen, according to Libyan state media, more than 200 according to human rights groups.

Some Libyan exiles proclaim that after more than 40 years, the rule of Moammar Gadhafi is effectively over. In a televised address yesterday, the dictator's son vowed to fight to the last minute, until the last bullet, and warned of rivers of blood.

Libya is a huge country that extends from the Mediterranean Sea deep into the Sahara Desert. It's a major oil exporter, ruled by Colonel Gadhafi since a military coup in 1969. At various times, he's supported revolutionary and terrorist groups from places as far-flung as Liberia and Northern Ireland. At times, he was a defiant enemy of the United States.

In recent years, though, the U.S. normalized relations after Libya disclosed and abandoned a nuclear weapons program.

If you've been to Libya, what do we need to know about it? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an argument that abortion rights advocates are stuck in a time warp on the Opinion Page.

But first, Libya, and we begin with NPR senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins, who joins us here in Studio 3A. Always good to have you on the program.

LOREN JENKINS: Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And few, if any, Western reporters are inside Libya. Any idea how we can confirm any of these reports, which are so - well, they're very disturbing but hard to confirm.

JENKINS: Well, what is confirmable is what we're seeing on television screens and satellite televisions like Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya, who are getting images that are being sent out by cell phones, really. And there's clearly a lot happening.

There are a lot of battles going on in various cities, a lot of wounded, a lot of dead and a lot of Twitter messages coming out that have, you know, alleged everything from planes bombing civilians in the streets of Tripoli onward.

CONAN: And we have some defectors from the Libyan regime, as well. Two jet fighter pilots landed in Malta, said they refused orders to bomb civilians. Two helicopters have also landed there filled with Libyan citizens. A number of diplomats have also resigned.

JENKINS: Absolutely. There have been resignations from the government. The justice minister apparently resigned today, various ambassadors: the Libyan ambassador to New Delhi, the Libyan ambassador to the Arab League. The mission at the U.N. has called what's going on genocide and say they stand by the people and not Gadhafi.

There's clearly a major upheaval happening, despite the fact that there are no journalists there, there's no independent confirmation. There's enough information coming out to testify to a major upheaval that could, in fact, topple Colonel Gadhafi's 42-year-old regime.

CONAN: And it started, apparently, in the eastern part of the country, in Benghazi, close to the Egyptian border.

JENKINS: Absolutely. There have been clashes going on there six days now in Benghazi and a lot of the other cities in the east: Tobruk, the city of Al Bayda on the Mediterranean coast.

Indications are that the government doesn't control the eastern provinces anymore, although there are still clashes going on. There are reports from Benghazi and places like that that the demonstrators have taken control.

CONAN: Libya is a nation, it has been said, of tribes.

JENKINS: Absolutely. The real question for Gadhafi's survival is - there are two: the loyalty of the army and the loyalty of the tribes. They're the two bases of his regime. The two planes that escaped to Malta with two senior colonels in the air force who said they left because they didn't want to bomb their people is an indication of splits in the military. We've heard of other splits, of units on the ground joining demonstrators.

And various tribes, including, you know, the Al Warfalla, which is one of the major tribes, have already called for his ouster.

CONAN: There are also divisions within the country between Arabs, who tend to be more towards the coast, and Berbers, who tend to be from more inland.

JENKINS: Well, we haven't really - I'm not sure we know that. The demonstrations seem to be across all classes, a bit like what we saw in Egypt and Tunis. I don't think there's a split between the Berbers that we're able to confirm between the Berbers and the Arabs.

CONAN: Are there any supporters of Colonel Gadhafi at this point?

JENKINS: Yes, there are. And they seem to be fighting the demonstrators in the streets of Tripoli last night and today.

CONAN: Now in which - how much can we say this is like Egypt and Tunisia, and how much can we say it is unlike Egypt and Tunisia?

JENKINS: Well, it's unlike because it's just a different country and a different type of regime. It has been ruled for 42 years by one man, a former captain who proclaimed himself colonel and overthrew the king back in '69.

But it is - it's following the models of what we saw in Tunisia and Egypt of a people long oppressed, with very few rights, all of a sudden being empowered to say: We can overthrow a government.

And I think the model, the example of Tunisia and Egypt has certainly empowered Libyans to come out in the streets and oppose Gadhafi.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit more about Moammar Gadhafi. Obviously, most of us have lived virtually our whole adult lives with Moammar Gadhafi, an unusual politician.

JENKINS: Very unusual, very idiosyncratic, partly a mystic, someone who at first took over as prime minister and then resigned the title and proclaimed himself the guide to a very strange type of government.

He sort of banned the parliament, created all sorts of people's committees that were supposed to be this green revolution, he called it, where control was divested from the capital to all these little committees of loyalists who basically were what passed for a people's voice in his dictatorship.

CONAN: He at various times would call for pan-African unity and declare that Libya was now one with all of the other countries of Africa. At time he proclaimed pan-Arab unity and said Libya was now unifying itself with all of the other Arab nations. It remains alone.

JENKINS: As I said, over the years, he's had varying policies, from being pan-Arab to pan-African to mystical, Islamist. But, you know, he's - I think you pointed out earlier, mercurial.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Mercurial. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. If you've been to Libya, if you know about it, what do we need to know about it? And we'll go to Danny(ph), and Danny's with us on the line from Toronto in Canada.

DANNY (Caller): Yes, (unintelligible)Neal. Gadhafi first, he's mentally unstable. I mean, as you stated several times, he's a flip-flopper. My question: is he - my guess is he will be out by Friday, and the media's completely blacked-out there. There's nothing but bad news, of course.

But the other good news that - forgive me here, I'm kind of an old guy. That there are several officers and a few air force pilots defected to Malta, Italy, Tunisia, also several ambassadors, including the Libyan ambassador to China, the Libyan ambassador to India, the eight others, the European, the U.K. ambassador, Libyan ambassador to the U.K. and these nations have defected, in fact.

CONAN: We've mentioned that, Danny. What was this - you say you left on Friday. What was the situation like then?

DANNY: It was awful. It was terrible. There is several buses, and tanks were escorting someone. Some people guessed that Gadhafi's already in Caracas, Venezuela, at one of his mansions there and following his billions and billions of dollars, along with his sons. But there are some people saying he's with his buddy Hugo Chavez already.

CONAN: A rumor denied by the Venezuelan government already today.

DANNY: Of course, you know, you would hear that. But a guess-timate(ph), that is. What my concern here is Libya is really split east and west. You were talking about - it is, but it's a tribal society, and there's no doubt Gadhafi's going to be out. It could be a week, a week and a half. The pressure is so much on him and his son. I hope he takes away his son with him and leave the billions of dollars.

This is not a Mubarak, who have $300 or some billion. This guy has raped the country for 41 years and has maybe trillions of dollars stashed in Italy, with his Berlusconi buddy, in Switzerland, Venezuela, all over. I hope somebody brings that to light. And this person should be brought to a world court.

But there's a lot of - thousands of people, actually, probably injured, many thousands. They are saying about 2,500 have been killed, but reports, because of the...

CONAN: And again, Danny, I'm afraid we have just no way to confirm those numbers, but we appreciate the phone call, and thanks very much. But Loren Jenkins, just a few of the many rumors, completely unverifiable, that have been floating around, indeed all last night and this morning, rumors that Gadhafi had shown up in Caracas to flee the country, absolutely denied by the government of Venezuela.

JENKINS: So far, as far as we know, he's still there. I mean, we've heard rumors, but we've seen denials. No one's seen him appear anywhere else. It's hard to know. But because there's no journalists there, there's no independent voices we're getting except for these Twitter tweets and YouTube pictures, images of confusion and war.

CONAN: And is there any way to gauge how much his personal fortune may be worth? Again, these numbers are notoriously difficult to verify.

JENKINS: Absolutely not. You know, somebody who's in power by himself for 40 years in an oil-rich country has no doubt amassed a huge amount of wealth and banked it in overseas banks. But who knows?

CONAN: And it should be pointed out: Libya is a major oil exporter, and indeed, the unrest, not just in Libya but in other places, in Algeria, another oil exporter, more gas than oil from Algeria but also in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain, not an oil exporter, but again, people are nervous, and the price of Middle East is rising.

JENKINS: Absolutely. There's a lot of nervousness where this is all going. People are empowered, and all of these countries have been ruled by autocrats, all the countries that provide the world most of its oil, they're all nervous about what the people that they've ruled so long are going to do.

CONAN: And is there any idea, does anyone have any idea, if Colonel Gadhafi goes, who might replace him?

JENKINS: Absolutely not. There's been no opposition there. There are very weak exile groups in London and Italy that speak for the people that are revolting. But there's no organization.

CONAN: We're talking about Libya, what we know and, indeed, what we don't know, with NPR senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins. If you've been to Libya, what do we need to know? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We still know relatively little about what's happening inside Libya. By all accounts the government's violent crackdown on protestors continues. Two Libyan fighter pilots defected to Malta today, according to the government there, after being ordered to fire on crowds. They defected.

A number of Libyan diplomats around the world have resigned their posts. At the United Nations, Libya's deputy ambassador pressed Moammar Gadhafi to step down, or he said the Libyan people will get rid of him.

We're talking about what we know about power and protest in Libya with NPR senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins. If you've been to Libya, or if you're familiar with it, give us a call. What do we need to know? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Loren Jenkins, as we talk about Moammar Gadhafi, this is a person as he came to power much more in the secular socialist mode. You mentioned at times an Islamic mystic but not a fundamentalist in terms of how we view that word today.

JENKINS: No, absolutely not. In fact, he's warred with the fundamentalists in his country at various times. But when he came in, he was an Arab nationalist, secularist. He very much had been inspired by the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. He called himself a Nasserist when he took over and he set(ph) to follow the Egyptian model at the time.

But over the years he's evolved from everything he's supported. He's been anti-Western. He threw U.S. and British bases out of Libya. He's anti-Israeli. And he supported a lot of terrorism in the '70s and '80s.

CONAN: Camps where terrorists from around the world were trained and then sent out, provided with weapons and money.

JENKINS: Indeed. He even was arming the Irish Republican Army at one point.

CONAN: And took responsibility, eventually, for the downing of Pan Am 103, the plane that exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing hundreds of people.

JENKINS: Exactly.

CONAN: Joining us now from Albuquerque is Ronald Bruce St. John. He's written several books on Libya and its regime. His new book, "Libya: Continuity and Change," is due out later this year. And Bruce St. John, nice of you to be with us.

Mr. RONALD BRUCE ST. JOHN (Author, "Libya: Continuity and Change"): It's so good to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: And as you look at the situation in Libya, does this come as a surprise?

Mr. ST. JOHN: Quite frankly, it does. While there's always been a considerable amount of opposition to Gadhafi's regime, I'm surprised that the people, the people's power, has come to the fore so quickly and seemingly so effectively begun to truly undermine the power of the regime.

CONAN: One of the things that is different from Libya and other states in the region is that indeed the Libyan people did get some benefits from all of that oil.

Mr. ST. JOHN: That is correct. One of the things that really separates Libya from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and many of the other Arab states is that Libya has large quantities of oil and natural gas, which they have used over the years to more or less buy off the people, offering free medical care, subsidized housing, subsidized food and so forth.

CONAN: Yet very few - little in the way of political rights.

Mr. ST. JOHN: Absolutely no political rights, to be frank. Gadhafi created a system of direct democracy, which consists of a series of congresses and committees throughout the country, which in theory offers everyone a chance to participate in government.

In reality, parallel to that official system of congresses and committees, Gadhafi's established a power system based on old friends, family members and tribal leaders, using the security forces, the army, the police, and so forth, intelligence services, to actually run the country and run the system, the official system of direct democracy.

CONAN: And forgive me, Bruce, if you could just back away from the microphone an inch or two, just so we don't get those popping P's that make it so difficult to listen to you down the line.

Mr. ST. JOHN: Is that a little better?

CONAN: We hope so. And as you look at the government there, there have been protests against Colonel Gadhafi's regime in the past that really didn't amount to very much. What's different this time?

Mr. ST. JOHN: Well, that's a very good question and one I think a lot of us, including myself, who have studied Libya for over three decades, are still not completely sure.

In the past the demonstrations that have occurred have been largely in the east, and that's where they started again this time. What seems to be different is that I think in light of what happened in Tunisia and most recently in Egypt, the regime is much more nervous about any kind of anti-regime activity, and as a result very quickly turned to the use of force.

And it appears that when one or two people were killed, a crowd of 500 became a crowd of 5,000. When 20 or 30 were killed, a crowd of 5,000 became a crowd of 25,000. So I think the use of force has awakened a lot of discontent throughout the country, particularly in Libya - I'm sorry, particularly in the eastern part of the country, and as that dissent manifested itself, and the regime responded with force, other Libyans in and outside of Libya have increasingly said, you know, stop the killing. We've got to find a different way to address the problem.

CONAN: And tell us a little bit about Libya's armed forces, if you will. Who's in them? Who makes up the leaders of that armed force? And are they going to be willing to - well, if Saif, the colonel's son, vows of rivers of blood, are they going to be willing to be the spigots?

Mr. ST. JOHN: I don't think so. I think one of the things we must understand about Libya, which is very different from Egypt, and Tunisia maybe to a lesser degree, in Egypt you had an independent force made up of conscripts, but largely a self-funding and self-directing military. In Libya you have a much smaller force. It tends to be officered by either tribesmen of Gadhafi or loyalists of Gadhafi.

But even then, Gadhafi has, oddly enough, always been very suspicious of the military. He was a captain in the army when he came to power, and he enjoyed the support of the military to consolidate his role in Libya, but he has always been very suspicious of the armed forces as a place where dissent might occur.

As a result, he's always been very careful to shift the leadership in the armed forces around the country and in some cases denied the military the modern weapons and so forth that other countries have been getting.

At the same time, he's created a parallel force of loyalists called the 32nd Brigade, which is commanded by his youngest son, the seventh son, Khamis al-Gadhafi, and this is widely considered to be the best-trained, most effective, best-equipped force in Libya. And that's the force that was sent to Benghazi.

For the first time, we've seen this sort of thing happen, where the leader, the Libyan leader, Gadhafi, where he felt the need to send his son and the 32nd Brigade on the front line.

So I think that was a measure early on of the concern he had with the seriousness of the protests and perhaps also whether or not he felt he could really trust the standard armed forces to do his bidding.

CONAN: We're talking with Ronald Bruce St. John, who's got a book coming out later this year titled "Libya: Continuity and Change." And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Sammy(ph), Sammy with us from Columbia in South Carolina.

SAMMY (Caller): Yes, I just wanted to comment on Colonel Gadhafi's regime and what's going on on the ground in Benghazi today and yesterday.

CONAN: Go ahead.

SAMMY: Okay.

CONAN: Yeah.

SAMMY: Okay, I have an uncle in Benghazi, he has a sweets shop, the (unintelligible) sweet shop. My family is from Benghazi, Libya. My father came here 27 years ago because of the harsh rule of Colonel Gadhafi.

The protestors there in Libya were massacred in Benghazi yesterday, the day before. They're being massacred in Tripoli now, in the Green Square. Gadhafi is a madman. He has nowhere to run. The reports of him going to Israel or going to Venezuela, the man has nowhere to run.

He's wanted for heinous, heinous crimes with - he started a war with Chad and Uzu(ph), a needless war over pointless, pointless, pointless -just a war that he woke up one day and decided he was going to war.

There's a common saying in Libya that he wakes up one day, and whatever he dreams will be the policy that he institutes. The man has devastated the infrastructure of Libya socially, economically. The schools, the infrastructure is crumbling. It's either nonexistent or crumbling from decay, and he's giving billions of dollars to these corrupt African regimes to fund, you know, loyalists within his own government so that, like your other commenter was saying, he doesn't trust the army, so he has these - almost these many different options (unintelligible) plays his cards(ph).

He donates billions of dollars of the Libyan oil to foreign African national corrupt regimes, and in such he invokes this African unity as a way to suppress his own people.

CONAN: And...

SAMMY: The people of Africa, he exploits them in a way that he preys on their devastation. He preys on their absolute - they have no hope. So he offers them hope to come to Libya, and when you go to Libya, you find these Sudanese or these Chadians on the streets, just waiting for work.

And those are the ones - if you've been to Rome, those - that's how they get to Rome. He uses that against the European Union as well. He uses his oil. He uses his ability to either flood Europe with immigrants or to withhold them, and he uses the immigrants there. And for the past few days, he's used those same poor immigrants against his own people that are slaughtered in the streets of Benghazi.

CONAN: And, Sammy, what we hear is a litany of complaints about a ruler who's been in power for 42 years and has held virtually absolute authority and I - you know, Ronald Bruce St John, as you listen to the complaints, certainly you can hear the passion. Obviously, it's difficult to verify how much of any of that is true.

Mr. ST. JOHN: Well, I would say this to Sammy: I think you've got it pretty well 100 percent correct. I think most of what you've said is true. The only additional comment I would make would be in reference to his policy towards Africa.

Gadhafi has long felt Libya with five to six million people was not a playhouse, a stage big enough for him. He needed a bigger playhouse. And over the last 10 years, one of the things he's worked on very hard is trying to create a United States of Africa with a million-man army, a single currency and so forth, much like the African - or much like the European Union.

But United States of Africa with himself as the head of state. And that's exactly what he's been working on. And that's why he's been doing some of the things Sammy was just referring to, in terms of spending a lot of the oil wealth of Libya on states in the Sahel and the Sahara and (unintelligible) African Africa, trying to get them to support his ambitions for the United States of Africa.

CONAN: Well, here's an email we have from Monica(ph). My husband and I travelled to Libya a few years ago to view a total solar eclipse. We spent most of our time on the Mediterranean coast, including Tripoli. I remember a country that looked and seemed pretty well run. We didn't see any obvious signs of poverty where we went. One really interesting thing I remember is that Gadhafi had built an underground river that moved water from the desert south to the northern coast all in some huge underground pipe system. We thought that was a remarkable feat. I wonder if your guests and listeners know anything about that. Loren Jenkins, was this the Manmade River Project?

JENKINS: The Manmade River Project, yeah, which is - was that. I mean, he did spend a lot of his money and a lot of the income on infrastructure. And he has tried to build up the coastal areas, which is where most of the population is.

CONAN: We're talking about Libya, what we know and what we don't. Loren Jenkins, NPR senior foreign editor. Also with us, Ronald Bruce St John, author of a new book coming out on Libya later this year.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And, Ronald Bruce St John, can you give us some idea if Colonel Gadhafi is pushed out within the next two few days or few weeks as some now suggest, what might replace him?

Mr. ST. JOHN: Well, that's a very good question. I think one of the real differences between what's taking place today in Libya and what occurred in Egypt is in Egypt, the protesters were asking for a liberalization of the regime and wanted Mubarak out. But beyond that, they wanted to liberalize the existing regime.

In Libya, the protesters are crying for Gadhafi to get out but also for an entire new regime to be created because there's no confidence in the abilities of this direct democracy system to function because it's been manipulated for so long by Gadhafi and his supporters.

So I think you'll see, in immediate aftermath of a Gadhafi departure, I think you'll see the tribal leadership in Libya coming together, possibly through the People's Social Leadership committees and organization nationwide, an organization of Libyan leaders and mainly tribal leaders, it was formed after 1993. I think you'll see groups like that coming together and trying to decide what it is they want in the way of a new political system. But I would envision in the future a very different type system than the direct democracy system that Gadhafi has put in place over the last 41 years.

CONAN: In the short or long term, might the next ruler of Libya come from the armed forces as its previous ruler did?

Mr. ST. JOHN: It's possible. Gadhafi has done a very good job of moving leadership in the military around so that there are no obvious candidates. There, of course, two of his sons are in the military. I mentioned earlier Khamis who is head of the 32nd brigade. I suspect the sons will be out of the picture. So if that's the case, there is a potential for another military leader.

But I think also a real potential for more of a civilian type head, again, possibly from one of the major tribes or tribal groupings, at least for a temporary period of time.

CONAN: Let's get Janice(ph) on the line. Janice with us from Aurora, Colorado.

JANICE (Caller): Yes. Thank you for your time. We're - our concern in our family is that our nephews are in their 20s and they live on Fashlum where he's recently called our family today. And he is shutting the water off, Gadhafi's shutting the entire city's electricity, and he's randomly shooting with helicopter machineguns in that city now. He -there is no police force. There is one traffic light in Tripoli. He's oppressed his people with very little electricity, poor, you know, Internet access. He shuts off television shows that question him. He has just power over everything. And...

CONAN: And what city again are your nephews in?

JANICE: At Tripoli. Fashlum is a neighborhood in Tripoli. My daughter stayed there for nine months learning Arabic last year.

And the propaganda they use on the youth. They brought 160 students from the United States last summer or last winter, paid their trip, gave them spending money, a propaganda tactic to convince young people to come back to Libya. But, of course, my daughter had been there before and seen the real Libya, but they just showed them the surface, all the pretty sights and the signs saying we're supporting Africa, and they have an AIDS clinic. And he just puts all his money in propaganda to control the other countries to keep supporting him. He puts no money in his own country.

Now, they're so helpless they can't - they're fighting back, but they don't have guns. We did get a report from another nephew that he heard on the news from - you know, I know everyone is listening to Al-Jazeera. But we're just scared for our family personally.

CONAN: And I can understand the fear. We wish you...

JANICE: Thank you for your time. Yeah.

CONAN: That's - we wish the best for your nephews, Janice.

JANICE: Yeah. Please help spread the news. This is - this country is falling and the million - we don't want our families to perish. Please, keep keeping these reports on the news. Thank you.

CONAN: We'll do our best. Thanks very much. And Loren Jenkins, as we look ahead to the next few days - we just have a few seconds left here -but it's going to be difficult to confirm these reports.

JENKINS: Well, I think it will be until either the government falls or it succeeds in repressing the people and shutting it all down.

CONAN: NPR senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins. We also thank Bruce St John, who's the author of several books on Libya, who joined us from his home in Albuquerque. The book coming out later this year is "Libya: Continuity and Change."

Coming up on the opinion page, an argument that abortion rights activists have not kept up with the times and risk losing the gains they made since Roe v. Wade. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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