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On Point

Gadhafi's Cult Leaves Libya Bereft


by Austin Bay
March 2, 2011

Libyan rebels on the outskirts of Tripoli foreshadow the demise of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's four decades of dictatorship.

But Gadhafi's not gone -- yet -- and the Libyan Civil War of 2011 may or may not end even if he goes in a coffin or on a jet into Venezuelan exile.

In comparison, Tunisia's and Egypt's revolts were quite restrained. Popular protests broke Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's Tunisian regime. Ben Ali essentially ran a family mob operation. Skimming billions was his objective. Can't spend it dead. When the Tunisian Army refused to back him, he fled to Saudi Arabia.

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak raked in several billion, but he also saw himself as a soldier ensuring national stability. When his fellow generals convinced him he was triggering national instability, he left for a villa in Sinai.

In Libya, however, anti-government demonstrations quickly spiraled into bloody combat and atrocity.

Libya's dictatorship differs from those that ruled Tunisia and Egypt. The difference begins with Gadhafi himself. Unlike Ben Ali and Mubarak, Gadhafi is a megalomaniacal crank absolutely sold on his own history-altering significance. After he overthrew Libya's monarchy in 1969, he announced that he was a great leader but lacked a great nation. So he decided to expand his power to a size more compatible with his ego by invading neighbors and sowing chaos.

He invaded Chad. He supported terrorists and assassins who launched attacks in Africa and Europe. He sought chemical and nuclear weapons. Truly great leaders are also philosophical visionaries, so the colonel created his own ideology, a mad amalgam of pan-Arabism and socialism with a dash of Islamic revolution.

He has suffered numerous defeats, but damaging his ego takes American power. The 1986 U.S. air raid, following a Libyan terror bombing in Germany, scared him. When the U.S. toppled Saddam in 2003, he ended his nuclear weapons quest. Violent megalomaniacs who have successfully terrorized their domestic opposition for decades, however, don't go without a bloodbath. Saddam didn't -- nor will Gadhafi.

Gadhafi's military reflects Gadhafi's commitment to himself. The core of his army is a 5,000-man regime-maintenance brigade that is loyal to him, not Libya. In contrast, Tunisia's and Egypt's armed forces are fundamentally nationalist institutions led by military professionals. Many of their best officers work closely with civilian-controlled Western militaries. Even if they argue that their circumstances differ from France or the U.S., they know democracy works. They have witnessed Spain's transition from Franco's dictatorship to full-fledged membership in NATO and the European Union. They also see Turkey as a model.

Nationalism, professionalism, Western military contacts and developmental insight do not prevent corruption in the Tunisian and Egyptian armed forces, but they do help explain why these organizations refused to fire on mass demonstrations by their own people.

In November 1979, Commentary Magazine published Jeane Kirkpatrick's controversial essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards." Kirkpatrick (who later served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) contrasted autocracies (e.g., shah of Iran) with totalitarian regimes (e.g., Fidel Castro).

Totalitarians sought to destroy social institutions and replace them with ideological instruments; autocrats might seek to control traditional institutions but not destroy them. Kirkpatrick wrote in a Cold War context, where the Soviet Union was poised to replace a U.S.-friendly autocrat with a communist. That threat no longer exists, but in the Middle East, militant Islamists attempt to exploit institutional vacuums.

Kirkpatrick's essay still sparks debate. One of her core arguments, however, is pertinent to 2011's dramatic rebellions. People shape events, not vague historical forces or deterministic theories, and people who seek to successfully transition their society from a dictatorship to a democracy need reliable institutions that promote consensus, compromise and the pursuit of power by legal means.

So far, the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries have fulfilled that role, by supporting negotiations and a stable transition process leading to national elections. Gadhafi's cult of megalomaniacal personality regime has nothing immediately comparable.

With Egyptian, Tunisian and NATO assistance, defecting Libyan military commanders and their units may provide the skeleton of a stabilizing institution, especially if coast and desert tribal leaders will support it. Hope that NATO spies and special forces in contact with the rebels are forwarding this goal. 

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