Not since Saddam Hussein’s regime was demolished in 2003 has an Arab head of state run a more ruthlessly repressive terror state than Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were small-government libertarians by comparison. The implications of the uprising in Libya are therefore much bigger than they were in Tunisia or Egypt: If ordinary citizens can overthrow Qaddafi, of all people, every other despot in the region may look vulnerable—including Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.
I managed to finagle a visa for myself just after Libyan-American relations defrosted in 2004, and the U.S. government lifted the travel ban. I was one of the first Americans to legally visit the country in decades, and what I saw there was appalling. The capital looks and feels gruesomely communist, which wasn’t surprising, considering that Qaddafi’s “Green Book,” where he fleshes out his lunatic ideology, is a bizarre mixture of the Communist Manifesto and the Koran (though references to Islam are stripped out). What did surprise me was how much terror he instilled in the hearts and minds of his people. No one I met said they liked him. No one would even speak of him unless there were no other Libyans present. Some were even afraid to utter his name, as though saying it out loud might conjure him. “We hate that fucking bastard, we have nothing to do with him,” one shopkeeper told me when we were alone. “We keep our heads down and our mouths shut. We do our jobs, we go home. If I talk, they will take me out of my house in the night and put me in prison.”
The system he runs is basically Stalinist and one of the last total surveillance police states in the world. Freedom House ranks Libya near North Korea and Turkmenistan, the most oppressive countries by far, in its utter dearth of human and political rights. I believe it. Obvious intelligence agents worked my hotel lobby, staring at and listening to everyone, and the U.S. State Department warned Americans at the time that even hotel rooms for foreigners likely were bugged.
Posters bearing the boss’s face are typical in dictatorships, but, in Libya, Qaddafi’s arrogant portrait is everywhere, on every street and in every shop. State propaganda appears on billboards along the sides of the road out in the desert. He even carved “Al Fateh Forever,” the name of his “revolution,” into the side of a mountain. The only way you can truly get away from him is to venture into the roadless sand seas of the Sahara.
The contrast between Libya and its neighbors is stark. When I visited Tunisia just a few months before going to Tripoli, I met plenty of people willing to criticize Ben Ali even when others were present. Sure, they lowered their voices, but they didn’t cower in fear. Egypt under Mubarak was even more open. I spoke to dissident bloggers like “Big Pharaoh” and “Sandmonkey” in restaurants and bars, and they didn’t care if anyone heard them slagging the president. Cairo’s mukhabarat didn’t seem to mind what anyone said as long as they didn’t act on their disgruntlement. Granted, regimes like these wouldn’t have lasted decades if they were easy to get rid of, but, ultimately, they lack the staying power of the hard totalitarian states.
States like Libya, that is. Tunisia is pleasant, prosperous, and heavily Frenchified, while Egypt is a poverty-stricken shambles, but Ben Ali and Mubarak were both pragmatic, standard issue authoritarians. Qaddafi, by comparison, is an emotionally unstable ideological megalomaniac. He says he’s the sun of Africa and swears to unite the Arabs and Africans underneath him. He has repeatedly threatened to ban money and schools, and he treats his country, communist-style, like a mad scientist’s laboratory. What I knew when I was there holds true today, even as his grip on power seems shaky: This guy is not going to liberalize, and he is not going to go quietly.
Indeed, his instruments of internal repression are proving as ruthless as promised in the face of strong civilian protests. (Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi and third largest city of Bayda are now reported to be in the hands of the opposition and under the guardianship of citizen militias and officers who have switched sides.) They’re busy assaulting demonstrators not with rubber bullets and tear gas but with artillery fire, attack helicopters, and war planes. Qaddafi has even imported mercenaries from Sub-Saharan Africa in case his own military officers flinch at orders to murder their neighbors (which some of them have, joining the demonstrators in the streets).
Ben Ali and Mubarak were low-hanging fruit, but, if a tyrant as vicious and murderous as Qaddafi can be taken out, it would seem just about anyone can be. If the people of Libya manage to overthrow him, it might even inspire Iran’s Green Movement to finish what it started in 2009 and push all the way to the end. But if Qaddafi survives by mass murder, which he just might, and if the world lets him get away with it, the Iranian regime and other despotic governments will take comfort in the knowledge that they, too, might do the same without consequence.
Michael J. Totten is an independent foreign correspondent and foreign policy analyst. His first book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel, will be published in April.