libya - Reuters - February 22 2011
A Libyan protester using a shoe to hit a crossed-out picture of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi during a demonstration outside the Libyan Embassy in Cairo yesterday. Photo by Reuters
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The alarming numbers of people killed and wounded in Libya so far - more than 400 fatalities and thousands wounded - tell only one part of the story.

Unlike the presidents of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, Muammar Gadhafi, the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East, is shooting demonstrators and even using his small air force against them.

Demonstrators have been shot in other Arab states as well, but in Libya the shooting reflects the worldview of the "brother, leader and commander" who has always stressed that his rule is based on a general consensus. Gadhafi didn't even assume the title of president or a general's rank after staging his coup d'etat in 1969.

As far as Gadhafi is concerned, in this kind of "brotherhood" between leader and subjects, there is no room for demonstrations and regime change. Any such move means rebellion, a betrayal of the elder brother. The "agreement" between the leader and his people has consisted of a good education system, which has begun to distribute 150,000 computers to students. The economy has been relatively stable with annual gross domestic product per capita at $14,000. Gadhafi has handed out land to cronies and invested in industry infrastructure. But in exchange he demands total obedience.

Thus the "betrayal" reflected by the demonstrations cannot end with a dialogue or quiet transfer of power because the Libyan regime - unlike in Egypt or Iran - is the leader himself.

The brutal oppression of some 6.5 million Libyans lasted a relatively long time because Libya was seen until 2004 as a pariah state. Led by an extravagant leader, it has no government institutions and its congress of 760 delegates is a feeble excuse for a parliament. A glance at a State Department human rights report on Libya and publications by the country's opposition, some of whose leaders live in Europe, shows that the relations between leader and subjects are among the worst in the world.

But this report and previous ones did not stop the U.S. administration from speedily mending its relations with Libya after it was removed from the list of terror-supporting states in 2007. A year later Libya paid the United States $1.5 billion as part of compensation for terror victims. American exports to Libya soared to $650 million in 2009 from $200,000 in 2003. In view of this relationship, it's not surprising that unlike their response to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Americans didn't hasten to condemn Gadhafi when the protests erupted in Libya.

Gadhafi's relations with the United States and his close friend Silvio Berlusconi provided him with an international safety belt while his sons dealt with the domestic front. Mutassim is the national security adviser, and Khamis is a senior military commander who heads the Khamis Brigade, the state's best trained force. Saadi is a senior officer. Saif al-Islam is liaison for international affairs and policy.

It appears, however, that Gadhafi's close family and military network is unraveling. Battalion commanders are moving to the protesters' side and the son of the legendary national hero, Omar al-Mukhtar, who fought against the Italians, is supporting the demonstrators. The uprising is also an opportunity for tribal, as well as political, score-settling.

It's not easy to predict what type of regime could replace Gadhafi. The situation in Libya is nothing like that of Egypt or Tunisia, where functioning party, military and civilian institutions were in place. These were able to go into action immediately to run each state according to its constitution.

The Libyan "constitution's" principles are based on Gadhafi's "Green Book." The country has no legal parties, not even a strong Islamic movement. This is compounded by the country's complicated tribal structure in which every large tribe has representatives in the army and government corporations. Some tribes have been embroiled in rivalries for generations, as reflected in the attempted coup against Gadhafi in 1993.

In this case, too, the tribal rivalry appears to be linked to military units' defection and their joining the insurgents. Saif al-Islam's warnings that Libya could be torn into tribal pieces may be well based.