published Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Chaos in Libya

The stirrings of liberation from repressive autocratic regimes across North Africa and the Middle East could not all be expected to bear fruit as quickly as occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, or to be as relatively peaceful. Iran's dictatorial mullahs were certain to order another murderous crackdown like the one following the disputed 2009 elections. Bahrain's initially violent response, like Yemen's, was a toss-up, bred by the contemptuous disdain of Bahrain's long-ruling Sunni clique toward its Shiite majority.

Libya, ruled by the mercurial strongman Moammar Gadhafi for 41 years, was destined, however, to turn brutal and bloody quickly and to sink deeper into violence. And so it has with a vengeance.

After initial protests in the eastern city of Benghazi, the desert country's second largest city, Gadhafi quickly unleashed police, army and mercenary forces on protesters, killing from upwards of 200, or perhaps thousands. An accurate accounting has been impossible to find so far. Foreign journalists are banned, state-owned media are unreliable, and reports from residents, many of whom have poured out of the country into Egypt, vary widely.

Multiple accounts, however, reveal increasing violence in the capital, Tripoli, and the takeover by opposition forces of Benghazi, Tobruk and a string of other cities on Libya's Mediterranean coast. For his part, the Libyan leader, who first sent his son to lecture the country and decry the protesters as drug addicts and criminals, issued statements Monday and Tuesday in which he asserted that he would never step down. Rather, he said the country would soon fall into civil war and that he would fight to the last drop of blood and die as a martyr before he would change the government.

It now seems clear that murderous assaults on civilian protesters seeking a more democratic form of government are taking place without restraint. Witnesses have reported assaults, and in some places virtual massacres and instances of mutilation of victims, by militia and African mercenaries imported from neighboring countries, and by raking aerial gunfire from assault helicopters.

The mercenaries, apparently flown in from Sudan over a 10-day period while the Egyptian protesters held center stage, are believed to be using deadly hollow-point ammunition and anti-aircraft machine guns to kill protesters. Less lethal means to disperse protesters and opposition forces seem non-existent.

Police stations and government buildings in Tripoli, including the legislature's Hall of the People, have been set aflame by protesters. Fires of debris from brutal riot clashes were aflame at intersections Tuesday, and residents were afraid to venture into the streets.

Rattled by the protest and aghast at government-sanctioned violence, some senior government officials, cabinet members and Libya's foreign ambassadors, including some of Libya's delegation to the United Nations, have resigned, renounced the violence and called on Gadhafi to resign and leave the country.

These are all signs that Libya's government is unraveling and that chaos seems certain to reign until a tipping point occurs. There is clearly a possibility that Libya's army, though long monitored by Gadhafi's intelligence service, may turn in favor of the people. That apparently happened in Benghazi, among other places, where soldiers resisted the shooting of civilians and then opened their armory to opposition forces.

The United Nations and its member countries should rise in emphatic support of the ouster of Gadhafi and help organize aid for Libya's reformers and opposition forces. The coming days will be critical, not just for Libya's opposition forces, but for other watching Arab nations, as well. If the Libyan despot manages to suppress the widening revolt against his rule, it will energize crackdowns elsewhere among other Arab countries ruled by repressive regimes, such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

If Gadhafi is overthrown, however, his ouster will prompt other despots to accept political reform. That cannot come too soon.

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