“Libya is not Tunisia and is not Egypt,” declared Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Muammar Gaddafi, in a televised address to Libya this morning.
Indeed. What’s happening in Libya is far more brutal than anywhere else in the Middle East so far. And it appears likely to end only with Muammar Gaddafi and his family fleeing or receiving the sort of treatment they ordered the Libyan Army to dish out to their citizens, including to women and children, over recent days.
Saif’s long, rambling speech was apparently off-the-cuff, which might partly account for why he sounded like a lunatic for much of it. The uprising was partly caused by demonstrators taking drugs, he repeatedly claimed, although the only one who seemed to be on hallucinogens was Saif himself, as he proceeded to describe recent events as a combination of Islamists, foreigners sitting in “comfortable chairs, drinking coffee” manipulating Libyans, illegal immigrants, Libyans living overseas, foreign media, social media and imperialist western powers.
However delusional, Said did appear to confirm several rumours and reports, few of which anyone has been able to independently confirm given the lack of non-regime media in Libya. It is clear that the regime has lost control of the city of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, as regularly reported yesterday, after protesters overran some Army facilities and an Army unit defected to join the demonstrations. He referred to the role of foreign mercenaries — all weekend there had been rumours of the regime flying in hundreds of African mercenaries, from as far away as Zimbabwe — but while denying that appeared to suggest they had played some role, confused with that of illegal immigrants. He also admitted that large numbers of Libyans were now armed with weapons obtained from the military.
Other rumours have not been borne out — twice, claims circulated that Gaddafi had fled, to Venezuela in one instance. Saif himself was rumoured to have been shot by his brother, but later appeared on TV, as one wag tweeted, looking very well for someone who’d been in a gunfight.
But Libya’s ambassador to China did resign and its ambassador to the Arab League did as well. There are also reports the country’s Interior Minister has done so too, and of major tribal leaders in the east of the country backing the protests.
Said admitted to “200” deaths in the protests in recent days, although the death toll is widely reported to have been much higher. Hospitals appear to have confirmed at least 500 dead in Benghazi, where there were reports of a massacre on Saturday. As with Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, graphic videos and pictures posted online appear to confirm claims that protesters have been targeted with live ammunition.
The comfy chairs factor apart, Saif’s speech closely followed the script laid down by Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Saif warned of instability if the regime should fall — particularly over dividing up oil revenues — attacked meddling foreigners and the media, appealed to Libyan nationalism and made some concessions. He called for a “new Libya” to be created, based on a national dialogue starting tomorrow, to consider “new media laws, civil rights, lift the stupid punishments, we will have a constitution. Even the Leader Gaddafi said he wants a constitution. We can even have autonomous rule, with limited central govt powers”.
Another ageing dictator, another set of desperate concessions in the face of what looks increasingly like an unstoppable wave of protests. And like Mubarak and Ben Ali, the concessions are years too late, and likely to only spur further protests, which overnight Australian time have spread to Tripoli. As I write, the #Libya hashtag on Twitter, having taken on the high speed seen on the #Jan25 and #Sidibouzid tags as the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes imploded , is rife with reports of heavy gunfire in Tripoli (dismissed by Said as a couple of protesters firing a rifle).
Saif also made a blatant appeal to the West, in between warning of its imperialist plots, claiming if the regime fell it would be replaced with an Islamic fundamentalist emirate that would end Libya’s practice of trying to prevent illegal immigration to Europe, in the same way that Mubarak’s regime invoked fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and its treaty with Israel to retain Western support.
Western countries, meanwhile, have responded with hand-wringing and calls for restraint.
Saif’s speech was bizarre, delusional and at times absurdly comic, with his complaint that civilians were now driving tanks in the middle of cities, but his promise that “instead of crying over 200 deaths we will cry over hundreds of thousands of deaths” was chilling — all the more so because the Gaddafi regime has clearly demonstrated in recent days its determination to slaughter protesters. But with the overthrow of the regime in Benghazi and growing signs that the east of the country is joining it, momentum appears to be with protesters.
At this point a Tunisia or Egypt-style outcome is the best we can hope for. Otherwise it will be a bloodbath.