You might have heard about the revolutionary brush fire of Egypt spreading to the shores of Tripoli this week. How are those protests against Moammar Qaddafi – in power for 12 years longer than deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – coming along? Not well, I’m afraid. The death toll among protesters is up to 24, according to reports in various international news services. Police have reportedly abandoned riot control equipment and started using live ammunition. On the bright side, protests have apparently spread into at least four other cities.
Qaddafi has been careful to fill the capitol of Tripoli with throngs of cheering supporters, while his goons crack heads over in the rebellious eastern city of Benghazi. The Associated Press quotes eyewitnesses who saw regime supporters being bused into Benghazi, while Fox News reports “Libyan school children were ordered to leave classes — under threat of failing grades — and participate in pro-Qaddafi rallies.” Gosh, that all sounds familiar somehow.
You won’t see a media orgy over Libya, in the manner of Egypt, because Qaddafi maintains strict control over the press. That includes the international Arab Al-Jazeera TV network, which has been checking out social media traffic, and thinks the death toll might actually be closer to 50.
Human Rights Watch director Sarah Whitson, while commendably denouncing the “brutality” of “security forces’ vicious attacks on peaceful demonstrators,” seems to miss the point when she says “it is remarkable that Qaddafi is still copying the very same tactics that failed Hosni Mubarak so completely just across the border.” The reason those tactics failed in Egypt is that it wasn’t nearly as totalitarian as Libya, and Mubarak – an unlovely authoritarian dictator – was nowhere near as brutal as Qaddafi.
Another difference between Egypt and Libya is that Libya’s demonstrators can’t count on much support from the Obama Administration. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley refused to call Qaddafi a “dictator” when pressed by a reporter, who asked “are you stumped?” when he tried to remain silent. This recalls the very early stages of the Egypt saga, when Vice President Joe Biden was gamely trying to explain why Hosni Mubarak wasn’t a dictator – an attitude that rapidly changed when it looked like Mubarak was in real trouble.
The Libyan people are going to have to display some real progress against the Qaddafi regime before President Obama will suddenly declare he’s been 100% behind them all along, and call on the dictator to step down “now,” which means “yesterday.” Meanwhile, all they’re going to get is encouragement to “take specific actions that address the aspirations and the needs and hopes of their people,” to quote Crowley. The Qaddafi regime will respond with specific actions that kill them.