Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and author of A History of Modern Libya, discussed the power dynamics in Libya and how the uprising there now might play out. Plus, Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, discussed the latest reports coming out of Libya.
Hundreds of Libyans have been killed in recent days as anti-government protests sweep cities across the country and even reach the capital.
However, there is some evidence of movement in the direction of protesters' demands. Leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime has dug in and threatened more violence to quash demonstrations, but Sarah Leah Whitson said that the departure of several high-ranking figures in the Libyan government sends a somewhat reassuring message to supporters of reform.
We know a number of high level Libyan officials have quit the government, not just the Justice Minister, but also a number of diplomats — Libya's ambassador to India, the ambassador to the Arab League, as well as second and third level diplomats. These are serious fissures in the Libyan government, and for people at that high level to break with, it means they've decided that the tide has turned.
The tide may be turning, but in the meantime, that's little comfort to Libyans on the ground. Security forces under Qaddafi's control have been opening fire (with live ammunition) on demonstrators. The killings offer a grim contrast to the relative peacefulness of revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and have obviously earned the attention of Human Rights Watch. Whitson said that if the current body count wasn't bad enough already, the government's promise of more deaths is nothing short of shocking.
What Qaddafi promised was that there would be continuing violence, saying they'd 'fight until the last bullet.' I guess he means fighting his own people to the last bullet...At this point, I think it would probably be very difficult to persuade Libyans that anyone in the current Libyan government can be taken seriously as proponents of reform.
Dirk Vandewalle said that revolution in Libya would tread a much more violent path than it has recently in other Middle East nations, largely because the country lacks a professional, standing army. In many of the Arab world's oil-producing nations, populations are so small that there simply aren't enough citizens to make up a military. As such, leaders resort to hiring what are, in essence, foreign mercenaries to serve on "security forces"...the same security forces now shooting at Libyan protesters.
That's a deliberate policy by the government, who didn't want a professional army that could serve as a nucleus for opposition. In a classic divide-and-rule policy, Qaddafi tried to dole out different posts and play different parts of the military against each other, relying on tribal alliances and committees he controls.
In Egypt and Tunisia, a standing and independent army could broker a transition of power. The Egyptian military's refusal to fire on protesters gave the anti-government movement incalculable momentum, as well as a sense that there would be some order in the wake of Hosni Mubarak's resignation. Vandewalle said that's nowhere near the case in Libya.
The escalating violence is in a sense explained by the fact that the security organizations owe their loyalty very directly to Qaddafi. There is no way back. This is either kill or get killed. It's vice versa for the population: if you're known to act against the interests of Qaddafi, in sense you're in the same boat. For both sides this is a life or death situation. That introduces a dynamic that escalates violence very rapidly, knowing that if your side doesn't win the results will be very dire.
Qaddafi relies on the promise of chaos, which Vandewalle said has been the case for over 40 years. The Libyan leader has maintained and consolidated his power by building a political structure in which he is the alpha and omega; without him, there would be nothing to keep the country from imploding.
He painted apocalyptic visions of what would happen to Libya if Libyans don't rally around the flag, so to speak. Americans will come back in, the West will come back in, the Islamists will come back in, and eventually we could have civil war. This is vintage Qaddafi, going back to 1969....I think we should realize that Libya has a profound political vacuum. Beyond Qaddafi, there is really nothing. There will be prolonged instability in which they'll need to create new generation of younger politicians, people who will be able to push the country toward reform.
Since Qaddafi has no plans to halt the violence, can the international community keep the Libyan government from killing Libyans? Dirk Vandewalle said the United States' influence in Libya was primarily economic, and therefore limited. For Sarah Leah Whiston's part, she said that Human Rights Watch was recommending a series of curt diplomatic actions from around the globe.
There should be a very strong, unequivocal condemnation of the attacks on demonstrators using live ammunition. There needs to be a sanction of Libya, at least as strong as when the government killed international people from other countries. Those sanctions can't be reserved only for when people outside of Libya are killed by the Libyan government. We are going to be seeking to have Libya removed from the Human Rights Council, to which it was elected. I think it's pretty appalling that they're currently a member. Governments should review their political and economic ties with Libya as a matter of first priority.