As Libya Burns, Both Qaddafi and Protesters Dig In

How does this end?

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About a third of the way into his hour-plus-long address on Libyan state TV, Muammar al-Qaddafi, between promising to "execute" dissidents and approvingly citing violent government crackdowns in Tiananmen Square, Waco, and Fallujah, said that continued violence could transform Libya into something like Somalia. The East African country, where years of constant warfare between rebel forces and a fragile government has left whole swathes lawless or worse, is the model of a deeply failed state. But Qaddafi wasn't warning that the protesters, who have completely overtaken parts of the country's east, would plunge Libya into Somalian chaos -- he was threatening to do it himself.

It's impossible to know for sure how the conflict engulfing Libya will ultimately resolve. But it's clear that Qaddafi is unwilling -- and, at this point, probably unable -- to follow the examples of Egypt and Tunisia, where Presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali quietly stepped down after failing to restore order to the capital. Libya's iron-fisted dictator, now entering his fifth decade of rule, doesn't appear to have made the restoration of order his top priority. His speech promised "civil war," which he is well on his way to getting, with security forces exercising violence, much of it senselessly brutal, against protesters and bystanders alike. If Qaddafi has a plan at all, it isn't to disperse the protesters as Mubarak tried to do or to appease them as the Bahrain monarchy is attempting now.

With Qaddafi rapidly escalating his violence against protesters, and the protesters in turn escalating their response, both sides of the conflict may have passed a point of no return. After hiring mercenaries to perform drive-by shootings and employing snipers, led by his son Khamis' notorious "Khamis Brigade," to fire indiscriminately at civilians, Qaddafi would likely not survive long if he stepped down but remained in Libya.

Fleeing Libya could be tricky for Qaddafi, who ominously promised in his speech, "I will not leave the country and I will die as a martyr." But if he changes his mind, it's not clear where he would go. Saudi Arabia, one of the few Arab monarchies that still appears stable and the new home of Tunisia's Ben Ali, may not be willing to accept the man who denounced the country as a U.S. pawn and "propelled by fibs towards the grave." But it's a big world and Qaddafi may yet find a new home, perhaps in Venezuela, with which he maintains close ties. But that would not save his senior regime officials or security officers, who face near-certain death if they surrender and will thus likely continue to fight, as Qaddafi's son Saif put it on Saturday, "to the last man and woman and bullet." If they are in Libya, they have every incentive to continue fighting all-out war against the protesters.

The soft military coup that escorted Mubarak our of office is unlikely in Libya, where security forces are too fractured and too tightly connected to Qaddafi and his sons to move against the man at the top. Even if small units continue to defect, lay down their arms, or join protesters, Qaddafi will likely retain enough armed forces to at least deny the protesters any peace or control over Tripoli, even if Qaddafi can't retain that control himself. Sub-Saharan mercenaries, working for money and unconcerned with local tribal loyalties, will be happy to keep shooting. Several times during his speech, Qaddafi referenced some of the most decentralized forces at his disposal: the "popular committees," informal citizen militias somewhat akin to Iran's notorious baseej, which beat and killed protesters during the 2009 protests. Tied by tribal, personal, and financial loyalty to Qaddafi, the popular committees throughout Libya could keep fighting even without their leader's direct order.

It will be no easier for Libya's protesters to back down. Now that they control Benghazi, the country's second largest city, as well as much of the border with Egypt, they've won too much to give up easily. They would also face such severe reprisal if they surrendered -- Qaddafi has never hesitated to massacre civilians, as he did when police executed 1,200 "prisoners" in 1996 -- that they, like top security officials, have every incentive to keep fighting, even to the death.

It's possible that circumstances could change, perhaps very quickly. Qaddafi could break the will of the protesters, or lose will himself, or be assassinated by a turncoat security officer, or, as some Arab activists in and out of Libya are urging, could be killed by a United Nations-led air strike. But, as the situation currently stands, neither he nor the protesters contesting his power have clear recourse to peace, incentive to do anything but continue fighting, or reason to believe that violence will beget anything but more violence.


Image: Qaddafi speaking on Tuesday on Libyan state TV
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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