The events of the last week in Tunisia are remarkable and unprecedented in the Arab world, a dictator ousted by a popular uprising. From Morocco to Oman the question being asked is who will be next? One regime cries out for removal—Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya.
Dictators have been overthrown in many countries in the last two decades even in Muslim states like Pakistan, but the Arab world has never seen a dictator tossed out like Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who had ruled for twenty-three years. He is now off to that retirement home for Muslim dictators since Uganda’s Idi Amin, Saudi Arabia. What will come next in Tunisia is far from clear. Whether it is a trend setter or a unique event is unclear too.
Few expected Tunisia to erupt this winter. The country’s deeply rooted problems, massive unemployment especially among young men, deep-seated corruption around an eccentric ruling family and brutal repression of any dissent (always labeled Islamic terrorists), had been afflicting Tunisia for years. Aggravated by the global economic downturn, high food and energy prices, they had been cited as warning signs of trouble for years. But few saw the crisis reaching boiling point.
Now that they have exploded, the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds are wondering what country may be next. A few regimes have said they will respect the will of the Tunisian people but they don’t mean it. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has welcomed the change and offered to arm and train the revolution to convert it to jihad, but there is little reason to believe al-Qaeda had any more warning the change was coming than the rest of us or that its help will be welcomed by the Tunisian people.
Tunisia’s next door neighbor Libya fits the Tunisian model quite well. True, it has oil, unlike Tunisia, but it has squandered much of its wealth for decades under the strange rule of Muammar el-Qaddafi. Unemployment and underemployment are high, the streets are full of restless men, the opposition has been suppressed ruthlessly and an al-Qaeda-like jihadist movement has been crushed in a massive crackdown.
Now sixty-nine years old, Qaddafi seized power from a derelict monarch, King Idris, on September 1, 1969, in a wave of coups that swept the Arab world after the crushing defeat of the Arabs by Israel in June 1967. From the start he was different than Syria’s Hafez al-Assad or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Much more flamboyant and extreme, he saw himself as the rightful successor to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and was determined to unite the Arabs, defeat America and destroy Israel.
For decades he supported terror on a global stage sponsoring Abu Nidal’s Palestinian terrorist attacks on airports in Rome and Athens, blowing up American and French airliners over Scotland and the Sahara, and killing any one who opposed his visions that he could get his hands on (like the Lebanese Shia leader Imam Musa al-Sadr who was murdered on a visit to Libya). He sponsored wars in Africa and even expelled Libya’s entire Palestinian population (thirty thousand) because he opposed the Oslo process in 1995. He backed terrorists from the IRA in Ulster to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Southeast Asia.
Then American and UN sanctions wore him down. He turned over the two immediate perpetrators of the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing for trial and gave up his nascent nuclear-weapons program, which he had bought like a toy set from Pakistan. In return for his renunciation of terror and WMD he was removed from sanctions-enforced isolation. Barack Obama even shook his hand at the G-8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, in July 2009. The Italian government promised $5 billion in reparations for Italian colonial war crimes when Libya was Italy’s province on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.
During the negotiations with Libya over the Pan Am 103 trial, I met with Qaddafi’s closest henchmen, including his chief of secret police, Musa Kusa, and his bag man in Europe who was appropriately based in Palermo, Sicily. Even they lived in fear of the Libyan leader’s whims and were always unsure what deal he would take or break and what mood he would be in when they next dealt with him.
Now the longest-serving ruler in the world, Qaddafi has been neutered on the world stage but remains a brutal dictator at home and an erratic performer in international events. He blasted Switzerland for banning mosque construction, for example, and travels with a bizarre collection of tents and female bodyguards.
Perhaps the winds of change blowing in Tunis will blow next in Tripoli. Aside from his sons who jockey for position to succeed him, few would miss Muammar el-Qaddafi.