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Protests, Violence Spread in Libya as Gadhafi Clings to Power

February 21, 2011 at 6:02 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi fought to hold onto power today. His forces fired on protesters from the air and ground, killing scores of people, adding to estimates of 300 to 400 slain in the last week.

The assault came as anti-government demonstrations reached Tripoli, the country’s capital. Several top officials resigned in protest, but the military geared up to stop more demonstrations tonight. Foreign journalists were barred from Libya, but some pictures and information were still getting out.

We begin with this report from Simon Israel of Independent Television News.

SIMON ISRAEL: The protests have spread. On the streets in Col. Gadhafi’s backyard, the capital, Tripoli, demonstrators have had to run for their lives.

They have been met with armed resistance. These pictures have evaded the state’s Internet crackdown. Dozens are said to have been killed. Last night, the regime was defiant. One of Gadhafi’s sons went on television to proclaim they would fight until the last man standing. He also issued a warning of doom.

SAIF AL-ISLAM GADHAFI, son of Moammar Gadhafi (through translator): There will be civil war. We will go back to the civil war of 1936. We will kill each other in the streets. Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt. Libya has oil, which has unified Libya.

SIMON ISRAEL: But not for much longer. If reports emerging from the North African country are to be believed, Gadhafi has fled. There has been no sighting of him since he appeared on state TV at the weekend in a choreographed display of popularity.

Protesters are said to have taken control of at least half-a-dozen main towns surrounding Tripoli. In response, military aircraft are reported to have shelled roads leading to the capital and to have fired live rounds on demonstrators in the city itself.

WOMAN: We saw the airplanes go by over us. And it’s really bad here. (INAUDIBLE) We still hear gunshots. And it’s getting bad. One of my cousins is (INAUDIBLE) had to go to the hospital. They were sent back because they were shooting — they were shooting the doctors and people at the hospital.

SIMON ISRAEL: In contrast, two Libyan fighter jets landed in Malta today, amid reports the pilots refused to attack their own people.

But Tripoli is becoming more violent by the hour. The U.N. secretary-general has been in direct contact with the Libyan leader and told him to stop immediately. Even the country’s own U.N. delegation has accused Gadhafi of committing genocide.

The focus has shifted from Benghazi, where it all began. Today, Gadhafi’s green flag no longer flies there. It’s been replaced by the symbol of freedom, the country’s old national flag, but at what cost?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Libyan regime denied that Gadhafi had left the country, but Egypt’s military reported Libyan guards have withdrawn from their border. Several European countries planned to evacuate their citizens. The U.S. State Department also ordered nonessential diplomats and relatives to leave.

And reports from Benghazi said several thousand Turkish workers were sheltering at a soccer stadium. Outside the country, meanwhile, protesters gathered at Libyan embassies from Egypt to Australia. Hundreds of people rallied in Cairo, shouting for Gadhafi to go. And the secretary-general of the Arab League voiced deep concern over the bloodshed in Libya.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on what’s going on inside Libya, we’re joined by Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and author of “A History of Modern Libya,” and Najla Abdurrahman, a Libyan-American activist and a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University.

Najla, I will start with you.

It’s very — it remains a very difficult time and place to get news out of. You have been talking to people in the country. What — what are you hearing going on today?

NAJLA ABDURRAHMAN, Libyan-American activist: Well, what we’re hearing is very scattered reports. Depending on where you are in Tripoli, you’re getting very different news.

Last night, everybody knows, protesters started heading out into the streets, especially in the central downtown area, in the thousands. From what we’re hearing, people started pouring out especially after Saif al-Islam’s speech. They were very angered by the speech. And there was a lot of shooting last night.

A lot of people were in the hospital. We have contact with people who are in those hospitals, many, many bodies. We have reports — these are — these are eyewitness reports, so the media hasn’t reported these yet, so, I will just preface it with that — but that security forces were coming to the hospitals and shooting victims in the hospitals, that they were threatening doctors, intimidating them, that they were even taking names of victims, which I can only presume is — is to take retaliation against the families.

And today, it’s been even worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: We should say we — there are reports right now that Moammar Gadhafi may speak at any moment.

Dirk Vandewalle, most of us, you know, never hear very much of this country, except reports about Moammar Gadhafi. Fill us in a little bit. Where — where is this opposition coming from? How organized is it? How surprising are these developments of the last few days?

DIRK VANDEWALLE, Dartmouth College: Well, first of all, to answer your last question first, these developments are extremely surprising.

This is a regime that even seasoned observers would have predicted would be extremely hard to dislodge, in part because Gadhafi, over a 40-year period, has very systematically eviscerated any opposition to his rule. He has divided the army along tribal affiliation. He has made sure that there are no opposition — no opposition that could materialize throughout the country.

And, in a sense, what we have now started to see is that suddenly, for all the doubts that anybody had about the ability of Libyans to organize, that they have been able to do so, and that furthermore, if Tripoli is kind of the jewel in the crown and Green Square in Tripoli is the — is the symbol of the regime, where Gadhafi, even three days ago, as Judy reported, had been showing up and giving speeches, that suddenly, even those places are no longer secret.

And so, the opposition comes primarily from younger people, but also from all different strata throughout society. This is in a sense a country that is fed up 40 years of utter mismanagement, in which all people have been politically disenfranchised, and in which a lot of the wealth of the country has frankly been squandered on projects that had nothing to do with the well-being of Libyans themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Najla Abdurrahman, how — how vulnerable then is Moammar Gadhafi? And where — where does he still have support coming from?

NAJLA ABDURRAHMAN: I mean, I don’t know.

We got reports earlier that Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli, which is called Bab al-Aziziya is heavily guarded — you probably know there have been reports that fighter jets have been firing indiscriminately into the city. So, we got reports earlier that said that even the guards that were guarding Bab al-Aziziya have fled because these fighter jets are just firing at everyone on the street.

Anti-Gadhafi, anyone, even pro-Gadhafi people, everybody is getting shot at. So, I mean, I don’t know what the situation is like now.

JEFFREY BROWN: You — you referred earlier to the speech last night by his son.

NAJLA ABDURRAHMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, was there any surprise there in — he raised the specter of a civil war.

NAJLA ABDURRAHMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there any surprise in him doing that? Is there any surprise in the level of ferocity with which the government is fighting back now?

NAJLA ABDURRAHMAN: I mean, yes. I mean, it’s surprising. We all knew that Gadhafi was capable of heinous acts of brutality.

But I think, honestly, nobody expected — I mean, even Professor Vandewalle was saying nobody expected what’s happening now. The thing that I’m most afraid of is that people will look at Libya now and they will say what Saif predicted was right. It’s unstable. There’s civil war. There’s just chaos. And so Libyans need a strong man like Gadhafi.

But I think people really need to understand that it is the Gadhafi regime and the Gadhafi family that has caused all of the chaos and all of the violence that’s happening right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Vandewalle, what would you add to that about the — the level of the pushback from Gadhafi, the speech last night from his son?

DIRK VANDEWALLE: Well, I thought the speech by his Saif al-Islam was particularly disappointing. And it was particularly disappointing because Saif al-Islam has been considered and certainly considered himself as the major reformer of the Libyan political system.

And then suddenly, we saw the so-called reformer go on national television and announce that the regime would defend itself, as he put it, until the last bullet, and then repeat it in a fashion that perfectly mirrored and echoed what his father has been saying for 40 years what would happen if Libyans wouldn’t rally around the flag, so to speak.

He said the Americans will come in. Islamic movements will come in. And ultimately, we will be at the mercy of the west and we will be at the mercy of a civil war that will engulf us.  

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Professor…

DIRK VANDEWALLE: Now…

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, I’m sorry.

DIRK VANDEWALLE: … perhaps…

JEFFREY BROWN: No, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

DIRK VANDEWALLE: Well, perhaps in 19 — perhaps in 1973, 1974, this kind of language probably still resonated along Libyans, while Gadhafi was nationalizing oil companies and so on.

But, certainly, to call for a national dialogue, as Saif al-Islam did last night, after more than 200 people had been killed, showed in many ways the surreal sense of that speech and how in the end, despite his pretensions for reform, Saif al-Islam rallied around his father and around the family.

So, it was in many ways one of the very worst kind of speeches that could have been given. And in many ways, I would consider it certainly a tipping point in terms of where events are going now in Libya.

JEFFREY BROWN: Najla, Hillary Clinton put out a pretty strong statement just a little while ago.

What…

NAJLA ABDURRAHMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: How — what — what of the U.S. response here? And — and how much influence, if any, does it have? What do people — do you have any sense of what people inside are looking out to the rest of the world for?

NAJLA ABDURRAHMAN: You know, if we were speaking a few days ago, I would say that putting pressure on the Gadhafi regime, asking them to stop the violence that was occurring, that’s what we — that’s what we were asking for, for them to make a stronger statement than what they had been making over the last few days. And she did release a strong — a strongly worded statement a couple hours ago.

But with the level, with the escalation in the violence and what’s happening now, no Libyan wanted to see foreign peacekeepers or any foreign troops or anything coming in to the country. No Libyan wants to see that now. But I think, at this point, with — with this type of a massacre that’s going on, I feel like, you know, there has to be some sort of a peacekeeping mission, if this doesn’t stop very soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: And briefly, Professor, is — does it look like something, something of some sort is coming to a head here? What do you look to?

DIRK VANDEWALLE: Yes.

I think we’re really in the endgame here. In many ways, either this will be resolved in favor of the government, in favor of the security forces that Gadhafi has always rallied around him, because there really is no true professional army that can interfere in Libya and stand between the demonstrators and the government, or on the other hand, a victory for those who are rising up against the Gadhafi regime.

Either way, I would venture this will be a very bloody outcome and will leave Libya in a large amount of chaos that will probably haunt it for several weeks, if not months, if not years.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Dirk Vandewalle, Najla Abdurrahman, thank you both very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elsewhere in the Arab world today, a tense calm prevailed in Bahrain, after security troops and the army pulled back over the weekend. Crowds marched in the Persian Gulf kingdom, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based. But opposition youth, mostly Shiite, demanded the Khalifa monarchy be overthrown. 

ZAHIRA HUSSEIN, protester: Our demands are so clear and so legal. We don’t want the Khalifas to control us anymore. Enough — 200 years and 50, enough. We don’t want them anymore. We want our people to control. We want — we want to vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Yemen, thousands of people rallied again in the capital and several other cities. But once more, President Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to step down. Instead, he offered again to open talks on reforms.

Saleh said he’s ordered troops not to fire at protesters, except in self-defense. At least 11 people have been killed in Yemen since the unrest began, including one person today.

And in Morocco, five people were found — five bodies were found inside a burned bank. There were widespread demonstrations on Sunday. The protesters demanded King Mohammed give up some of his powers and put an end to corruption.