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Gadhafi Warns ‘Everything Will Burn’ if Libya’s Protests Continue

February 22, 2011 at 6:23 PM EDT
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Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is refusing to step down as international condemnation of the violent crackdown on protesters grows. Jeffrey Brown talks about the growing unrest in the North African nation with Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations and Mary-Jane Deeb of the Library of Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Everything will burn if the rebellion continues” — the words of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi today, as he went on state TV and vented his fury against the uprising that’s shaken his 42-year rule. He called protesters rats and mercenaries and urged his supporters to attack them.

As he spoke, scores of bodies lay in the streets of Tripoli, with estimates of several hundred killed so far.

GWEN IFILL: This evening, the U.N. Security Council condemned Libya’s violent assault on protesters. In addition, the Arab League suspended the Gadhafi government’s representative. And in Washington, Secretary of State Clinton demanded the Libyan government end the crackdown. She said this bloodshed is unacceptable.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we get more on all this now from Robert Danin, a former State Department and National Security Council official. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle East Division at the Library of Congress. The views she expresses here are her own.

Welcome to both of you.

Mary-Jane Deeb, what do you make of Gadhafi’s speech today? It was defiant, but there were all kinds of strange parts of it as well, right?

MARY-JANE DEEB, Library of Congress: He was defiant. And that was to be expected.

But also, it was a very typical Gadhafi speech in many ways. First of all, the theatrics. He has to be — the setting is the 1986 bombed-out house in which he lived. The second thing, that he calls upon his supporters to attack others. And again, that’s the way he’s ruled, divide and rule, as has been his motto.

Thirdly, he speaks about his own revolutionary past. And he seems to forget that 40 years have passed since he had the revolution in Libya and overthrew the king.

JEFFREY BROWN: Divide and rule, fill us in a little bit on that, this outsized, often bizarre personality, but he has held a grip there for decades.

ROBERT DANIN, Council on Foreign Relations: Absolutely.

He took power through revolutionary force, using the military. He toppled King Idris and has maintained power ever since. He’s ensured that the military has not been a very forceful element within Libyan society. He knew how to come to power using the military. And he wanted to ensure that that did not happen again.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did he do that?

ROBERT DANIN: Well, he’s kept the military weak. He’s — Libya is largely a tribal society. And he has played the various tribes against one another, ensuring that no one tribe gets too powerful and ensuring that he remains the only institution, and that there’s no real civil society in Libya.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that what you meant by divide and rule?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Absolutely. No, that’s exactly what he’s done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Expand on that a little bit. What does society look like there?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, first of all, he created these popular committees, and then after that created revolutionary committees to oversee the popular committees, in other words, putting one against the other.

He created a militia to undermine the army. He created security forces and different — different levels of security forces to spy against each other. He put urban administrators in rural and tribal areas to pitch one against the other.

He broke up the tribes and tried to pitch one tribe against another. And that’s all coming back to haunt him now, because I think that’s exactly what you were talking about. The tribes are rising in Cyrenaica against him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, these defections that we’re seeing at very high levels, clearly, this is important. What do you read into that?

ROBERT DANIN: Well, this regime is losing all its legitimacy. Even its representatives who go abroad whose role is to explain the actions of this regime are saying we can’t defend it any longer.

And so, you have high-level ambassadors to the United States, to China, to the European Union, elsewhere, saying, we can’t do it. We won’t do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I started by saying that — this speech, and there were some bizarre moments in there. I just wrote down a few. He referred to a small group of youth having been given hallucination pills and attacking innocent people.

Where does this — where does it come from? Or who — how do people hear that?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, I think he is trying to scare people. This is a scare tactic.

His son tried to do the same thing. And if you remember a few days earlier, his son was using the same tactics. He said they were drug addicts, they were criminals. So, he’s trying to say these are not real protesters. They’re not really your Libyan man in the street. These are criminals, drug addicts, and they’re creating chaos in your country. So you shouldn’t follow them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this man, his relationship with the U.S., most often aggressive, most often confrontational, some periods of thaw, right? Give us a little — a little brief history here of our relations with him.

ROBERT DANIN: Well, after the explosion of the Pan Am 103, obviously, the relationship had hit a new low. International sanctions were put on. It took a great deal of time for this regime to — to accept that it — and take responsibility.

Interestingly, it was really 9/11 and then the fall of Saddam Hussein that seemed to have propelled a change in Moammar Gadhafi’s thinking. And he approached the United States and essentially agreed to relinquish his weapons of mass destruction as a deal to bring it out of international isolation, coupled with some compensation for the actions that had taken place, the explosion of Pan Am 103.

But clearly he saw that — that the United States is a power on the ascendancy and that his way is on the — on the — is the way of the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, there is oil, right? It’s an oil power. Now, in what ways does that play out politically, the power of oil?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, the oil — the oil is actually in the eastern part of the country primarily, in the Cyrenaica region. In fact, that’s one of the things that the son was pointing out, that somehow the country was going to break up along the lines of Cyrenaica versus Tripolitania. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean literally divide the country.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Literally divide the country.

And he was threatening with this, sort of saying that Gadhafi himself could keep the country together. The oil is basically underlying the whole — the whole issue, because Libyans are saying: We have this oil. We are rich. Why are we living in such poverty, in such poor conditions?

And they compare themselves to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. And they say, well, they have oil, but look how they’re living and look at the fun they’re having and look at the standard of living. Why are we living in such misery?

So, the oil actually is playing into the hands of the protesters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now — and when you think of the oil as a geopolitical factor, what role does it play in Libya’s relations with Europe and the U.S.?

ROBERT DANIN: In this sense, Libya is quite different than neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

In those cases, you know, there were popular revolutions that had largely political implications. Here, Libya is the 12th largest oil producer. It is the major producer for Italy, France, Germany. And so in many ways, now this is a real geostrategic interest that the Europeans have and, by extension, the United States, given our own trade in oil with the European powers.

So, what is happening in Libya has had a dramatic effect on oil prices. They’re now over $100 a barrel. And there’s a great deal of instability that is fueling rising oil prices.

JEFFREY BROWN: But of course, today, we heard all kinds of talk from the international community, Hillary Clinton here, David Cameron in London. The U.N. Security Council has spoken. But what can the international community do? Can it impose new sanctions? What’s possible here?

MARY-JANE DEEB: No. At this point, I don’t think that the international community should intervene.

I mean, what has happened is a condemnation. And that’s very important. But to get into the country in any possible way would have a negative outcome. No…

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean on the population?

MARY-JANE DEEB: On the population, yes.

I think that, to observe the situation closely and then to see if really Gadhafi is going to keep his word about using greater violence, at that point, then there should be some kind of international attempt at stopping him.

JEFFREY BROWN: A brief last word on the international community?

ROBERT DANIN: I wouldn’t take international intervention off the table.

Here is a regime that is using fighter aircraft against its own people in the capital city. We should consider a no-fly zone. We should consider having to intervene. If this — if this turns into a true massacre, we may have no choice.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Robert Danin, Mary-Jane Deeb, thank you both very much.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Thank you.

ROBERT DANIN: Thank you.