One of the world’s more wretched dictators, Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, appeared to be losing his grip on power after more than 41 years. A British diplomat said Monday that Gadhafi had fled his strife-torn nation and was headed to Venezuela. A spokesman for the regime of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denied the report.
As happened earlier with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, widespread pro-democracy protests put a hated dictator on the defensive. But in contrast with those other countries, where the change in governance followed basically peaceful protests, in recent days pro-Gadhafi militia and security forces fired on protesters in several areas, killing more than 500.
As in Egypt and Tunisia, which bookend Libya, the social media site Facebook played a key role, allowing protesters to list grievances against the regime and coordinate efforts. Gadhafi railed against the use of Facebook and arrested several Internet activists. It didn’t seem to matter. The only way to stop Facebook and other Internet services now is to shut down the Internet entirely, which would mean crippling his country’s entire economy; or using sophisticated censorship techniques that even the tech-savvy government of China has difficulty imposing.
As lovers of liberty, we’re especially cheered how Facebook, a Silicon Valley company started by college kids in 2004, continues to be a catalyst for those around the world who yearn to breathe free.
Gadhafi was a particularly nasty dictator. Seizing power in a 1969 military coup against King Idris, Gadhafi declared Libya a socialist republic and branded himself the new “Che Guevara of the age.” Guevara helped Fidel Castro impose tyranny on Cuba through mass executions, then fomented revolution in Latin America. Gadhafi also ethnically cleansed Libya’s Italian minority.
Gadhafi during the Cold War was a leader of the global “nonaligned movement,” along with Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito, which attempted to guide itself between the free world and the communist world. And Gadhafi reportedly sponsored terrorist attacks, including the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the 1986 bombing of a disco in West Berlin that killed three American soldiers and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.
After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Gadhafi realized he had to make peace with America and the rest of the West. He paid reparations to families of victims of the terrorist attacks. And, after 9/11, he dismantled his weapons of mass destruction programs. Now 68 and the longest-ruling dictator in the world, he was preparing his son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, as his successor.
Across the region, the possible rise of radical clerical regimes is a danger, as happened in Iran in 1979. But there are differences, too. In 1979, the Soviet Union still existed, fomenting terror and tyranny across the world; the types of Islam differ across the region; and any new regimes will face online scrutiny by their own people.
Despite the dangers, this is a time of hope.