| Oil is the economy in Libya and oil profits have bankrolled massive investments in education and infrastructure—yet Libya lags far behind other oil-rich Arab states. Unemployment stands at 30 percent. Most people who have jobs often work only part-time. Basic foods—including rice, sugar, flour, gasoline—are heavily subsidized by the government and sold for a fraction of their true cost. A 2006 New Yorker article described Libya's "prosperity without employment and large population of young people without a sense of purpose."
Libya's society is tribal and traditional—despite liberal laws on issues such as women's rights—and many Libyans identify via clan allegiance first, nationality second.
Some in Libya hoped that Seif Qaddafi, who has been growing more prominent as an adviser to his father, would create openings for democratic reform. Seif earned a doctorate in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and keeps Bengal tigers as pets. He has founded the "Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation," which supposedly seeks to promote human rights and fight the use of torture in Libya and across the Middle East.
Wasn’t Qaddafi that guy who set up a giant tent on Donald Trump’s spread?
Yup, he's the guy. During his 2009 trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Qaddafi had hoped to sleep and entertain guests inside an elaborate Bedouin-style tent in Manhattan's Central Park. That didn't work out, so instead the dictator rented land on a suburban property owned by Donald Trump. The tent was erected and then dismantled after a public outcry, and both Trump and the Secret Service announced that Qaddafi wasn't coming after all.
Why can't anyone agree on how to spell Qaddafi's name?
Since at least the 1980s, the name has been alternately spelled as "Moammar / Muammar Gadaffi /Gaddafi / Gathafi / Kadafi / Kaddafi /Khadafy / Qadhafi / Qathafi /etc.," according to Chris Suellentrop at Slate. They’re all different attempts at transliterating Arabic pronunciation.
How did all this start?
Inspired by pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world, Libyan dissidents had planned a "day of rage" for Thursday, Feb. 17. On February 15, security forces arrested a prominent lawyer named Fathi Terbil, who had represented families of some of the 1,200 prisoners massacred by Libyan security forces at Abu Slim prison in 1996. Once released later that day, Terbil set up a webcam overlooking Benghazi’s main square, where some of the families had been protesting. With help from exiled Libyans in Canada and around the world, the video spread rapidly on the Internet.
Al Jazeera Arabic conducted a phone interview with Libyan novelist Idris al-Mesmari, who reported that police were shooting at protesters—and then the connection was lost. (Mesmari was reportedly arrested by Libyan authorities.) Shortly thereafter, thousands more began battling Qaddafi's troops, and hundreds are reported to have been killed. "Both protesters and the security forces have reason to believe that backing down will likely mean their ultimate death or imprisonment," says the New York Times.
What are the implications of Libyan instability?
After decades of being reviled as a state sponsor of terrorism, Libya recently reversed course and joined the ranks of America's allies in the fight against Al Qaeda. In 2003, Qaddafi agreed to stop developing weapons of mass destruction and paid $2.7 billion to the families of the 270 victims of Pan Am 101—the plane bombed by Libyan agents over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. In return, the US and the United Nations lifted economic sanctions against Libya.
On the Arab street, however, Qaddafi is widely loathed. Most of his political victims have been members of banned Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which would likely gain stronger influence if he were overthrown. Qaddafi, once among the Palestinian movement's most vocal international supporters, outraged many Arabs by saying that Palestinians have no special claim to the land of Israel and calling for the creation of a bi-national "Isratine."
What's the latest?
On Sunday, February 20, protesters succeeded in overtaking all parts of Benghazi except for a government security compound. Qaddafi's son gave a long, rambling televised speech in which he blamed Islamic radicals and Libyan exiles for the uprising. He claimed civil war over the country's oil resources would set off starvation, cause public services including education to collapse, and could spark a Western invasion. He said, "We will fight until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet."
Protests have now spread to the capital, Tripoli, with thousands of demonstrators converging onto the city's main square and reportedly taking over state television headquarters. They faced well-armed pro-Qaddafi militias who fired into the crowds. The Libyan government has sought to impose an information blackout, blocking the internet and satellite television and forbidding foreign journalists from entering. Al-Jazeera remains the most comprehensive source of coverage; you can follow its live blog here.
UPDATE 1, Monday, Feb. 21, 9:00 a.m. EST/4:00 p.m. Tripoli (Nick Baumann): SkyNews is reporting that witnesses claim the state television building and other public buildings in Tripoli are on fire.
UPDATE 2, Monday, Feb. 21, 11:45 a.m. EST/6:45 p.m. Tripoli (Nick Baumann): Al Jazeera (via Sultan al Qassemi) reports multiple accounts of airplanes attacking protesters in Tripoli. Shadi Hamid, an expert on the Arab world at the Brookings Institution, slams the Western response as "business as usual," and asks whether the West is even capable of "bold, creative policymaking." The Atlantic's Max Fisher, meanwhile, says that while the media blackout means the air-attack claims are impossible for press to verify, if they're true, the United Nations should "shut down Libyan airspace immediately."
UPDATE 3, Monday, Feb. 21, 12:15 p.m. EST/7:15 p.m. Tripoli (Nick Baumann): Mobile and television networks are down across Libya. Al Hurra (a satellite television competitor of Al Jazeera's that is sponsored by the US government) is reporting that the Libyan ambassador in London has resigned and joined protests outside the embassy. The network is also reporting that helicopters carrying senior Libyan officials have left Tripoli "in the direction of Malta," according to Sultan Al Qassemi. (If you're not following him on Twitter, you should be.) William Hague, the British foreign minister, has said that Qaddafi fled to Venezuala, but the Venezualans are denying that. And the head of the Libyan Army is reportedly under house arrest. In short: it's chaos, and no one knows for sure what is happening. There are also reports just now that the Libyan ambassador to Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, has also resigned.
UPDATE 4, Monday, Feb. 21, 12:50 p.m. EST/7:50 p.m. Tripoli (Nick Baumann): NBC News reports that the State Department has ordered all non-emergency personnel to leave Libya immediately. The resigned Libyan ambassador to India told Al Jazeera "it is only a matter of days until the regime is finished." And The Guardian confirms earlier reports that several Libyan airplanes and helicopters have landed in Malta. They were reportedly piloted by Libyan colonels seeking asylum. The earlier reports of military planes attacking protesters also seem to be close to confirmation—Reuters has published a story citing more eyewitnesses to the attack.
UPDATE 5, Monday, Feb. 21, 2:41 p.m. EST/9:41 p.m. Tripoli (Siddhartha Mahanta): Witnesses saw armed militiamen speeding into Tripoli’s Green Square in Toyota trucks, firing on protestors fighting with riot police. Many of the gunmen are believed to be from other African countries. Meanwhile, Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces have retreated into buildings around Tripoli, which remains under the control of rebel forces. And in a sign of deepening internal fissures, some of Qaddafi's top officials have broken ranks with the government. Meanwhile, protestors in Benghazi—where the uprising began—have released a list of demands for a secular interim government led by the army in cooperation with a council of Libyan tribes. And on Democracy Now, Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa says his country is "forever changed" by the uprising.
UPDATE 6, Monday. Feb. 21, 3:11 p.m. EST/10:11 p.m. Tripoli (Ashley Bates): UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has spoken with Qaddafi and told him the violence "must stop immediately," a UN spokesperson said. The BBC reports that Qaddafi was still in Libya during this Monday phone call.
In an apparent defection, two Libyan fighter jets have landed in Malta, the Times of Malta reports. The pilots had presumably refused orders to bomb protesters in Benghazi.
Al-Jazeera Arabic reports that it's received videos of murdered protesters that are too graphic to air. The video below, which was released by Al-Jazeera English, gives (non-graphic) on-the-ground footage and a concise synopsis of events on Saturday and Sunday.
UPDATE 7, Monday. Feb. 21, 4:05 p.m. EST/11:11 p.m. Tripoli (Ashley Bates): Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has very belatedly condemned the violence against civilians in Libya, calling it "unacceptable." Over the weekend, Berlusconi said he hadn't phoned Qaddafi because he didn't want to "disturb" him amidst the uprisings.
As chronicled by Mother Jones senior correspondent James Ridgeway, Berlusconi and Qaddafi have worked together to catch Italy-bound migrants and asylum seekers. Berlusconi, who is on trial for allegedly having sex with an underage prostitute, has courted Libyan petrodollars, and rolled out the red carpet during Qaddafi's multiple visits to Italy. In June of 2009, Qaddafi flew one thousand Italian women to Libya for a "cultural tour." Just last week, Berlusconi reportedly sent a Danish IC4 train to Qaddafi as a gift.
UPDATE 8, Monday. Feb. 21, 4:20 p.m. EST/11:20 p.m. Tripoli (Nick Baumann): Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent Muslim theologian, was just on Al Jazeera. He issued a fatwa during the interview calling for the death of Qaddafi. Sultan Al Qassemi's translation: "To any army soldier, to any man who can pull the trigger & kill this man, do so. Save your countrymen from this brutal tyrant. It is wrong of you to stand by while he kills innocent people." Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports that the Egyptian army's Facebook page has been updated with news that Libyan border guards have withdrawn from Egypt's boundary with Libya. And Al Jazeera English just reported that the Libyan ambassador to the US has resigned and come out against Qaddafi. (UPDATE: Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell clarifies that the ambassador may not have technically resigned, but calls it a "moot point" given the ambassador's explicit criticism of the regime.) Meanwhile, Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch is calling for US and international intervention: "NATO enfoced no-fly zone, hold [Qaddafi] + regime individually responsible for deaths, call urgent [security council] meeting, targeted sanctions."
UPDATE 9, Monday. Feb. 21, 5:45 p.m. EST/12:45 a.m. Tuesday Tripoli (Nick Baumann): CNN has a truly awful video of what it says are the bodies of Libyan soldiers who refused to shoot at protesters. And here's Marc Lynch's writeup of his call for international intervention I mentioned in Update 8.
UPDATE 10, Monday. Feb. 21, 6:10 p.m. EST/1:10 a.m. Tuesday Tripoli (Nick Baumann): The State Department has released a transcript of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent comments on Libya:
The world is watching the situation in Libya with alarm. We join the international community in strongly condemning the violence in Libya. Our thoughts and prayers are with those whose lives have been lost, and with their loved ones. The government of Libya has a responsibility to respect the universal rights of the people, including the right to free expression and assembly. Now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed. We are working urgently with friends and partners around the world to convey this message to the Libyan government.
UPDATE 11, Monday. Feb. 21, 6:45 p.m. EST/1:45 a.m. Tripoli (Ashley Bates): Egypt and Libya have both set up field hospitals on their borders and are trying to send help. A group of Libyan military officers have released a statement calling on all members of the Libyan army to join the protesters. Al-Jazeera Arabic reports that advertisements in Guinea and Nigeria are offering up to $2,000 per day to fight as mercenaries for the Libyan army. And Libyan State TV has just announced that Qaddafi will speak shortly.
UPDATE 12, Monday. Feb. 21, 7:20 p.m. EST/2:20 a.m. Tuesday Tripoli (Nick Baumann): In what almost seemed like a piece of bizarre, horrible performance art (with awful consequences), Qaddafi just spoke on Libyan state television. The whole appearance lasted about 15 seconds and consisted of him saying that he is in Tripoli, not Venezuela (as British foreign secretary William Hague had claimed), and warning citizens not to believe "the dog tv channels" saying otherwise. He was holding an umbrella, too. The whole thing was a stark reminder of the fact that an entire country is ruled by a man who is at best a very odd tyrant who is totally willing to kill his people and at worst a total madman—or, as The Atlantic's Max Fisher writes, a "f***king loon."