Feb. 21, 2011 -- As we watch protests and violent crackdowns unfold in Libya, it is important to keep in mind key differences between Egypt and Libya, and that we should not expect an identical course to unfold there.
One important distnction is how very difficult it is to get information out of Libya about what is really going on. Few journalists are in the country reporting on the events at the moment. And so we must rely on information from Human Rights Watch and other human rights activist groups, along with what we've heard in radio reports from doctors at various hospitals.
To understand what is happening in Libya, we rely on these snippets, as in Libya, but even the social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has been much less active than it was in Egypt during the height of its protests.
In Iran, there is much more activity that we can follow through social media than in Libya. But the censors in Iran are much smarter, and much more able to keep up with the young people than they were in Egypt and elsewhere, and they can counter some of the activists.
Sunday we saw Libyan leader Col. Moammar al-Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, go on television to say his father was still in power. His son threatened that there could be a civil war if the protests continued. And this speech followed the same pattern that we have seen from the leadership of several countries in the face of these protests. They say this is a foreign conspiracy, this is an international conspiracy to get rid of them, that it is being coordinated by Islamists.
But this speech was particularly incoherent and detached. Seif-al-Islam seemed completely out of touch as to what was going on -- at one point threatening to unleash civil war, saying hundreds of thousands could be killed -- and on the other hand, saying we'll have massive across-the-board reforms within 48 hours.
Clearly, they are rattled. This is the most significant threat to Gadhafi's regime ever.
Another element to keep in mind is the very different relationship that Libya and Egypt have historically had with the United States. Certainly, both countries have had longtime leaders in power whom the U.S.has learned to work wtih. The now resigned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in power for 30 years, and Gadhafi has has held power in Libya for more than 40 years.
But there is an important distinction. While Egypt was a critical regional ally of the United States, Gadhafi has not been a reliable partner by any stretch of the imagination. All diplomatic ties were cut between the United States and Libya for more than 20 years.
The rift initially started in the1970s when a mob set fire to the American Embassy in Tripoli, which severely strained relations for many years after that, most notably when Libya was held responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
But after the invasion of Iraq, Gadhafi chose to come back to the diplomatic table and hand over any plans for weapons of mass destruction, and in 2006, diplomatic relations between the two countries were officially restored.
But very little of that oil makes its way to the United States -- much of it is sold in Europe, but there is no reason to believe now that it would stop flowing.
The real question in these uprisings is: How much are these leaders willing to fight?
It seems Gadhafi is willing to fight to until the end.
Some analysts and diplomats tell me Ghadafi's ouster would be good for his people, for the region where he has irritated many leaders, and for the U.S. Gadhafi's staying power further does not represent stability, they say.
For now, some wonder whether Gadhafi is the Nicolae Ceausescu of the Arab dominoes. As the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and change came to that part of the world, Romania's longtime dictator was the only Soviet Bloc leader who fired on his people. A baffled-looking Ceausescu failed to control the crowds in what is now Revolution Square. He and his wife were subsequently executed by a firing squad, sentenced to death by a military tribunal.
Will that be Gadhafi's legacy?