Cover Story
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A world turned upside down

Under cover of seismic cataclysm in Japan, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi upturns the upheaval shaking the Arab world

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

If Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi were Harry Houdini, his signature ability to survive otherwise certain death might be called the Milk Can Escape. Houdini managed to perform that act for four years-freeing himself from handcuffs while sealed inside a water-filled milk can, with the milk can locked inside another milk can, and the audience holding its breath. Qaddafi, on the other hand, has perfected elaborate escapes while the saner world watched for more than 40 years. t In one infamous getaway in April 1986, Qaddafi and his family fled the Tripoli compound, where they lived, only moments before U.S. fighters dropped 36 2,000-pound bombs there.

The attacks were part of a U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine air campaign ordered by then-president Ronald Reagan in response to a Berlin discotheque bombing earlier that year that killed U.S. servicemen. Qaddafi got a last-minute heads-up from Malta, or from the Italians, ran the rumors.

And there were other escapes, as Qaddafi survived assassination attempts by outsiders and from his own army, put down regular bouts of street uprisings that threatened his regime, and outlasted 25 years of punitive economic sanctions brought on by his support for terrorist groups. When street protests began in February, Libya's per capita income-over $14,000-was one of the highest in Africa.

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But as March began, the 69-year-old leader stood closer than ever before to the death of both his regime and himself. Rebel forces organized under a "National Transitional Council" had captured key oil ports, including Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city. They held ground in the face of more than a week of aerial assaults by Qaddafi's forces and moved within hailing distance of Tripoli, the capital. Despite brutal street fighting and shelling from Libyan ships Qaddafi ordered close in to the coast, the opposition forces captured city after city, moving east to west.

Every wave of rebel advance brought disturbing reports of Libyan forces firing on unarmed protesters, arrests, and forced disappearances of civilians. But with the first drafting of a resolution to impose a UN Security Council no-fly zone over Libya on March 7, the regime looked ready to topple. Reports of more Houdini-like stunts persisted: Qaddafi had fled to Cairo, Qaddafi was onboard a luxury jet bound for Venezuela, Qaddafi, one blogger enthused, "escapes, running Libya from moon base via Skype."

But the dictator, through his son Saif, vowed to "fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet."

And then another escape hatch opened, this one not in north Africa but at the other end of Asia and in the shape of a natural disaster. Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami for a time sunk global markets, hampered communications across the Pacific and beyond, shut ports and halted shipping, raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe, and-most importantly for Qaddafi-preoccupied world leaders and media at just the moment he planned death-defying assaults on his own people.

And so from the Near East to the Far East the world turned upside down. Emerging from a winter of discontent in the region comprising North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East, anti-government agitators suddenly were confronted with a dictator who would not go. And a symbol of affluence, efficiency, and order-Japan-lay listing like a capsized ocean liner in the Pacific.

By March 13, Libyan forces loyal to Qaddafi had retaken the oil refinery town of Brega, and two days later Qaddafi forces reclaimed most of the rebel-held towns between Tripoli and Benghazi. As hours passed and Qaddafi advanced, UN Security Council members could not decide whether a no-fly zone was called for. NATO and European leaders meeting in Brussels could not agree to a plan of action, either, even as France became the first to recognize Libya's opposition National Transitional Council in Benghazi. The Arab League alone, in a stunning show of unity and pro-Western sentiment (and political moxie, as departing Secretary-General Amr Moussa has announced his candidacy for the Egyptian presidency) made a concerted public call for a multinational military clamp on Qaddafi.

In Washington, President Barack Obama made no immediate statements on the unfolding crisis, except to announce military assistance for evacuation of Americans and Egyptians trapped there (he also waited a week after the quake to deliver personal condolences to the Japanese Embassy in Washington). Yet he dispatched leading cabinet members and military commanders to Capitol Hill to warn lawmakers about the challenges of enacting a no-fly zone, saying it would be "extraordinarily complex" (in the words of Adm. Mike Mullen on March 1) and could leave Qaddafi in power.

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