The world is busily debating the fate of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who on Thursday marked the 22nd day of his stand-off with “rebels”.
Gaddafi has survived longer than Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – whose rule collapsed after 18 days – but still has to match ex-Tunisian president Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali, who lasted for 29 days.
The 69-year old Libyan leader – who has already killed a number of his own people – refuses to step down, claiming that his resignation would lead to civil war, adding that he is not president of Libya, but rather leader of the Libyan masses.
What is clear is that Gaddafi will not flee like Ben Ali or resign like Mubarak. Most observers expect him to fight until curtain fall – until either somebody kills or arrests him. Some argue, however, that he might commit suicide rather than let others kill him, following in the footsteps of German leader Adolf Hitler.
That seems highly doubtful, however, given that suicide needs plenty of courage and most Gaddafi watchers argue that deep inside, beneath all the layers of bravado, the Libyan leader is a very weak and insecure person. The eccentric behavior, the loud words and colorful costumes are all reflections of inner weakness he tries to cover up with controversial appearances.
Earlier this week, “leaks” coming out of Libya confirmed that Gaddafi had expressed willingness to step down, sending an envoy to negotiate on his behalf with the Interim National Transitional Council in Benghazi. Gaddafi had a long list of conditions, however, that included a guarantee of his personal safety, and that of his entire family, along with their wealth, and a safe exodus from Libya.
He asked that all international warrants for his arrest or trial be waivered, and that he be informed what countries would be willing to grant him political asylum. Most analysts expect him to head either to Cuba or Venezuela where he enjoys excellent relations with President Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul.
Additionally, Gaddafi wants to step down in style – insisting that he would present his resignation to the General Assembly of the People’s Council rather than to the Libyan rebels. There is no indicator to date, however, proving that this story is true although it was published by the mass circulation and usually credible Saudi daily, Al-Sharq al-Awsat.
Let us take a look at world leaders who have been in Gaddafi’s shoes, or those who were forced to step down, to see what internal and external factors affect the psychology and behavior of kings and presidents at curtain fall. Certainly a “one-size-fits-all” scenario does not apply.
Usually, however, those who reach office either by revolution or coup are the most difficult to topple. They consider office a hard-earned right that they need to defend, at any cost. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein is a clear example, and so are China’s Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Gaddafi.
And even when they fall, leaders of such caliber usually become obsessed with one thing: returning to power to take revenge. Saddam’s guards once said that he would often tell them, “When I leave this prison, you are all invited to visit me at the Presidential Palace, when I return to power.”
Leaders who come to power “by accident” are usually easier targets, often because they don’t have the fighting spirit in them, and know (deep inside) that the foundations of their regimes are shaky, because they are based neither on street backing, religious legitimacy, Western support, or military might.
Mubarak, who came to power in 1981 purely “by accident”, is one notable exception, because although neither elected nor brought to power by coup, the aging Egyptian president insisted on staying in power until curtain fall – subjecting himself and his family to a disgraceful ending.
When King Faisal of Syria faced an invading French army in 1920, he saw through one battle, then quickly packed up his belongings and fled the country.
Democratically elected leaders usually relinquish power easily – with one recent exception – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who remains at his job although his term expired three years ago.
When Lebanese president Bshara al-Khury faced an angry street in September 1952, for example, he quickly resigned from office.
The same applies to president Shukri al-Quwatli, when faced with an enthusiastic Syrian street that wanted Gamal Abdul Nasser as president in 1958 he too stepped down from office in order to enable creation of the United Arab Republic (UAR). Quwatli, it must be noted, was the only leader in modern times to relinquish his post willingly for another president.
Age is usually a decisive factor – young leaders usually step down easier than aging ones. They feel that they have an entire future ahead of them and with that with good planning, they might return to power one day stronger than ever before. In July 1952, King Farouk of Egypt faced a military revolution that was backed by an angry Egyptian street, calling on him to step down.
Farouk, aged 36, quickly abdicated in favor of his infant child, almost certain that he would soon get a chance to return to his throne in Egypt. When Syrian president Adib al-Shishakli, aged 44, faced a military uprising in 1954 he quickly resigned from office and fled to Lebanon, then spent the remainder of his life struggling for a comeback to power in Damascus. The same cannot be said for aging leaders like King Idriss of Libya, who left office at the age of 80, or Tunisia’s Habib Bourgeiba, who was forced to step down at the age of 84 in 1987.
What usually makes it difficult for a leader to take sound decisions is the dramatic amount of distortion fed to him by his aides, who tend to beautify the most difficult of situations. Additionally, leaders who stay in power for too long, like Gaddafi and Mubarak, usually lose touch with reality and no longer differentiate between masses cheering on the streets because of love, and those doing it out of submissiveness and fear.
One needs only to listen to any of Gaddafi’s recent speeches to understand how detached from reality the Libyan leader is. He sincerely cannot understand why the people are overthrowing him, having transformed into a grand legend in his own mind. Had Italy’s Benito Mussolini or Saddam ever imagined that they would one day suffer such miserable fates (executed by gun shot and hung, respectively) , they would have likely pursued different policies during their long years in power.
Just like Gaddafi, they simply did not see it coming. Famously, while the Third Reich was falling apart, Hitler gave his final orders for the entire German population to mobilize, march east, and fight the Russians. That was Hitler in 1945 and it hauntingly sounds like Gaddafi in 2011.
This article appeared in Asia Times on March 10, entitled, “Gaddafi: All guns blazing or a private jet?”