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The World

February 22, 2011

Arab world mainstay's power suddenly at risk

CAIRO — For more than four decades, Moammar Gadhafi was the face of Libya. He withstood international isolation and U.S. airstrikes, managing to claw his way back to a degree of acceptance by the global community.

Now, the ultimate survivor is confronted by the biggest threat to his rule from a popular rebellion.

The anti-government battles that have reportedly left more than 200 people dead in the past week will indelibly alter Libya's political landscape. If Gadhafi is toppled, like the leaders of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, the lack of a clear institutional system in Libya thanks to the very system he set up, and the absence of any kind of established opposition bloc, leaves open the question of who could fill the vacuum.

Egypt and Tunisia had well-established — but corruption-plagued — governing institutions that allowed for a smoother transition and rebuilding of the nation.

Not so in Libya, where Gadhafi holds no official role in government. The so-called "jamahiriya" system that he set up is designed to give the appearance of a government, with a series of People's Committees and People's Congresses.

In reality, it's a system with the sole purpose of ensuring that power stays in the hands of the Arab world's longest-serving leader.

While former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "was playing tennis in Sharm el-Sheik, Gadhafi ... spent his time building up his power base," said Jon Marks, a Libya expert with London-based Cross-border Information.

"Every time you look at the different strands of Libyan society ... you see that there's one puppetmaster, and it's Gadhafi," he said.

Gadhafi turns 69 sometime this year — the month and day of his birth in 1942 is uncertain — and he came to power in a coup that ousted King Idris in 1969. One of the foundations of the revolution was a rejection of communism and capitalism — shunning anything linked to Libya's colonial history, and a determination to chart his own course.

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