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ALGIERS (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi will fight attempts to unseat him until "the last man standing," one of his sons said on Sunday after days of protests reached the capital.
At least 233 people have now been killed since unrest started last week, Human Rights Watch said, making Libya's uprising one of the bloodiest to have erupted in the Arab world over the past two months.
No. Gaddafi's security forces really could fight until the last man is standing because they know that if their boss falls, they too must fear for their lives.
This is the crucial difference between Libya and its neighbors Egypt and Tunisia.
In those countries, entrenched leaders were toppled because the military decided it was not prepared to fire on civilians to preserve the power of the head of state. That was possible because the military in Tunisia and Egypt preserved a degree of autonomy from the president. They existed as institutions in their own right and retained some public credibility.
In Libya, the military does not exist in the conventional sense of the word: it is more a personal militia for Gaddafi. An illustration of this is the fact that another of his sons, Mutassim, is national security advisor. A third, Khamis, is a senior military commander while a fourth, Saadi, holds high military rank.
The security forces know that without Gaddafi in power, they will fall too. They will therefore fight to defend their status and their lives.
Until Sunday evening, the challenge to Gaddafi's power was confined to the eastern Cyrenaica region around the city of Benghazi. That, for him, was manageable because the region had traditionally been ambivalent toward him. As long as it did not spread to the center and west of the country, analysts said there was no real challenge to his grip on power.
Those calculations are now being torn up. Anti-government protesters late on Sunday were in the streets of Tripoli throwing stones at the ubiquitous billboards of Gaddafi and shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great." A resident who lives not far from the central Green Square, said he could hear gunfire. The fact that the violence has jumped 1,000 km (600 miles) west from Benghazi to Tripoli means that Gaddafi is now in a real fight to hold onto power.
Foreign governments, which had been slow to condemn the violence in Libya, are now beginning to speak out. Britain called the killings of civilians "horrifying" and top U.S. diplomats have said there is no place for violence against protesters. Yet even if international anger builds into sanctions, Gaddafi is not likely to be alarmed. He has been there before. His country was under U.S. and European sanctions for decades over its banned weapons programs and support for foreign militant groups.
It is true that since sanctions were lifted in 2004, many Libyans have started to enjoy the fruits of capitalism. Tripoli is teeming with shops selling mobile phones, exercise bicycles and showy imported cars. Also since then, foreign oil companies including BP, ENI and Exxon Mobil have invested billions in the Libyan oil sector.
However, Gaddafi derived much of his legitimacy and popularity at home from being seen as the scourge of the West, and may even benefit from having that status returned to him. And many people doubt the oil companies would leave because Libya's reserves of crude are too valuable to give up.