Skip to main content

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives in Rome on June 10, 2009.RICCARDO DE LUCA/The Associated Press

Moammar Gadhafi's reported use of mercenaries against the people of Libya places him inside the classical definition of tyranny. A ruler whose bodyguards were not citizens - from another city-state or from another nation altogether - was, according to the ancient Greeks, a tyrant. The logic of this is still evident today; guards or soldiers are unlikely to be willing to kill their fellow-citizens - witness Egypt - but imported guards will obey the dictator.

Whether Colonel Gadhafi has hired foreign mercenaries as such or has recruited soldiers from impoverished countries south of the Sahara into the Libyan military does not make a great difference. Some of Libya's armed forces are evidently reluctant to shoot at protesters. Col. Gadhafi's resort to fighters from Chad or Mali is effectively an admission of lost - or never achieved - legitimacy.

On Tuesday, the dictator, implicitly contrasting himself with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, said he could not resign because he is not the president; he is only "the leader of the revolution." What's more, Libya lacks a constitution; the nearest equivalent is Col. Gadhafi's Green Book, a compendium of his dogmas.

All this underlines Col. Gadhafi's choice not to give himself legitimacy - not to establish a constitutional order, at any time after his initial military coup d'état in 1969. Eight years later, he dismantled the normal state apparatus, claiming to have created direct democracy. He took the Arabic for "republic," jumhuriya, spliced into it a word meaning "the masses" and came up with jamahiriyah. Patrick Watson gave him a respectful hearing on this supposed alternative to Western democracy in his documentary TV series of 1988-1989, The Struggle for Democracy.

Col. Gadhafi may yet go down fighting, not fleeing, as he says. He may be brave, but he is no "martyr," and he has never truly sought to govern by the consent of the governed. As a result, his military strength now seems to be evaporating. His 42 years in power have been frittered away in megalomania. He is risking a bloody civil war to preserve what began, as it will end, as a tyranny.