Gadhafi next? Anti-government protests spread to Libya

By Jonathan S. Landay, Warren P. Strobel and Shashank Bengali

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 16 2011 11:08 p.m. MST

CAIRO — The anti-government protest wave unleashed in Tunisia and Egypt swept into Libya, where demonstrators battled security forces in a rare public outpouring of anger at longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, according to news reports and Internet posts and videos Wednesday.

The tumult in Bengazi, Libya's second largest city, came as anti-government protests grew in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain and in Yemen, where one person was killed in a clash with police in the southern port of Aden.

In Egypt, meanwhile, scattered labor unrest flared five days after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. Activists called for major protests Friday to maintain pressure on the ruling military council to enact promised reforms.

There was no sign that the turmoil inspired by the uprisings against Mubarak and former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was abating in a region ruled for decades by despots and monarchs, many of them supported by the U.S. and other Western powers.

The Obama administration, caught unawares by the breadth and speed of the turbulence, reaffirmed a policy shift in sympathy with the mostly youthful protesters who have used Facebook, Twitter and other social media to organize the largely leaderless protests.

The U.S. "supports democratic change," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a State Department meeting with civil society activists from across the globe. "It is in line with our values and our interests. We support citizens working to make their governments more open, transparent, and accountable. We uphold the universal rights of every person to live freely, to have your voice heard and your vote count."

But an Egyptian activist in attendance, Sherif Mansour, reminded Clinton of Washington's support for corrupt, autocratic governments in the region.

"Let's be honest," Mansour said. "The record of the U.S. foreign policy on Egypt and on Tunisia is not very good. I think what we've seen over the last 30 years is ... complete support for the governments of those countries without enough leverage for civil society."

The protests against the eccentric Gadhafi, the Arab world's longest-ruling autocrat, erupted late Tuesday in Bengazi after the arrest of a prominent human rights lawyer, and raged past dawn Wednesday, according to news reports and accounts and videos posted on YouTube, Twitter and other websites.

The reports, many of which couldn't be independently confirmed, spoke of unrest in other cities. There were also reports of security forces using live ammunition and water cannons, and of numerous injured protesters.

The Libyan protesters called for a "day of anger" Thursday.

The unrest doesn't appear to immediately threaten Gadhafi's rule, and the regime mobilized large pro-government crowds to counter the demonstrations.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley urged Libya to respond to the protesters' demands, including the release of prisoners. "We encourage these countries to take specific actions that address the aspirations and the needs and hopes of their people. Libya certainly would be in that same category," Crowley said.

Asked if Gadhafi is a dictator, Crowley demurred. "I don't think he came to office through a democratic process."

Gadhafi was among a group of junior army officers who staged a bloodless 1969 coup against the monarchy.

In Bahrain, as many as 10,000 people filled Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, in a growing standoff with the dynasty of King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, a witness said. After two deaths earlier in the week, and a rare televised appearance by the king expressing regret, no violence was reported.

But there was a large police presence on one side of the square, a major traffic intersection, said the witness, who asked not to be named for safety reasons.

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