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Editorial:

The fire spreads to Libya

Gaddafi's dictatorship indiscriminately drowns the popular revolt in blood

In less than a week, Libya has developed into the bloodiest of all the North African and Middle Eastern stages on to which the fire of change has spread. The civilian dead are now numbered in the hundreds, the wounded in thousands, as a result of the implacable military repression of people calling for an end to the dictatorship in this petroleum-rich desert land, which Gaddafi has ruled as a private estate for more than 40 years.

Even in a country as tightly sealed to information as Libya, the scale of the pro-democratic revolt has been such that news of the massacre has found its way into the international media.

It is well to know, then, that Benghazi, Tripoli and other cities are at this moment practically in a state of war; and that, in a personal regime that seemed monolithic, defections in government and army have been taking place. Chaos now reigns in the North African country, a crucial world supplier of crude petroleum, while the possibility of civil confrontation looms, given the absence of political structures, the non-existence of an organized opposition, and the dictatorial government's loss of control over the national territory.

Should the eventual outcome be the resignation or the flight of a desperate Gaddafi, or something more drastic in view of the drift of events, the situation in Libya (sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt, where revolts have overthrown the dictators) will never be the same again. The regime has been shaken to its foundations by the popular rebellion now under way. The magnitude of the repression, massive and indiscriminate, unleashed by Gaddafi- once the self-proclaimed leader of revolution and sponsor of world-wide terrorism, lately returned to international respectability- has now opened an unbridgeable gulf, amounting to a leap into the dark for a regime whose generals, unlike those of Tunisia and Egypt, have opted to fire on their fellow countrymen. A ferocity which on Monday the EU mildly condemned in its usual bland, blameless rhetoric.

Saif Gaddafi, the tyrant's son and designated successor, has affirmed on television that the regime will fight "to the last bullet" against the "seditious elements." It is hard to imagine a greater political perversion. A dictator-to-be, anointed by a dictator in practice, both devoid of the least legitimacy or moral authority, impudently threatens with extermination those who, after decades of oppression, are demanding dignity and liberty. The ominous message also reveals the weakness of a government which, as events have shown, can offer no alternative to terror.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who set fire to himself on December 17, could hardly have imagined that his desperate gesture would make his name a devouring torch. No one can now predict how the social forces released two months ago will shape the future of Libya and of a whole region of the world, so far oppressed by the collusion of unscrupulous local strongmen and rough-hewn Western interests. But the Arab awakening is already an unstoppable historical fact.