Over the last two days, a number of Libyan cabinet ministers and diplomats have resigned their posts in frustration and anger over the violence unleashed by Gaddafi against political protesters. Furthermore, there have been isolated reports of various military personnel breaking ranks and siding with the protesters. Because of these events, Libya watchers have been waiting with bated breath to see if any high ranking military officials break with the government. To them, this would be a big game changer.
In theory, such defections signal to subordinates that allying with the protests is acceptable (perhaps preferable) behavior. And once the top of the military defects, many of the lower tiers--now no longer fearful of breaking ranks--will quickly follow. The crux is that these rapid moves would tip the balance of forces away from Gaddafi and spell the imminent demise of his regime. But would they really?
As Yohanes Sulaiman, my colleague, pointed out, Gaddafi has more than just conventional military forces on his side. Indeed, he has imported hundreds of mercenaries to carry out his plans to crush the protesters. On Monday, for instance, there were widespread reports of caravans of Toyota pick-ups packed with people from Sub-Saharan Africa, storming through Tripoli while causing bloodshed and mayhem. Additionally, Gaddafi has thousands of loyalists in various special forces branches. All of these people are armed and ready to implement Gaddafi's wishes.
This is not to suggest that Gaddafi will necessarily survive this uprising and hold on to power. If the military defects en masse from the state, then the protesters will win the struggle. But they will likely win only after paying a price and a period of armed struggle. Gaddafi is clearly a desperate man, and he still has just enough armed support to prolong his tenuous grip on power. This is what primarily distinguishes the case of Libya from the cases of Egypt and Tunisia. Once the military broke ranks, Ben Ali and Mubarak had no choice but to leave office. Gaddafi's reserves give him the option to stay another day and fight.
My hope is that the opposition patiently, strategically encircles Gaddafi in his home base of Tripoli. It is probably the best way to prevent mass death and destruction. The opposition has already begun to take chunks of territory, mostly in the east, away from the state. If this trend continues, moving to the west and south and north, Gaddafi and his allies will face significant pressure. And at that point, it is very possible, as Yohanes suggested in his last post, that most of the irregular forces would flee the scene rather than fight a losing, bloody battle for a man to whom they have no real attachment. Should this happen, we would find a fully-encircled Gaddifi with a limited number of fighters and almost no access to resources beyond Tripoli. While a defanged Gaddafi might not go quietly, he will be easier to tame and defeat than he currently is.