Dirk Vandewalle: Is This Libya's New Revolution?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor of government at Dartmouth University, is the author of "A History of Modern Libya."]

(CNN) -- The thought of any sustained opposition and open dissent in Libya boggles the mind of even the most seasoned observers of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's tightly controlled country.

Since he came to power in a bloodless coup in 1969 that replaced the pro-Western Sanusi monarchy, Libya's leader has ruled with an iron-fisted hand that left almost no chance for any opposition to coalesce.

Quite contrary to what we normally perceive in the West, the way in which Gadhafi was able to cement this highly authoritarian system into place relied not only on pure, brute force -- although that has always remained the ultimate deciding factor -- but also on two other factors.

One was an intricate system of divide-and-rule that balanced families, tribes and the country's provinces against each other. The second was by cloaking himself in an anti-Western and particularly anti-U.S. mantle that, initially at least, resonated among many of his fellow citizens after disastrous national legacies that included a brutal colonial period and a monarchy that was perceived as utterly corrupt, both financially and ideologically.

That combination protected Gadhafi's Jamahiriya -- a country that in his theory is run directly by its citizens -- against destabilization and proved unassailable until last week....

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