Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, the longest ruling Arab leader, appears to be on the verge of becoming the latest authoritarian leader to be ousted by his own people.

Massive crowds of protesters have taken control of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, and much of eastern Libya, long a hotbed of opposition to the regime. Libya’s repressive regime has reacted with ruthless violence, shooting at peaceful demonstrators from rooftops, helicopters, and warplanes. At least 233 Libyans have been killed since the protests began on Thursday, according to Human Rights Watch.

Although Qadhafi once enjoyed substantial popular support on the Arab street due to his confrontational anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli policies, the mercurial Libyan tyrant had recently become irrelevant in regional politics and increasingly unpopular and isolated within Libya. The quirky Qadhafi, long-plagued by major mood swings, became a hated figure for many Libyans. His murderous police state created bitter resentment and fierce opposition, while his erratic regime wasted billions of dollars on white elephant projects and massive oil revenues monopolized by a corrupt elite. Despite Libya’s oil wealth, an estimated one-third of Libyans live in poverty. More than half the population is under 25 years old and faces a bleak economic future due to high unemployment, estimated to run about 20 percent.

Urban middle-class youth have played a leading role in galvanizing popular opposition in Libya, just as they have in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. One of the common ingredients found everywhere there is political turmoil in the Middle East is the huge Arab youth bulge that has put enormous political stress on governments, like the proverbial elephant swallowed by a python. Authoritarian one-party states have not been able to keep pace with the growing demands of their impatient young citizens who are growing increasingly resentful of the misgovernment of corrupt and ineffective bureaucracies.

The rising influence of young Arabs, assisted by new technologies that have enabled them to organize through social networking Web sites, has amplified the power of the demographic tidal wave, sweeping away unresponsive regimes that are unwilling or unable to meet the demands of this new generation for liberty, prosperity, and political participation.

The Obama Administration has called for restraint by governments confronted by the legitimate demands of their own citizens. But it should distinguish between mildly authoritarian regimes in need of reform such as those in Jordan, Bahrain, and Morocco and the harshly repressive regimes led by mass murderers in Libya, Iran, and Syria.

It is time for the Obama Administration to go beyond a call for restraint and demand that Qadhafi resign and stop murdering his own people. While Washington undoubtedly has less influence with Libya’s dictatorship and other anti-Western regimes than with pro-Western governments, it may have more influence with their oppressed people than is commonly recognized. At a minimum, an American call for Qadhafi to step down could influence Libyans sitting on the fence to come down on the side of regime change.

It is time to test the proposition advanced by Syrian dictator Bashir Assad that only pro-Western regimes can be ousted by their own people. The Obama Administration should demand that Libya’s tyrant halt his mass murder campaign and depart Libya. If Qadhafi and his violent supporters refuse, as is likely, then Washington should work with like-minded allies and other countries to impose sanctions on the regime, support Libya’s opposition, and assist them in the difficult transition to a democratic government.

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