Libya in the Balance

by Nicolas Pelham | published March 15, 2011

Since the rule of Col. Muammar Qaddafi had been even more gruesome than that of neighboring dictators, the Libyan people’s release from captivity by the February 17 uprising pulsated with an unparalleled hope. Freed from a ban on public assembly of four or more persons, rebel-held towns across Libya thronged with celebrants late into the night. Benghazi, Libya’s second city, which the colonel had stripped of its museums, cinemas and cultural symbols, including the mausoleum of its anti-colonial hero, ‘Umar Mukhtar, buzzed with impromptu memorials to Qaddafi’s victims, political theater, songs and art, and mass open-air prayers. And after four decades in which one man had appropriated the right to speak on behalf of a country, Libyans in their hundreds of thousands recovered their voice. “Your place, Muammar,” scrawl protesters on upturned rubbish bins.

The leaders of the exultant protesters appeared equally refreshing. The revolution was the plot of lawyers and academics, not generals, and within days of the colonel’s withdrawal of his forces westward, these urbane professionals had filled the vacuum with a nascent constitutional process. They formed local councils and appointed the heads of each to the new National Transitional Council. This overarching body’s head was a former footballer-cum-judge, Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil, who as Qaddafi’s justice minister had acquired something of a reputation as a turbulent priest. (He once questioned the colonel in public about why prisoners whose release papers he had signed remained behind bars.) And the Council’s declaration of principles emphasized the country’s unity, designated Tripoli its capital, denounced tribalism and undertook to establish a liberal democratic state.

Though the declaration was hurried and half-baked, such was the desire for an alternative that the charter secured immediate buy-in across rebel-held areas. Oil workers and company executives alike declared their support at all six of Libya’s oil terminals. Refinery workers maintained supplies to rebel-held towns, while shutting off spigots leading to those that remained under the colonel’s rule. The Arabian Gulf Oil Company, Libya’s largest producer, cut its ties with Tripoli, approached new buyers and committed to rerouting oil revenues from Qaddafi’s purse to the Council.

In the mountainous hinterland, many tribes that had hitherto filled the ranks of the security apparatus pledged allegiance to the Council, prompting senior military commanders to defy orders to open fire on protesters and defect. Safiyya, Qaddafi’s second wife and mother of his most notorious sons, failed to prevent the desertion of her Barassa tribe, based in Bayda, a traditional center of unrest in Libyan history. “It was a big shock for Qaddafi that Bayda rose up,” said Bayda’s police chief, himself a Barassa, at a press conference to proclaim he was joining the rebels.

The initial successes of the revolt were striking. Within four days of the February 17 uprising, the colonel had withdrawn the bulk of his security battalions, air force and navy to Tripoli, in an apparent last-ditch attempt to defend the capital. The Revolutionary Guards Brigades, the remnants of the Revolutionary Committees (the bodies vested with local governance by Qaddafi) and the apparent mercenary forces that were left behind quickly disintegrated. In the east, the rebels won Libya’s prime oil fields and a 500 mile-long stretch of the Mediterranean coast. Similar scenes of liberation erupted in the western cities of Misrata and al-Zawiya and much of the capital. Rebels controlled all of the country’s oil terminals, the supply lines emanating from the Egyptian border and a radio network broadcasting to the west: “Wake up, wake up, o Tripoli! The day for which you waited has come.”

Rebel Leverage Reduced

But if the rebels expected the colonel would bow out with the grudging unctuousness of his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, they miscalculated. Qaddafi had distinct advantages over both Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Husni Mubarak: In contrast to the compacted population masses of Tunisia and Egypt, which enabled close coordination among the demonstrators, the Libyan population is dispersed over a vast area, dependent on access via air -- of which the colonel held a monopoly -- to hold it together. And in preceding decades Qaddafi had eliminated not only all opposition, but also the state institutions that held the potential to overpower him. Without such props, the National Council struggled to assert its authority, withholding the names of two thirds of its 30 members, either because they feared to declare themselves or because they had yet to be appointed. The body’s third declaration admitted as much: “The Council is waiting for delegations from Tripoli, central and southern areas to join it,” it read.

Armed with air power, Qaddafi alone could straddle the 620 miles of desert separating the eastern population centers from the western. Having wrestled back control of the west, he has pushed east, retaking three oil terminals, thereby securing his own petroleum supplies and reducing rebel leverage. At press time, his forces are bombing Ajdabiya, a hub of arterial roads leading to the rebels’ primary assets: south to the largest oil fields, east to Tobruk and the Egyptian border, and north to Benghazi. Increasingly, the rebels’ fledgling institutions look no stronger than the Paris Commune in the face of Prussia’s advance.

The rebels did little to help matters. Drunk on euphoria, they fatally abandoned their peaceful protests and resorted instead to arms, naïvely believing they could outsmart Qaddafi at his own game. Protesters dumped the placards declaring “No Blood” and took up cries vowing to “avenge the martyrs’ blood,” as well as weapons they pillaged from the colonel’s abandoned armories. Unarmed schoolchildren who had braved sniper fire and students who had chased Qaddafi’s brigades out of their barracks with bulldozers during the fevered days after February 17 now volunteered for the front, fed on tales of the heroics of a 15-year old who downed a helicopter the first time he fired a gun.

It was a lost cause from the start. Worse equipped and trained than their opposition, the rebel volunteers were simply outmatched. Qaddafi commanded a 50,000-man corps plus irregulars drawn from powerful and loyal tribes from central Libya, foremost his own, the Qaddafa. In addition to air power, the colonel had hundreds of tanks, radar whose range reached the thirty-second parallel and speedboats provided by Italy in years past to catch African trans-migrants, but which could equally serve to deter an amphibious landing. The professional forces that had defected were at best one tenth the size of the loyalist units, and reluctant to intervene, on the grounds that such action might trigger a civil war.

For weeks after announcing his defection, the colonel’s interior minister, ‘Abd al-Fattah Younis, declined to obey the Council’s orders to dispatch his 1,000 men to man the front lines and protect public buildings. Left unguarded, a vast armory near Benghazi was ravaged by looters and partially exploded on March 5, reportedly killing 40 people. “My forces might have been killed,” apologized Maj. Ahmad Qatrani, supposedly the most committed of the army’s eastern commanders to the rebel cause. At his “operations room” in the army’s accounting department in downtown Benghazi, he receives reports from the fronts and sends requests for cigarettes. Those soldiers who wanted to head to the front were required to present themselves as volunteers. “We found that the army was very weak and corrupted with large houses and land,” said Fathi Baaja, a political science professor who represents Benghazi on the Council.

Largely left to pursue the fight alone, schoolchildren and other easterners swarmed to the front, only to return bruised from the recoil of rifles and shot by classmates who, losing control of their anti-aircraft guns, sprayed the ground rather than the sky. An initially rapid advance across the desert to Bin Jawad, 180 miles west of Benghazi, the main rebel city, left supply lines woefully overstretched. The rebels’ antiquated Soviet anti-aircraft guns were no match for the colonel’s MIG fighter jets and quickly ran out of ammunition. A few dozen T-55 tanks in rebel hands were rehabilitated, but plodded too slowly to reach the front before the colonel’s forces, advancing from his home town of Sirte, counter-attacked.

Recognizing the odds, a few Council members tried to advise the untrained multitudes against hubris, only to be shouted down as defeatists. “We want to go to Tripoli,” exclaimed would-be fighters protesting outside the courthouse. “Give us guns.” Lawyers were denounced as lily-livered. “Helicopters are killing our people in al-Zawiya and we have no guns to fight. Where are you, Council?” The first reversal at Bin Jawad prompted mutual recriminations. “We had an open road to Sirte, but the Council’s call for the army to take over gave Qaddafi time to regroup,” complained an irregular forced back from the front. Others accused the Council of squandering the youth’s revolution. “Old people don’t have the spirit of the revolution. They are all talk,” fumed a banker-turned-armed volunteer from Bayda. “The Council is not accepted by the young.”

Internally, the Council’s hold appears equally weak. Its appeal to the security forces to return to work was largely ignored. Police officers justified their inaction by saying that they have no stations to restaff, since the revolutionaries had torched and looted them all. Council members suspected the real reason was counter-orders coming from Tripoli. A lone policeman reported for work the day the National Council ordered its 100 judicial police back to the courthouse. Muhammad Jihani, sporting a blue uniform dry-cleaned for the occasion, sat on a bench awaiting orders, and by lunchtime he had abandoned his post.

Initially greeted as a blessing enabling a wholesale revolution and replacement of the forces of repression, the absence of the security forces has quickly become a curse. Libya’s new order is fragile and exposed, and its subjects fear chaos. The price of Kalashnikovs in Benghazi has tripled.

The Council has been hamstrung financially, too. Bereft of international recognition, with the exception of France’s, it lacks the right to sell such state assets as oil. Facing high insurance premiums and allegations of piracy, most oil purchasers keep their distance. “There are no orders for March,” says Hasan Boulifa, senior manager at the Arabian Gulf Oil Company. The lawyers, too, apparent sticklers for legality, opposed revisiting Libya’s sins of the past by selling to offshore buyers. Despite international opprobrium, Qaddafi remains Libya’s sovereign.

Moreover, despite Libya’s vast distances, the colonel oversees a highly centralized state in which, even after a month of rebellion, he retains near total control of communications. He shuts down cellular phone and Internet services at the flick of a switch. (Telecommunications engineers in Benghazi say it would take six months to set up an alternate Internet line.) Without fresh liquidity from the capital, bank vaults are beginning to empty. Public-sector workers, the armed forces included, have received a 200-dinar (about $163) bank loan, but no salaries. Without a budget, the rebel’s volunteer culture is living on borrowed time.

As the problems facing the Council mount, so does the internal acrimony. Its members span the spectrum from Islamists to ardent secularists; pragmatists ready to negotiate with Qaddafi and principled revolutionaries flinching from ever again supping with the devil; advocates of peaceful protest and military officers convinced that Qaddafi can only be forced from power; lawyers petitioning to have the colonel put on trial and survivors of the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, who want him not only killed but his body dumped at sea so that it will not defile Libyan soil. While National Council members hope wistfully for an implosion of Qaddafi’s command structure inside his Bab al-‘Aziziyya barracks, centrifugal forces are pulling at their own more brittle and fledgling seams.

Perhaps most damaging of all, by resorting to arms the revolutionaries have risked jeopardizing their moral authority abroad. From the struggle of a defenseless people against dictatorship, the conflict has degenerated into a battle between a sovereign government, albeit one labeled illegitimate by outside powers, and an insurgent force.

Was the violent turn inevitable? Predictably, Council members blamed Qaddafi’s henchmen for leaving the gates of his arms caches open. Peaceful protest, too, seemed futile in the face of a ruler ready to deploy far more brutal force than his Egyptian or Tunisian counterparts. The colonel’s forces shot dead almost as many people in Benghazi, a small city of 800,000, as Mubarak’s did in all of Egypt, a country 80 million strong. And the four decades of suffering Libyans have endured has been North Africa’s most onerous. Only Libyans aged 50 or older -- a small fraction of the young population -- have a recollection of any ruler aside from Qaddafi.

Escaping Qaddafi

The colonel likes it that way. A megalomaniac, he trucks no personality or telling of history that does not revolve around him. In a deeply observant Muslim country, he downgraded the holy scripture of Islam, shuttering Qur’anic schools while opening research centers devoted to the Green Book, the slim compendium of his disjointed philosophizing. From primary school to university, pupils failed their public examinations if they could not learn his Green Book’s stanzas by heart. Sowing confusion for all but himself, he replaced the Islamic lunar calendar with a solar one, significantly beginning not with the launch of the prophet Muhammad’s rule in seventh-century Arabia, like the Islamic method of timekeeping, but with the prophet’s death. “Libya was dragged through a cultural revolution,” says Rajab al-Jaroushi, an expert on tectonics at Gharyounis University and a local leader of the Society of Muslim Brothers. “With his Green Book, Qaddafi thought he was Chairman Mao.”

The colonel tried to rewrite Libya’s history as well as its faith. He erased the symbols of the 18 year-old monarchy he overthrew, replaced its flag and jailed anyone brazen enough to carry the king’s portrait. In the mid-1980s, he ordered his tanks to open fire on al-Jaghboub, the Qur’anic school of the founder of the Sanusi Sufi order in a town near the Egyptian border, reducing the site of an annual mulid to rubble. ‘Umar Mukhtar’s mausoleum was plucked from its plinth in central Benghazi and hauled south. “In schools we jumped straight from Italy’s killing of ‘Umar Mukhtar to the 1969 revolution, leapfrogging the 37 years in between,” says a history teacher in Bayda. “If you veered from the syllabus, you were jailed. He wanted a new generation that had no other roots but Qaddafi.” Until recently, all languages but Arabic were banned in schools. “He wanted us to stay ignorant and cut off from abroad,” says a high-schooler in Tobruk, the nearest city to Egypt, bemoaning his inability to communicate in a Latin tongue.

Ottoman and Italian colonial architecture was left to crumble (UNESCO only narrowly stopped him from bulldozing Benghazi’s Ottoman core). Footballers had numbers, not names, to prevent them from acquiring fans. “Qaddafi allowed no one to be popular except him,” says a former economy minister’s son. And the role of his fellow “free” army officers who launched the 1969 coup was elided. Emhemmed al-Mghariaf, a free officer and brother of a current opposition leader, mysteriously died in a car crash following protests over the colonel’s cancellation of elections, which he had slated to take place after seizing power, and his self-promotion to leader. Several others incurred hefty prison terms. (‘Umar Hariri, the Council’s military chief and another former free officer, was imprisoned in 1975, charged with organizing a coup attempt.)

Parliament, political parties and unions were similarly jettisoned and replaced with handpicked revolutionary committees. The army, the launching pad of the 1969 coup, was debilitated by a ruinous war in Chad that saw its elite soldiers taken captive and top generals purged, again for allegedly fomenting coups. By the early 1990s, the colonel had assembled alternative battalions of regional militias, most numbering around 600 men, barracked in towns across Libya. These units took orders from his sons, not the military command. Armed with modern weaponry, the militiamen contrasted markedly with poorly paid army soldiers, who were banned from carrying weapons, even on base, and mostly restricted to a few bullets each. “He marginalized the army and relied on militias, which were manned mostly by mercenaries,” said National Council head Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil.

Over the decades, Qaddafi’s power base has contracted to his inner family. His military intelligence chief, ‘Abdallah Sanusi al-Maghrahi, is a brother-in-law. State investments and oil revenues are channeled through organs answerable to his son, Sayf al-Islam. Dispensed with caprice, the colonel’s oil riches kept allies in line. The northern hemisphere won contracts and the southern jobs, leaving Libyans shut out of both markets. After decades of pent-up resentment, Libyans used their liberty to ransack foreign compounds and chase helpless migrant workers from their flats. “People stole because they are hungry,” explains a Chad war veteran whose family of six lives on mattresses in a bare one-room Benghazi flat, without running water. “Foreigners got money and homes and contracts to prop up his regime. He left us nothing.” Across the road, Libyans repair secondhand televisions in shacks more commonly found in the sub-Saharan nations of Africa.

Reviving Qaddafi

As his forces advance, the muzzle that Libyans sloughed off on February 17 is being slowly reattached. Briefly garrulous Libyans now shy away from giving their names, and Libya’s initially jubilant exiles postpone their return. Having dispensed with his liberal pretensions, Sayf al-Islam threatens an all-out war against the Libyan people, aerial bombardment included, at least until the international community moves to stop him. A cartoon by Sa‘id Badawi of Egypt’s al-Ahram Weekly depicts the colonel responding to “Down with Dictators” placards by waving his own, reading, “Down with the People.” He has stemmed the two-month tide of people power in the region and paused the domino-like collapse of dictatorial regimes.

As the Council’s hopes of taking Tripoli fade, increasingly they have looked to forces -- internal and external -- that might at least safeguard their gains. Internally, they have appealed to tribes, particularly Libya’s largest, the Warfalla, situated on the western borders of Sirte. The Councilmen’s experience of tribal politics, however, falls far short of Qaddafi’s. He has -- says a Warfalla scion -- carted scores of their kinsmen off to Tripoli as pawns to be sacrificed should they rebel. Externally, the Council has dropped its initial reservations about foreign intervention. As the tables turn, even ardent Islamists who shun suggestions of infidel boots on their all-Muslim soil have sought salvation from outside Libya. While leaving Qaddafi’s ground forces unfettered, they plead for a no-fly zone that would remove his qualitative edge in air power, reassure a traumatized eastern population who fear the colonel might yet deploy chemical weapons and help sway wavering Libyans to join the rebels. Humanitarian sea corridors, too, might rescue rebel-held towns, particularly in the beleaguered west. And international recognition would enable the rebels to enjoy the proceeds of Libya’s oil.

Assuming, that is, that the game is not already over by the time the international community decides. Countries that have minor oil interests, like France, have failed to persuade countries that have major ones, like Italy, to recognize the Council. To cover the dithering, their statesmen engage in public hand wringing and aid handouts. Turkey -- no stranger to aid flotillas to enclaves in crisis -- has stopped short of even that measure, delaying the departure of a humanitarian shipment, citing bad weather. Fear of forfeiting large contracts for ports, construction projects, sewage works and the Great Manmade River might also have had something to do with it.

Perhaps an even more significant brake on international engagement with the rebels is a fear of the unknown that surmounts the fear of the grotesque. Telling an Islamist from a leftist revolutionary is none too easy in rebel areas where men are too busy manning barricades to shave. But the sight of bearded men battling in oil fields makes it easier for the colonel to play on Western fears that, without him, jihadis inspired by al-Qaeda will conquer the southern Mediterranean’s oil fields.

Libyans pride themselves on a tradition of resistance forged in ‘Umar Mukhtar’s struggle against Italian fascist occupation. In the 1980s, feeling Qaddafi’s rule to be just as arbitrary, Islamist elements hearkened back to Mukhtar’s fight as a jihad that inspired their own. Harassed by the colonel, hundreds of Islamists fled to Afghanistan only to acquire the ideology of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. The “Afghan Libyans” reappeared at home as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the mid-1990s. In a campaign against their Green Mountain redoubts around Bayda, the colonel rounded up thousands of combatants and non-combatants alike, including a large group of Muslim Brothers, many of them prominent academics, in 1998. Inside Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, jihadis and Muslim Brothers shared a common experience of torture, hunger and eventually amnesty -- in part due to the intervention of the Qatar-based televangelist Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Sayf al-Islam, who briefly adopted a Muslim Brother, ‘Abdallah Shamsiyya, a professor of economics, as his financial adviser. Of thousands of Islamist detainees, including a new jihadi crop caught returning from US-occupied Iraq, barely 200 remained in Abu Salim prison at the time of the February 17 revolt.

Outside Benghazi’s courthouse, these multiple Islamist groups have proved assiduous in asserting their presence. The Muslim Brothers, Libya’s oldest political party established by Egyptian émigrés fleeing Nasser’s repression in the 1950s, appears to be the best organized. Hitherto an elitist group concentrated in Libyan academe, it is rapidly acquiring a grassroots reach through the mosques, a newly acquired forum the liberals lack. Scrapping their previous reformist agenda, the Brothers now preach revolution and an anti-Qaddafi jihad. Prayer leaders issued fatwas declaring the February 17 protest to be a religious obligation, and later they backed armed revolt. “We thought we were demonstrating to change our lives, and we found we were changing the regime,” says Salam Muhammad, a senior Muslim Brother in Benghazi who has started a newspaper.

Within days, the academics outside the courthouse were outnumbered by would-be mujahideen staging prayers “fi sabil Allah,” in the path of God, for the fight against the colonel. “We control the street and the fighting at the front,” says Juma‘ Muhammad, one of hundreds of former Abu Salim inmates helping to rally the crowds behind the Islamists. “We’re with the people; the Council is not.” In open-air prayers and graffiti, they repetitively denounce Qaddafi -- not least because of his bushy curls -- as an unbeliever, a Mossad agent and a Jew. Another Abu Salim inmate notes that two rebel fighters killed in the first battle for the oil port of Ra’s Lanouf were Libyan veterans of the Afghan jihad, as is a 41 year-old rebel commander.

Against such forces, Qaddafi’s survival might look positively attractive to some Western policymakers. In this view, Europe would regain its first line of defense against al-Qaeda’s expansion to the Mediterranean, its rights to the oil and its coastal guard against mass African migration. The colonel, after all, has survived international sanctions before, and he could no doubt do so again, were Westerners with offshore accounts ready to bail him out. To assist his rehabilitation, he might even adopt Saddam Hussein’s formula with the Kurds, and offer the east autonomy and a share of the oil revenues. Redonning his reformist mantle, Sayf al-Islam might add a mea culpa for the killing and promise another amnesty. And all those who shamelessly wooed the autocrat might buzz once again around his honey pot.

Yet the real threat to stability comes not from the Council’s survival but from its demise. Shorn of the possibility of international recognition, the Islamists who now endorse the organ as their representative body could rapidly turn elsewhere for succor and court far less savory forces for arms and men. Disillusioned rebels could resort to heat-seeking missiles targeting trans-Mediterranean flights, in a conflict that could suck in not only neighbors, but also European powers. Without the prospect of Western engagement and challenged by more radical groups, the Muslim Brothers could shed their stated aspirations for a constitutional democracy, opposition to military rule and commitment to uphold “legal” Western contracts.

Such a confrontational twist is avoidable, given the current Islamist advocacy of constitutional models. “We will organize ourselves as a political party, which stresses our Islamic culture,” promises the tectonics professor al-Jaroushi, manning one of the tents in the square beneath the courthouse, for now. Despite the revolutionary fervor, he, like many of his fellow Brothers, still sports a Western suit and tie. As for curbing migration, says the Brothers’ Shamsiyya, a post-Qaddafi government would end Qaddafi’s open-door policy for Africans and impose visas on foreign workers, as a means of drawing Libyans into the labor market. And spokesmen for more radical groups, garbed in white tunics and traditional red felt hats, say that they, too, favor the importation of a modern Western educational system and want the soldiers of global jihad, like Western troops, to stay out of Libya.

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