The Colonel, the Rebels and the Heavenly Arbiter

by Nicolas Pelham | published April 20, 2011

To the average American, the NATO intervention in Libya may look like another Iraq: another US-led adventure aiming to dislodge a would-be totalitarian Middle Eastern state with lots of oil and sand. The topography of the two countries is similar: The land is flat and parched, and the architecture dun and unloved. Even the terminology sounds the same, with the “no-fly zone” subject to “mission creep” that is rapidly turning its goal into “regime change.”

US military maneuvers under President Barack Obama have seemed far smarter, however, than those of his predecessor. Of all the belligerent Western parties, the United States has launched the most punishing strikes upon the assets of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, firing 100 Tomahawk missiles. And its demands have been the most uncompromising, with Obama repeating that “Qaddafi must go” and Susan Rice, Washington’s representative at the UN, adding the clause to UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that sanctioned “all necessary measures” in carrying out the resolution’s broad mission of protecting civilians. But the US has hidden its bombing under a bushel, letting others claim the credit. France dropped the first bombs, and within days of the start of the campaign, the US ceded command of the action to NATO, declaring that Libya was primarily an Arab and European responsibility. Officials dryly told journalists that Europe, after all, consumes most of Libya’s oil. Above all, rather than an enforced new order from the outside, like the Bush administration’s in Iraq, this regime change was an indigenous enterprise. Westerners were seen as merely responding to the Libyan clamor. While Bush led brashly from the front, Obama leads from the rear.

Benghazi Holds Its Breath

Certainly, the coalition has provided Libya’s rebel movement with significant support. In the earliest days, it beat back several of Col. Qaddafi’s assaults on rebel towns (though loyalist forces soon returned). Britain supplied the rebels’ political representative, the National Transitional Council, with a secure communications network, and Qatar gave them an Ericsson satellite so that the Libyans in the rebel-held east might at last be able to receive international calls and reconnect to the Internet. Qatar has also equipped the rebels with their own satellite television station based -- of course -- in Doha, the Qatari capital, and installed an FM radio outlet for Al Jazeera in Benghazi. Those insufficiently saturated by the pan-Arab network’s rolling coverage on television can tune in for more. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Italy have all offered to sell Libyan oil from rebel-held fields to keep the east solvent, and Britain and the US are both considering the release to the rebels of some of the Libyan funds they froze after Qaddafi’s harsh response to the initial uprising on February 17. And thanks to Qatar’s supply of gasoline, one can still fill up for $4; cars park in Benghazi with their engines running.

The largesse has helped the rebels partly to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Col. Qaddafi’s managed chaos. The National Transitional Council acts as a sort of loose rebel legislature, and the Crisis Management Committee it has appointed is its executive body. A few courts have begun functioning, primarily for divorce hearings, with the old regime judges applying the old regime’s laws. The police, too, are venturing back into the streets, and though many are identified with the colonel’s crimes, their strictures are largely obeyed. The nighttime percussion of machine guns in Benghazi has subsided, after the Council erected billboards banning celebratory fire. Conforming to public notices along the roads, friends chide friends who let loose. Banks have opened their doors, albeit to long queues of depositors, since limits on withdrawals and other bureaucratic measures have been imposed to prevent a run on the east’s meager cash reserves. And, despite the no-fly zone, Benghazi’s airport is now receiving international flights -- almost a rarity under Qaddafi, whose animus for the east meant that trips to and from points abroad were usually routed through Tripoli, ten hours away.

Largely because the past was so bad, the popular consent for and participation in the new order can seem overwhelming. At twilight, scores of volunteers for the front clamber aboard pickups assemble outside the April 7 barracks, named with Qaddafi’s macabre sense of humor after the day in 1977 when he strung rebellious students from gallows erected on the campuses of Tripoli’s and Benghazi’s universities. The less intrepid make do with carting cauldrons of food to the front. Naji Quwayda has offered his tugboat, the Shahhat, to ferry ammunition and penicillin 240 nautical miles across the Gulf of Sidra between Benghazi and Misrata, the last rebel-held city in western Libya. Facing a deficit of launchers for a profusion of Soviet-made Grad rockets looted from the colonel’s abandoned arsenals, car mechanics have begun manufacturing their own.

But the internal and external support notwithstanding, the rebels face an immense challenge. The solitary nails and faded patches on the walls of empty government offices testify to the National Council’s limited success in establishing a new authority. And, in some ways, the people trying to fill the vacuum are contributing to the emptiness. Many appear drawn from the descendants of old Ottoman grandees and the ranks of crony capitalists who returned from exile in the 2000s, tempted by the promises of economic liberalization made by Qaddafi’s fourth son, Sayf al-Islam. After foreign powers recognized their authority and sanctioned their selling of oil, the National Council types had positions that were worth fighting for.

Many easterners seem to have a sense of extra entitlement given their victimization under Qaddafi and their heroic escape therefrom. Suspicion of the returnees abounds, as if they were all freeloaders and upstarts seeking a piece of the pie, a sentiment directed at some Tripolitanians who cast their lot with the east as well. More worryingly, a gap is emerging between youth who led the uprising and the elite who appointed themselves leaders and claim to speak in the uprising’s name. Outside the courthouse that the National Council has made its principal seat, disgruntled students circulate a family tree mapping the multiple posts to which the Bugaighis and Gharyani families have appointed themselves. Having selected a leader, the workers at AJOCO, the country’s eastern-based oil producer, are resisting National Council efforts to install one of their own. There is a kneejerk reaction to anything that smacks of government by family business. “They exercise power and control without transparency,” says a disappointed Tripolitanian arrived from decades of exile in Europe. “Each brings his relations because they are the only ones they trust. It’s beginning to feel like Qaddafi all over again.”

Some National Council politicians are backtracking, too, on their democratic promises. Initially, the Council pledged that anyone working for its institutions would be barred from running for election. Spokesmen subsequently revised the ban to say it applied only to the Council’s 30 members, and not to the Crisis Management Committee, including its current head Mahmoud Jibril, a former Sayf al-Islam appointee. The date of elections has been pushed back beyond the putative capture of Tripoli. “If there is no final liberation, then the Management Committee will remain in charge,” says ‘Isam Gharyani, who sits on one of the Council’s other new committees. Islamist leaders worry that they, too, are being eased out. Nonetheless, they have tried to mediate between the street and the courthouse, fearful that a house divided might collapse.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to liberation are mounting. Members of Benghazi’s 3,000-strong revolutionary committee, the city council-cum-constabulary that served as the colonel’s local façade before February 17, are creating havoc in Libya’s second city. A thousand committeemen are reportedly behind bars in the April 7 barracks, but others rampage through state agency buildings thwarting the National Council’s efforts to establish law and order. In a former revolutionary committee building turned police operations room, Muhammad al-Midighari mans a hotline, among other tasks answering frantic appeals for aid in the face of attacks. The callers quickly exhaust his patience. “It’s not a real emergency,” he says, replacing the receiver on a housewife claiming that arsonists were inside a school. “And besides we have no forces available.” After another caller reported an abandoned case of grenades in a city square, al-Midighari had to beg the assistance of the 1,000-man Special Guards who followed their commander, Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah Younis, into the rebellion.

The health service is similarly malfunctioning, under the weight of years of neglect, the flight of nurses, most of whom were foreign, and mounting casualties from the front. It will take years for the medical system to recover. In Qaddafi’s Libya, doctors won their sinecures more for displays of loyalty than for professionalism. Parents recount horror stories of children hospitalized with asthma attacks, only to inflate like balloons after injections.

Compounding the internal disarray is the bedraggled state of eastern defenses. The few thousand professional soldiers who did not flee to the west are as overstretched as the police. No sooner had the National Council established a new National Oil Corporation empowered to sell oil from rebel-held fields than its new head Wahid Bugaighis halted production, in response to raids by the colonel’s men. “We have shut down operations until military forces are deployed to protect the fields,” he said. Army liaison officers estimate that 50 men are required to defend each of the east’s 14 major fields, most of which lie deep in the desert, but they have no manpower to spare. “We’re afraid to go back to the oil fields without protection,” says Mustafa Muhammad, an engineer who fled the April 5 raid on Misla, a field nestled in the sands near the Egyptian border. “We don’t have an army, and we have no assistance from NATO.” Anti-aircraft batteries dot the east, in preparation for the colonel’s advance, but they are also unmanned.

Microbuses haul volunteers bereft of boots and uniforms, let alone guns, to Banina’s airbase for onward passage to the front. In the distance a decrepit Soviet-made helicopter struggles to lift off (despite the no-fly zone) before resigning itself to remaining on the ground. (When it finally succeeded, Qaddafi’s forces claim they shot it down.) “The Qaddafis said we are heading for a civil war that will divide Libya, leaving us a third,” says Col. Ahmad Bani, a rebel military spokesman, as if describing an optimistic scenario. “But our situation is so bad. We have no weapons to equal Qaddafi’s brigades.”

News from the Front

Easterners have gone too far to go back. Libyans fleeing east bear grim tidings from the mountainous rebel redoubts near the Tunisian border, where the colonel has struck back. Water tanks have been shelled, they say, and wells poisoned with petrol. In Misrata, the only western city still under rebel control, loyalist forces are reported to have blocked sewage pipes, sending waste water spewing into people’s homes. Wherever Qaddafi’s forces have prowled, scores have reportedly disappeared, and husbands forced to watch while wives are raped. Easterners will flee or fight in the streets to prevent the same from happening to them.

But with the rebels increasingly dependent on external support for their survival, the uprising has become steadily less Libyan and homegrown. And with the machinations on the global stage beyond their control, easterners have fallen victim to wild mood swings.

Sometimes they are exuberant. Outside the Benghazi courthouse, marquees have sprouted as if at a medieval fair, testifying to the plethora of new guilds and protest groups that have sprung up. Libyan Airlines pilots have a tent of their own, bedecked with a placard thanking the UN for the no-fly zone. Women march in the square, chanting, “It’s our revolution, not al-Qaeda’s” and “We’re Muslims, not terrorists,” in reference to Qaddafi’s attempts to label the uprising as a giant jihadi Trojan horse operation. Amateur poets recite verses of samizdat, which are often allegories stored in their heads, where they hoped the colonel would not gain access. Jamal al-Barbour, a 29-year old air steward, performs his collection of poems entitled “Mr. Wolf,” dressed in shades and a black-and-white kaffiyya, as if still in hiding. “Who’s sleeping with his wife without my permission?” he intones. In a corner, youths play cards daubed with the names of Qaddafi’s sons and henchmen. Sayf al-Islam, the would-be financial liberalizer, is the ace of diamonds; Saadi, who overturned his father’s ban on soccer and runs his own team, is the ace of clubs. The colonel, of course, is the joker.

But when reports of the colonel’s advance ripple back to Benghazi, the levity rapidly sours into recrimination. In the search for scapegoats, foreigners take the blame. Those who oppose NATO action bear the brunt: Rebels captured a Chinese tanker that arrived to collect oil, vowing to cancel the colonel’s copious Chinese contracts. On April 4, anarchic, gun-toting teens, still out of school, chased away a Turkish ship before it could offload its cargo of medicine and ambulances. “We want guns, not food,” they chanted, denouncing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan for sending baubles to the insurrectionists while protecting Qaddafi inside the corridors of NATO. There were no red carpets for the first heads of state to visit the rebel government from Mali, Mauritania and Brazzaville-Congo; to the contrary, crowds pelted them with abuse. Desperate for all the friends it can get, the National Council looked on powerless. “In Tripoli the people speak in the name of the government; in Benghazi, the government speaks in the name of the people,” apologized Gharyani, before rushing off to the Turkish consulate to keep the rabble from torching it. “Don’t harm the consul,” pleaded a colleague.

Weaker foreigners are also targeted. Libyans abused by the colonel for four decades have turned on sub-Saharan African workers, whom Qaddafi treated as loyal dhimmis. The human detritus from bouts of xenophobia litters Egypt’s border crossing at Salloum, now also a dumping ground for those Libyans cast out. In some ways, they are the lucky ones, having run the gauntlet of checkpoints on the road to the border. At each checkpoint, local guards check for foreigners. Sodden sub-Saharans shiver in the midnight rain on the roadside. At Salloum, Egypt’s immigration hall has turned into a dormitory, carpeted with sleeping bodies, many there for over a month. Beneath arc lights, the floor quivers with babies too exhausted to cry and worried mothers, citizens of countries whose governments -- in Niger, Mali, Chad and Bangladesh -- have neither the time nor the means to repatriate their discards. In a corner, an Egyptian government clinic offers treatments for bronchitis and infectious diseases.

As they run out of foreign targets, Libyans have begun blaming each other as well. Arguments over money are more common; and the volunteer spirit that pervaded the east in the first weeks after February 17 seems strained. The National Council covers the hotel bills of its favorites, while leaving others to battle proprietors alone. As nerves fray, a squabble over exchange rates in the market degenerates into brawls. Eyewitnesses have recorded mob killings with machetes.

Which way will the battle go? Three times after NATO bombardments of Qaddafi’s forces, the rebels have rushed west toward Sirte, the colonel’s home town, only to be repulsed and driven eastward in helter skelter retreat. In the tug of war across the Gulf of Sidra, the front lines have sometimes shifted by 125 miles in a single day. In mid-April, the lines briefly stabilized outside of Ajdabiya, the gateway to the rebel heartland, before Qaddafi took that town, too. The front now lies to Ajdabiya’s east.

NATO, for the most part, has acted as heavenly arbiter, preventing either side from delivering a decisive blow. Both sides appear to be largely reliant on equipment that was manufactured 40 years ago. Despite rebel claims of fresh supplies reaching Tripoli from Algeria, the most sophisticated ordnance that a UN-affiliated team found in the desert was a Russian-made wire-guided missile some two decades old. Of late, Human Rights Watch has claimed that Qaddafi’s forces are using more modern cluster bombs in Misrata.

But since the US ceded responsibility for operations to NATO in late March, the intensity of the aerial attacks on the loyalist units has declined. “It’s obvious that NATO commanders have a different interpretation of UNSC 1973 than that of the US when it was leading the bombing,” complains a fighter. “They take ‘protecting civilians’ literally, and do nothing to protect the rebels.” With regime change the declared preference of key member states, a diplomat still in Benghazi acknowledges that “airstrikes not enough.” Compounding NATO’s indecision are the fractures between the most gung-ho members of the alliance, such as France, and the most force-resistant, Turkey and Germany.

Moreover, despite the posturing of commanders, the rebels have struggled to inject discipline, military initiative or tactical planning into their warfare. A Western security expert in Benghazi describes how, during World War II, small British units fighting on the same terrain used amphibious landings and small-scale desert raids to attack German supply routes traversing the narrow strip between the salt marshes and the sea on the road from Sirte to Brega. There are no such operations among the rebels’ foredoomed frontal assaults, and indeed a sense of rebel command often seems absent. One commander, Khalifa Haftar, spends much of his day holed up at lodgings supplied by Benghazi’s oil company, which offers free dinners. His rival, Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah Younis, a loyal interior minister in the colonel’s cabinet until he defected following the uprising, allocates chunks of his time to the media -- a hazardous business, given that Qaddafi now depends on live satellite TV coverage to divine rebel positions, having lost his planes. Shepherding an Al Jazeera crew to the front in mid-April, Gen. Younis’ car was hit by a mortar, injuring one of his guards.

Scenarios of Spring

Amid the increasing setbacks, rebel commanders, as well, have looked for outsiders to blame. At a press conference, Gen. Younis accused NATO of hampering rather than facilitating the rebel effort. NATO, he said, had ignored the coordinates rebels had sent for loyalist units attacking civilians, denied the rebels’ few fighter jets permission to fly to defend the oil fields and boarded a fishing boat taking arms and medicines to Misrata. “If NATO does not act, I’ll ask the government to request that the UN Security Council hand the mandate to someone else. They are allowing Qaddafi to kill our people,” he said. In mid-tirade, a protester spoiled Younis’ dramatic effect when he burst into the conference room, berating the general for raping and pillaging his family. He was dragged away and silenced by the ex-interior minister’s guards, whose methods did little to reassure observers that the new Libya had entirely dispensed with the old.

Devoid of effective leadership, rebels look to the skies -- be it NATO or God -- for guidance, not the ground. Volunteers scamper when the first mortar lands, depriving the remnant army’s efforts on the front line of their rear defense. “When they retreat, we retreat,” says the son of one of the colonel’s economy ministers, who has joined the soldiers at the front.

In contrast to the rebels’ muddled rush, Qaddafi’s forces have looked far more disciplined and innovative, mustering coordinated operations by land, sea and even air. On April 7, patrol boats arriving from Ra’s Lanouf opened fire on rebel positions from the sea while infantry units shot from the south. (In the chaos, Qaddafi’s forces had a helping hand from the skies, which mistakenly destroyed the rebel’s token tank force.) Qaddafi’s forces, too, have adapted quickly to coalition bombing raids. They have ditched tanks and motorized armor for the same pickup trucks used by rebels, and swapped uniforms for civilian clothes, making it hard to distinguish between fleeing rebels and those chasing after them. As successfully, they have adopted the mobile infantry tactics of Britain’s “desert rats” during World War II, on occasion slipping among rebel lines waving rebel flags and opening fire. The colonel’s units have further fought to deny the rebels the comparative advantage of marketing their oil production. The Gulf of Sidra’s oil installations, particularly the jetties where tankers would dock to load the crude, have been badly damaged in the fighting, and light infantry units have conducted raids deep into the desert targeting at least four drilling operations. Dodging NATO bombers by hiding their weapons and supplies in civilian container trucks, they reached Misla, one of Libya’s highest-quality fields and one of the few that had been operating. “Only vultures control the desert,” says a Council spokesman.

Over time, as the momentum of NATO drags and the colonel digs in his position and draws up fresh supplies around Ajdabiya, his ability to threaten the east will likely increase. An expeditionary force might take advantage of the coming sandstorm season to escape NATO’s detection and move on rebel population centers. The use of sandstorms, after all, was a favored tactic of the Zaghawa tribe, which (aided by Qaddafi) brought Chadian president Idriss Deby to power and may now be repaying the favor.

Islamist leaders in the east who had hitherto fumed at the prospect of foreign boots on the ground now pray for troops from elsewhere to save their Free Libya. Their flock, who had only just begun reconciling themselves to a temporary partition and shoring up defensive lines, are now trembling at the prospect of the colonel’s return. Such a scenario would spell disaster not only for them but also for opposition groups across the region seeking to spring-clean their autocratic regimes. Generals elsewhere might adopt the colonel’s model, and the authorities ruling Libya’s neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, whose peoples have swept their leaders but not yet the larger regimes from power, might yet take heart and stage a military comeback. Libyan revolutionaries generally like to compare their uprising to those in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. A more frightening scenario is that Libya’s spring resembles that of Prague in 1968 before the Soviets returned in their tanks.

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