42 Years of Absolute Rule, 6 Days of Mounting Revolution
There’s something happening in Libya. Pro-democracy demonstrators in Benghazi, a city of about 500,000 in the east of the country, suffered regime-led violence that took the lives of at least 233 (Human Rights Watch) or as many as over 300 (eye-witness reports, not cross-checked) demonstrators over the weekend. Following a massacre of attendants of a funeral procession for 84 dissidents killed in the previous day’s clashes, a military unit sent to Benghazi to quell the uprisings in the east defected and joined the demonstrators on Sunday. This probably came as a great relief to a city under siege; it was correspondingly really, really bad news for Libya’s iron-fisted ruler, Colonel Muammar Ghadafi.
It was also bad news for Ghadafi when a chief of the Warfalla tribe (a powerful personage in Libya, a non-consolidated state marked by tribal divisions which Ghadafi has episodically exploited) declared that he had defected to the demonstrators, and urging his counterpart tribal chieftans to band together to do the same. Worse was the announcement of the al-Zuwayya tribal chieftan that he intended to cut off the Ghadafi regime’s access to Libya’s oil fields, demanding Ghadafi’s resignation. Less strategically-crucial, perhaps, but also indicative of crumbling confidence at the top of the political structure, has been the resignation of 9 Libyan diplomats, including its representative to the Arab League, its ambassador to India, and Libya’s deputy representative to the United Nations.
Ghadafi Has Deployed His Military–and May Have Overplayed His Hand
Military units have in fact fired on protesters in several parts of the country. According to the New York Times, helicopter strikes on protesters have occurred in the capital Tripoli and along the road from rebel-held Misruata to Tripoli. But this isn’t the worst-case development that could occur in Libya.
The worst thing that could happen in Libya would be air strikes and a tank invasion of Benghazi, the 2nd-largest city in the country, on the coast of the eastern Cyrenaica region. This city of about 500,000 was liberated by protesters after the defection of the army unit deployed to crush those protests. It isn’t clear the Ghadafi regime still has the means to suppress the rebellion in Benghazi, but with enough control over the air force, he could try to make an example of this restive city like the 1982 atrocity by Syria’s Assad regime in Hama.
In other news, as of this writing we can apparently dismiss early speculation, by United Kingdom Foreign Minister William Hague among others, that Colonel Ghadafi had already fled to Venezuela. Colonel Ghadafi has just appeared on Libyan state television, helpfully clarifying that he has in fact not fled to Venezuela. He also called independent media reporting on the demonstrations “stray dogs,” a gesture of maximum disrespect. The statements of defiance issued by Ghadafi and his son, Saif al-Islam, were intended to suggest that he won’t resign as did Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, come what may. “We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet,” Saif al-Islam said on Libyan state television last night.
Inaction on Libya May Be a Costly Strategy
A www.BBC.co.uk article assessing the importance of tribal loyalties in Libya was perceptive in not overestimating the uniqueness of the Libyan revolution–and prudent in issuing a warning that the simple stagnation of the regime’s current near-hopeless state could ultimately be a worse outcome even than a yet-larger massacre in Benghazi:
“So, what significance ought to be attached to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s warning of war between Libya’s tribes in the event of the regime falling, or to the heads of Libyan tribes reportedly declaring support for the anti-regime protesters, as the head of the Warfalla tribe appears to have done?
“And how seriously should we take the eastern Al-Zuwayya tribe’s threat to cut off oil exports, as has been reported?
“The short answer is that the prospect of civil war will become real only if the regime chooses to fight to the end and continues to remain indifferent to civilian casualties, as it has been doing over the past few days.”
For now, prospects for a civil war in Libya still seem distant–though as of this writing the country’s territory is in fact split between territory still under government control and territory liberated by demonstrators and military forces or tribes which have defected to them. The Liberal Ironist thinks his would be a good time for President Obama to say something beyond his consistently-cautious line since Mubarak employed vigilantes against his ultimately-successful opposition. Morally-commendable but in effect so indirect as to be off-point, the President’s position to-date has simply been that violence is bad. With successful expulsions of decades-ruling, foreign-supported autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt in a matter of weeks, protests not only in Libya but Bahrain, Yemen, Djibouti and Algeria have become serious. Not all of these revolts are necessarily fated to succeed, and the moment for pro-democracy protests in Sudan, Syria and Iran already seems to have come and gone. But prudence is not synonymous with passivity, and awareness of the costs and risks of taking any stand may not constitute profound thinking when the means the President has to change the political and strategic balance of protests such as Libya’s are considered. This will be the subject of my next post.