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The Battle for Libya

Muammar Qaddafi; drawing by John Springs

Tucked between the Mediterranean and the Sahara, the Libyan town of Brega was a rather somnolent back-of-the-beyond place on the Gulf of Sidra in the north of the country. Oil workers went there for its high wages and decent schools—an engineer at the Sirte Oil Company earned ten times more than his counterpart in the armed forces.

No longer. Brega, which sits on an oil lake, has become a battlefield in the fight against the government of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Bombs drop among oil depots filled with hundreds of thousands of barrels, and in the past two weeks, the company managers have had to deal with four changes of regime. To hedge bets they keep in touch with both the rebels in Benghazi, to the east, and the Qaddafi regime in Tripoli, to the west.

The battle for Brega and a nearby but larger terminal, Ras Lanuf, has significantly upped the stakes in Libya’s conflict. It is being fought halfway between Colonel Qaddafi’s tribal heartland of Sirte and the rebel base in Benghazi, a city of 800,000, and has drawn traditional desert tribes into the revolution, including the large Maghraba and Zawiya clans, on whose coastal scrubland Brega lies. It also threatens to draw in an outside world jittery that southern Europe’s nearest oil supplies are now jeopardized.

On March 10, Qaddafi launched a blistering counterattack on Ras Lanuf, dropping bombs among the vast oil kettles and darkening the sky with burning kerosene. The volunteers shot back with their small antiaircraft guns at the invisible whoosh of fighter jets, but many were forced to retreat. The colonel’s aerial and tank bombardment was slowing, if not stopping, the advance. As the fighting intensifies, those of the rebel forces that, until now, stayed on the sidelines are rapidly being drawn into the conflict. Away from the front many are unsettled with fear. What if the weapons turn out to be chemical weapons, asks a Benghazi shopkeeper. Was it worth it?

Thanks to his brutality, Colonel Qaddafi has successfully suppressed pro-democracy protests against his dictatorship in a war in which, while the rebels have higher morale, he has the most money and arms. By killing perhaps as many as ten times more people than Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a population less than a tenth the size of Egypt’s, he has slowed the rebellion, an achievement neither Tunisia’s nor Egypt’s erstwhile leaders could do. He is playing the nationalist card more plausibly than at any time since US planes bombed his family compound at Bab al-Aziziya in 1986. And he has sapped the opposition of some of its moral advantage. As more people die in the fighting, the price of life on both sides cheapens. Qaddafi’s forces have killed at least a thousand. And rebels have killed black African alleged mercenaries who were prisoners of war.

Under interrogation they told us they had received $100,000 to fight us. We caught sixty who took money to kill us, so we had to kill them,” an eyewitness, a doctor in the eastern coastal town of Beida, told me. As if to corroborate his account, a primary school turned detention center in Shahat, a town in the Green Mountains not far from Benghazi, was full of Libyans, but nearly empty of black fighters. Unlike the Libyans, the sub-Saharan Africans had no tribe to protect them. A researcher for Human Rights Watch in Beida also said they were investigating cases of execution and lynching of alleged mercenaries by rebels. (Fleeing Africans were pushed off ships that European governments sent to evacuate their nationals as the Africans were trying to clamber aboard, I am told by Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergency director in Benghazi.)

Perhaps it was inevitable that the colonel’s violence would beget violence. The protests against Qaddafi began in Benghazi on February 15, when fourteen black-robed lawyers demanded the release of Fathi Turbil, a fellow lawyer hauled in for questioning by Abdullah Sanussi, Qaddafi’s intelligence chief and brother-in-law. But as the crowds grew, the authorities responded first with rubber bullets, then live ones, and later antiaircraft guns pointed directly at the crowds. Protesters responded in kind. Those who had initially defied snipers picked up stones and then Molotov cocktails. Within three days they were loading looted bulldozers with dynamite used for fishing to blow holes in government armories.

Both the rebels and the pro-Qaddafi forces are now consolidating their control of their respective terrains. In the western region of Tripolitania, Qaddafi has replanted his green flag on the Tunisian and Algerian frontiers, tightening his hold on the border crossings and the adjacent Ghadames gas fields. He has quelled demonstrators in the sprawling capital, Tripoli, stationing militiamen outside mosques and at many checkpoints, and he has surrounded the remaining rebel towns near the capital and shot at residential neighborhoods with tanks. Protesters who took to the streets after previous Friday prayers for the most part stayed indoors on March 4. Activists who talked excitedly by cell phone now reply in clipped platitudes and hang up. Anti-regime graffiti is quickly whitewashed. After briefly rising, a curtain of fear has descended.

In the sparsely populated but oil-rich Sahara between eastern and western Libya, the colonel has shored up his tribal alliances, blocking access from the east along the three highways west. Qaddafi’s federation with the Oulad Suleiman and Megrahi, tribes that are strong in this region, is holding, and the largest tribe, Warfalla, numbering nearly a million, continues to maintain the balance of power and for the most part remains on the sidelines. Qaddafi’s own tribe, the Gadhafi, is quite small, but by a fluke of history it is supremely positioned to turn central Libya into a buffer protecting the western part of the country. Its heartlands straddle the oil field and military bases in the region running from Sabha, in the south, to Sirte, the coastal town guarding access to the west. Qaddafi’s clan numbers 70,000 in Sirte—perhaps half of the town’s population. As long as Qaddafi holds Sirte, he holds the west.

In the east, the rebels are also asserting power, flying their tricolor—Libya’s flag before Qaddafi replaced it—along the 375 miles of Mediterranean coastline they seized in a week. Thanks to their own tribal ties to the south, they have also seized Africa’s largest oil field, Sarir, whose 360 active wells pump 400,000 barrels on a normal day. Dozens of generals, too, have defected, opening their armories to the rebels. In Qaddafi’s Libya weapons are banned; but now youths have acquired their own arsenals—and the freedom to use them—overnight.

Libya map
Mike King

Across the vast desert, both sides have attempted to pierce each other’s front lines. Rebels say a vanguard breached the Ubari oasis deep in the south, by bribing their way through the desert scrub. But for the most part, the lines are hardening. Protected by vast stretches of desert, both sides have enough oil, manpower, and supply lines to sustain conflict. For all the disavowals by rebel leaders of separatism, the divisions that have emerged loosely correspond to those of Banu Hillal and Banu Sulaim, the two Arab tribal confederations that spilled into North Africa in the eleventh century and settled in Libya’s east (Cyrenaica) and west (Tripolitania), and the broader Maghreb respectively. The Gulf of Sirte’s inflammable oil installations are the front line.

Behind Rebel Lines

Two and a half weeks after shrugging off Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship, the rebels continue their carnival outside Benghazi’s courthouse, which they have made their headquarters. Roaring crowds taunt Qaddafi to send his planes and tanks, and promise to brave them as they did his antiaircraft guns. Mannequins with military boots swing from lampposts, enacting the colonel’s hanging that the rebels seek. Cartoon graffiti of him as Abu Shafshufa—literally “father of the fuzzy hair”—cover the surrounding walls. And in cafés broadcasting Arabic news, Qaddafi’s appearance triggers cries of zanga, zanga, or dead end.

Western civil rights movements had Jim Morrison: “The old get old and the young get stronger…. They got the guns, but we got the numbers. Gonna win, yeah we’re takin’ over…. Your ballroom days are over, baby.” Benghazi’s version is Adil Mashaiti, a thirty-seven-year-old Islamist doctor and former inmate of Qaddafi’s jails studying in London whose recordings have likewise become anthems for the opposition. His voice—pure, pietist, and unaccompanied—soothes the backdrop of hooting and gunfire, singing “We’ll stay here until our pain disappears. We’ll come alive and sweetly sing. Despite all the vengeance, we’ll reach the summit and scream to the heavens. We’ll stand together with balm and a pen.”

Volunteers have replaced the authoritarian government. Stalls have sprouted across the forecourt of the rebel headquarters, serving free cups of macchiato, the ubiquitous legacy of Italy’s colonialism. Nine-year-old boys patrol the crawling traffic, cautioning drivers to buckle their seatbelts. Their brothers guard the central bank and mow the lawns. Salim Faitouri, an oil engineer until the uprising began in mid-February, has been supervising a massive meals-on-wheels operation feeding demonstrators and Benghazi’s poor.

The euphoria waxes and wanes with news from the front, and the rebels’ efforts to forge a new governing authority. Unlike the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the revolutionaries in Benghazi and eastern Libya have taken control. Qaddafi’s revolutionary committees, people’s congresses, and security apparatus have disbanded, offering no interim stopgap. The defeated regime has no unions, political parties, or independent news organizations in eastern Libya. Even transitional institutions have to be built from scratch, by a population that for forty years has been severed from governing norms, and before that took lessons from Italian fascism.

The east now has a series of self-governing city councils, collectively owing their allegiance to the National Transitional Council, which also claims authority over the remnants of the armed forces. After the capricious, opulent colonel, the lack of charisma of its new leader, the former justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, comes as a relief. But for many in the youth revolution, the slight, elderly former judge with an old-timer’s red felt hat feels too old-school. In the first days of their uprising, he was still in Qaddafi’s government; he defected on February 21, after protesting the colonel’s “excessive use of violence” against protesters. Few understand what sort of institution now claims to govern them. Aside from Abdel-Jalil, all but six of its members have refused to identify themselves for fear of reprisals, and despite their promises of transparency they meet behind closed doors. The council’s first newspaper is as partisan and sycophantic as those it replaced.

Supporters emphasize Abdel-Jalil’s revolutionary credentials. In a televised cabinet session before the uprising, he questioned why prisoners whose release papers he had signed were still in jail. “It seems there is an invisible authority,” he reportedly told Qaddafi before tendering his resignation (though at the time he did not see it through). His power base is in Beida, a one-time seat of the monarchy that Qaddafi overthrew, which has been instrumental in organizing previous revolts. And he comes from the Barasa tribe, which though it is the tribe of Qaddafi’s second wife and the mother of Qaddafi’s most infamous sons, was among the first to join the revolt.

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