• Email
  • Print

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.

pelham_3-040711.jpg
AP Images
Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, Libya’s former justice minister and now leader of the National Transitional Council

As yet it is unclear whether Abdel-Jalil can fill the vacuum. Beyond the courthouse, government departments and schools have yet to open. And despite the council’s goading, many shops, police stations, and military bases remain shuttered, apparently because their proprietors are still hedging their bets. Though there has been little crime, frequent gunfire punctures Benghazi’s nights.

Some speak of a lurking hidden paw of the colonel. “His revolutionary committees come out at night and shoot randomly,” says a National Council member. Businessmen receive warnings by text message. People who previously gave their names are now asking that they be retracted. “Qaddafi has lived with us for so long, he entered our hearts,” apologizes an oil engineer talking oil politics. While we are stuck in a traffic jam, a car pulls up alongside us and a Qaddafi loyalist reprimands the engineer after eavesdropping. “We are all Muammar,” he responds, obediently curtailing his anti-Qaddafi tirade. In an alleyway of Benghazi’s old city, a tailor who normally stitches abayas—black tunics for women—shrinks when asked why he is now sewing rebel flags. “I have to make money,” he apologizes and clams up.

Their fears are not unfounded. Though it has lost its buildings, Qaddafi’s internal security apparatus remains at least partially in place. Hotel receptionists subserviently field calls from a regime informer seeking information about al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic satellite channel that is most popular with the rebels. Intruders broke into one of the very few European consulates still open in Benghazi, stole its computers, and warned the consul, who had lived for two decades in the city, to flee. In this highly centralized state in which communications are routed through Tripoli, the Qaddafis still retain control over the Internet, which they can flick off with a switch—as they did on the afternoon of March 3 (it remained off for several days)—and over both mobile phone companies. Mohammed Qaddafi, the colonel’s eldest son, owns all three. As the colonel noted in a recent speech, “It’s my country.”

Worse than the fear has been the east’s degradation. The city of Benghazi has rebelled before, most recently in 2006 when protesters chased out the security forces for over a week, and it has paid the price not just in bullets but marginalization. The second city of one of Africa’s richest countries, Benghazi is a pot-holed, battered wreck. Most of the housing predates the colonel’s rule, though the population has since quadrupled to about 700,000. The Ottoman quarter, Sidi Harabish, an architectural gem, lies sunk in a swamp of sewage. The ocher plasterwork of its walls is peeling off. In a land littered with ancient ruins, Benghazi once had a museum, but it was closed in 1980. Though the country produces some two million barrels of oil a day, the city’s marketplaces look like sub-Saharan shacks. Mari’a Kashmi, a veteran of Qaddafi’s wars in Chad and Uganda, takes home a soldier’s salary of 250 dinars a month, enough to house his four children in a single damp-infested room. “Qaddafi cares about oil, not people,” he says. “He hates us.”

The roads out of Benghazi reveal more desolation. The economics of Qaddafi’s Green Book has turned Cyrenaica’s farms—once the ancient world’s breadbasket—into dusty wastelands where goats roam, fed on stale bread. The one suspension bridge in the Green Mountains was built under the monarchy.

In recent years, the colonel, prodded by his besuited son Seif al-Islam, experimented with an Abu Shafshufa version of glasnost and perestroika. But the state investment politics only compounded the negligence. Foreign companies that won contracts imported hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers to implement projects despite Libya’s chronic unemployment. In the scrub west of Benghazi, Chinese workers, fleeing conflict, have left behind an unfinished tenement city based on a Beijing blueprint, replete with acres of uniform concrete blocs. A new Turkish-designed highway heading west lies half-buried in sand. In the city center the few new buildings are hotels, for foreigners. “Qaddafi gave contracts to foreigners, and in return they paid kickbacks and propped up his regime,” says Mansour Saleh, an oil contracts manager.

Filling the Vacuum

All of which makes it easy for alternative forces—the army, the tribes, and the Islamists—to claim that they can make better use of Libya’s oil wealth. Battered for decades, none of them is in very good shape. After the successive attempted coups in the 1970s, Colonel Qaddafi sent the army into Chad, and in the rout that followed, thousands—senior officers among them—were abandoned and, according to still seething soldiers, disowned. Another purge followed in 1993 after generals from the Warfala tribe botched a coup. After that the colonel pretty much ditched his army. Instead, he formed paramilitary brigades, the most powerful of which were led by his sons. “He cut off our supply of arms and spare parts for our tanks,” complains a Chad war veteran, “and gave them to Sirte [i.e., Qaddafi] and his sons.” The navy, which also defected in the current uprising, suffered similarly. “I would rather go to sea in a dinghy,” said an observer with close ties to the National Council’s military committee.

Following the army’s failed attempts to gain control, Islamist groups emerged as the prime challengers, only to be similarly beaten down. In the mid-1990s, a group of jihadists returning from Afghanistan formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the Green Mountains around Beida. Claiming to be the heirs of the Beida-based Sanussiya religious order that fought a twenty-year jihad against Italian colonial rule, they waged war on Libya’s modern infidel. Hundreds of Islamists were rounded up, including many who had nothing to do with violence, and subjected to gross abuse. Students who had memorized the Koran recount being stripped naked and dumped with dogs trained to rape them. When they complained to the prison governor, they were told, “You are here to die.” In response to a riot in Tripoli’s political prison, Busalim, in 1996, Qaddafi’s guards shot 1,270 prisoners dead—all but thirty of them Islamists.

Paradoxically, the killing designed to liquidate Qaddafi’s opposition may turn out to be a cause of his demise. Collective outrage at the 1996 slaughter at Busalim prison further fostered ties between the elitist revolutionary and mass reformist strains of Libya’s political Islam, as well as smaller liberal groups. “Every prisoner from Busalim was pushing his people to move,” says Mohammed Busidra, an Islamist leader sipping a macchiato in the red-patterned protest tent Busalim survivors erected beneath the courthouse after Qaddafi’s forces fled the city. He spent twenty years in prison, and only saw his wife, who was forced to divorce him, the day he was released. “Absence only made my love grow stronger,” he says.

The Busalim survivors and others had prepared for the protests for weeks. In mid-December 2010, they set a date for February 17, 2011, to coincide with the fifth anniversary of an earlier Benghazi protest the authorities suppressed; and they found further inspiration in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In fact, they were preempted two days earlier by the fourteen lawyers, protesting against the detention of a fellow lawyer, Fathi Turbil, who represented families of the Busalim victims seeking the return of their bodies. Seizing the moment, Mohammed Busidra and other preachers issued fatwas declaring nonparticipation in street protests a sin. Under pressure from their young people, local tribal sheikhs echoed the call, declaring that anyone who suppressed the protests would lose tribal protection. A few bold army commanders in the east publicized their defection.

Will the alliance survive? To date, inclusiveness has been its hallmark. For such a violent revolutionary regime, revenge killings have been remarkably infrequent—at least for now. Young urban lawyers sit side-by-side with tribal elders and Islamists on the council. A non-Islamist lawyer serves as the National Council spokesman, and a staunch secularist is charged with running Benghazi’s education. And the politicians have consciously wooed the armed forces. Unlike in Iraq, where Paul Bremer, America’s administrator, abolished the security apparatus down to the last immigration officer, youth protesters and the old border guards man their side of the border with Egypt together.

After years of depletion, the old armed forces will likely remain too fragile and too mistrusted to safeguard the revolution during the transitional period. “The Libyan army is not like the Egyptian army or even the Tunisian because it was neglected for the past thirty years,” says Zahi Mogherbi, a professor of political science at Benghazi’s Garyounis University, who advised the colonel on writing a Libyan constitution (which after consideration was shelved) and is seeking to do the same for the National Council. “It is less able to protect the transition.”

Having shrugged off Qaddafi, the young people will not cower under the council’s rule. Thousands from the east are heading to the front, with a united aim, but a disunited command. “Wherever there is war there must be Libyans. They go to die, not to come back,” Mohammed Busidra has told would-be jihadis. Tribal irregulars, not the army, recaptured Brega, racing ahead of the army’s command, despite its effort to rein them in. The armed forces have also proved unable to ward off tribesmen raiding huge armories by the truckload of such heavy weapons as SA M7s abandoned by the colonel’s militias.

In cities across Libya, Islamist groups have proved more efficient at responding to the collapse of authority. While council members squabble over positions and policy inside the courthouse, Islamist leaders escorted by followers with walkie-talkies emerge from their tents to mobilize the large crowds with sermons and open-air prayers in the square below. Mosques formerly required to close between prayer times are now open around the clock, and Friday sermons—in which politics was banned by Qaddafi—now call for an armed jihad against him.

Salim Jaber, who heads the religious affairs office of the Benghazi council, has transferred responsibility for food distribution to Benghazi’s poor from the local markets to the mosques. Unlike in Egypt where beltagiya, or street thugs, rampaged for several days through downtown Cairo, religious injunctions against looting ensured that attacks quickly subsided. Mosques organized collections of local weapons. And sheikhs on Benghazi’s new Free Libya radio have called on their followers to fill the vacuum left by departing migrant workers.

To a significant extent, Islamists have also extended their influence into Qaddafi-ruled territory. In Tripoli, leading preachers used fatwas to bring supporters out on the streets in defiance of curfews and militiamen who opened fire. Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghaliani, Libya’s most prominent cleric, also ruled against accepting bribes, curbing the regime’s attempts to buy loyalty. “Qaddafi, Tajoura [a city fourteen miles east of Tripoli] will be your grave,” scrawled his followers on the walls near his Saad bin Amr mosque.

But as questions of future planning come to the fore, the alliance could be tested. For now—according to Abdullah Shamia, a Muslim Brotherhood representative and university professor—most Islamists have given their assent to the National Transitional Council’s declaration authorizing UN-approved international intervention, including American air strikes, on Qaddafi. Even jihadi groups openly look to the West to recognize civil institutions, and hope the Western powers will support democratic over military—or worse, Qaddafi’s—rule. But if popular mood turns against outside operations, the jihadi forces could yet play to the gallery. “No to Military Intervention,” declare the large billboards on roads outside Benghazi. “Libyans can do it alone.”

Such opposition to outside intervention is not aimed only at Western forces. Local jihadis appear equally fearful that if Western countries do enter the war, their global jihadi brothers might seek to turn the southern Mediterranean into their next theater. “We think we can do it ourselves without Osama bin Laden,” says Islamist leader Busidra, who is close to Libya’s jihadi groups. “Otherwise the rest of the world will be against us and join in, and it will be like the Spanish civil war.” Concerned about their own survival, he fears, military regimes in Algeria and Egypt could prop up the Qaddafi regime, not least with fresh supplies of mercenaries.

A no fly-zone would offer reassurance to the rebels, and further show those tribesmen still allied with the colonel on which side the world stands. But it would be unlikely to satisfy the fighters and the rebels’ diplomats, who are desperately soliciting arms and other reinforcements. “Why won’t America and Britain send us weapons via Egypt?” said a gunner heading away from the front to replenish his ammunition. “If we had missiles we would have been in Tripoli by now.”

A quick overthrow of Qaddafi might not guarantee stability either. The carve-up of spoils has yet to begin. In the past, the strongman dominated; but with a more consensual politics each faction will demand its share. Oil workers will likely form unions, the army will want its reward for switching sides, and the tribes seek royalties for using their land for drilling and piping oil. They all want a greater proportion of the wealth that Qaddafi hitherto kept for himself and his allies. If any of the constituencies is dissatisfied, a central authority is likely to be too weak to prevent them from resorting to force to further their claims. Thanks, after all, to their looted caches of weapons.

—March 10, 2011

  • Email
  • Print