Battle for power in Libya


‘WE WILL keep fighting until the last man standing, even to the last woman standing.” In Benghazi the brutal Libyan regime has already demonstrated what this promise from the president’s son, Saif al-Islam Gadafy, means in practice. His simultaneous assurance of dialogue on reforms, wage rises and even a new flag, unsurprisingly, have done nothing to quell popular anger.

Accounts from the eastern city of 700,000 – historically the centre of opposition – tell of young men, armed with only sticks, stones and chains, throwing themselves suicidally at heavily defended army barracks. Human Rights Watch reports over 200 dead in the city, many as a result of machine gun fire. As day broke yesterday reports emerged that, with the defection of many troops, the city is now under popular control.

The focus of conflict has moved to the Libyan capital Tripoli, where dozens are feared to have died overnight and key buildings were on fire, and to oilfields which striking workers have closed. There are reports also of uprisings along the coast, including in the cities of Baida and Misratah, and in the central town of Ras Lanuf, the site of an oil refinery and petrochemical complex.

As fresh protests erupted across the Middle East and North Africa over the weekend, embattled leaders deployed a range of tactics – from uneasy standoffs with offers of dialogue in Bahrain, Yemen and Morocco, to Libyan and Iranian crackdowns. Nervous Saudi and Kuwaiti rulers offered solidarity to vulnerable regimes. Kuwait’s emir, Sheik Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, called Bahrain’s king to stress that “the security of Bahrain is the security of the region”. For region, read autocrats.

But in Libya there are important signs of cracks in the monolith. President Muammar Gadafy’s 41-year rule has yet to give the country a strong sense of nationhood or cohesion. He has relied on the mediation of a “social leadership committee” composed of about 15 representatives of tribes and clans, now showing signs of splintering. Those tribal differences are also reflected in the upper echelons of the army, hence Gadafy’s use of foreign mercenaries to attack demonstrators.

Yesterday the justice minister, several ambassadors, and a former regime spokesman resigned in protest at the excessive use of force. The powerful al-Warfalla and al-Zuwayya tribes have come out against the president, and a coalition of Libyan Muslim leaders has issued a declaration telling Muslims it is their duty to rebel against the country’s leadership.

However, it is feared that Gadafy’s instinct will be to tough it out. Despite a rapprochment with the West in recent years that followed his handover of the Lockerbie bombing suspects and the abandonment of his WMD programme, the leopard has not changed its spots. In the 1980s he sent hit squads to murder exiles who challenged him. Islamist rebels at home were crushed in the 1990s and in 1996 1,200 inmates were killed in an infamous Benghazi prison massacre. He is not going to roll over and Libya’s courageous youth may have to pay a heavier price to displace this vainglorious tyrant.