Sunday, August 21, 2011

Revolution triumphs in Libya

The Arab 1848, now in its seventh month, is approaching a dramatic milestone. It looks as though Muammar Qaddafi's 41-year dictatorship is undergoing its final collapse.

After rebel forces had captured several key cities over the past few days, along with the last big oil refineries under government control, the Gaddafi regime seemed to be on the ropes. Then,as the rebel forces approached the capital, insurrection broke out in Tripoli itself. Events unfolded very quickly after that.

=> Here's Scott Lucas at Enduring America on Sunday morning (6:15 a.m. GMT):
In March, only a few weeks after the sudden start of the uprising against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, I rather rashly titled a LiveBlog, "Endgame in Libya?"

That projection stalled as Libya effectively split in two, with the opposition controll[ing] the eastern part of the country and setting up its base in the second-largest city, Benghazi. The military situation fluctuated, with Qaddafi forces taking back towns seized by the insurgents.

In recent weeks, however, both James Miller and I had been watching the gradual but clear advance of opposition fighters on three fronts towards the capital. Friday's takeover of Zawiya, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Tripoli, was a significant symbolic as well as military breakthrough --- the town had been taken weeks into the uprising by insurgents but then had been re-occupied after bloody fighting by Qaddafi's men. Zlitan, 60 kilometres (37 miles) east of the capital and the only major town between Tripoli and opposition-held Misurata, was "liberated" for the first time by the insurgents.

So the stage was being set for a final battle for the capital. Still, we did not expect events to occur so quickly. Last night, in what appears to be a rising by local residents anticipating an opposition advance, fighting broke out in several Tripoli neighbourhoods --- Souq al-Jomaa, Tajoura, Fashloum, Fournaj, Sabah, Ghoud al-Shayal, Hanshir, and Dahra. [....]
=> By Sunday evening, Gaddafi's forces in Tripoli were crumbling. According to a Reuters report (datelined Aug 21, 2011 20:09 EDT):
Jubilant rebel fighters streamed into the heart of Tripoli as Muammar Gaddafi's forces collapsed and crowds took to the streets to celebrate, tearing down posters of the Libyan leader.

Rebels waving opposition flags and firing into the air drove into Green Square, a symbolic location which the government had until recently used for mass demonstrations in support of the now embattled Gaddafi.

Earlier, a convoy of rebels entered a western neighborhood of the city. Rebels said the whole of the city was under their control except Gaddafi's Bab Al-Aziziyah stronghold, according to al-Jazeera Television.

Remaining defiant, Gaddafi earlier had made two audio addresses over state television calling on Libyans to fight off the rebels. [....]

But resistance to the rebels appeared to have largely faded away, allowing the rebels and their supporters to demonstrate in Green Square.

Televised images showed Libyans kneeling and kissing the ground of Tripoli in gratitude for what some called a "blessed day." [....]

After a six-month civil war, the fall of Tripoli came quickly, with a carefully orchestrated uprising launched on Saturday night to coincide with the advance of rebel troops on three fronts. Fighting broke out after the call to prayer from the minarets of the mosques.

Rebel National Transitional Council Coordinator Adel Dabbechi confirmed that Gaddafi's younger son Saif Al-Islam had been captured. His eldest son Mohammed Al-Gaddafi had surrendered to rebel forces, he told Reuters.

Only five months ago Gaddafi's forces were set to crush the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the leader warning then that there would be "no mercy, no pity" for his opponents. His forces, he said, would hunt them down "district to district, street to street, house to house, room to room."

The United Nations then acted quickly, clearing the way for creation of a no-fly zone that NATO, with a campaign of bombing, used ultimately to help drive back Gaddafi's forces.

"It's over. Gaddafi's finished," said Saad Djebbar, former legal adviser to the Libyan government. [....]

"It does look like it is coming to an end," said Anthony Skinner, Middle East analyst, Maplecroft. "But there are still plenty of questions. The most important is exactly what Gaddafi does now. Does he flee or can he fight?"

"In the slightly longer term, what happens next? We know there have been some serious divisions between the rebel movement and we don't know yet if they will be able to form a cohesive front to run the country." [....]
And here's an Al Jazeera video from the heart of Tripoli:


=> This outcome appears to vindicate the policy followed over the past six months by an ad hoc coalition of NATO powers including the US, Britain, and France (along with Qatar and a few other allies): intervening in March to prevent Qaddafi from crushing the last outpost of the opposition in Benghazi, and then supporting rebel forces with air power, supplies, and diplomatic pressure during the extended struggle that followed. It's necessary to add some caveats and qualifications to that judgment, some of them serious, and perhaps I'll do that on another occasion. But, basically, it looks as though this gamble paid off. Qaddafi was brought down in the end, and it's valuable and important that his regime was fundamentally overthrown by Libyans themselves, albeit with foreign help and support, rather than by foreign troops.

As Juan Cole pointed out in a Sunday morning post on "The Great Tripoli Uprising", it's also valuable that the uprising against Qaddafi's dictatorship wound up spanning the whole country, rather than taking the form of a regional civil war.
As dawn broke Sunday in Libya, revolutionaries were telling Aljazeera Arabic that much of the capital was being taken over by supporters of the February 17 Youth revolt. Some areas, such as the suburb of Tajoura to the east and districts in the eastrn part of the city such as Suq al-Juma, Arada, the Mitiga airport, Ben Ashour, Fashloum, and Dahra, were in whole or in part under the control of the revolutionaries.

Those who were expecting a long, hard slog of fighters from the Western Mountain region and from Misrata toward the capital over-estimated dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s popularity in his own capital, and did not reckon with the severe shortages of ammunition and fuel afflicting his demoralized security forces, whether the regular army or mercenaries. Nor did they take into account the steady NATO attrition of his armor and other heavy weapons.

This development, with the capital creating its own nationalist mythos of revolutionary participation, is the very best thing that could have happened. Instead of being liberated (and somewhat subjected) from the outside by Berber or Cyrenaican revolutionaries, Tripoli enters the Second Republic with its own uprising to its name, as a full equal able to gain seats on the Transitional National Council once the Qaddafis and their henchmen are out of the way. There will be no East/West divide. My hopes for a government of national unity as the last phase of the revolution before parliamentary elections now seem more plausible than ever. Tellingly, Tunisia and Egypt both recognized the TNC as Libya’s legitimate government through the night, as the Tripoli uprising unfolded. Regional powers can see the new Libya being born. [....]
Ever since the uprising against Qaddafi began in February, Cole has "unabashedly" sided with the "liberation movement" in Libya and argued that it deserved support and assistance from the outside world–a position that produced consternation and dismay among many of his usual fans, who expected him to share their knee-jerk opposition to any kind of western involvement or intervention. (In March Cole came out swinging against that perspective in his Open Letter to the Left on Libya, a cogent and persuasive piece which is worth reading wherever you fall on the political spectrum.) So I think he's entitled to feel some vindication, too.

=> Gene at Harry's Place observes that "Although of course nothing is certain, we can only hope this presages a better future for Libya." I share that sentiment. Gene also expects that "once Gaddafi is gone, the Libyan people will remember who took their side at a crucial moment, and who didn’t." We'll see.

=> At such moments, any temptations toward euphoria have to be restrained by a recognition that future developments are unpredictable and potentially unpleasant. Overthrowing oppressive and tyrannical regimes is often hard, but successfully reconstructing the societies that they've damaged, distorted, and poisoned by their rule is usually even harder. Still, a certain degree of satisfaction is appropriate. We seem to be witnessing the overthrow of an especially ugly and despicable dictatorship, which over the decades piled up a lot of crimes at home and abroad, by a genuine popular uprising. That's something to be celebrated. The hangover will come later.

–Jeff Weintraub

P.S. (Monday morning): R.M at the Economist's "Democracy in America" blog, who agrees with the remarks in my last paragraph, adds some sensible cautionary words about the rush toward "premature evaluations" and Washington-centric "political scorekeeping" in the wake of these developments.