The colonel charges ahead
Mar 17th 2011 | BENGHAZI | from the print edition
GREEN banners that symbolise the rule of Muammar Qaddafi have returned to Libyan towns, many of them in ruins, where troops loyal to the dictator have chased away poorly armed rebels. Regional and Western powers quibble over how to stop the bloodshed, while the self-styled colonel is making great strides towards suppressing the month-old revolt.
On battlegrounds across the vast, empty land, his forces have taken back Zawiya and Zuwara west of the capital, Tripoli. They have tightened their siege of Misrata, 210km (130 miles) to its east, and pushed into rebel strongholds along the coastline. With their bigger guns, heavier armour and a monopoly on air power, they have captured oil facilities at Ras Lanuf and Brega, and seized a strategic road junction at Ajdabiya. In their sights is the eastern capital, Benghazi, stronghold of the rebel forces. If this city of 1m fell, Colonel Qaddafi would be free to hunt down the “rats” who have challenged his rule.
Yet the demise of the rebels is not assured. Across open desert and through small towns, loyalist advances have been swift. In urban areas, though, they have been far slower. The looming invasions of Benghazi and Misrata, another big city, may cost the loyalists heavily in men and materiel, for the defenders have no way of escape. But if the indiscriminate methods loyalists used to retake smaller towns are a guide, the toll on civilian life will also be grim. Already, world opinion scorns Colonel Qaddafi. On March 12th the Arab League endorsed the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. Western nations are facing mounting public pressure to intervene. Despite popular wariness about becoming enmeshed in yet another Muslim country, a fresh humanitarian crisis may tip opinion in favour of more punishing action against Libya’s leader.
On March 13th, when a satellite news channel claimed, wrongly, that rebel forces had turned the tide with a night-time ambush, Benghazi residents declared that the only thing stopping them from attacking Tripoli was Colonel Qaddafi’s air force. “If they imposed a no-fly zone, all of us would go and fight,” says one unemployed youth looking at pictures of “martyrs” in what has become an open-air museum of the revolution outside Benghazi’s courthouse. Would-be revolutionaries say they can attack tanks with the many rocket launchers found in Colonel Qaddafi’s arsenals in the east. But they fear his planes circling overhead are out to bomb them.
Bravado in the face of repeated setbacks seems to be shared by the public. “Sawfa nabqa huna” (“We will remain here”), an anthem of Islamic resistance popular throughout the Arab world, rings out from loudspeakers and mobile phones. Asked about the danger of losing control of Benghazi, residents rattle off a list of uprisings they have staged over the four decades of Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. “He was afraid of Benghazi even before we had weapons,” says a lorry driver whose brother died in a massacre in 1996.
Street-fighting for beginners
Benghazi is flooded with looted weapons and, with Colonel Qaddafi’s forces knocking at the door, new owners are learning how to use them. A stretch of road outside one former army base, which offers target practice to anyone who walks in, was packed with cars. Moneim, a burly university student, says he is “taking the opportunity” of the fighting around Ajdabiya to learn how to use a rifle. He was not expecting Colonel Qaddafi to reach Benghazi, he said, but wanted a few street-fighting skills under his belt just in case.
The population’s swagger may in part stem from the city authorities’ capacity to keep up a sense that all is normal. The power is on, and in the city’s bakeries sacks of flour are piled up to the ceiling. All may change if Colonel Qaddafi can move his forces to the outskirts of Benghazi even if he does not attack the city directly. One engineer from Brega, which provides the gas for the plants near Ajdabiya that power Benghazi, says an advance along the coast might force the east to fall back on diesel generators, which are laborious to supply, or take their power from the Egyptian grid for electricity. But none of those fallback plans will work if Colonel Qaddafi’s troops swoop around the city to cut the roads leading to the Egyptian border, as they appear to have done in the west.
The opposition’s biggest problem is a dearth of experienced forces, which are needed to keep supply lines open. Most rebel fighters are shabab (youth in Arabic), spirited but untrained volunteers, lacking any command structure and prone to headlong rushes and retreats down exposed roads. A handful of colonels have organised ad hoc forces of veterans. But military defections in the east that accompanied the revolution have not yielded any mechanised units or operational aircraft, or at least none that might leave their bases. Staff officers sitting around Benghazi’s military headquarters say that Colonel Qaddafi took the families of unit commanders and other officers hostage and flew them west as soon as eastern towns fell, thus paralysing his mutinous army.
Mustapha Gheriani, speaking for the rebels’ interim council, insists that the answer to their military woes is a no-fly zone. Failure to impose one, he says, will lead Libyan youth to conclude that the West has failed them. “These people will become a fertile ground for extremist recruitment.”
Meanwhile, as Colonel Qaddafi’s forces approach, his partisans in the city have become more active. Some rebel officials say their nascent security services warned known members of Colonel Qaddafi’s “revolutionary committees” to stay indoors, and may be beginning to round up troublemakers. But the rebels’ reach is limited. On March 12th, presumed regime loyalists ambushed and killed a cameraman for Al Jazeera, the broadcaster whose stirring montages of pan-Arab revolutions are blamed by regimes throughout the region for firing up opposition movements. Two days later another car of gunmen ambushed a youth just back from the front. “They call this a revolution?” says his brother bitterly. “Everyone has guns and no control.” For a revolution, that sounds about right.