Now comes the real battle.
Before getting to that, however, I want to point out that this is not the first time Qaddafi has been in our (that is, US) gunsights. We have bombed Tripoli (killing Qaddafi's daughter in the process) and twice have shot down Libyan fighter jets in the Gulf of Sidra.
On the other hand, as I wrote in February,
Qaddafi ingratiated himself with a West addicted to oil when he withdrew his support for various revolutionary (or "terrorist") groups around the world and shut down his nascent nuclear weapons program. But those same Western nations turned a blind eye to his continued violent repression of any opposition. And here, once again, our preference for stability over justice, for convenience over conscience, may well come around to bite us on the ass.As in so many other cases, our view was based far more on our interests than those of the people of Libya, whose subjection did not end at those times. Even as Qaddafi was described, just as Saddam Hussein often enough was, as "taking steps in the right direction" and maybe he really wasn't such a bad guy after all, the fact remained that his doing what we liked did not change the character of the regime, a regime now happily ended.
The question now is what happens next and are Libyans going to, as a good many Iraqis did, wind up looking back with nostalgia on "the old days" of dictatorship that at least offered some stability. A senior American military officer was quoted as saying "There [is] no clear plan for a political succession or for maintaining security in the country. The [African and Arab] leaders I have talked to do not have a clear understanding how this will play out."
The immediate and perhaps biggest problem is that in the course of the months-long stalemate that preceded the collapse of the regime
three distinct rebel factions developed – all with disparate identities and different tribal roots.The government established by the rebels centered in Benghazi in the east calls itself the National Transitional Council. It's authority has been recognized by 32 countries, but it has yet to gain the full support of other factions. The members of the NTC apparently realize that time is critical: They have announced intentions to move to Tripoli as soon as possible and have already drafted a constitution.
There were the originals in the east, drawn largely from a rebellious middle class; a second group in the centre, who fought the war's most intense battles; and the mountain men from the west who saw getting to the capital first as their higher calling.
The question is if such moves will be enough: Libya is a fiercely tribal nation, one where ties to family and clan can easily outweigh ties to the nation as a whole. And with some 140 tribes and clans, each of which wants to lay some claim to a role in the new Libya, producing a unified government will take more than good intentions or even good ideas.
As just one example of the conflicts,
[r]ebel forces in the western city of Misrata, Libya's third-biggest, have gone out of their way to register their contempt for the transitional council with foreign reporters, insisting that they refuse to take instructions from Benghazi.A potentially even more serious one relates to the suspicious death of rebel military commander Abdel Fattah Younis. In late July, he was taken for questioning by his own side - and was killed. The NTC investigated and now says it knows who is guilty but won't immediately name them for fear of hurting the revolution; the fear probably is of sparking tribal divisions.
That doesn't sit well with leaders of the Obeidi tribe, of which Younis was a member. They are demanding that the killers be brought to justice by the NTC and say their patience is limited.
“If we [need] to take our justice by ourselves, we will do it,” [Obeidi leader Ali Senussi] says in a tent surrounded by fellow tribesmen in Benghazi, after breaking the Ramadan fast. A nearby tribal leader adds: “Tribal law is stronger than government law.”But just raising Younis's name raises another question: The nature of the NTC itself. Back in April I noted how the emerging leaders of the NTC were not the students, professors, and so on who sparked revolution, but often were former supporters and even members of the Qaddafi regime from business and the military who saw which way the wind was blowing and switched sides with the intention of trying to preserve whatever part of their influence they could. I wondered just what they understood the word "freedom" to mean.
I still do - especially in light of the fact that the rebel cabinet was dissolved earlier this month and there has been no move to appoint a new one.
Well, Abdul Fatah Younis is a good illustration of those doubts: Before defecting to the rebels, Younis had been in charge of Libya's special forces for the past 41 years. He had served Qaddafi ever since the 1969 coup that brought the dictator to power. Despite the claims he made to the contrary, he seemed poor material for a devotee of democracy and political freedoms.
The truth is, whether we are actually seeing the emergence of a "new" Libya or just the layout of a new playing field on which competing tribal blocks are eager to test their relative strengths remains to be seen. We (and to be clear, I mean us as individuals, not as the US) have to keep watching, hoping to be of good aid where and how we can while knowing there may be nothing we can do.
But pay attention we must because it is too easy to lose the thread of a matter. Consider Egypt.
After the victory of what was not entirely but still essentially a nonviolent revolution, the media was drowning in stories about the "new, free" Egypt. Then, they essentially stopped paying attention except for the coverage focused on the trial of Hosni Mubarak. That he is getting a public trial - as opposed to just being put up against a wall and shot - is being trumpeted as a great proof of the success of the revolution.
But at the same time that media ignored - or mentioned only in passing - a more important, much more ominous, development: On August 1, police and the military forcibly removed democracy activists from Tahrir Square, the square famous as the focus, the epicenter, of the protests that lead to Mubarak's downfall. The square is now occupied by military and police and
[a]rmed forces now surround the central square area, literally taking up the space occupied by the democracy movement only a few days ago.Even more ominously, a few days later, on August 5, the military made an unprovoked attack on a group of a few hundred unarmed, peaceful protesters. They were on a traffic island off the square, where they broke their Ramadan fast and held a brief rally. They had made it clear they inteded to demonstrate and then leave and had no intention of trying to re-occupy the square itself. No matter: They were attacked by the soldiers carrying clubs. In the words of an eyewitness:
The soliders beat dozens of protesters indiscriminately, most of whom were simply trying to escape. I repeatedly saw groups of five to ten soldiers chase down boys who couldn’t be any older than ten years old and beat them with yard-long sticks. The soldiers chased protesters many blocks from Tahrir Square, all the way to the Kasr-al-Nile Bridge half a mile away, for the purpose of beating them.That eyewitness said these events meant that the members of the ruling Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Hey, have we forgotten that the military is now in charge in Egypt?) "don’t understand the importance of that place for the democratic development of Egypt." On the contrary, I'd suggest that it means that they do understand its importance and intend to redefine that meaning - as well as the meaning of "freedom" - on their own terms.
Many dozens of bullets were fired as the soldiers chased the protesters through the streets, presumably into the air. Though there haven’t been reports of anyone being shot, though many protesters were hospitalized from their beating injuries.
Clearly, the purpose of the attack was not just to clear that little island of the square. The level of brutality suggests that its true purpose was to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who wants to make public political expression in the main town square of Egypt.
It is always vital, absolutely vital, to remember, in Libya just like in Tunisia and in Egypt: The battle doesn’t end with the end of the battle.