As we go to press, the key towns of Brega and Ajdabiya have now been taken by the rebels and Qaddafi forces are everywhere in retreat. Libyan rebel troops are surrounding Sirte, birthplace and symbolic heartland of the Qaddafi regime. Their siege positions in Misurata are also less under-threat than last week. The change of fortunes for the rebels is largely as a consequence of the international air strikes. And that action now seems to be directed at “regime change”. Germany, Italy and Turkey continue to argue for a softer option.
There is undoubtedly a huge amount of support in the liberated zones for the air strikes with accounts of some rebels chanting “Sarkozy! Sarkozy!” in admiration of the role of France. There are also reports that youth in the Ben Ashour and Souk el-Jumaa districts of Tripoli have been attacking government militias and symbols of the regime with stones.
Certainly without the air strikes the rebellion would have been totally repressed — the threat that the regime would take Free Benghazi back house by house is made more tenable in that the air strikes took out a loyalist column just outside the Benghazi city limits.
There are reports of mass torture, imprisonment and widespread executions. The idea that this talk of genocide is just “western” propaganda talking up an imperialist war is frankly pathetic. The “Liberated Libya” of “pro-western thugs, Islamists and drug-takers” is itself the construct of a tottering regime unable to understand its own collapse and the destruction of its “green” anti-imperialist revolution.
Undoubtedly there is an Islamist strand in the uprising, as there is a monarchist strand and a democratic strand. Worryingly, the leadership in the liberated areas are largely themselves former acolytes of the Qaddafi regime and are themselves complicit with its crimes. There are reports of the rebels killing civilians. These are matters of concern.
The uprising is now faced with two central problems.
First, there is the issue of the pro-Qaddafi resistance in both Sirte and Tripoli which is substantial and will not give up power easily. Even when confronted with military defeat, it could perpetuate a low-level, possibly terroristic, war of resistance against any new democratic settlement. Linked to this is the fate of Qaddafi himself and his inner family circle, now confronted by annihilation or exile.
Second is the composition of the resistance movement and its rag-tag militia; when it takes Sirte and Tripoli will it play out a similar project to that which Qaddafi had in store for Benghazi? This would largely depend upon the scale of the pro-Qaddafi resistance to them and whether it goes hand-in-hand with a popular uprising of the people of the capital.
We may see an Iraq scenario of contending forces which are unable to decisively achieve victory, and in which democratic manoeuvres and communal violence might figure significantly.
However, experience in “Free Benghazi” does show that democracy and liberty have a huge mandate; with the development of civil society and freedom for workers to organise there is great potential. The huge level of sacrifice over the last seven weeks will surely mean that the liberty of the Libyan people will not easily be surrendered. It has been bought at too high a cost.