Wedged in between Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, it was surely going to be difficult for Libyans, who for 42 years have lived under the dictatorship of Muamar al-Gaddafi, to ignore the changes taking place close by. The protests started in Benghazi and spread to the capital Tripoli and beyond. The response of Gaddafi and his supporters has been as brutal as it has been quick. Pro-democracy protesters have been fired on with large calibre artillery and subject to air-raids. Reports are emerging of widespread and indiscriminate violence by pro-government militias and mercenaries and of fatalities numbering at least in the hundreds.
As in Tunisia, as in Egypt, as in Iran, as in Bahrain, internet access and telecommunications in and out of Libya have been restricted. Phone lines are down. Foreign media activity in Libya has always been seriously limited and Benghazi and Tripoli are currently off limits to foreign journalists. Mother Jones has a useful explainer here and Al Jazeera is running a live blog here.
Staff at the Libyan embassy in Canberra are reportedly about to cut ties with the Gaddafi regime with Australia preparing to receive defectors for the first time in six years. Two Libyan F1 fighter jets have flown to Malta and asked for political asylum rather than obey orders to bomb protesters and there are reports of other military defections. Libya’s ambassador to the United States has denounced Gaddafi’s response to the uprising across the country and diplomats at the UN have sided with protesters.
The Libyan UN deputy permanent representative, Ibrahim Dabbashi, issued a strong statement calling on the international community to intervene: "The tyrant Muammar Gaddafi has asserted clearly, through his sons the level of ignorance he and his children have, and how much he despises Libya and the Libyan people." He called the aerial strikes again protesters "a declaration of war against the Libyan people." The speech delivered by Gaddafi and delivered on Libyan state television on Tuesday night, in which he vows to fight on, promising dire repercussions for protesters, does much to confirm this appraisal.
Despite Dabbashi’s appeal, diplomats haven’t been optimistic about the prospects of UN intervention, as The Guardian reports:
"The UN security council was meeting in New York but was not expected to do more than issue a presidential statement condemning the violence.
"Western diplomats said it was too soon for the council to discuss sanctions against Libya or the imposition of an internationally policed "no-fly zone" to stop Libyan aircraft targeting civilians."
Leaders across the world are united in their condemnation of Gaddafi and his family. He might not have any major international supporters left onside — but he has thus far been deaf to calls to cease the violence against protesters. Indeed, in his speech last night he declared, "I will die as a martyr at the end … I shall remain, defiant. Muammar is leader of the revolution until the end of time." He’s not going anywhere, in other words.
Will anyone come to his assistance? Unlikely. Gaddafi has made a habit of pissing off potential allies. He’s unpopular in the Arab world for his suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and, more recently, for his public statements against the claim of Palestinians to land in Israel.
He’s also known for changing tack rapidly. Once upon a time, Libya was viewed as a state friendly to terrorists but in 2003 Gaddafi got on board with the war on terror and won many friends in the West. Also in 2003, Gaddafi agreed to pay out compensation to the families of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
Still, Libya has been able to offer foreign powers two things: oil, and, of particular interest to European countries, assistance in dealing with migration flows.
Australia restored diplomatic ties with Libya in 2002 under the Howard government. A diplomatic mission was established in Tripoli in 2004. A media release on the opening of the mission stated: "Australia’s commercial links with Libya have strengthened. Of particular note is Woodside Energy Ltd’s $140 million oil and gas contract with the Libyan National Oil Company. " Woodside exited Libya last year. Oil and gas industry observers are now watching the situation closely.
Gaddafi and Italian PM Sivlio Berlusconi are old buddies — but even il Cavaliere has said the violent response from Gaddafi’s regime is unacceptable (although the two have reportedely maintained phone contact). James Ridgeway traces their relationship in this piece in Mother Jones. Not only does Libya provide 20 per cent of Italy’s oil, it works closely with Italy to keep refugees from across Africa making their way across the Mediterranean. The forced return of migrants to Libya by Italy has been the subject of sustained scrutiny by Human Rights Watch who published a report in 2009 condemning the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers by Libya and Italy.
Although Venezuela denied that Gaddafi was en route to Caracas over the weekend, Gaddafi and Hugo Chavez have long admired each other’s work. Chavez has visited Libya several times and the two leaders of big oil-producing nations have found common ground in their anti-US stance and their push for UN Security Council reform. Last year, when Venezuela was beset by floods, Chavez governed temporarily from a Bedouin tent given to him as a gift by Gaddafi.
Gaddafi can also count Robert Mugabe as a supporter. Zimbabwe was cited as another potential flight destination for the Colonel. In 2008, Gaddafi called for Mugabe to be given life-presidency of Zimbabwe in order to have time to sort out the country’s problems.
Australian politicians are unanimous in their condemnation of Gaddafi now but that hasn’t always been the case. Last year the shadow minister for Immigration Scott Morrison declared his approval of the Berlusconi-Gaddafi approach to asylum seekers in an interview with Jason Morrison on 2GB radio:
"In Italy where Berlusconi has done a deal with the Libyans, I wouldn’t draw too many parallels there, but they have basically taken a situation where they have reduced their arrivals by 90 per cent and Libya is in a similar situation to Indonesia where the African asylum seekers come up through Africa and get in contact with people smugglers in Libya and head across first to Italy as a way to get to Europe. So look, the opportunities for significant reductions are there, they have been achieved before but in many cases it depends on the circumstances. You have got to send a strong message and a strong signal and since we had that fiasco with the Oceanic Viking last year, we have had 41 boats show up, so of the 89 that have turned up since they changed the policy, 41 of those have now come since the Viking debacle."
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