You Can't Topple A Non-President


These are heady days for Libya, as for the region as a whole. At latest reading, anti-Gaddafi protesters are in control of a majority of the country (a useful map is available here), and Gaddafi loyalist forces are restricted to the capital Tripoli and a number of surrounding satellite towns, including Gaddafi’s birthplace of Sirte. That said, Gaddadi announced yesterday that he cannot resign his position as president on the grounds that power is in the hands of the people. "Muammar Gaddafi is not a president to resign, he does not even have a parliament to dissolve," he said at a public appearance to mark 34 years of "people power" in Libya.

Meanwhile The Australian reported that the "liberated" western cities of Zawiya and Misratah came under sustained attack from pro-Gaddafi forces. Given their proximity to Tripoli, Zawiya and Misratah might represent a last stand for the crumbling regime. If they cannot be wrested from protester control, it is unlikely the regime will be able to do anything but hunker down in Tripoli and await its end.

We are becoming familiar with a very distinct pattern of violence articulated by Gaddafi’s besieged regime. Reports over the past two weeks have documented attacks on protesters and citizens by Gaddafi-loyal military units, security forces, snipers and a ragtag army of mercenaries, hastily recruited from neighbouring countries and flown into the country to assault and intimidate. Perhaps most worrying are the repeated claims that Gaddafi is using aerial and naval attacks to bomb urban areas and defecting military garrisons.

Evidence of such attacks have drifted in since the uprising began, spurring international calls (including from Kevin Rudd) to establish a no-fly zone over the country. These initially garnered muted responses, as western nations busied themselves evacuating expatriate workers from the country. But in recent days the international community has done much to isolate Gaddafi’s regime diplomatically, and US naval vessels are stationed off the coast of the country, a visible reminder to the regime that mass violence against Libyans will not be tolerated.

However there are significant barriers to the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya, not least the ambivalence of rebel leaders in Libya who are beginning to debate the issue of external military involvement in their country. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton briefed the Foreign Affairs Committee last week on how military intervention could damage the administration’s reputation in the region. At a time when the Iraq experience weighs heavily on local perceptions of US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa, the administration is unsurprisingly cautious.

Meanwhile, finding reliable information about security in the country is proving a difficult task, despite the apparent plethora of journalists now operating in the country (not to mention the accounts posted online by Libyans themselves).

For days now, foreign correspondents have been strolling up and down the beach in Benghazi, photographing celebrations and noting the sense of calm in the city. Following its liberation, a civilian committee was formed to re-establish services in the city. It is a pattern that is spreading across liberated towns throughout the country. But there is a growing need to coordinate these local temporary authorities. Libya is, after all, a large country with desert populations and a vulnerable oil production infrastructure. The Arabian Gulf Oil company has cut ties with the government and is communicating with transitional authorities in the east of the country. It, and other oil companies, will be looking for a kind of security and stability as reports come in of looting in isolated oilfields in the centre of the country.

And as foreign workers continue to stream out of the country (60,000 have exited across the Tunisian border alone in the last few days, according to a televised BBC report), there have been worrying reports of harassment of African migrants in liberated parts of the country. Last week, the Guardian broke a story about a massacre of 50 captured African mercenaries in the eastern city of al-Badya. Since then there have been numerous reports of reprisal attacks against African migrants trying to flee the country. Though the issue has gained little acknowledgement beyond the odd media report, it will be an important challenge for transitional authorities to temper this violence in coming days and weeks if they are to show themselves as capable of controlling the country.

And Gaddafi? In speeches and interviews over the past few days, his tone has fluctuated between rambling incoherence and stately calm, even arrogance. He has denied that demonstrations took place and he has denied that he is president of Libya.

In a phone call to a local television network on Friday, Gaddafi insisted that Al-Qaeda forces were drugging youths and fuelling protests in advance of an attack on his regime. Al-Qaeda’s leadership has remained eerily silent, perhaps as they consider what the recent waves of democratic protests will mean for their influence over the politically disenfranchised in North Africa.

While most Libyans are not buying Gaddafi’s conspiracies, his influence will be felt long after his political demise. Gaddafi has spent the past 42 years dividing the country to his own benefit. He has stoked resentment between different tribal groups and regions, maintained a weak army in favour of elite security forces (often drawn from his home region) and restricted the growth of civil institutions wherever they were deemed a threat to his own political control.

The challenges facing Libya post-Gaddafi may seem great, but this uprising has been carried by waves of youthful optimism for a new and united country. As Libyan author Mahmoud Al-Nakou wrote, "Nobody is standing out or standing apart from the Libyan youth who have led the people in their march towards a free Libya."

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.