Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2011
Issue No. 1053
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Knives out in Nalut

A smarter Gaddafi would value common sense as NATO reels from hubris and the NTC grits its teeth after a terrible military setback, records Gamal Nkrumah

Disregard the rumpus, the race for Tripoli has not yet begun. The outcome of the Libyan civil war is not in doubt. There are no easy ways to tame the Libyan opposition forces. But one thing the Libyan government can do is to stay put. By now that should be clear to all and sundry.

Click to view caption
Firefighters remove debris from a building in Tripoli that was hit by a NATO airstrike as mourners pray next to coffins of rebel fighters killed in clashes with Gaddafi loyalists in Misrata

Libya“'s opposition is still a work in progress. From the start of the conflict it relied on its Western backers. It has failed to broaden its appeal precisely because the key opposition leaders are perceived as sellouts.

That is good news as far as the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is concerned. However, the big decisions that Libya will take concerning its political future will carry greater weight if they are shaped by the Libyan opposition as well as by the diehard supporters of Gaddafi. If the underlying causes of the rebellion in Libya are not addressed, Libya risks prolonged social unrest. There are, after all, hard-to-curb forces at work.

This week NATO committed two blunders by bombing civilian targets in separate incidents, claiming the lives of at least 40. The NATO secretary-general cravenly said that his organisation is "very careful in identifying legitimate military targets". He added tongue-in-cheek that he was sticking with his mission to protect the people of Libya despite the unfortunate off-target air strike.

NATO“'s faux pas comes at a most inopportune moment. It is regrettable and even appalling that the most egregious instance of NATO“'s failure in Libya should be this one. Gaddafi has long presented himself as a bulwark against militant Islamist extremists. These groups, he contends, are a genuine threat to Libyan society.

Fear and trepidation temper anti-Gaddafi sentiments. And while NATO expressed regret at the "tragic loss of life" Anders Fogh Rasmussen stressed that NATO“'s real mission is well underway. "We have seriously degraded the military capacity of the Gaddafi regime and the combination of this military pressure and the reinforced political pressure will lead to the collapse of the Gaddafi regime," the NATO secretary-general boasted. The irony is that his claims were not part of the United Nations mandate in the first place.

"It is not a question of if, but when" the Gaddafi regime falls, Rasmussen“'s braggadocio fell on deaf ears in Tripoli as Gaddafi was televised playing a game of chess in his underground bunker with World Chess Federation President Kirsan Ilyunzhinov, a Russian national, as the latter-day blitzkreig roared aimlessly overhead. He is the highest-ranking international celebrity to visit Gaddafi under siege, but far from the only one. Gaddafi appeared relaxed and engrossed in the game. He did not in the least seem to be concerned about NATO“'s decision to continue operations in Libya through September. He couldn“'t care less about NATO“'s 90-day extension of its aggression.

A Libyan government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, described the NATO raid as a "pathetic attempt to break the spirit of the Libyan people". But Gaddafi“'s chess game with Ilynzhinov is emblematic of the politics of stalemate that have characterised the country since NATO decided to militarily back the anti-Gaddafi opposition. The NATO bombardment on Tuesday of the compound of a close Gaddafi associate in which members of his family including children were killed further heightened the haphazard fashion in which NATO is conducting the war.

"This very tragic accident was caused by technical problems of our weapons systems," a NATO spokeswoman conceded. Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Ati Al-Obeidi, on the other hand, described the NATO aggression as a "deliberate attack on civilians in Libya started at the end of April and two months later it has ended in mayhem and disaster. The off-target air strikes this week in Tripoli are unforgivable."

If anyone would benefit from such a thing, it is certainly not likely to be the leading members of the opposition National Transitional Council (NTC) headquartered in Benghazi, already perceived by Libyans as imperial puppets. It looks as if the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has been exerting his persuasive powers behind the scenes, with rumours of NTC negotiations rife.

Another incendiary issue is Nalut. Its inhabitants prevaricated, with a majority seemingly siding with the NTC. The city has been a vital arms transit route for the opposition forces. However, the people of Nalut refused to coordinate with the NTC headquarters in Benghazi, leaving the door open for Gaddafi forces.

The fact that NTC could not secure the city gives the impression that not only is the NTC force feeble and ineffective, but that they are incapable of running the country, as they are fragmented. The crux of the matter is that the military commanders of the NTC in Nalut were in dispute with their bosses in Benghazi. How much this is due to Gaddafi“'s machinations playing on tribal rivalries is hard to ascertain. The perception that the local NTC groups might be gaining a broader national coherence is far from being deeply threatening to the Gaddafi regime.

Indeed, the NTC dispatched a delegation to Beijing, and the Chinese received them for the first time. The reception, however, was not described as warm and Beijing still maintains diplomatic relations with Gaddafi“'s regime and has extensive business interests in Libya. Gaddafi has far more bargaining power than his adversaries.

For actors in the fractious political drama of Libya, matters are fast coming to a head. For the moment, the first instinct of the Gaddafi regime, at both local and national level is to continue to use force to suppress the uprising. The longest running battle has been for Libya“'s third largest city Misrata. The bid by the NTC to capture Nalut, however, was widely seen as a shot across the bows.

The most immediate policy facing NATO is how to manage its deep involvement in Libya. Washington is heading for a disengagement and even some Europeans are losing heart. The size of the funds and weaponry committed is extraordinary but the end results are far from satisfactory.

The NTC may be forced to nail their colours to the mast. Should any of the known trigger points flare up, the Libyan opposition forces will be obliged to rely ever more on NATO. So far this has yielded few concrete results. NATO, too, will be inclined to make clear that if it will be more useful to the NTC the latter will be more beholden to it.

It could push Libya“'s two main factions into more open confrontation with the danger of the country splitting into two. The critical question that will confront those interested in investing in Libya is whether key oilfields are likely to be located in Gaddafi-controlled territories or NTC-run land.

Europe“'s scramble for oil in its old backyard is likely to make the battle of Libya a tussle over Libya“'s vast energy reserves. In the supposed post-Gaddafi Libya, the North African country will export a lot of oil that Europe needs and Europe will export manufactured goods and invest in assembly plants. It cannot, however, provide the lifeline for Libya“'s manufacturing sector. It“'s not in its interests to do so, and Gaddafi should realise this. These are pertinent questions that both the NTC and the Gaddafi government will have to ponder.

The West must stop ducking its responsibility towards the Libyan people. The NATO erratum may produce a ripple effect. The Libyan opposition forces failed to storm the strategic mountain town of Nalut near the Tunisian border. All these military setbacks occurred within the space of a week. And what a week it proved to be.

We must question why the Libyan opposition in spite of massive military support by the Western powers is unable to dislodge the Gaddafi regiments from key strongholds. The battle of Nalut was a major setback for the NTC forces in the Libyan civil war. Nalut was the city where arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies were distributed to the NTC forces in the Western Mountain region.

The deadlock left the opposition forces rudderless.

No one foresaw the manner and the suddenness of this week“'s military setbacks for the NTC forces compounded by NATO“'s tragic fiasco. NATO acknowledged that civilian casualties were exceptionally high but did not sound repentant. It explained that one of NATO“'s warplanes malfunctioned causing the catastrophe in which scores of innocent civilian lives were lost.

The swiftness of this turnabout poses numerous questions. There is the vital question of the wider regional ramifications of the Libyan civil war. Asylum seekers in Sicily and other Italian Mediterranean islands are desperate to return to their native countries. Nervous disorders, mental illness, hunger strikers and attempted suicides abound among the refugees. There are an estimated 50,000 refugees, North Africans, mainly Tunisian and Libyan, as well as Africans from south of the Sahara in the Italian islet of Lampudusa. Some 540,000 refugees left Libya in search for a safe haven in neighbouring countries.

The pecuniary risks of NATO“'s embroilment in the Libyan civil war are more real than notional. Neither does it diminish the harm to the reputation of the world“'s premier military alliance unable to kowtow the harried leader of a sparsely populated desert nation.

The fragility of the NTC underlies how much longer and more uncertain the Libyan civil war is likely to prove. Gaddafi, too, has to learn from his mistakes. He cannot be accused of subtlety but it“'s about time he refined his diplomatic skills.

When a country, or a continent for that matter, is your biggest trading partner is it a good idea to thumb your nose at them, as Gaddafi continues to do?

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