Libya's New Flag, by Khalid Albaih. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Revolutions come in clusters, and boy howdy are we in the middle of a good one. Who'd have thought a poor fruitseller setting himself on fire in some backwoods town in Tunisia would trigger this kind of cascade? I can't keep up with this anymore. And I had to look up Djibouti.
Libya, though. I wouldn't have thought it possible to find someone who could make Hosni Mubarak look like a statesman, but Colonel Qaddafi just seems to have managed that. The media blackout is pretty dense, and it's hard to get a really good idea of what's going on, but here's what I've managed to put together at this point.
First, some background.
Libya is one of those countries that was created in some smoky cabinet somewhere in the European imperial capitals. You can tell just by looking at the ruler-straight borders. They just parceled out a bit of prime North African coastline, plus a shitload of Sahara. This one went to the Italians. That's given the Libyans some early experience with fascist dictators, since the head honcho at the time was the guy who came up with the term: Benito Mussolini, Il Duce. Uncannily like his modern counterpart, too, in flamboyance, grandiosity, and brutality. It seems Qaddafi even took a page from his playbook for crowd control—Mussolini thought that the best way to deal with unruly Arabs is to strafe them from the air, too. The bastard.
Most of the action in Libya happens along the coast. The eastern part is called Cyrenaica, the western part, Tripolitania. Muammar Qaddafi's power base has been in Tripolitania, and he's been especially heavy-handed in Cyrenaica.
The south of the country is desert. That's where the oil is. Libya has a fair bit of it, for its small population anyway. Qaddafi could have used that to buy off the population, but seems like he preferred to spend it on his cronies and for grandiose public works projects. The desert is also where a variety of Bedouin tribes are based, including the Qaddafi one. These tribes are very important because they're able to switch off the oil and gas being pumped from the fields.
Libya is a tribal country. While it's almost totally Sunni Muslim, the state is more like a semi-feudal coalition or federation of clans. Qaddafi's power is based on retaining the loyalty of these tribes by a cunning combination of favors and fear.
As of now, Cyrenaica appears to be under rebel control. Most of the army units stationed there have gone over; there were reports of firefights between loyalist and rebel units there a few days ago, but not much lately. The airfield of Benghazi, the biggest town in that part of the country, is unusable—presumably bombed out by the Libyan Air Force.
Tripoli appears to have seen some heavy urban fighting. It appears that loyalist forces have used heavy weaponry on crowds–we're talking .50 caliber machine guns at least, possibly anti-aircraft artillery and even air strikes. That would mean that the reported death tolls—in the few hundreds—are way low. As of today, it appears that loyalist forces are in control of the battlefield there.
If Qaddafi can survive this, it will have been just about the biggest surprise of a career full of surprises. The tribes are switching allegiance. Diplomats are defecting en masse. Ministers have gone over to the rebellion. Fighter pilots are defecting. The army has defected or fragmented.
Dictators have a hierarchy of preferred tools of repression. Police. Thugs and paramilitaries. Interior ministry forces. The army is always risky, because they have a pesky tendency to refuse to shoot on their own citizens, unless they're the wrong race, creed, or nationality. If the army refuses to follow orders, the dictator is down to the last cards in the deck: the presidential guard, foreign mercenaries, and special-forces units. That's what Qaddafi is using now. According to moderately credible reports, Tripoli is held by African mercenaries, and the aircraft making the air strikes were flown by Ukrainians and Serbs.
That won't last. Mercenaries are trouble. They're always happy to kill, but not so keen on dying, and if it looks like things are going that way, they're going to call it a day. They also tend to fight nine to five. If the backbone of your army is mercenaries, you're pretty much toast.
If Qaddafi falls, anything can happen. Even Syria. This bloodsoaked scenario is also a pretty good counterfactual for what would have happened in Egypt or Tunisia had the military split down the middle and started shooting. It will also give pause to other dictators in the region still thinking they can contain this kind of thing by force.
No matter how the battle of Tripoli goes, Qaddafi won't find it easy to rebuild his base of support. At this point, it looks like it's just a matter of time. And blood. Lots more blood. The Mad Dog of the Mediterranean looks like he wants to live up to his epithet. If this was a movie, it'd be a farce. It isn't, and it's tragedy.