Saif al-Islam, the billionaire son of Muammar Gaddafi who was the neoliberal darling of Western governments until only recently, boasted in a March 10 interview with Reuters that forces loyal to his family were now on the offensive against rebel forces.
NATO, for its part, has decided against military intervention — for the time being.
However, France became the first government to recognise the rebel Interim Transitional National Council (ITNC) set up in Benghazi on March 5. AFP reported that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has also proposed “targeted air strikes” on Libya.
Possibly explaining in part the differences on how to intervene in Libya, Reuters reported on a blunt assessment by US National Intelligence Director James Clapper. He said the better-equipped forces loyal to Gaddafi were likely to prevail in the long run against the rebels — who include enthusiastic but ill-trained civilians and dissident military units.
The Obama administration rushed to qualify this assessment by saying it did not take into account political pressure on the Gaddafi regime. But it is clear there is uncertainty in Washington about which side is likely to prevail in this conflict and what the character of any post-Gaddafi regime might be.
The seemingly greater enthusiasm for military intervention by the British and French governments, which have been leading Western government calls and preparations to implement a “no-fly zone”, may also reflect those governments’ greater involvement in the training and arming of Gaddafi's special forces.
There have been contradictory statements by various members of the Benghazi-based ITNC on the question of foreign military intervention.
Some, such as its chairperson Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil (the former justice minister in the Gaddafi regime who defected to the rebels on February 21) have repeatedly called for the imposition of a “no-fly zone” over Libya.
On the other hand, vice-chairperson Abdul Hafez Ghoga, a Benghazi-based human rights lawyer and community organiser, has made statements opposing Western military intervention.
But in some statements, he said that a United Nations-imposed “no-fly zone” would be acceptable.
The founding statement of the ITNC said: “Finally, even though the balance of power is uneven between the defenceless protesters and the tyrant regime’s mercenaries and private battalions, we will relay on the will of our people for a free and dignified existence.
“Furthermore, we request the international community to fulfill its obligations to protect the Libyan people from any further genocide and crimes against humanity without any direct military intervention on Libyan soil.”
It is clear that the imperialists do not support the democratic rights or freedom of the people of Libya. They want to be free to exploit Libya’s oil resources and will deal with the devil to that end.
The Gaddafi regime was isolated and attacked during the 1980s as a “rogue terrorist state”. In the past decade, it turned into the imperialists’ good ally against Al Qaeda.
The imperialists’ real interests are clear.
At the same time it is also clear that although the rebellion has popular support, the Gaddafi regime still has a big military advantage. In these circumstances, it is not hard to understand the rebels' desperate appeal for international help.
The Libyan rebels are a mixed force and the composition of the Interim Transitional National Council reflects this.
At this stage, the rebel leaders getting the most publicity are those who once were in the Gaddafi regime.
But there are other elements, including some from various Islamic opposition groups (which were bloodily suppressed by the Gaddafi regime), more secular elements, representatives from various tribes, some youth and even veterans of the September 1, 1969 revolution who were subsequently repressed by Gaddafi.
Unlike in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, there is no discernable leftist voice in this revolution.
The exiled opposition groups (including monarchists and the once CIA-backed National Front for the Salvation of Libya) are said to have little support among Libya’s 6.5 million people, TheHindu.com reported on February 23.
In a March 8 article on the New York Review of Books blog, Nicolas Pelham, a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group, described what he saw in opposition-run Benghazi: “The east now has a National Transitional Council, which claims authority over the remnants of the armed forces and which is led by the former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil.
“But many in the youth revolution consider the slight, elderly former judge with an old-timer’s red felt hat too old-school.
“In the first days of their uprising, he was still in Gaddafi’s government; he defected on February 21, after protesting the colonel’s ‘excessive use of violence’ against protesters ...
“Supporters emphasise Abdul Jalil’s revolutionary credentials, but it is unclear whether he can fill the vacuum. Beyond the courthouse, government departments and schools have yet to open. And despite the council’s goading, many shops, police stations, and military bases remain shuttered, apparently because their proprietors are still hedging their bets.
“Though it has lost its buildings, Gaddafi’s internal security apparatus remains at least partially in place.”
In Libya's capital, Tripoli, Gaddafi and Saif described the situation in Benghazi as anarchy, with crime rampant and armed, drugged youths firing stolen guns.
But Pelham painted a different picture: “To date, inclusiveness has been [the anti-Gaddafi revolution’s] hallmark. For such a violent revolutionary regime, revenge killings have been remarkably infrequent — at least for now.
“Young urban lawyers sit side-by-side with tribal elders and Islamists on the National Council. A non-Islamist lawyer serves as the council spokesman, and a staunch secularist is charged with running Benghazi’s education.”
The politicians have also consciously wooed the armed forces; youth protesters and the old border guards patrol their side of the border with Egypt together.
“Still, the armed forces will likely remain too fragile to safeguard the revolution during the transitional period. Tribal irregulars, not the army, recaptured the oil-rich town of Brega, west of Benghazi.
“The army has also proved unable to ward off tribesmen raiding by the truckload huge armouries of such heavy weapons as Sam-7s abandoned by the colonel’s militias.
“In cities across Libya, Islamist groups have proved more efficient at responding to the collapse of authority … Mosques formerly required to close between prayer times are now open round the clock, and imams call for an armed jihad against Gaddafi in Friday sermons — where politics was previously banned.
“Salim Jaber, who heads the religious affairs office of the Benghazi council, has transferred responsibility for food distribution to Benghazi’s poor from the local markets to the mosques … Mosques organised collections of local weapons.”
But the broad and evolving character of the opposition is also a cause for nervousness in imperialist power circles, who want a stable regime friendly to their interests.
A February 27 New York Times article referred to this worry in Washington: “The worst-case scenario should the rebellion topple [Gaddafi], and one that concerns American counterterrorism officials, is that of Afghanistan or Somalia — a failed state where Al Qaeda or other radical groups could exploit the chaos and operate with impunity.
“But there are others who could step into any vacuum, including Libya’s powerful tribes or a pluralist coalition of opposition forces that have secured the east of the country and are tightening their vice near the capital.”
Lisa Anderson, the president of the American University in Cairo and a Libya expert, was quoted in the article as saying: “I don’t think it is likely that people will want to put down their weapons and go back to being bureaucrats.”
Gaddafi has tried to play to Western fears of Islamic terrorism as he tries to buy more time for his embattled regime. In a long interview with France 24 TV, broadcast on March 8, Gaddafi compared his attacks on the Libyan rebels to Israel’s murderous military assaults on the Islamic “extremists” in Gaza.
“Even the Israelis in Gaza”, Gaddafi said, “when they moved into the Gaza strip, they moved in with tanks to fight such extremists.
“It’s the same thing here! We have small armed groups who are fighting us … Armed units of the Libyan army have had to fight small armed Al Qaeda bands.”
He also boasted: “There are millions of black Africans who could immigrate via the Mediterranean and head to Italy or France, and Libya plays a crucial role in the Mediterranean in terms of stopping that.”
Gaddafi has played this racist card before. He was quoted in the September 1, 2010 British Guardian as saying at a meeting in Rome: “We don’t know what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans.
“We don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.”
Of consideration for imperialists is the broader revolt across north Africa and the Arab world — which is shaking pro-Western dictatorships.
The West has been pushed onto the back foot. There is a potential opportunity to take back the initiative — and the banner of “democracy” — by means of a military intervention in Libya.
On the other hand, if Gaddafi looks as though he has the power to crush this revolt, Western governments — whose biggest concern is a stable, pro-West regime — may be willing to let this play out.
Either way, the Arab revolts are mass movements that have popular self-determination as a key driving force. The bloody catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq are a testimony to the emptiness of Western promises to bring “democracy” from outside.
The revolution is for the people of Libya to make.