Libya: Too Late, Too Little for the Rebels?

This has been a hectic week for Libya. On Thursday, the French government recognized Libya's rebels and said it would send an ambassador to Benghazi. The UK was expected to follow suit shortly and, although Italy had at first declared such a move "premature", by Friday evening all the EU governments had agreed to "officially talk" to the opposition National Council and ask Gaddafi to step down. 

What about the US? 

Nothing so far. This may well be the first time since the Middle East crisis started that the Americans are moving after the Europeans. On Tunisia and Egypt the Americans were much faster in reacting to the uprisings - the "Arab spring revolution", as some like to call it. Why the delay on Libya? Perhaps because the US has already bombed Muammar al-Gaddafi's Libya once, back in 1986. Presumably Obama is leery of sending out the wrong signals. Arabs are notoriously sensitive and Gaddafi has been using every possible misleading argument in his speeches to his own people, including warning them of a return of Western colonization in Libya (!) 

Official recognition of the rebels' National Council as the legitimate representative government of Libya is about the only good news for the rebels at this time. They reportedly have lost a major oil port (Ras Lanuf) and Qaddafi forces claim they have retaken Brega. There are reports (by Al Jazeera among others, but reliable news are few) that the rebel forces are rather poor at handling weapons. They shoot up missiles and miss the incoming planes. The few military that have abandoned Gaddafi are apparently trying to help, but the general impression is that they are disorganized.  There are even some reports that they could suffer oil shortages within one week, which would seriously disrupt military activities.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi has shown that his planes can strike at pleasure and he is said to have billions stashed away, perhaps as much as 30 billions, which means he can pay as many mercenaries as he needs. It is said that he is paying them $1,000 a day. If this is true (as it is likely to be given Gaddafi's diffident nature: he's not about to trust anybody),then the purpose of the UN sanctions calling for the freezing of his assets is largely defeated.

As to the no-fly zone over Libya which would at least stop Gaddafi from bombing his own people, America  continues to hum an haw. Robert M.Gates thinks it's too much to ask for in military terms, too big an area to cover. With Hillary Clinton's (somewhat hesitant) support,  America is slowly coming around, but it clearly won't get involved unless there is a  United Nations Security Council resolution calling for it. France and Britain are said to work on one, and Italy has apparently joined in, but we still have to see a resolution emerge. Ideally, the Arab League and the African Union - both directly geo-politically concerned with Libya - should get into the act. 

One thing is certain: Russia is against military intervention. This should come as no surprise: Russia has always steadfastly stood by the principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs, if for no other reason that it doesn't want anyone to meddle into its own Caucasus problems. Moreover, the situation in Libya is turning to Russia's advantage. It can now rightfully say to Europeans: see, we are a stable, trustworthy country, get your energy from us! Bottomline, Russia is the main (and perhaps the only) winner in this bloody "civil war" in Libya, to use Geddafi's term - but to the rebels, remember, it is a fight for freedom after 42 years of tyrannical oppression... 

The rebels hope for official recognition from all Western governments, but what about Arab countries? And what about Italy (Libya's former colonial ruler)? Why are they so timid? Of course, Egypt and Tunisia are next door neighbours and Italy is not far, and they are all three struggling with waves of refugees...Gaddafi, in his usual hyperbolic style, has warned that "millions" would swarm over Europe - so far they're coming in at the tune of 250 to 1000 a day in Lampedusa. Perhaps, by the end of the crisis, they'll be 100,000 as the Italians fear, but not much more than that.

The Italians in particular are those with the greatest economic interests in Libya. No wonder Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Frattini has declared that it was "premature" to recognize the rebels. He did add however that Italy would re-open its consulate in Benghazi that had been closed in 2006, following anti-Italian riots. Italy's ENI is the biggest operator in Libya and  buys up to 70% of Libyan oil. And while Libyans do not hold controlling interests in some of the major Italian companies and banks, like Unicredit or Finmecanica, they are nevertheless major shareholders. Including in some companies that belong to Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi. Believe me, here is a man far more worried about Gaddafi than about his legal problems with Ruby Rubacuore (heart-stealer), the Moroccan sex bomb, the one who recently shook up the annual Vienna Opera Ball, the high point of the ball season in Austria, explaining to reporters that she couldn't waltz, but could "only belly dance". 

Gaddafi is no belly dancer, he is a madman.  Did you notice how his mustache looks just like Hitler's? When I did the drawing for this post (see top), I realized what a profoundly sick and emotionally disturbed man he really is. I drew him from a video interview he gave this week on the TV channel France 24, stopping the images on occasion to pencil in a detail. I am convinced he has a split personality. His eyebrows have an unexpectedly soft arc, belied by the eyes that spit out venom through slits and the thin mouth, curved down in permanent disdain. Consider how far he has moved away from what he was (and looked like) when he carried out his coup and ousted the King - a dashing and smart-looking young colonel in uniform. Now he's into his funky desert man garb, trying hard to fit into the image of a "loving patriarch beloved by his people". The trouble is his face: it betrays him. It has the Ugliness of the Beast...And he's a dreadful actor. I watched him all through the 80 minutes of his first speech on Libyan television when the uprising started. He stood at the window of a building bombed out by the Americans in 1986 and maintained as such, in tatters, as a monument to remind the Libyan people of what the Americans can do. A clever setting, if only a little too obvious. And the way he talked, going on and on, waving a book that many thought was his famous Green book but wasn't, and then stopping sometimes for as much as a full minute, without apparently realizing he has stopped talking - or perhaps he just didn't care. Weird!

Unfortunately, the way it looks now, Gaddafi could cling on to power for a long time yet. Because of the rebels' military weakness, it is highly unlikely they'll manage to take the Western part of the country and the capital Tripoli. They'll be lucky if they maintain control over the eastern part (which has most of the oil - at least, that's something for them). But if Gaddafi manages to bomb out their cities, then the uprising could come to an early end - like so many other uprisings that haven't made it in recent years. Which probably explains everybody's shyness. As usual, no one wants to be caught on the wrong side of the fence should Gaddafi make a comeback.

What baffles me, is why the international community can't agree on a simple thing: a no-fly zone over the eastern part of the country. Just to protect Benghazi and the other rebel-held cities from Geddafi's murderous bombings. Come on Mr. Gates, that wouldn't be so hard to do: it's just a coastal strip to protect, no need for a huge military intervention to cover the whole country!

Doesn't anyone want to save the poor Libyans who yearn for freedom?

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