Piecing together the narrative of the anti-anti-Qaddafi left, we would be led to believe that the eastern portion of the country that they often refer to as Cyrenaica is a tribal redoubt that was never fully assimilated into the socialist society Qaddafi had been building in the name of Jamahiriya. Like Scrooge’s visitations that were attributed to “an undigested bit of beef”, the unruly Easterners were always a wild card in the ambitious move toward a New Society, kind of like the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua who were also backed by the CIA. Not only did blood rather than class define these Eastern tribes, they were also anxious to restore the monarchy as evidenced by the proliferation of flags from the pre-Qaddafi era. Unlike their “good” brothers in Egypt and Tunisia, these were the “evil” twins that had been exposed to black kryptonite or something.
This narrative begins to collapse, however, if you look at the media coverage of the Libyan revolution prior to NATO’s intervention. While it might be convenient for some to brush this under the rug, the fact is that although the revolt started in the eastern part of the country, it had spread throughout the country one week after it began in February. It was not NATO no-fly zones that were responsible for toppling Qaddafi’s rule, but popular support for an end to his family dynasty that was far more monarchical than any flag. On February 24th, the Independent reported:
FORCES LOYAL to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi were fighting last night to consolidate control over what appeared to be the rapidly diminishing parts of the country not yet overrun by protesters in rebellion against his 42-year rule.
Colonel Gaddafi’s weakening grip on power came as a number of countries, including Britain, launched missions to rescue citizens stranded in Libya.
Opponents of the regime said they had taken the town of Misurata, outside the eastern area of the country already under rebel control, as the Libyan leader appeared increasingly confined to his redoubt in the capital. An audio statement reportedly posted on the internet by armed forces officers in Misurata proclaimed “our total support” for the protesters.
Here’s a map of Libya just to put things in perspective:
As you can see, Misurata is 130 miles east of Tripoli but far west of Benghazi. So somehow Misurata and other cities—except for Tripoli—fell victim to some kind of hysteria that had transformed everybody into monarchical tribalists anxious to collude with the CIA.
Of course the question is how Tripoli remained immune from this disease. Clearly the charisma of Qaddafi—the “Bolivar of Libya”—would explain this, or would it? Now of course nobody can possibly believe anything that the NY Times prints and we are fortunate to have such scrupulous publications like MRZine and Counterpunch aggregating just the information we need to make an intelligent decision about world events, but perhaps there is something else going on besides popular support for Libyan “socialism”. The March 4 NY Times reported:
A state of terror has seized two working-class neighborhoods here that just a week ago exploded in revolt, with residents reporting constant surveillance, searches of cars and even cellphones by militiamen with Kalashnikovs at block-by-block checkpoints and a rash of disappearances of those involved in last week’s protest.
As rebel fighters in the country’s east celebrated their defeat of a raid on Wednesday by hundreds of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s loyalists in the strategic oil town of Brega, many people in Tripoli said they had lost hope that peaceful protests might push the Libyan leader from power the way street demonstrations had toppled the strongmen in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
The climate of fear suggests just how effectively the government’s ruthless application of force in Tripoli has locked down the city and suppressed simmering rage, even as the rebels have held control of the eastern half of the country and a string of smaller western cities surrounding the capital.
“I think the people know that if they make any protest now they will be killed, so all the people in Tripoli are waiting for someone to help them,” one resident said. “It is easy to kill anybody here. I have seen it with my own eyes.”
Ah, the filthy bourgeois press. Everybody knows that nothing like this could possibly be happening in Libya, even if somehow the liberal establishment in the West seduced Saif Qaddafi into making a speech to the Libyan National Youth Conference in 2006 stating: “We have no free press. There is no press in Libya at all. We deceive ourselves when we say that we have press. Does Libya have people’s authority and a direct democracy really? … All of you know that the democratic system that we dreamed of does not exist in the realm of reality.”
As everybody knows by now, the rebels made a mistake by employing a purely military strategy. With Qaddafi’s overwhelming advantage, it was only a matter of time before raw power began to drive the rebels out of the cities they had won to their cause.
In Misurata, Qaddafi deployed helicopters on March 1 in order to blow up the local radio station that had been taken over by the revolutionaries but they drove the helicopters off with small arms fire.
The Los Angeles Times, which has not been particularly kind to the rebels, reported on March 7th:
Attacks by tanks, guns and helicopters on Zawiya and Misurata continued to kill scores of civilians, but witnesses widely reported that the cities were retained by rebels at the end of the day.
In Misurata, one of Libya’s most significant economic engines, Salah Abdel Aziz said that “they got nothing from us.”
“They brought tanks inside the city and found themselves trapped,” the 60-year-old architect said. “All you need is light guns and Molotov cocktails to defeat them. People jumped inside the tanks and killed the people inside with knives.”
To this day, Misurata is still a liberated zone. The people under attack from tanks and heavy guns (and very possibly cluster bombs) continue to resist. The New York Times reported yesterday on why the people of Misurata have remained unconquered to this point. Again, accepting the possibility that all this is a filthy capitalist lie, I think that the more persuasive conclusion is that Qaddafi is having a hard time defeating a united people who will never be defeated in the long run:
In eastern Libya, the Forces of Free Libya, as the rebels call themselves, have been woefully unprepared for warfare along the highways and open desert, where the pro-Qaddafi’s forces have advantages in organization, training, numbers and firepower.
But on the streets of Misurata, the Qaddafi forces’ upper hand has been at least partly negated by advantages realized by local men fighting in the neighborhoods where they have lived their lives.
Where Tripoli Street runs through the neighborhood of Beera, for example, the men have hidden themselves in concrete buildings against the shelling and formed a defense-in-depth, with knots of fighters in the street’s storefronts supported by others many blocks back.
The rebels move back and forth on familiar streets, disappearing quickly into buildings and reappearing in courtyards, possessing an intimate knowledge of their own terrain.
They have so few weapons that many men on the front at any given moment are unarmed, and share weapons in shifts or stand ready to take up the rifle of a comrade who falls. Their ammunition supply is short enough that fighters in the second and third ranks often carry a single magazine, so that those in the storefronts might have enough.
But they have shown signs of organization and adaptability that have given them an unexpected endurance.
Rebels here have a modicum of communication equipment. One local commander, a former professional soccer player whose troops said had no previous military experience but became a leader because he was respected, weaved through the streets in a sedan with a pair of two-way radios and two antennas.
War can be a ruthless teacher, and in Misurata the rebels have also learned something that the rebels of eastern Libya mostly have not: that dirt is their friend.
Throughout the neighborhoods, rebels have piled up sand to block roadways and to force the Qaddafi forces’ armored vehicles to slow down or change course.
The rebels have also parked lines of dump trucks heavy with sand at exposed intersections, to impede the movement of pro-Qaddafi armored patrols and to provide cover from snipers.
“One of our guys thought of this idea,” said Abdul Hamid, a fighter who said he was 64. “Qaddafi guys were coming in here, so we started doing this with sand. It stops the tanks.”
As he spoke, in a doorway, long bursts of gunfire snapped by. A few mortar rounds landed a few buildings away. Then a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into a wall about 50 yards away. It exploded, and shrapnel fell to the street. He seemed not to care.
“That’s music,” Mr. Hamid said. “Our music.”