A group of envoys from the African Union headed to Tripoli yesterday and, they say, were given Muammar Qaddafi's approval for a "road map" to Libya peace that they are touting as a solution to the country's current stalemate.
The trip has generated a flurry of press interest and speculation that an end to the Libyan conflict is in store. But any expectation that the AU proposal will prove acceptable to the rebels will almost certainly be proven wrong.
In eastern Libya, at least, the country's ties to the African Union are seen with suspicion. Qaddafi started describing himself as an African "king of kings" when his vision for a united Arab League, with him at the helm, didn't pan out. His decision to look south, rather than east, resulted in Qaddafi spending money on meddling in various African conflicts that many Libyans felt would have been better spent at home. In eastern Libya, the African Union is seen as a tool of Qaddafi's ambitions, not as a potential honest broker in the uprising against his 41-year reign.
Adding to the AU's weakness as a possible intermediary is the staunchly held belief that mercenaries from Chad, Niger, and other African states have poured into the country to defend Qaddafi from his own people.
Over a week ago, Ahmed Bani, the spokesman for the rebel military, alleged that 3,600 members of the Chadian presidential guard under the command of Issa Taher were fighting for Qaddafi outside Ajdabiya, a rebel town near Benghazi that was besieged for weeks by Qaddafi's forces until British war planes destroyed his tanks and rocket launchers arrayed around the town. While that was never confirmed and the true extent of the role of African mercenaries fighting for Qaddafi is unknown, in Benghazi and other eastern towns there is a deeply held belief that Africa's leaders are determined to help Qaddafi hang on to power.
In the past two days, an offensive by Qaddafi's people saw thousands flee Ajdabiya, frightened they'd be subject to mortar and rocket fire once again.
And the offer Qaddafi reportedly made to South African President Jacob Zuma and other African leaders hasn't been made in public by Qaddafi himself. The African leaders have said that Qaddafi is offering a cease-fire and a period of discussion over "political reform." Promises of reform have been made to the Libyan people for decades by Qaddafi and his supporters, such as his son Saif al-Islam, but at this point "reform" is taken in the east, at least, as meaning "give us more time so we can find a way to keep power."
Today in Misratah, one of the last rebel enclaves in western Libya, residents reported shelling carried out by Qaddafi's forces even as the African Union delegates headed to Benghazi to deliver their cease-fire plan. If true, it would mark the third time in the past month that Qaddafi has violated a cease-fire offer within hours of having agreed to it.
Thousands of Libyans have died at the hands of Qaddafi's hands since the uprising began against his rule on Feb. 15. (The original protests against Qaddafi's rule were scheduled for Feb. 17 but in Benghazi began on the 15th after a group of human rights lawyers were arrested by Qaddafi's men). This bloodshed has hardened the rebels' resolve, notwithstanding their own military weakness. I have spoken to at least five members of the rebel council who insist that Qaddafi's departure is a minimum starting point for negotiations now, notwithstanding their own military weakness.
Libya's war is now in a strange place. The rebels do not have the military organization to defeat Qaddafi's better armed, trained, and led forces. Absent the NATO military umbrella that protects much of the east, their military defeat would probably be a certainty. But it's hard to see NATO withdrawing that protection now, particularly since leaders like President Barack Obama have insisted that Qaddafi step down from power.
As distasteful as the AU overture is in Benghazi (a thousand, at least, protesters gathered outside Benghazi's Tebesty Hotel where the AU leaders minus Mr. Zuma were staying today, rejecting any negotiations with Qaddafi) the window for a military victory for the rebels is closing fast. A negotiated departure for Qaddafi and his family, including sons like Saif and Khamis Qaddafi, who commands Qaddafi's most feared brigade, would be the fastest way to end Libya's war.
In the east, the Qaddafi family is viewed as a group of would-be monarchs, seeking to impose their will over the nation by force of arms alone. Security could barely keep furious protesters back from the AU delegation today in Benghazi, who were out of their element in a city that views them – not NATO – as the agents of imperialism.
In the nearly six weeks I spent in the east, I didn't find a single Libyan who believed the Qaddafis had a hereditary right to rule thanks to Muammar Qaddafi's successful coup in 1969. If the African Union can't convince the Qaddafis that their time is over, that their promises of "reform" will be immediately viewed as time-buying gambits, then the war will drag on.