Qaddafi's credibility gap

The day after African Union leaders said Muammar Qaddafi agreed to a cease-fire, he resumed shelling two Libyan towns.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters
Libyan rebels prepare bullets for their weapons at the western gate of Ajdabiya on April 12. Libyan rebels took position 25 miles west of the strategic town of Ajdabiya on Tuesday after clashes with Muammar Qaddafi's forces that left at least three dead, rebel fighters said.

A cease-fire promise that South African President Jacob Zuma claimed Libya's Muammar Qaddafi made two days ago has been decisively broken, with Qaddafi's forces shelling two rebel-held cities today.

The violence marks the third time that Qaddafi has violated a cease-fire offer almost as soon as it's been made, and underscores the lack of credibility he and his family have with the rebellion. The man who Zuma called "Brother Leader" on Monday is a despised figure throughout the Libyan east, where the daily death toll of his attacks are added to the thousands of his political opponents murdered during his 41-year reign.

Witnesses today reported artillery fire at the western gate of Ajdabiya and in the center of Misratah. Ajdabiya is the westernmost town in the rebellion's hands while Misratah is the last redoubt of resistance in Libya's west, and has weathered deadly tank and mortar fire for weeks now.

Kim Sengupta of the Independent was in Misratah yesterday and reported at least five civilians killed by an artillery barrage on the town that came within hours of Qaddafi's purported offer to Mr. Zuma and other members of an African Union delegation.

In Benghazi today, members of the rebel government said shelling of Misratah has continued. Qaddafi's soldiers control some parts of town and while many of his tanks have been destroyed by NATO air power, missiles continue to slam into apartment blocks almost every day.

Qaddafi expects to hang on to power

The current stalemate is clearly wind at the back of Qaddafi's regime. I left Libya on Sunday night after almost six weeks there. On the Egyptian side of the eastern border, I and a friend were greeted by a middle-aged man with that "state security look" that anyone who's lived in the Arab world for any time comes to know. He identified himself as a Libyan and was almost aggressively cheerful.

But within moments, the threats began. "You know that no Westerners will ever be allowed back in Libya again," he said, his voice dripping with scorn. "Six million Libyans hate you because of what your planes have done, your war crimes ... and because you violated our sovereignty by entering Libya without a visa."

It's true that my friend and I had entered eastern Libya, out of Qaddafi's hands since Feb. 21, without visas. But we were welcomed with open arms by a people overwhelmed by a freedom to simply speak their minds and talk to reporters without fear of reprisals for the first time in decades. While I have no doubt there are some Qaddafi supporters in the east, in more than a month there I didn't meet anyone who admitted to it. I pointed out that we were welcomed in Libya, that people opened up their homes to us and again and again thanks us for coming. "Those people aren't Libyans," he said. "They're all agents."

The presence of what I assume to be a security type from Qaddafi's regime loitering about at the Egypt border, where presumably he's trying to keep an eye on the comings and goings of rebel supporters, is a tiny piece of evidence that Qaddafi expects to hang on to power – and is taking steps to secure it. But the "those people aren't Libyans" comment fits in to what I'm calling the "no true Libyan" line of argument.

'No true Libyan' argument

"No true Scotsman" is often used to teach a common logical fallacy. For instance, a man says: "No Scotsman would ever commit murder." When it's pointed out that a Scotsman recently did commit murder, the man says: "Well, no true Scotsman would commit murder." This logical fallacy is used almost every day on both sides of Libya's divide. In the east, the rebels are convinced that Qaddafi's army is almost entirely composed of foreign mercenaries or his family members, because no true Libyan would ever kill fellow citizens simply seeking a more representative government.

In the west, Qaddafi's propaganda outlets consistently describe the rebels as members of Al Qaeda and/or agents of a British and American plot to steal the country's oil. No real Libyan, Qaddafi insists, opposes him.

Unfortunately, it's both the case that a majority of Libyans think it's time for Qaddafi to go and, judging by Qaddafi's successful counteroffensive in the west, a sizable minority of Libyans continue to stand with him. The refusal from both sides to recognize that there are real Libyans in opposition to them makes the notion of peace talks far-fetched indeed.

The African Union deal was obviously going nowhere from the moment it was announced, largely because it didn't address the rebellion's main aim: for Qaddafi and his sons, whose power stems from the coup Qaddafi led in 1969, to leave power. "Our position ... is that any solution must include the departure of Qaddafi and his sons," Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the leader of the rebel government in Benghazi, told reporters yesterday. "Any proposal that does not include this essential demand we cannot possibly accept."

The real problem is we have an implacable force meeting an unmovable object. The rebels' military is no match for Qaddafi's forces. While NATO is protecting the rebellion in the east with air strikes for the moment, and also hitting Qaddafi targets in and around Misratah, it has shown no inclination to broadly interpret its mandate of protecting civilians as justification for offensive operations to remove Qaddafi from power.

Why NATO strikes are slowing down

The United States was quite happy to see the international mission in Libya pass to NATO's hands, but there's been a slowdown of offensive operations since, reflecting the ambivalence of other NATO members about being more aggressive in an attempt to remove Qaddafi. That's both due to a desire to be more faithful to the letter of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which does not call for Qaddafi's ouster, and because of fears of the civilian casualties that would likely be generated by air strikes inside Libyan cities.

France, the most aggressive of the international partners protecting Libya's rebels, signaled it's displeasure with the lack of more aggressive action today. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told France Info radio "NATO must play its role fully. It wanted to take the lead in operations, we accepted that," he said. Asked directly if he was happy about the operations under NATO so far he said: "It's not enough."

But it doesn't seem likely that NATO is going to do more soon, particularly if "more" means seeking to destroy all of Qaddafi's assets from the air. That means, barring a close aid to Qaddafi waking up one morning and assassinating him or Qaddafi's resolve suddenly breaking, that some kind of negotiated solution is going to be needed to end Libya's stalemate.

It's true that sanctions are biting into the regime, but money is also tight in Libya's east, where the vast majority of the employed rely on government salaries and where money is getting tight. The Libyan dinar has fallen from about 1.2 to the dollar to 1.8 since the uprising began, reflecting that reality.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.