The chaotic collapse of rebel positions in eastern Libya in the past week is sapping the morale out of the rag-tag rebel troops that had been rapidly driving west just days ago.
The optimism of a few weeks ago that Col. Muammar Qaddafi, who has ruled Libya through the torture and execution of political opponents since 1969, would be swept by a flexing of people power similar to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia is now a distant memory.
In Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi, activists and average citizens say they feel abandoned by the international community and need weapons and other material support fast, or Qaddafi will be able to plunge the country into a protracted civil war.
“If we don’t get international protection in the next week or less, this dream will be finished,” says Abdlekader Kadura, a politics professor in Benghazi. “We can hold out, but it’s not only about Benghazi, we have hope for all the Libyan people who are thirsty for liberty and democracy. The rest of Libya could be in big trouble.”
Would a no-fly zone even matter?
Yesterday, the Arab League threw its support behind a no-fly zone for Libya.
While the League is not offering to enforce a no-fly zone itself, the move would make the decision for either NATO or a member acting unilaterally to help the Libyan uprising easier, since it couldn’t be painted as an unwarranted Western intervention in regional affairs.
But a no-fly zone by itself would probably not do much more than boost rebel morale, since most of the damage is being done by Qaddafi’s tanks and ground-based rocket fire.
Last week, fighter jets and relentless fusillades of rocket fire and mortars pushed the untrained and largely untested Libyan rebel army out of the key oil port and refining center of Ras Lanuf.
Rebels in full flight
This morning the Libyan rebels were in full flight from Brega, a petrochemicals complex two hours from Benghazi. The rebel retreat has been as disorganized as its original advance 11 days ago, with stacks of ammunition abandoned at crossroads and many of their dead left behind.
The exact state of play at Brega was difficult to determine. Yesterday, Qaddafi’s forces shut off the cellphone service in both Brega and Adjabiya, the next town east, and for most of the day today, cellphones were down in Benghazi as well, though they came back on at about 2 p.m. local time.
The fighting around Brega has seen hundreds of families abandon the town and flee east. In Adjabiya, the local hotel has shut, afraid of hosting foreign reporters. If Qaddafi takes Brega, as seems likely, he would control fuel supplies for most of the power plants in the east.
But while the momentum shift is palpable and the mounting rebel casualties are fueling alarm, Qaddafi’s advance of the past few days has restored a status quo that prevailed 11 days ago. Then, rebels seized control of Brega against a tiny force of Qaddafi loyalists and raced east in a cavalcade of pickup trucks and minivans to Ras Lanuf.
The rebels have now been pushed back to their own strongholds. In both Adjabiya and Benghazi anti-Qaddafi sentiment prevails, and memories are fresh of the public executions in universities and basketball stadiums that Qaddafi ordered in the 1980s.
While Qaddafi’s small force has relied on rockets and mortars from a distance to hit the exposed rebels on the desert roads west of here, taking these cities would require sustained urban combat against citizens who would be fighting for their lives.
“If you heard Saif Islam’s speech from two days ago, it was all about Benghazi and his devilish scenarios for us,” says Hana Galaal, a mother of two who’s helping to organize the rebel civilian government here, referring to Qaddafi’s son, who’s taken to issuing chilling threats against the rebels. “We will all fight if they make it here. I will fight, even my kids will fight. There is no other solution, we would die anyway.”