Rebels battling the Libyan government of Col. Muammar Qaddafi rejected on Monday a diplomatic initiative that would keep Libya’s ruling family in power, as Italy became the third nation to recognize the rebels as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people.
“Any solution for the future of Libya has a precondition: that Qaddafi’s regime leaves… That Qaddafi himself and the family leave the country,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Monday, after meeting with a rebel foreign envoy in Rome.
Libyan officials in Tripoli had earlier expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found, as an envoy of Colonel Qaddafi traveled from Greece to Turkey to Malta. But Mr. Frattini dismissed the Qaddafi government's proposals as “not credible” because they did not discuss the removal of the “Brother Leader” Qaddafi after nearly 42 years in power.
News has also emerged in Tripoli in recent days – confirmed by sources close to the Qaddafi family, and described also in The New York Times – that Qaddafi’s sons Saif al-Islam and Saadi have been trying to engineer a deal in which they would take the reins of power in Libya, oversee a democratic transition and reforms, and push their father aside.
These sources have welcomed the recent defection of Moussa Koussa, the Qaddafi confidante and intelligence chief who fled to London last week, and other senior officials, who they viewed as long-standing obstacles to an inevitable reform process in Libya.
Rebels reject Qaddafi and sons
But any confidence in Tripoli that such a solution might be possible – given nearly two months of uprising, violent suppression, antigovernment rebellion, and finally NATO airstrikes against loyalist forces – was on Monday quickly shot down by the rebels.
“Qaddafi and his sons have to leave before any diplomatic negotiations can take place,” said Shamseddin Abdulmelah, spokesman of the rebel Transitional National Council in Benghazi. Continued government attacks against the rebel-held enclave of Misratah, at two other cities in the west, and along the eastern front line, meant the rebels did not take Tripoli’s diplomatic effort seriously.
“According to what the Libyan envoy said the regime seems to be looking for a solution,” Mr. Droutsas said. He told the Libyan official that Tripoli had to abide by UN Security Council decisions, implement a ceasefire, and put “an end to violence and hostilities, particularly against the civilian population of Libya.”
What any solution might entail was far from clear Monday, as the Libyan envoy continued traveling to Turkey and Malta.
These countries were “less aggressive” toward Libya, the government spokesman Musa Ibrahim told the Monitor, and so they could play a mediating role between Libya and the array of nations now allied against it.
“We have the feeling that many decent people around the world are realizing that they based their previous positions against Libya on misinformation and media propaganda against the country,” says Mr. Ibrahim.
“But they are starting to realize that it’s very possible and is productive to communicate with the Libyan government, and many even feel embarrassed by the positions they took based on media reports about Libya committing massacres and killings," he says.
Stalemate improves climate for talks
An international alliance galvanized against Qaddafi last month amid an uprising of what Qaddafi called drug-addled “terrorists” with an Al Qaeda agenda whom he vowed to hunt down like “rats." His son and heir-apparent Saif al-Islam, who had for years presented himself as an eventual force for reform in Libya, has said no mercy would be shown to the rebels, stating in February: “We will keep fighting until the last man standing, even to the last woman standing ... We will eradicate them [enemies] all."
In mid-March the Arab League voted in favor of a no-fly zone. On March 17 the UN Security Council authorized such a zone and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. And two days later US and French jet fighters and cruise missiles began targeting Libya’s air defense systems and loyalist armor on the ground preparing to storm the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
The government spokesman in Tripoli says the recent inconclusive back-and-forth on the battlefield – in which disorganized rebels swept forward 150 miles, only to be pushed back quickly by Qaddafi forces – showed that military conquest by either side was not likely or imminent.
Diplomacy may now have a chance because “the so-called alternative to the Libyan government is so pathetic, not unified and weak, and lacking any real structure,” says Ibrahim.
Spokesman: Qaddafi's 'future is the country's future'
“We’ve been aware for some time that we need to develop the country politically, economically and culturally,” he continues. “And any peace deal that includes improvement of our system is accepted – even with some radical suggestions, we accept it – but it has to be done from within Libya. No one can impose conditions.”
But pushing aside Qaddafi to make way for rule by his sons should not be negotiable, he adds.
“We look at the leader as the historic and symbolic figure of Libya, he doesn’t have any official position to step down from – he’s not the president, or the king, or the sultan of this country; he’s the leader of the revolution,” says Ibrahim. “Any reform in the country could take place without affecting the position of the leader…because his future is the country’s future.”
Such middle ground does not exist for the rebels, who are now reported by Al Jazeera English and other media to be receiving training, weaponry, and communications gear from the CIA, British and Egyptian special forces, and Qatar.
As the rebels begin to forge themselves into a more competent force, and leaders from Europe to the Middle East state clearly that Qaddafi must go, the rebels see little space anymore for in-house tinkering by embattled family members like Seif al-Islam.
“People thought he was a reformer but since the revolution began, he has shown his true colors. He is a carbon copy of his father,” said rebel spokesman Abdulmelah.