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Enigmas and Lies in Libya

Armed rebels and civilian onlookers gathered at a main gateway into the eastern city of Ajdabiya to cheer on fighters heading onward to the fighting. Photo: al-Jazeera. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Armed rebels and civilian onlookers gathered at a main gateway into the eastern city of Ajdabiya to cheer on fighters heading onward to the fighting. Photo: al-Jazeera. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As rebel forces enter Tripoli, the big question is what will happen to the Qaddafi regime. Most of the pundits expected Qaddafi to go months ago. It looked as though the end were truly nigh when Musa Kusa, his former head of intelligence and the power behind the throne, defected to England on March 30th. Here it was, mid-August, and the Colonel was still around—not exactly in power, but not entirely out of power yet, either, as of Sunday night. (Events are moving quickly, however.) The workings of the Qaddafi machine are shrouded in seven veils of obfuscation, and it is unlikely we will ever get the full story about what has gone on there, insofar as such a story is even knowable. Saying what will happen is an even dicier exercise; those who cannot know the past are destined to befuddlement, though things are looking pretty grim for the regime.

You did not have to be in Libya for very long to discover that Qaddafi was friendless; even the people on his payroll hated him. One of those former employees recently said to me in genuine bewilderment, “Who the hell are these people who are fighting for him?” The rebels have continued to say that Qaddafi’s forces are mercenaries; Qaddafi has countered that the rebel forces are imported Al Qaeda operatives and Western imperialists. Neither version bears much congruity with the facts of the case. It would be a bit more accurate to propose that the rebels represent the eastern tribes of Libya, with support from international Islamists and crucial NATO air power, while the challenge to their advances has been undertaken by members of western tribes such as Qaddafi’s, with some deployment of mercenaries. If the tribal divisions were geographically neat, and loyalties were consistent, one might call this a civil war, but to do so would be grossly inaccurate in a situation where all parties keep lying about what side they’re on, why, and what they hope to get out of the conflict. Truth was not the lingua franca of Qaddafi’s Libya; there is no honor among these thieves. Even those who oppose the Leader have emulated his predisposition against reality and his disdain for clarity.

This does not bode well for whatever comes next. Few citizens will cry if Qaddafi hangs, but many fear that the eastern tribes, long disadvantaged inside Libya, will be harsh to the western ones if they win power. The Transitional National Council, which speaks for the rebellion, has been surprisingly effective at keeping the fighting going for six months; but to suggest that it represents the views of all Qaddafi’s opponents would be naïve. It doesn’t even represent the views of all members of the established resistance in the eastern part of Libya, and it will surely not represent the interests of the many sophisticated Tripolitans who despise the Leader, but also dislike the rebels’ ragtag chaos. The T.N.C. has tended to describe itself in whatever terms will most effectively secure it NATO’s continued allegiance. These are nothing more than campaign promises, irrelevant to postwar leadership and reconstruction.

There is one thing that has become completely clear in the course of this internecine muddle, and that is the baseness of Qaddafi and his family. Seif al-Islam was long held up as the great reformer, but he wore reform like a high-priced fashion label. (I wrote about Seif al-Islam for The New Yorker in 2006.) Championing progressive causes was a way to assert his independence—a position he exploited in jockeying for power—and to move in a glamorous international set that suited his bombastic, aspirational self-image. Westerners often mistook his elegant words and his well-cut suits for an adherence to democratic values. His behavior since the rebellion began in February has been appalling, and his most recent emergence as a supposed Islamist shows how mindlessly he dons personalities and value systems and then shrugs them off again. He always wanted his father’s power, and his Oedipal egomania is now a public spectacle. Suddenly, the good tailoring doesn’t seem to connote so much honor. It was just another mechanism of deception, and not a very convincing one at that.

As for the Colonel himself, he saw his friend Saddam Hussein’s demise, and he is surely watching the trial of Hosni Mubarak; he knows that deposed autocrats do not have a pleasant life. It would be absurd to expect him to step gracefully aside in the late stages of the fighting. Rumors right now are that his sons are captured and that he’s seeking asylum in Zimbabwe or Angola and has planes waiting to take him, but we won’t know until it happens. He will not like leaving the country without Seif.

A third of Libya’s citizenry lives in Tripoli, and the capital cannot be conquered simply by inflating the techniques that worked in lesser towns. It could fail Sunday night or hold on for a few desperate days of fruitless turmoil—and no one has enough information to guess, because the crux of the matter lies with the people of Tripoli. Do they fear the rebels more than Qaddafi? It has not behooved them to express their preferences; indeed, it has not behooved them fully to formulate those preferences in their own minds, because their survival will depend on the ability to shift quickly to the winners’ side, without leaving a trail of former loyalties. Terminating a horror does not imply an improvement, and many people in Tripoli have expressed distaste for leaping out of a frying pan and into a fire. When this is all over, it will be easier to identify the losers than the winners.

Anwar Fekini, one of the rebel leaders, said yesterday, “If you can call any mobile number in Tripoli, you will hear in the background the beautiful sound of the bullets of freedom.” Abdel-Jalil, the leader of the rebel’s governing council, said, “We have contacts with people from the inner circle of Qaddafi. All evidence is that the end is very near.” Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the T.N.C., said from Benghazi, “There is coördination with the rebels in Tripoli. This was a pre-set plan. They’ve been preparing for a while. There’s coördination with the rebels approaching from the east, west and south.” Meanwhile, Colonel Qaddafi said at about the same time, “The rebels are fleeing like rats, to the mountains. I am with you in Tripoli—together until the ends of the earth.” He also said that if the rebels reach power,

Tripoli would fall in ruins and it would be destroyed. Tripoli would be left without water, electricity, no broadcast stations, without freedom and you would live in fear. They will kill you and violate your households. I am afraid if you do not get rid of them in Tajourah, what is happening there will happen all over Tripoli. These people don’t care if Libya burns or not.

Propaganda plays a role in any war, but this is an absurd set of statements. The rebels are certainly not fleeing like rats, but neither are they running a well-coördinated effort involving multiple forces outside and inside Tripoli. They could not have meaningful evidence that the end was very near; they had only suppositions, as the rest of us did. Qaddafi mis-characterizes his opponents in a desperate-sounding attempt to rally support, but those opponents are dressing up chaos in the rhetoric of order, and declaring a coherent victory when what seems to be happening is a barely controlled triumphant pandemonium. If you call any mobile phone in Tripoli, you hear bullets in the background—but whether they are the bullets of freedom is anyone’s guess.

North Africa may recover from the Qaddafis’ embezzlement and brutality, but the falseness of life in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya will take a long time to fade. The novelist tells stories to instruct; the psychotic, because he cannot distinguish reality from imagination; the dictator, as a means of exerting dominion. The Qaddafis have the dubious distinction of conforming to all three prototypes: they are entertaining, crazy, and cruel. Turning around that legacy will be the steepest challenge for whoever or whatever is to come next. No one in the T.N.C. has shown any gift for veracity, but as they seem to sweep toward victory, perhaps they will establish a reality as appealing as their rhetoric.