Home Feature A revolution underfoot

A revolution underfoot

The imminent end of Qadhafi?

by Executive Editors

Revolutionaries had taken over much of Libya as February came to an end, stretching their control from the epicenter of the uprising in the eastern city of Benghazi to the outskirts of Tripoli in the west, with pro-government forces still holding the capital, several cities scattered around it and others in the south.

More than 2,000 people are thought to have been killed, many more wounded and tens-of-thousands have fled their homes in the first two weeks of the uprising against the 42-year reign of Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi. The erratic and repressive ruler has been accused of deploying mercenaries, helicopter gunships and warplanes against mostly unarmed protesters.

Since the revolt began mid-February, scores of army personnel have also defected to the opposition, joining a growing armed insurrection in a confrontation that is ever more resembling a civil war. 

World leaders have called for Qadhafi to step down and threatened charges of crimes against humanity. The United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions and many countries are freezing foreign assets associated with the regime and those of the Libyan Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which alone are estimated at some $70 billion. Additionally, the regime-run Central Bank of Libya has $80 billion in foreign assets, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Though the United States and NATO allies were redeploying military assets to the area at the end of February and mulling the possibility of interceding, signs had appeared in Benghazi saying “No to foreign intervention — Libyan people can do it alone.” A consistent demand, however, of the Libyan opposition and human rights groups has been for the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone and deny Qadhafi the use of his air force to attack the anti-government side and resupply his troops — cited as key reasons why his forces have not been routed.

As foreign companies have been evacuating thousands of their workers, major oil companies were shutting down operations. Libya puts out 2.3 percent of the world’s oil and the country’s reserves — estimated at 44 billion barrels — are the largest in Africa. Libyan oil production was down 75 percent at the end of last month, according to the Wall Street Journal, and Brent crude pushed past $112 per barrel, rattling financial markets and threatening the global economic recovery.

For an on-the-ground perspective, Executive contacted Fatma Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who is normally based in Cairo but traveled to Libya to document the upheaval. She crossed the border on February 23 and spoke via telephone as she drove from Tobruk to Benghazi in the recently-liberated east of the country:

  • What’s the general situation in Tobruk now?

It’s very calm in Tobruk — there have been no problems with security for the past three days. Right now we can see the army patrolling and policing the street with people — when I say the army I mean individual members of the army who are working together with the informal [armed civilian] patrols. Everybody is really welcoming, especially when they realize we’re journalists and human rights people; everybody wants to talk about what happened. 

In Tobruk, [the uprising] started on the 15th and there were a lot of arrests [that day]. It didn’t see as much violence as Baida or Benghazi. People are still camped out in the main square downtown that used to be called Malik Aziz Square. They were saying ‘this is our Meydan Tahrir’ when they recognized my Egyptian accent. Everyone here is just saying ‘for the first time we feel free, we can talk to you and we just need for [Qadhafi] to go.’

  • How are supply levels holding up?

So far it’s okay, but the shops are still closed.  Today was the first day that some of the banks have opened so people can withdraw their salaries. But it’s all happening very informally. I was talking to some [people] who were very concerned going forward, talking about food supplies but also about the longer term because both Tobruk and Darna rely on desalination, which needs to be maintained for their farms. People are worried about how long this will last.

  • Are people optimistic about the situation?

They are feeling optimistic because they’re not scared. They’re feeling empowered. The welcoming of foreigners and journalists is partly due to the fact that they feel now that they can speak securely.

I’ve been on missions to Libya before and generally people who don’t know you will never speak to you because they’re freaked out by the reprisals of the state. I think the fact that internal security is no longer breathing down people’s necks here has changed the general mood and that has contributed to the sense of optimism.

People feel [here] that they have had a great victory and they liberated the east [of Libya], but everyone I’ve spoken to in Tripoli was very freaked out by what may come and also about the very strong security presence there.

  • When you crossed the border were Libyans fleeing the country along with foreigners?

There were some Libyan families but mostly just Egyptians. 

  • Is there a reason for that?  Do Libyans feel that eastern Libya is safe?

I think that’s part of it and some Libyans think ‘why would we leave? Our families are here.’ The Egyptians are leaving because they’re worried — they don’t know what’s going to come and all their families in Egypt are very worried.

It was quite endearing really because the Egyptian security — the people processing at the immigration point — when they heard my Egyptian accent they kept saying ‘be careful, it’s very dangerous’ because a lot of the Egyptians coming across the border have stories about having either witnessed or got caught up in violence.

Also, some of the Egyptians — not people I’ve spoken to, but I’ve heard this from other journalists and colleagues — have stories of being attacked themselves.

  • Is there cooperation between different opposition groups in different cities? Is there any leadership that is emerging?

No, I mean there is no formal opposition in Libya. All political parties are banned; it’s a crime to try to set up a political party. So right now it’s a very organic, popular uprising and rebellion.

  • What do people want going forward?

Right now they just want Qadhafi to leave because they’re still in the middle of the crisis.  People are happy but they’re still feeling insecure.

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors are the collective voice of the magazine. Stories written by Executive Editors are the culmination of discussions, brainstorming, research and information-gathering by our editorial team. Over decades, our editorial team has applied a blend of seasoned expertise and a discerning eye to bring you insightful and engaging and substantive reads that eschew sensationalism.

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