Libya Dispatch: The Cage (2)

The lobby of the Rixos.Our intrepid correspondent Abu Ray, once covering Libya's East, is now covering the West. This week he makes it to Tripoli's Rixos hotel. (See past dispatches.) 

The billboard in the lobby shows a smiling child waving pictures of other cute smiling children, topped by the slogan, "Stop the Bleeding!" Bleeding? What bleeding? What now?

Welcome to the Rixos Hotel, Tripoli's finest and a gleaming, inlaid marble cage for Western journalists.

I'd heard a lot about this place over the last five months, about being trapped inside, about the mind games and the midnight summons, the hallways prowled by semi-feral minders and the press conferences by the smooth-tongued Moussa Ibrahim.

I wasn't prepared for the opulence. In my mind's eye, as I traveled along the coastal road from the border with a BBC reporter who'd stayed here before, I saw a tacky hotel built during the mad oil rush of the late 70s, now gone to seed, all flaking plastic and chipped gilt Barberella finery.

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Libya dispatch: Borders (1)

The Tunisia-Libya border

Today we inaugurate a new series of dispatches from Libya by our intrepid war correspondent Abu Ray, who is headed to Tripoli where bored journalists await the final battle.

Coming into Libya again, once again I was greeted by graffiti, but this time it was "God, Gadhafi, Libya and that's it." And in fact that was pretty much it for the spray painted slogans for the whole trip from the Tunisian border to Tripoli. As the Palestinian TV producer I was traveling with pointed out, it was somewhat heartening that God at least came before Gadhafi in this instance.

It was certainly a contrast to the jubiliant, riot of "Libya is free" graffiti on the eastern side that I saw four months ago when I came to cover a nationwide rebellion that has since turned into a stalemated civil war and a cautionary tale for any would be Arab democracy activists.

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Lions, foxes or donkeys of the desert?

I love this Photoshopped image (grabbed from Lion of the Desert?) from this week's Economist. We are entering the "Oh my god what have we signed up for?" stage of of the Libya war, after February and March's hope that Qadhafi was a low-hanging fruit and that he would fall just like Ben Ali and Mubarak did. I am still conflicted, somewhere between Anthony Cordesman (finish the job) and Helena Cobban (never should have gone in the first place). Both come, of course, from a point of view critical of liberal (or neocon) interventionism, although for different reasons. So does Steve Walt. The other question in my mind is about whether early French (followed by other Western) support for the rebels emboldened them to fight a war they couldn't win, relying on help from abroad, and now puts them in a position where they will not negotiate.

The Economist makes the case for more involvement, esp. US, and that Misurata is crucial to the rebels:

Apart from the humanitarian crisis in Misrata, the city—the country’s third largest with a population of more than 500,000 and an important port—is strategically vital. As long as it holds out, it prevents Colonel Qaddafi from imposing a de facto partition between west and east and provides encouragement to the opposition in other western towns, such as Zintan and Zawiya, and even in those parts of Tripoli, the capital, that briefly rose up in the early days of the revolution.

Tough questions all. But I love the way Sarkozy looks on this pic — like Louis de Funes.

In LRB: Is there a Libya?


I have a new review of the two books above, on Libya's 20th-century history, out in the London Review of Books (subscription). I really recommend both of the books above if you want some background to the ongoing civil war, they're both excellent. Vandewalle focuses on the creation of Libya, in terms of its establishment as a state but also the experimentation Qadhafi conducted. Martinez focuses on the Qadhafi era and provides a condensed overview of the transformation of Libya from a revolutionary state to a mafia state.

Here's an excerpt from the end of the (long) review:

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This is / was Misurata

Above, a recent picture of the Libyan town of Misurata by the Telegraph's Geoff Pough.

Below, a video of the town shot during Ramadan 2010, by YouTube user HoneyBees1885.

Brings it home. More about the destruction of Misurata at the NYT.

And the song is great — the YouTube comments say it's by Reda Aqraf (رضا أقراف).

Via Andy Carvin and LibyaInMe on Twitter.

Further thoughts on Libya

Here is some reaction to some recent developments on Libya and the ongoing confusion over what the mission is, exactly. (Following on my previous questions on Libya.)

Barack Obama, presumably speaking for the United States (until Hillary Clinton decides to muddle the message):

Now, just as there are those who have argued against intervention in Libya, there are others who have suggested that we broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people, and do whatever it takes to bring down Qaddafi and usher in a new government.

Of course, there is no question that Libya -– and the world –- would be better off with Qaddafi out of power.  I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means.  But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

Incidentally I generally liked the speech, outlining as it does a flexible policy that incorporates a reluctance to dedicate too many resources to this kind of humanitarian interventionism. I largely agree with what Michael Tomasky says about it in the Guardian. Nonetheless, it is worth noting the perhaps unavoidable inconsistencies. In the same speech, Obama says:

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Libya Dispatch: Rebel Twinkies fuel the struggle

An alternative use for ammo

Napoleon famously said an army marches on its stomach, and in the case of Libya's rebel forces, that would be tuna sandwiches, fava beans and a lot of junk food.

As Western air strikes are restarting once thoroughly defeated rebel advance, the once weirdly successful aspect of their rag tag forces should be gearing up again -- their food supply lines.

Like everything else about the uprising in eastern Libya seeking to challenge Moammar Gadhafi's four decade hammerlock on power, the fighters' food supply was an ad hoc affair of entreprising individuals and local charities with official sanction that somehow seemed to work -- even when nothing else really did.

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5 questions few are asking about Libya

Not to rain on anyone's parade, but while I'm glad that the multinational intervention is giving cover to Libyan insurgents, I'm rather shocked at the desultory coverage of what might come out of the military intervention. A tragedy has been taking place in Libya, whose people deserve help, but that doesn't mean not thinking through consequences. Here's a shot at it:

1. UNSC Resolution 1973 isn't really about getting a ceasefire, is it?

Not really. Even if Qadhafi were to produce a real ceasefire, which is unlikely, the rebels would not observe it: they would keep trying to topple the regime. This resolution, under the guise of obtaining a ceasefire, seeks to carry out regime change. It would get even more complicated as the Libyan government headed by Qadhafi remains legitimate under international law, and thus can be argued to have law enforcement duties to implement against armed insurgents. This resolution is not just about preventing a massacre of civilians, it's about taking sides. The Qadhafi regime is over as far as the international community is concerned, and mission creep will ensure that things will swiftly move from imposing a no-fly zone to more direct efforts, including ground missions. This might be good for the insurgents, might split them, and might not be so good for the countries leading the intervention. Time will tell.

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Although I watched some of his dispatches, I did not have the close relationship with Mohammed Nabbous that someone like Andy Carvin, the NPR strategist who has been tweeting the heck out of the Libyan uprising, had. The audio segment below shows his wife telling his followers that he's died. It's heartbreaking, but illustrative of the amazing role individuals like Mo are playing in trying to create a better future for their country. This generation of young Arabs, from Morocco to Bahrain, is a transformative force on the regional scene. This is only the beginning, but I'm hopeful that millions of Mo will each play their small part in transforming this region into a better place.

Watch live streaming video from libya17feb at

Libya dispatch: Momentum

Life on the road

A second dispatch from Libya from Abu Ray, who's been very, very close to the action.

"I came here to cover a revolution, not a war," said one photographer in disgust after a particularly bad day on the front. Many of those covering this conflict have been surfing from one Middle East uprising to the last and as exhausting as it’s been, it’s also been an uplifting story of peoples peacefully overcoming nasty repressive governments. Until now.

In Egypt and Tunisia the militaries balked from shooting their own people and in the end presidents had to go. In Bahrain, a mercenary military and police were finally restrained by a country that needs world opinion on its side.

None of those strictures existed in Libya where the army was weak and did divide over killing civilians, but was offset by brigades of shady security forces and mercenaries that stayed loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and were ok with shooting people in the streets..

We arrived in Tobruk and Benghazi into a barely restrained carnival of euphoria and over the next three weeks watched the fits and starts of a fledgling state. Eastern Libya and its string of “liberated” cities did not dissolve into chaos or tribalism as some had predicted, calling Libya with its complex web of clan ties as “North Africa’s Somalia.”

Instead it remained peaceful, generous to outsiders and incredibly earnest about building something new in land ruled for four decades by a destructive whim suspicious of any normal social or civic institutions.

Perhaps some sort of shaky future lay ahead for this nascent Free Libya, but we’ll never know because the empire struck back and today it all seems in peril. I leave now with the feeling of a retreat. Qadhafi’s forces, backed by the overwhelming force of tanks and rockets, are rolling back rebel gains and making their way east.

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BBC crew tortured in Libya

The Libyan regime thinks it's a good idea to do this to journalists:

Three members of the BBC Arabic team in Tripoli were detained and beaten while reporting on the situation in Libya. They were arrested on Monday (07 March) and taken to various barracks where they suffered repeated assaults, were masked and handcuffed, and were subject to a mock execution.

There's a full transcript from the BBC on Christopher Dickey's blog, pretty harrowing stuff:

G: "there was a big iron gate. It looked like a film set, like an execution place. They took us out of the car and the middle of the compound there was a cage, they put three of us in the cage and the last thing I saw before the door shut they hit Feras with an AK 47. We started hearing him groaning. They turned up the radio, all Qaddafi songs."

C: "They were wearing uniforms with no badges of rank. Some of then had their faces covered."

F: "they were kicking and punching me, 4 or 5 men. I went down on to my knees. They attacked me as soon as I got out of the car. They knocked me down to the ground with their guns, AK-47s. I was down on my knees and I heard them cocking their guns. I thought they were going to shoot me. It was a fake execution. Then they took me into the room."

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Facing death in Libya

Our sometime correspondent Abu Ray just got back from Libya. Here's what he wrote.

Death has been a lot on my mind since coming to Libya. It's not that I've been in any real danger, it's just it's sort of out there, all around me and hard to ignore. The other day, we were driving back from Bayda, a medium size town nestled in a stunningly beautiful Green Mountain area of Libya. A high mass of wildflower studded fields set in the middle of an otherwise arid coast.

It had been a long day of chasing an elusive politicians and visiting decrepit military bases trying to find out if the rebel east really had a shot of marching on Tripoli. There was some success, but mostly we were exhausted after a long day, like so many other long days since we came roaring across the Egyptian border into Libya a week before.

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The Qadhafi social network

This is a first attempt at mapping the social and power networks around Muammar al-Qadhafi using existing reporting, Wikileaks cables from Tripoli, and a few academic sources. Any complementary information and corrections are appreciated. Please do not use this for any commercial or reporting purposes without contacting me first.

Large PDF version for download here.

UPDATE: Your feedback on this is invaluable. There are some errors in the chart above, and thanks to those who wrote in to point them out. This will be an update to the chart by Sunday, leaving time for more info to get in. For those who asked, the software I use for this is MindNode Pro, which is very simple to use. For more complicated projects I use OmniGraffle.

Mouin Rabbani: Libya's significance

With the 42-year reign of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi coming to a seemingly inevitable end, it is worth reflecting on the significance and regional implications of his ouster. Perhaps most importantly, Qaddafi’s removal cannot but result in genuine regime change. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Libya does not possess autonomous state institutions or state-sponsored elites with the capacity to force out the leader in order to perpetuate their custodianship of the state. If Qaddafi falls – and absent foreign intervention – Libya’s power elite will either go down with him, or remain masters of institutions and networks that no longer exist, are shattered beyond repair or have lost their relevance. Libya, in other words, will be spared the spectre of a permanent transition, and any successor appointed by the Ancien Régime will make Shapour Bakhtiar’s 39-day tenure look everlasting. As with the national uprising against the Shah in the late 1970s, the only possible outcomes are restoration or revolution.

It's one of those real the whole thing piece: Libya's Significance

The Economist on Libya

This week's Economist has an excellent leader on Libya and the whole question of whether Western engagement over the past decade was a mistake. An excerpt from the conclusion:

The lesson from the Arab awakening is an uplifting one. Hard-headed students of realpolitik like to think that only they see the world as it truly is, and that those who pursue human rights and democracy have their heads in the clouds. In their world, the Middle East was not ready for democracy, Arabs not interested in human rights, and the strongmen the only bulwark between the region and Islamic revolution. Yet after the wave of secular uprisings, it is the cynics who seem out of touch, and the idealists have turned out to be the realists.

Just occasionally, the power of ordinary people can overturn the certainties of the experts. That is why countries dealing with dictators should never confuse engagement with endorsement and why the West should press for human rights and democracy—even when it is inconvenient, as it is with China and Russia. Just ask those who have summoned up the courage to risk death for a cause on the streets of Tripoli.

Also see, if you have a subscription (or the print issue), the rest of their briefing on the regional unrest, including this report from Eastern Libya:

IN A parliament building that predates the Qaddafi regime, the founding fathers of a new Libya have gathered. In this Green Mountain town, perched above the coastal sand-flats, they plan to write a new constitution and restore civilian rule. A week after their uprising against 41 years of dictatorship, lawyers, doctors, tribal leaders, colonels, university professors and even Muammar Qaddafi’s justice minister are preparing for power. Inside and outside the assembly hall, crowds of men, women and children cheer and cry for their “monkey king” to leave.

More on intervention in Libya

Helena Cobban responds to my post on choices for intervention in Libya, advocating "incapacitation" rather than my "decapitation." But then again she is a Quaker and therefore a pacifist, I am an Arab and therefore prone to irrational bouts of violence and strong-horse worship (if I understand my Lee Smith correctly). To tell the truth, I am not bothered by the idea of killing Qadhafi, I just prefer that Libyans do it.

I guess I would just tweak his proposal by changing "decapitation mission" to "incapacitation mission." I think it's both wrong and unwise to plan outright to kill anyone, even someone who's done such heinous things as Muammar Qadhafi. But incapacitating him-- and also, crucially, the command-and-control networks through which he exercises his power-- is another matter completely.

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Omar Mukhtar, icon of the Libyan uprising

Omar Mukhtar

This is a first contribution by Arabist reader J Hammond.

On social media associated with the Libyan uprising of 2011, two images have become ubiquitous. One is the pre-Qaddafi flag of the Libyan monarchy. The other is the image of Omar Mukhtar, a guerrilla leader killed by the Italians in 1931. For Libyans, Omar Mukhtar has become what Mohamed Bouazizi symbolized for the Tunisians or Mohammed Khaled Said for Egyptians.  

Such a powerful symbol is Omar Mukhtar that 79 years after his execution both the protestors and the Qadddafi regime have battled for his legacy. Qhaddafi mentioned Omar Mukhtar during his rambling hour and half speech on February 21st. Qhaddafi’s  first speech as chief September 16th, 1969 as the first date to give his presidential address to mark the 38th anniversary of his death. Qhaddafi also financed a major Hollywood film about Omar Mukhtar titled “The Lion of the Desert” and starring Anthony Quinn. The film was released in 1981 and portrays Omar Mukhtar as an honorable fighter and hero. The film was banned the following year in Italy and not shown on Italian television until Omar Ghaddafi’s official state visit in 2009.  A 2009 Vanity Fair article points out that Qaddafi pinned an image of Omar Mukhtar to his uniform when meeting Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi.

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