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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Libya state of play 2011-02-24

Map from Iyad al-Baghdadi showing today's state of play here. Also check our own Steve Negus's constantly updated Google Maps mash-up.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

If the tide turns: some pros and cons of military intervention in Libya

In the last few days there have been a number of calls for international intervention to try to stem the atrocities that the Qaddafi regime is carrying out against Libyan civilians, including military measures such as the imposition of a no-fly zone. (Sanctions and other steps have also been proposed, but I doubt that they would have much impact on a regime fighting for its life).

We might be past the point where the declaration of a no-fly zone would make a major difference -- the Libyan air force (that part which has not defected) does not appear to be terribly effective and airlifted mercenary forces in the east seem to be contained. The city of Tripoli and several other towns on the west coast do appear to be at the mercy of loyalist mercenaries and militias, and are suffering terribly, but there is probably little that could be done militarily, short of a massive and prohibitively problematic amphibious invasion, to rescue them. Rebels in Benghazi are reportedly beginning to mobilize to move west, so it's quite likely that Libyans will be able to complete the overthrow of Qaddafi without outside help.

However, dictators have come back from the brink before: Saddam in 1991, for example, although his hold on the country was probably never as tenuous as Qaddafi's is right now. If there is any chance Qaddafi were to stage a major turnaround, and bring major rebel-held cities like Benghazi or Misrata under siege, then the United States and other powers capable of intervention in Libya should consider what might be done to prevent a terrible humanitarian disaster.

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Lejan fi kul makan

Reports from liberated east Libyan cities suggest an impressive level of organization on the part of the populace, with most basic urban functions up and running. One wonders if Qaddafi's ideosyncratic jamahiriyan ideology, roping people into participating in rubber-stamp "Basic People's Congresses" to create a facade of direct democracy, has in fact formed the provided the institutional template for a countrywide insurrection against him.

Qaddafi's bloody counterattack

An excellent crowd-sourced map on Google on the uprising in Libya has been created by one Arasmus, here. It's useful in trying to sort out all the various reports, to get a sense of the ebb and flow of control. Here's what seems to be happening: the eastern cities are protester-controlled, but Tripoli has at least temporarily been bludgeoned into submission and is saturated with pro-regime forces, other western and central towns are reportedly under attack by military units, and now Qaddafi is contemplating how to regain control of the east before his authority completely unravels. The regime seems to have a shortage of reliable forces, as the army is reportedly divided along tribal lines. (My very uneducated reading of a list of Qaddafa and allied officers in Mansour O. El-Kikhia's Libya's Qaddafi, pub 1997, suggests that they were then concentrated in about six or seven of the army's 45 armor and infantry battalions, although it might not be a comprehensive list).

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Libya gets ugly #feb17

It's almost certain that the death toll in Libya has passed 200, with thousands more wounded. Protestors are said to have taken control of some cities, others are under siege and running out of supplies. Airfields across the eastern part of the country have been sabotaged to prevent airplanes with sub-Saharan African mercenaries from landings. Major oil companies are said to be preparing an evacuation and one major oil-load port in Tobruq is said to have been shut down.

Live Blog - Libya | Al Jazeera Blogs

Excellent continuously updated page — follow it for the latest.

Libya protests: 'foreign mercenaries using heavy weapons against at demonstrators' - Telegraph

"Tanks and helicopter gunships full of foreign mercenaries are fighting gangs of demonstrators. At least one dead man had been hit by an anti-aircraft missile, while other bodies are riddled with heavy machine gun fire."

Libyan Muslim leaders tell security: stop massacre | Reuters

(Reuters) - Libyan Muslim leaders told security forces to stop killing civilians, responding to a spiraling death toll from unrest which threatens veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi's authority.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Some notes on Libya #feb17

Things in Libya are getting ugly:

  • Human Rights Watch: "(New York) - Government security forces have killed at least 84 people in three days of protests in several cities in Libya, Human Rights Watch said today, based on telephone interviews with local hospital staff and witnesses."
  • The internet has been cut in large parts of the country, making it difficult to upload the videos to Youtube that have been a major source of information.
  • Journalists are not allowed in for the most part - see What If Libya Staged a Revolution and Nobody Came? - By Najla Abdurrahman | Foreign Policy. I understand that some of the correspondents for the Arab satellite channels were pro-regime anyway — it was the only way they could get into the country in the first place. Because of this the picture of what's really happening is not detailed, we have tidbits here and there. Diaspora Libyans in the US and UK are doing much of the work of getting word out. Enough Qaddafi (whose great website is unfortunately still down after being attacked) noted on Twitter: "catch 22 in libya. You spk 2 media you could suffer, and if you don't get word out by spk 2 media u could suffer#Feb17 the result is that we can generally understand what's happening, but the details that describe magnitude of events are virtually impossible to confirm.its frustrating for pple on ground and those that want to report"
  • Mercenaries have been employed by the regime.
  • There are reports of divisions within the regime on how to handle the uprising. For now one of the main tools used has been the Revolutionary Committees controlled by Qadhafi. I am not sure where the army has been doing though. 
  • Audio recording by a protestor: Audioboo / LPC: Detailed on the ground account of violence in Benghazi moments ago!! #Libya #Feb 17
  • The heart of the revolt appears to be Benghazi, long a town critical of the regime and where politics have been dominated by Islamists. But several other cities have fallen out of government control.

 

1 Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Libya's protests, #feb17

My gut feeling is that the most important protests now taking place in North Africa are those in Libya. I say this with no disrespect to those in Algeria, where the regime certainly deserves to be brought down, or my own native Morocco, where the palace and Makhzen need a wake-up call that the status quo (and indeed, the regression of the last few years) is not acceptable.

But Libya shares something important with Egypt and Tunisia: an aging leader (41 years in power) faces a looming succession crisis in which the leading candidates are his own sons. I simply don't think that's an acceptable outcome for any republic in the 21st century, and was a key aspect to the revolt against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia (with the rumored heir apparent being his nephew). Of course there are also differences: the Libyan regime is much more brutal, more tribalized, more totalitarian than Egypt or Tunisia. The country is split along an east-west axis, with the east kept systematically poorer and discriminated against, along with older historical grievances. That's why it's not surprise Benghazi saw the first and biggest protests, particularly since core organizers were relatives of the victims of the Abu Salim prison massacre of 1996.

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