Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Libya: The future begins

“Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia”
— Saif al-Qaddafi, February 2011

“You can resist an invading army; you cannot resist an idea whose time has come.”
— Victor Hugo

It all appeared to come together with such swiftness, we were astonished. The world expected a gotterdamerung moment from the rapacious tinpot cartoon, a last paroxysm of rage from the Bedouin bunker of the ruler of Libya. Instead, Muammar al-Gaddafi has apparently vanished, leaving his once-loyal forces to continue fighting in support of nothing more or less than a phantom.

On Sunday, the forces loyal to Gaddafi were slowly routed by the rebel forces loyal to the idea of Libya having a future, in an assault on Tripoli, the capital, that was relatively bloodless in the early going. The groundwork had apparently been laid by the dogged fighting of the rebels; the continual attacks by NATO warplanes on government forces; the deeper nationalistic loyalties of everyday Libyans; and, count on it, the impact of social media both in documenting the atrocities of the Gaddafi regime since March, and in communicating in real time the intelligence necessary to send Gaddafi packing.

At this writing, Gaddafi remains in hiding somewhere in Libya, presumably directing what’s left of his forces to go on fighting and dying on his behalf. Deep pockets of resistance are said to persist in the western part of the city. But the deal is clearly going down.

“This is not fortress Stalingrad,” former NATO commander Wesley Clark told CNN Sunday. “We are approaching the endgame of this battle.”

“The Gaddafi regime is coming to an end,” President Obama said at the White House, “and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people.”

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For Libyan Americans, the news of the pending change has been well received. Rep. Keith Ellison, distilling the sentiments of Libyan Americans in his Minnesota district, said they were “jubilant, they’re excited. They’re very confident that the progress is irreversible and Gaddafi is out of power,” Ellison told Keith Olbermann on “Countdown” on Monday.

“It’s a very historic moment for us all to finally see the final chapter,” said Hussein Elkhafaifi, a professor at the University of Washington who recently returned from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Elkhafaifi spoke on Monday to KING5, the Seattle NBC affiliate.

Fouad Ajami, the celebrated Middle East scholar and professor at Columbia University, was similarly upbeat. “The prospects for the Libyan people are promising,” he told Anderson Cooper on CNN on Monday. “There can be no possibility that the regime could rise in Libya that would equal the tyranny and the brutality of this regime.”

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Now the debate about the future of Libya begins. “Countdown” reported, quoting other sources, that some major oil conglomerates, including BP and Total, are already salivating at the prospect of going back into business in the country with the 10th-largest stockpile of oil reserves in the world.

The more immediate concern, of course, is government. NATO nations including the United States, Germany and the UK have jointly recognized the National Transitional Council as the successor to the Gaddafi government, so there’s a governing framework — or more accurately the basis of a governing framework — that’s soon to be in place.

But Gaddafi’s absolute reign of 42 years has resulted in a country that’s been for generations more or less a total expression of his identity. His forthcoming absence from the scene opens the door to the textbook “power vacuum,” and the rise of any number of ambitious tribal leaders, some of them certainly emerging from the same dictatorship in the process of ending right now.

“This country has had no serious … political institutions to build a democracy on,” said Robert Baer, author and former CIA analyst, to CNN on Monday. “I think it’s gonna need a lot of help.”

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But for the 33 percent of the 6.6 million Libyan people who are under the age of 15, that may not matter. For them, such conventional fears, such logical geopolitical assumptions pale against the innocent, frightening joy of people encountering what amounts to a new world.

They’ve never known a Libya without Gaddafi: his posters and statuary, his cult of personality and the long shadow of his authority. The prospect of their country without his iron grip may be no less profound than a realignment of the planets.

For those millions of north Africa and the Middle East young enough to dare of a future, maybe that’s what’s happening right now, block by block, tweet by tweet, and not just in Libya: a shift in the center of gravity. “The collapse of the regime is a very important event for the whole Arab world,” Raghida Dergham, a journalist with Al Hayat told MSNBC on Sunday. “It will resonate [in] other places … and that will also leave its mark on over developments in different parts of the world be it Yemen [or] Syria, I think the leaders there are not sleeping tonight.”

Image credits: Crowd, Gaddafi: Image from Al Jazeera live stream.

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