THE noose tightened and tightened and on Saturday night it cinched fast. Through Sunday, August 21st and into early Monday morning, the world watched through scratchy video feeds as Libya’s rebels—now in the heart of Tripoli and with the run of the country—searched for the trap door through which to drop their sworn enemy, Muammar Qaddafi.
At the same time, celebrations broke out in Green Square, at the centre of the capital. The scenes of jubilation recalled those from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, on February 11th. But the rebels who came pouring into Tripoli, and the beleaguered citizens who cheered them on, have won their day of victory by war. As in Cairo, flags are waved and God is praised, but tracer fire is also seen, criss-crossing the early-morning sky. Snipers from both sides hold rooftops around the city. In Benghazi, the origin of the February 17th uprising and the seat of the rebel government, residents were euphoric, parading through the streets in their cars and firing weapons into the sky late into the night.
After six months of fighting and with five months of aerial support from NATO, the rebels had brought Colonel Qaddafi’s capital into what was effectively a state of siege. Under the command of the National Transitional Council (NTC), they had captured Zawiya, a strategically vital port to the west of Tripoli, not ten days earlier. To the south, they held Gharyan, on the road to Algeria and the route to the colonel’s main supply of arms. With Misrata to the east in the rebels’ hands, Colonel Qaddafi and his loyalists had no way to flee Tripoli but into the sea.
When the final push came, it seemed to evince an admirable degree of orchestration. The NTC’s forces surged into Tripoli from three fronts, joining a general outpouring into the streets that began with several imams’ call for the evening prayer on Saturday. Rebel cells inside the city were co-ordinated to come out at their signal. In the fighting that followed, a government official said, 376 people on both sides died: an accurate number may take weeks to emerge, if ever it does.
In the confusion of the final battles, still ongoing in some pockets of the city, the certainty provided by the physical capture of a pair of Qaddafi sons has come as a relief. Saif al-Islam Qaddafi was taken first, Saif of the LSE degree who had once seemed like a liberal, modernising face of the Qaddafi regime, before declaring on television that the rebels were imminently to be turned into a “river of blood”. The International Criminal Court, which has an interest in prosecuting him, says that he is alive and in Libya. Then another son, Mohammed Qaddafi, was surrounded at home by armed rebels. He happened to be giving a radio interview at the time, in which he stressed his personal commitment to charity and aversion to violence. He was interrupted by gunfire (at 01.40) and then, it seems, taken into custody. For the time being, his last-heard words are “I’m being attacked right now. This is gunfire—inside my house. They’re inside my house. There is no God but Allah.”
It might have been more prudent for the rebel forces to have delayed their assault on Tripoli to allow the forces from the western mountains and those from Misrata time to work together on a plan of action and also to allow the blockade to impact on the remnants the pro-Qaddafi forces both psychologically and materially. On the other hand, momentum in any campaign is valuable and the rebels are right to make the most of it. NATO’s assessment (in this week’s Economist) was that Colonel Qaddafi had lost all operational capacity. The rebels may also have known much more than outsiders about the likelihood of an armed uprising within Tripoli activated by sleeper cells once their forces were on the outskirts of the city. If so, it was probably sensible to push on.
The resistance of forces still loyal to Colonel Qaddafi may be quite stiff (and lethal) for a while. They still appear to have tanks in Tripoli and probably have little situational awareness. They may also believe that they are going to be killed no matter what so might as well go down fighting. NATO will be reluctant to strike at tanks within the city for fear of collateral damage. The last thing NATO wants now is to kill a lot of civilians or rebel fighters when the outcome is no longer in any doubt.
Where is the colonel?
There are many questions at this hour but, as usual for the past 40 years, the self-appointed colonel dominates. There are rumours that Qaddafi père has already fled Tripoli for the south—or that he is in hospital—and there is also speculation that he has stuck to his fortified compound at the Bab al-Aziziya. Fighting continues around the compound.
Whatever Colonel Qaddafi’s whereabouts, most are concerned with what will follow him. Members of the transitional council are sharply aware of the experience of Iraq, and are determined not to repeat its mistakes. Benghazi experienced a comparatively smooth transition to rebel control in February, thanks largely to the policy of the rebel interim government, the NTC, of keeping key technocrats in their posts. There is no ruling party akin to the Baath party in Iraq, and so less pressure to get rid of policemen, power-plant managers, and others who may have been linked with the fallen regime but who are also key to running a modern city. NTC officials have also warned rebel fighters against reprisal attacks and looting: “The world is watching us… Do not avenge yourselves, don’t pillage, don’t insult foreigners and respect the prisoners,” senior council member Mahmoud Jibril declared on national television.
But the NTC has limited legitimacy, particularly beyond the east. The council has vowed to relocate to the capital as quickly as possible, and members say that they can easily expand its ranks to ensure that Tripoli’s million inhabitants are represented. Even then, it is unclear how much authority they will wield over the disparate group of commanders who now control Tripoli’s streets. Even in the east, the NTC has had difficulty exerting its control over the privately-organised brigades of “thewar”–volunteer militiamen–who have refused integration into a more formal military. Fighters in the west, who have born the brunt of the fighting since March, have griped about a lack of support from the better-supplied east, and may not inclined to submit to the NTC’s authority.
Even more challenging are isolated regime strongholds like Sirte, dominated by the Colonel Qaddafi’s own Qadadfa tribe, or the oasis town of Sebha, where the Qadadfa preside over a coalition of other clans. Some fear that the colonel may slip away to a remote corner of the desert, relying on longstanding tribal pledges of protection. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that the Libyan leader will be capable of organising an Iraq-style armed insurgency nor is there any political traction for one.
The NTC has promised elections within the next eight months to establish some kind of ruling authority as soon as possible. Critics of the council say that this is too soon for a country that has almost no experience of party politics. Still, though tribally diverse, Libya is fairly homogenously Sunni and conservative. Its Islamists seem satisfied with constitutional provisions calling for sharia to be the main source of legislation, a fairly common staple of Arab constitutions.
However, cracks have emerged in the NTC’s authority before, particularly after the assassination in July of General Abdelfattah Younis, allegedly by rogue militiamen. That threatened to lead to a showdown between the central rebel command and autonomous militias. That crisis was averted by the successful rebel offensives which followed a week later, and now has been all but forgotten in the euphoria of victory. But when that euphoria wears off, and with the immediate external threat posed by the colonel’s forces removed, the rebel movement’s so-far impressive display of unity may begin to falter.