In Gaddafi’s Tripoli, Visions of Doomsday and an Endgame

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Such is the hothouse atmosphere of the Rixos Hotel, where the Tripoli press corps remains imprisoned by the Gaddafi regime, that any new source of information, be it a shopkeeper in a bazaar who manages to slip out a disparaging word about Libya’s leader or a rumor of the man himself out in the streets, sends reporters into a frenzied rush. So when government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim was cornered into suggesting that a referendum could be a possible way out of the impasse, the statement was pounced upon like a can of tuna to a pack of starving cats. Alas, it was not so. Ibrahim quickly qualified his pronouncement, stating that any political solution would be presided over by Gaddafi, but not before the original line was beamed around the world in a news flash.

If anything, the lines appear to be hardening. Witness accounts and video footage coming out of the besieged western town of Misratah tell of a city where corpses lie in the streets. And while rebels in the east have managed to advance on New Brega, the old city, with its university and important oil installations, remains firmly in government control. A reported attack by government forces on villages to the southwest of Tripoli is both an indication of spreading unrest and a decisive crackdown.

In the capital, the few residents willing to speak out loud against the government give the regime two more weeks, but it seems to be more an expression of hope than any real gauge of movement on the ground. “The people [of Tripoli] are just waiting,” says a man selling souvenir rugs emblazoned with camels. “They will come to the streets when the rebels from Benghazi arrive.” Another resident, a Pentecostal Cameroonian immigrant who worked in a restaurant, announces that God is displeased and would soon wreak vengeance on the city. Couching his frustration in allegory, he urges me to leave before it is too late. “God is angry,” he says. “The people here worship one man. That is not right. Do you know what I am talking about? God is not pleased when one man says he is king of kings. There will be a great tragedy here. God will visit his wrath on this town. He told me in a dream.”

But two weeks after the opening salvo of the allied air-strike campaign on Gaddafi’s offensive military installations, the battle between the rebel-dominated east and the government-controlled west appears to have reached a stalemate. NATO forces have taken over from the Americans, and hope — that the rebels can coalesce into an effective fighting force or that internal fault lines in the cohesiveness of the Gaddafi clan cause it to crumble — seems to be as much a battle plan as an outright assault.

To many who argue that the limited strikes authorized by U.N. Resolution 1973 have allowed Gaddafi to continue attacking his own people, the solution is a more robust package of military aid to the rebels in the east. In the Wall Street Journal on Friday, April 1, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman wrote, “We cannot allow Gaddafi to consolidate his grip over part of the country and settle in for the long haul.” Already the British are aiding the rebels with enhanced communications equipment, but it is unlikely to be enough to tip the scales in the rebels’ favor. Pressure will mount on the U.S. and other coalition allies to up the ante. Before anyone does, either openly or covertly, it’s worth a quick click or two to check out Charlie Wilson’s War (as Tony Karon suggested in Global Spin’s Couch Potato Briefing last week), the movie based on a book about the campaign of a Texas Congressman to arm Afghan rebels against the Soviet occupation. In the final scenes, Tom Hanks’ character is seen to be arguing, in vain, for a postwar development program that includes education programs for the devastated Afghan state. We all know how that particular case of neglect turned out. It seems inevitable that one way or the other, Libya’s eastern rebels will be assisted with more than allied air strikes. When that happens, why not make a commitment that for every gun, tank or missile provided, there will be a concomitant amount of money set aside for development once the war is over?