Thursday, 7 April 2011

Libya for Dummies ( Part I )

Just want to start by saying this is all from my point of view and I may be completely wrong. Of course, you might like it if you have very little knowledge on the issue. I will also address some common issues people raise and why I believe them to be right or wrong.

I started writing this and it has started getting quite long so I will release this in parts. This is part 1 out of an unknown number of parts for now. If you have any corrections, please post in the comments. This is quite a simplified version of events though, so do take that into account.

Libya is a country in North Africa. It has a small population of 6 million people (minus the people who have fled in the past month or so). The people in Libya are relatively well-educated with the highest literacy rate in the region and with a big student population. Oil is one of the major resources in the country and is a big issue in this conflict too.
The population is split into many tribes who live in different regions. For example the leader of Libya, Gadhafi, comes from the Gadhadhfa (fixed, thanks to PJ) tribe. (The spelling of these tribes in English will probably be different everywhere) Each of these tribes usually have allegiances to the other tribes which sometimes are decades-old and some tribes on the other hand flip their allegiances to whoever is giving them the best options at that time. This is part of the difficulty in understanding the conflict in Libya right now and one of the most underestimated problem I see right now. More on this later too.

The leader of Libya came to power after a coup more than 40 years ago against the king. The reasons don't really matter for the purpose of this blog entry, but the whole subject is quite interesting and intricate.
Basically, Gadhafi is a military man and with the help of other military men he succeeded in deposing the old king and has thus declared himself ruler of Libya.
For years Gadhafi had been shun by most of the western world and he has also supported terrorists and even (allegedly) staged terrorist attacks.
This was until 2008 when both the western countries and Gadhafi sought closer relationships, the embargo against him was dropped and Gadhafi started cooperating with the west.
In all this time, Gadhafi has also been a central figure in African politics however and as one of the founding members of the African Union and as a visionary for a United States of Africa commands a lot of respect from some of the African countries (especially from other dictators).
Gadhafi has also used a great deal of the oil revenue in developing Libya's infrastructure and social system, whilst keeping his 'friends' loyal. He also invested a lot into other African countries and established trade relationships with most of them.

Why Now?
The protesters started protesting shortly after the protesters in the other Middle Eastern countries in what is now known as the Arab Spring. These protests started when a Tunisian immolated himself which triggered an outcry in Tunisia, which ended with the ouster of the dictator Ben Ali. This then quickly motivated others in countries with similar conditions to start protesting with Egypt carrying a big part of the media with it.
Libyans' protests started small and grew larger even though the government tried cracking down on them. After a certain point some protesters took arms against the government with the help of some general who apparently also managed to convince some of his troops to join his side. This meant that the protesters who started out as a mostly civilian and peaceful discourse became armed and dangerous.

So What Happened?
The newly-coined 'rebels' manage to take over most of Eastern Libya and a few cities and strongholds in Western and Southern Libya, while Gadhafi managed to keep a hold on the rest. Since Libya is still quite tribal, most cities loyal to Gadhafi are also loyal to the Gadhadhfa (fixed), while all the other tribes probably joined the opposition or have tried staying neutral.
At the same time, most foreigners have left the country except for armed mercenaries hired by Gadhafi to help reinforce his forces due to the desertion of others. These mercenaries are mainly from Mali and Niger.

So, the rebels managed to capture large swaths of land especially Benghazi and Misrata, the second and third-largest cities after Tripoli, the capital. These were very important and fighting still persists now in Misrata. The rebels had also managed to capture several oil ports, such as Brega and Ras Lanouf (forgive the spelling of all of these) which were very important strategically as they would not allow Gadhafi to keep funding his troops if he lost control of his major resource, oil.
However Gadhafi started employing his Air Force and soon enough managed to repel the rebels from most of Western Libya, except for Misrata and managed to send his troops further to the East.

This was when the UN jumped in at the request of the rebels and with the agreement of the Arab League and most NATO countries. The UN authorized any measures necessary for protection of civilian lives, which is a very broad mission statement.

Gadhafi's Air Force Crushed
Very quickly NATO managed to destroy all of Gadhafi's aerial capabilities. This meant that the rebels did not have to fear air strikes any longer and started advancing again, only to get hit by Gadhafi's armored division (tanks), this basically went on for a while with the rebels gaining ground and then the loyalists getting it back.

Now we are at a point where we could say there is a kind of stalemate. The rebels control the East (with most oil ports), the loyalists control the West and parts of the South (with some oil too), barring Misrata, the last rebel stronghold in the West. Whenever the rebels advance they  get pounded by the armor, whenever the loyalists advance they get pounded by the NATO + Qatar's aerial bombardments.

Part II can be found on the following link:
Libya for Dummies ( Part II )


  1. more more more :D

  2. Good summary. Just a couple of minor points.

    * Nitpick: It's the Gadhadhfa tribe (d before f in the end, not the other way around, however you want to spell it).
    * No need to hedge the "allegedly" about the terrorist attacks. Gadhafi is/was one of the worst sponsors of terrorism anywhere, from the Basques to Lockerbie, the FARC to radical Palestinian movements. In the '70's, if you wanted to blow something up, he was the go-to guy for the semtex, almost regardless of your politics.
    * Air power never was all *that* critical in the conflict. Gadhafi's pilots aren't exactly teh cream of the crop, even by Arab standards. Gadhafi turned things around when he got his army working together again, and there the critical bits were armor and heavy weaponry plus training. The rebels are still basically an armed mob swarming first in one direction, then the other, and such things don't do well against any kind of coordinated force. The importance of the NATO air strikes was that they wiped out the armored columns headed towards Benghazi, and thereby created the current stalemate.
    * Gadhafi doesn't acutely depend on oil revenue to keep fighting. He's sitting on a massive pile of gold, and can keep funding his mercenaries at $1000/man/day for months if not years. The actual fuel—refined petrol—is far more important, and there are already shortages due to the supply disruption.

  3. I'm looking forward to the bit where you explain why someone who has a surname like Kousa would think it a good idea to name their son Mousa. :)

  4. @PJ: I'll fix the tribe name :)
    About the Air force. I thought that since Libya had an Air Force they were targeting any rebel advance on the other cities and the rebels were like sitting ducks to them because of it. It also allowed them to gather some information on rebel movements and so on.
    Then NATO came in and stopped those air strikes as well as the armor to Benghazi. Am I completely off-mark? I really thought I had read that the rebels could not advance anywhere due to impending air strikes.

    Also, where's his gold come from ?