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article imageOp-Ed: Gaddafi's men – why do they keep fighting?

By Stephen Morgan     Sep 21, 2011 in World
It is now a month since Tripoli fell and the “Great Guide” was unceremoniously guided from power. But his forces refuse to give in and they are fighting back with much more determination and with much more popular support than witnessed before
With their leader dethroned and their capital captured, everyone expected that pro-Gaddafi resistance would quickly collapse. But unlike most other places, Gaddafi's forces have not melted away and this time there have been no internal uprisings to greet the advancing rebels.
Clearly, Bani Walid and Sirte are totally different situations to the fall of Tripoli. The Associated Press quoted one exacerbated fighter as saying, "This may be the worst front Libya will see." On Friday, Lorna Ward for Sky News painted the situation in Bani Wald in vivid colors, “The rockets and mortars are relentless (and) the incoming fire keeps the anti-Gaddafi fighters running and confuses an already chaotic battlefield. Initially they made ground.....But every step forward is pushed back....they're finding themselves completely surrounded - left with no way out as the bullets rain down.”
The rebels are astonished by the level of resistance they have encountered. The LA Times reported that, “Many fighters were openly distressed that the people of Bani Walid appeared to have remained largely loyal to Kadafi” and quoted a young fighter as saying, “"We don't really know who's with us and who's against us in Bani Walid......There are a lot of civilians there, but they're still with Kadafi. We have nothing to do with them."
Having been forced to retreat three times, the utter chaos, demoralization, infighting and insubordination, which has broken out in their ranks, may now even lead to the collapse of the rebel front in Bani Walid. In Sirte, it is also not ruled out that a truce will have to be called, if the current standoff continues and the high numbers of casualties keeps rising.
The NTC explains the fierce resistance by characterizing the Gaddafi forces as fanatics trapped inside the city with no other choice but to fight to the death. Many rebels believe that they are being inspired by top loyalist leaders inside the towns, perhaps including some of Gaddafi's sons and even Gaddafi himself. The civilian support, they claim, comes from a minority, whose loyalty has been bought by privileges heaped on them by Gaddafi. The reason why the anti-Gaddafi majority haven't risen up to greet them is because they are being terrorized and brainwashed by Gaddafi forces, who have convinced them that the rebels will steal, rape and kill people indiscriminately.
While there is probably considerable truth in all of these assertions, it still isn't enough to explain the obstinacy of the opposition and particularly the antipathy shown to the rebels by much of the population. One also has to take into account that the rebels are using psy-opps and propaganda, as well as their tendency to make wild claims and exaggerate just about anything. (see The New York Times for a withering criticism of the rebels in this respect.)
To begin with, the decision to make a stand in Sirte and Bani Walid wasn't entirely forced upon the remnants of the Gaddafi army. If they wanted to save their own skins, vast swaths of land between the center and south of the country aren't under the control of the NTC. The fact that a convoy of 200 loyalist vehicles could travel more than a thousand kilometers south to Niger, without hindrance or detection, means that troops fleeing Tripoli had other options than to hide out in Sirte or Bani Walid. Even now there are still opportunities to get away. The rebels themselves are reporting the arrival reinforcements in Bani Walid from Sirte using valleys and passages through the mountains, which they don't control. If large numbers of troops can move in, then deserters could also move out, if they wanted to escape.
But many Gaddafi supporters fight because they really believe in him. A rebel vividly described the commitment many have in an interview with the LA Times back in July . "When they ran out of ammunition, we warned them to give up. But they didn't give up. We killed so many of them." Hadi Mohammad said with dismay.” Such sacrifice was underlined by a recent estimate from NTC military leaders, that Gaddafi lost 9,000 troops from the elite Khamis brigades alone, not counting deaths among regular troops, mercenaries and paramilitary forces.
It is quite clear that Gaddafi's troops have a lot of support among a large proportion of the population in Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. Many have even formed armed militias to fight alongside them. Despite what the rebels say, the fact they weren't welcomed by popular uprisings in Gaddafi's last strongholds cannot be explained by terror alone. The people in Tripoli and in Benghazi and Misrata faced the same terror, yet they rose up and threw off the apparently invincible apparatus of repression.
Likewise, propaganda cannot adequately explain why Gaddafi still has the support he does. People in these towns aren't more stupid or psychologically different from Libyans elsewhere. The fact is that propaganda can only succeed if it resonates to some degree with what people are thinking and experiencing and the NTC forces are falling into Gaddafi's trap by giving credibility to his accusations. The rebels have retaliated against Gaddafi supporters in many loyalist towns and villages. They have ransacked and burned homes and stolen property and it has resulted in an influx of refugees into Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha, whose stories have confirmed the dread whipped up by Gaddafi and compounded fears that they will be stripped of the privileges they enjoyed under the old regime.
It is true that members of the pro-Gaddafi tribes benefited from cushier jobs, easier home loans and generally better incomes than other Libyans. The leaders of the biggest tribes, like the Warfalla in Bani Walid and the Magarha, plus Gaddafi's own Gadhadhfa tribe in Sirte, were appointed to high positions in the government and military, in order to secure their loyalty to the regime. Before Gaddafi came to power, the regime of King Idris favored the eastern tribes over the western. Gaddafi reversed this and those around Benghazi and the Berber homelands consequently lost out.
Now the western tribes fear this will be reversed again by the Benghazi based NTC and that they will become second-class citizens or worse in a new Libya. From their perspective, they aren't just fighting to preserve perks and privileges, they are now fighting for their livelihoods and the future for them and their chlldren. They expect that retribution from supporters of the new regime could mean unemployment and even homelessness for their families and the rebels' adoption of King Idris's flag as the symbol of their revolution has not helped this impression.
These fears are not unfounded. Despite the assurances by the NTC that there will be no witch hunt or “De-Baathification,” its powers to stop this are limited. Indeed, Amnesty International has just warned that a grass root movement for revenge against Gaddafi loyalists is gathering strength in Tripoli and elsewhere, which it fears could lead to civil disorder. A report yesterday from Misrata confirms this and the growing evidence of not just racist persecution but defacto ethnic cleansing is forcing hundreds of thousands of indigenous, dark-skinned Libyans and migrants to flee the country- Niger estimates it has received 210,000 refugees alone, not to mention Mali, Chad and Sudan.
People in Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha continue to lend political support to Gaddafi because they have experienced a transformation in their quality of life. Sirte was little more than a fishing village and Sabha was just an oasis stop over for camel caravans when Gaddafi came to power. From scrapping by as poor, semi-nomadic, Bedouin tribesman, they have become well-off inhabitants of showpiece cities with populations of over 100,000 people. Gaddafi poured money into these towns building homes, hospitals, schools, universities and hotels. Indeed, he made Sirte into the second city of Libya and even called it the “capital of Africa.”
Consequently, people in these towns give Gaddafi far more credit for the economic and social changes which have occurred under his rule. As one school teacher told the British Independent, "We had safety under Muammar Gaddafi, we had jobs and food. People forget how poor this country was and he made sure that not just the rich got the money from the oil."
Official figures from the UN and World Bank confirm this. When Gaddafi came to power, Libya was one of the lowest countries in the UN Development Index. In 1969, life expectancy was only 51. Now it is 78. Literacy has risen to 88% and per capita GDP is $14,000, the highest in the Arab world after the super-rich Gulf states.
As a result these sections of the population are more inclined to tolerate the dictatorship, if it means maintaining these reforms. This is especially so, since they distrust the intentions of the NTC, who they fear will allow Western companies more opportunities to exploit the nation's oil wealth at the expense of ordinary people.
There are also cultural differences involved here. Cities like Tripoli and Benghazi and also the industrial hub of Misrata, are long-standing cosmopolitan centers, which coupled with greater contact to the outside world, has given rise to broader minds and a susceptibility to new and more radical ideas. For cities like these, with a more cultured population, the “insult” of dictatorship is felt more keenly than elsewhere and it is the reason that they became the centers of the revolution.
They were joined by the Berbers of the Western Mountains, because these people had a double fight, in that they were struggling both against dictatorship and also for liberation from the ethnic oppression they suffered under Gaddafi's rule. This gave them an extra edge, which turned them into one of the leading vanguards of the revolution.
On the other side, unlike Benghazi or Tripoli, the populations in Gaddafi's strongholds have only recently been urbanized and their peasant and semi-nomadic roots are only a grandfather away. The way of thinking in places like Sirte, Sabha and Bani Walid is far more conservative and strongly linked to the values and traditions of their tribal roots than city people are and this makes them more resistant to radical change. Gaddafi knows how to play on this as he showed in a radio broadcast in Bani Walid two days ago. "These revolutionaries are fighting to drink and do drugs all the time and be like the West, dance all night.” it proclaimed. “We are a traditional tribal society that refuses such things and must fight it."
As the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, once remarked, with regard to problems of backwardness among the Russian peasants, “No generation can leap over its own head” and a key factor behind the political differences between pro and anti-Gaddafi supporters, is the age old antagonism between the city and country, which surfaces in all revolutions.
Gaddafi also plays very effectively on nationalist sentiments and worries over foreign influence. The struggle against Italian colonialism is still fresh in people's minds. Although Libya gained independence under King Idris in 1951, he was essentially a puppet of the West, who allowed them to set up bases on Libyan soil and gave them a free hand to exploit Libyan oil, with little benefit accruing to ordinary people.
However, when Gaddafi took power, he closed all foreign military bases and nationalized the oil industry. His defiance of the West still reverberates with his supporters today. The New York Times interviewed a young Gaddafi soldier in hospital, who said “I myself would die a thousand times for Qaddafi, even now. I love him because he gave us dignity, and he is a symbol for the patriotism of the country.”
Gaddafi supporters see the NTC as traitors, who send the full might of the NATO air force against them, allow western special forces to train and lead their fighters and make honoring Western oil contracts the main plank of their economic policy. Moreover, if the NTC is has little authority among the rebel fighters in Misrata, the Western Mountains or Tripoli, there is little chance of it winning the confidence and trust of Gaddafi loyalists.
When Gaddafi rants about imperialists and colonialists, he does so because it strikes a chord. The Independent interviewed another 22 year old Gaddafi soldier, who had been captured by the rebels. When his captors were out of earshot, he told the reporter, "No-one likes being bombed by foreign countries. They bombed us for six months and they are still bombing us. Even after they put their puppets in Tripoli. We fight for Muammar, he protected our country: we fight for Libya."
Just how much of a thorn this is in the side of the rebels was also illustrated by a report from Al Arabiya, which quoted a negotiator for Bani Walid called Mohammed bin Masoud, who according to the paper “dismissed the idea that pro-Gadhafi sentiment was strong. Instead, he explained that many just don't like the rebels, because they see them as upstarts who opened the door to NATO intervention.”
Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha may be the epicenters of loyalist resistance now, but they reflect much wider opposition to the NTC, which continues in smaller towns all over the country like Zlitan, Heisha, Tiji, Asaba'a and Tarhouna, where journalists have reported that Gaddafi's green flags still fly on the roofs of many houses despite them being “liberated” by rebel forces.
Some say they have hidden guns for the future and last week's spectacular attack on the Ras Lanouf oil refinery by 150 Gaddafi supporters from the Hasoun tribe, intent on avenging the ransacking of their village, may be a taste of things to come.
It is most likely that the rebels will eventually conquer the remaining strongholds, but controlling them could be another matter. The scale and ferocity of the resistance shows the potential for protracted civil disorder and the NTC forces are not trained in the difficult task of counter-insurgency. If the battles result in massive destruction in the towns and the wide scale loss of civilian lives, then issues of regionalism and tribal revenge will become intermingled with political opposition and that can plunge Libya into an inferno of violence.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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