In the end, Gaddafi’s presidential compound fell easily, and without the promised bloodbath - thankfully. His fighters melted away after some initial resistance, leaving rebels in control. But Gaddafi himself escaped, if he was ever there, and the Libyan Revolution still has a bit more work to do before it’s indisputably in control. By SIMON ALLISON.
The passing of all great political epochs demand their iconic moments. The collapse of the Soviet Union had the piece by piece dismantling of the Berlin Wall. In Iraq, it was the tearing down of Saddam Hussein’s statue. In Egypt, the icon was a place, Tahrir Square, the focal point of the revolution.
On Tuesday, as the rebels stormed and captured Bab Al Aziziya, Gaddafi’s presidential compound, the Libyan revolution got its own iconic moments. Under Gaddafi, Libyans were afraid to even look at the walls of Bab Al Aziziya, meaning Gate of Excellence, for fear of being detained by the secret police. Now, after a fierce, but short gun battle, they were streaming into the complex in their hundreds, Gaddafi’s troops having melted away and Gaddafi himself nowhere to be found – possibly escaping through the maze of tunnels underneath the complex and esconced safely (for now) in one of the small pockets of Tripoli still controlled by his forces - or somewhere else entirely.
As the rebels secured the complex, a fraught process, with everyone jittery about any loyalist snipers left behind or possible booby traps, unforgettable scenes emerged from the broadcast footage. The pictures of rebels piling into Gaddafi’s golf cart, the same one he’d appeared in six months ago, clutching an oversize umbrella and wearing earflaps, when he first denounced the rebels publicly. Or the gold bust of Gaddafi’s head, torn from its plinth and being kicked like a football in the dirt. Or the rebels atop the famous statue of the giant fist crushing an American plane, before unceremoniously pulling it down. Or the torching of Gaddafi’s ceremonial tent, where Brother Leader liked to pretend he was just a poor Bedouin and not an evil dictator. These images were all unimaginable as recently as three days ago.
Despite this setback, Gaddafi’s not completely finished yet, but his dictates hold sway in just a fraction of the Libya he used to dominate. Sirte, his home town located on the coast between Tripoli and Benghazi, remains in the hands of loyalists, as does Sabah, a town in the southern desert region. The Guardian reports that at least four Scud missiles have been fired from Sirte, aimed at the rebel-held city of Misrata, but that so far all have been intercepted by an American warship in the Mediterranean. Rebel authorities are also reported to be in negotiation with Sirte’s tribal elders to avoid having to fight for the city, but it’s unclear how advanced these discussions are. Tripoli itself is still not unequivocally under rebel authority, with intermittent firefights breaking out with the remnants of Gaddafi supporters, and the city targetted by whatever heavy artillery they have left. Fears that Gaddafi would unleash his rumoured supplies of mustard gas and other biological agents have so far been unfounded.
Gaddafi, in a statement to a local TV station, described his retreat from Bab Al Aziziya as a “tactical” move, and vowed to “resist the aggression” with all strength until death or victory. His spokesman was even more optimistic, and colourful: “We will turn Libya into a volcano of lava and fire under the feet of the invaders and their treacherous agents,” said Moussa Ibrahim, whose stirring words didn’t prevent him from fleeing Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel, where a handful of international journalists remain in effective captivity, prevented from leaving by the Gaddafi forces which still control that area. Saif Gaddafi, who’s unexpected appearance at the Rixos on Monday night caused such consternation (when he was believed to be in rebel custody), hasn’t been seen since.
Meanwhile, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the rebel transitional national council, which has become Libya’s effective government, reiterated his calls for restraint: “There should be no settling of scores,” he said at a press conference in Benghazi. “We should not besmirch the last page of the revolution. We have to concentrate on rebuilding and repairing our moral and physical wounds.”
This process will only begin in earnest once the fate of Gaddafi is known for sure. A TNC spokesman claimed the rebels want to try Gaddafi in Libya before sending him to the International Criminal Court, and that there is absolutely no chance of Gaddafi escaping from Libya. But if he does, he’s got somewhere to go now: Nicaragua has said it would be willing to let Gaddafi claim asylum there, although no such request has so far been received.
It was only a few days ago that the rebels took the strategic city of Zawiyah, some 50km from the capital, and it was expected the attack on Tripoli would take weeks at the very least, with Gaddafi promising a bloodbath. This hasn’t materialised, with the rebels making swift progress through the city, although it has been expensive; the TNC reported at least 400 deaths over the last three days, and some 2,000 injured. The speed of their advance has caught even the rebels by surprise: “The swift movement of the battle has left our officials a little bit behind, but we are trying hard,” said another TNC spokesman. Libya’s rebels will have to keep trying hard for a little longer, but at least they know that the momentum is indisputably theirs, as is the country. Gaddafi might hang around a little longer, but his rule is comprehensively over. DM
- Libya: Gaddafi citadel falls but his fate remains unknown in the Guardian;
- Libyan rebels seize Gaddafi compound on Al Jazeera.