Politics & Policy

The Case for Optimism in Libya

Najla Abdurrahman is a doctoral candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. She comes from a family of Libyan-American dissidents, and has for several years been engaging in online activism to alert the outside world to the abuses and human-rights violations of the Gaddafi regime. In February she talked to National Review Online, advocating the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya. Today she follows up on Libya’s progress. 


Matthew Shaffer: When the U.S. intervened, the conventional wisdom was that we were preventing a brutal crackdown on a uniform democratic movement by a rogue regime. Now the cynics characterize the conflict as a civil war, both of whose sides enjoy legitimate bases of support.

Najla Abdurrahman: I would completely reject the characterization of this as a civil war. Mahmoud Gibril Elwarfally, the interim prime minister, has been visiting the U.S. recently. As he pointed out at the Brookings Institution today, the press has tended to characterize this as one group of Libyans against another group of Libyans, and that is actually the propaganda strategy of the regime. Just to talk about the numbers, there is an overwhelmingly large portion of the population opposing a very small circle consisting of the regime and its supporters. People like me who come from Libya — the majority of exiles — we know that most of the supporters are from Tripoli, and that’s also where the media are because it’s the capital. So the media get a distorted picture. There is an attempt by the regime to make it seem as if their support is a lot wider than it is. And if you’ve been paying attention to the conflict, you’ll see that this uprising, or protests, or guerilla warfare in places like Misurata, have erupted spontaneously in every city in the country. So you can’t really characterize this as one side of the country against another.


Shaffer: So how is Qaddafi able to maintain support among his officer corps?

Abdurrahman: As much as I would like to believe that his support is not real, he does have a relatively small portion of the population who are his die-hard supporters, people who really would live and die for him. A lot of people think of it as this pope personality that surrounds him. Those people are there, as much as we might like to pretend that they are not. And then there are opportunists, who have benefited financially in the past from the regime, who, while it is or has been expedient, sort of either don’t take one side or the other, or just back him for the time-being. And this group has gotten smaller over the last weeks and months. It’s hard to say. But just remember that people in Misurata with very light weaponry have been able to stave off the attacks of a national army. But in reality they could only do that if this army was very small and very weak.


Shaffer: Have you been satisfied with the NATO-allied intervention so far?

Abdurrahman: I think a lot of Libyans were very pleased with what was happening when the Untied States was taking a leading role in it. When NATO took over in later weeks, a lot of Libyans felt that NATO was not doing a s good a job hitting targets as the U.S. has been doing. In the last few weeks, that opinion has changed, and people have been expressing more satisfaction with the job NATO has been doing.


Shaffer: Have the rebels lost their momentum?

Abdurrahman: No, I would disagree. Mahmound Gibril yesterday, in the evening he held an event with members of the Libyan community in Washington D.C. He spoke and Libyans from all over the country were in attendance. I agree with what he said, that there is no stalemate. Things are happening on the ground. It’s slow-going, but real progress is being made and Qaddafi’s strength is being chipped away at. We haven’t really seen him for the last two weeks, so some people think he might be injured, or he could be hiding. They played a video or audio of him a few minutes ago, but it was a very short minute or two-minute audio clip and it’s very difficult to verify when it was actually taped. But really we haven’t seen him for the last couple of weeks. So the Prime Minister was predicting yesterday that this might only last a few more weeks.


Shaffer: You supported the imposition of a no-fly zone, but you were against western boots on the ground. Would you support coalition efforts to directly assassinate Qaddafi, which some speculate the strikes on his compound were intended to do?

Abdurrahman: I think the mission they have now is adequate. And in the U.S. we have a spoken policy of not targeting other heads of state — although I don’t know if I would call Qaddafi a head of state. That’s a tough question.


Shaffer: Well I guess some might say the missile strikes on his compound are justified by the command-and-control center there, and his death could be a nice added benefit.

Abdurrahman: They have been doing that. What NATO has been saying is that the goal is not to kill Qaddafi, but then the strikes on the compound would seem to imply that it is a kind of unspoken goal. And that’s where his command and control center is; I’m not sure what else is there, but that’s the heart of his operation.

I can say personally as a Libyan, a lot of Libyans think that if that’s what it would take to end the violence and move forward, that would be acceptable. But there’s also a strong desire to see him alive and held accountable, and even brought up on charges of war crimes. And that for most people would be a lot more satisfying than him being assassinated.


Shaffer: Are current coalition efforts enough to make a win by the rebels an inevitability or at least highly probable, so that they could capture him?

Abdurrahman: You don’t hear this a lot in the news, but in Tripoli, if you talk to anybody there, there are protests that are starting up again. A couple of neighborhoods have been seeing renewed demonstrations. So I think of this as a chemical reaction, the kind where it is sort of slow-going in the beginning and it reaches a critical point and then it explodes. I think everything that is happening right now is having a critical impact, and is slowly chipping away at the problem, and that if things continue the way they do it will come to a head and a good end.


Shaffer: If Qaddafi is successfully deposed, how ready are the rebels to form their own government?

Abdurrahman: I really recommend the talk at Brookings. I went in skeptical and I came out actually quite impressed — he sort of outlined a bit of the planning that the committees and the planning that they’re already starting to do. He mentioned Iraq specifically and he mentioned the game-plan for the need to have something ready for that situation. The fact that it’s taken so long for this revolution or conflict or whatever you want to call it to come to a conclusion is that it has actually given these people time to actually think about these things and actually think about a plan. They’re really thinking ahead of right now in terms of reconciliation, in terms of development, in terms of political inclusion, in terms of bigger things than are happening right now. 

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