The revolution in Libya stands at a crossroads. The uprising has deepened and radicalised the revolts sweeping the Arab world—but it is in danger of being compromised by Western intervention.
The insurrection that began on 17 February has won some important victories. Yet it remains locked in a battle with heavily armed forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
In Tunisia and Egypt the power of the popular movement was enough to push out the dictators.
But in Libya the army and other institutions have remained intact—and capable of offering compromises.
The power of the regime rests not simply on brutal repression but also on those who have benefited from Gaddafi’s handouts of oil cash.
The regime historically ensured its stability by playing on rivalries between clans and tribes.
But as urbanisation began to undermine these traditional bonds, it built a base by buying loyalty from sections of the population with access to contracts and oil deals.
These people were rewarded with well-paid and secure jobs, education and access to medical care. They are mainly based in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and in the capital Tripoli.
Elements of the state security system fear revenge for the humiliation and repression they have meted out. Those close to the regime have much to lose in the revolution—so they have rallied to defend the existing system.
The savage wave of repression against peaceful demonstrations pushed rebels to launch a national insurrection.
The rebels have been painted as “headstrong” and “hotheads”, a disorganised rabble steaming into battle without any military plan.
Yet they are determined to topple the regime.
Young rebels have successfully persuaded those conscripted to fight for the regime to switch sides.
They have matched Gaddafi’s better-trained and ruthless forces, and won decisive battles against all odds.
Die-hard supporters of the regime have launched counter‑attacks and savage repression in areas they control.
Now the revolution faces a new danger—interference from the West.
The West wants to limit the revolt and is prepared to accept the division of the country to secure access to its vast reserves of oil.
The cries for help emanating from some cities and towns under siege by Gaddafi’s murderous forces express the desperation of those involved in an unequal battle.
It may seem callous to oppose intervention in the face of such harrowing repression. But any Western intervention will come at a heavy price.
The no-fly zone that is being touted can only be implemented using massive air attacks that will target conscripts pressed into fighting for the regime.
And Western powers, as has been shown, have no scruples about cutting deals with Gaddafi.
Any such intervention will undermine the success of the revolution and its ability to crush the regime’s forces.
The West is demanding a pause in the revolution’s offensive from the east.
This would allow the regime to crush key centres of the uprising in the west of the country.
This includes the industrial city of Misrata, the oil town of al-Zawiya and the capital Tripoli—whose working class neighbourhoods remain a hotbed of unrest.
The West hopes that a stalemate in Libya will mean the revolution becoming more and more beholden to it for survival.
If the revolution slows down and abandons the uprisings in the west of Libya, pressure will grow on the rebels to accept the partition of the country.
The West’s approach has opened up some divisions inside the revolution’s leadership in Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolt.
The ad hoc revolutionary leadership that grew out of the insurrection has established a Transitional National Council (TNC), with delegates drawn from across Libya.
But among its leaders are former stalwarts of the regime.
The council has already compromised. One of its first declarations was to honour all international contracts signed by Gaddafi’s regime.
If the revolution allies itself with Western imperialism it will lose credibility among Libyans and the rest of the Arab world.
And intervention would allow Gaddafi to raise the spectre of imperialism and isolate the revolution.
The United Nations had appointed a “mediator” to open negotiations with the Gaddafi regime, despite a declaration by the TNC against this.
But this revolution has so far defied all expectations.
The bravery and tenacity with which unarmed young people launched the insurrection and carried it forward shows their power.
The West is desperate to hold them back. But the fate of Libya is in the hands of the revolutionaries, not outside powers.