Opposition forces in Libya believe they have broken the recent stalemate and are once more close to overthrowing Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
Their slow advance on the capital Tripoli has been boosted by the capture of two strategic towns—Zawiya and Garyan.
The dictator’s beleaguered regime slipped further as another leading loyalist appears to have defected to Egypt—interior minister Nasser al-Mabruk Abdullah who was responsible for security.
But the regime has teetered before and survived.
One reason for this is the changing nature of the war following the entry of Nato, including British forces.
In the early stages of the uprising rebels used megaphones to reach out to fellow citizens and Gaddafi’s troops to win them over to the rebellion.
The tactic was very effective. But from the first Nato air strikes at the end of March it ended.
The war was conducted through firepower and force, not winning ordinary people.
Gaddafi was able to view the opposition as agents of imperialism.
As the war descended into a bloody stalemate attitudes changed. Troops in Gaddafi’s army are now scared that if they surrender they will be killed or badly treated rather than welcomed.
And as hopes have reduced, rebel soldiers are more likely to view opposing troops as members of an ethnic or regional group rather than potential comrades.
The New York Times reports that rebel fighters have recently “lashed out at civilians because their tribes supported” Gaddafi.
The crucial stage of the war is the battle for Tripoli—by far the biggest city in the country.
Both sides fear a gruelling street-by-street fight. It could end up as a protracted guerrilla war with no clear victor.
Rebels and Gaddafi loyalists met for secret talks in the Tunisian town of Djerba on Monday.
The distance between the two “governments” is much less than it was even a couple of months ago.
The revolution’s original hope for a radical shift towards a more equal society looks very distant now.
If Gaddafi’s exit is negotiated, a much more likely outcome is a weak and divided country beholden to the West.
This would be an ideal solution for Western governments and multinationals alike.
It would allow them to re-establish oil production without worrying about local demands for redistribution of wealth.
But the rebel forces have not united since the killing of their military commander General Abdel Fattah Younes by Islamists in the rebel army.
The subsequent sacking of the cabinet in the rebel capital of Benghazi did not resolve the situation—the administration in Misrata will not accept instructions from Benghazi.
A small elite are busy trying to make deals with Western leaders.
Since they have nothing new to offer their followers, the army is increasingly divided along ethnic and regional lines.
The New York Times comments, “The rebels’ Western backers have become alarmed at the growing rift between supporters of a group of rebels who have coalesced into a relatively unified army and the others who effectively remain a civilian band of militia fighters.”
If the war does descend into street fighting in a major city, the Nato intervention may well have created the situation it claimed it was there to prevent.