How will Libya’s protests play out?

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt took us all by surprise, and have still not played out. Libya is the least transparent country in the Middle East at the best of times. Just now, with most communications down, it is truly a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Disturbances started on Wednesday, apparently triggered by the arrest of a lawyer and human rights activist. This was the warmup to a planned “day of rage” on Thursday, commemorating a demonstration in Benghazi in 2006 in which a dozen or so people had been killed. On Friday there were already funerals of protesters, and midday prayers at the mosques as usual provided a springboard for demonstrations.

Since then violent disturbances have spread almost all over the country, with the important exception of the capital, Tripoli, which has been tense but has not seen serious violence. In the second city of Benghazi, Tripoli’s traditional rival, and elsewhere, tribal solidarity is strong, and protesters have in many cases been able to win over local police and even local revolutionary committees, the hardcore of support for the regime. Violence against them has come mainly from the army or the so-called militias, led by kinsmen of Muammar Gaddafi. Information is sketchy, but machine guns and other heavy weapons have been used. The death toll has horrified local people as well as the world.

In Tripoli there have been large and rowdy pro-government demonstrations in which Gaddafi himself, with typical panache, was seen taking part. There has been some disorder, but no reports of killings so far as I know. There are many stories, but no absolute proof, that pro-government protesters in Tripoli and elsewhere have included mercenaries from Africa, probably Chad. It is said that Tunisian pilots, unaware of the situation, have flown in planeloads of Africans. Of course, a big weapon in the hands of the regime is cash, which will have been used liberally to organise and pay pro-government activities, and possibly to buy off protesters.

Libya has no religious divisions, and there has been no involvement of Islamist fundamentalism in these troubles. Some well-known religious leaders have called for an end to the violence. Imams at mosques are reported to have refused to use government-approved scripts for sermons.

At first the protesters were calling for reform and an end to corruption. Now the call is explicitly for the departure of Gaddafi. He will not easily give up. Assuming that the Libyan protesters have the stamina and determination of those in Tunisia and Egypt, even in the face of gunfire, the resolution of the conflict seems to depend on two factors: will the disturbances spread to the different urban environment of Tripoli? And will the army – composed of Libyans, not foreign mercenaries, and therefore open to tribal influences which are largely unknown – continue to be willing to fire on unarmed civilians?

Like recent events elsewhere in the Middle East, the Libyan uprising shows that our obsession with the threat of jihadi violence, the Blair mantra that “9/11 changed everything”, has not been helpful in understanding and dealing with the problems of the region. I do not however conclude that Britain or America or “the west” should be blamed for what is happening now in the Middle East, or should be intervening in some way. We can and do condemn the use of violence for political ends. But if we pretend that we can somehow control events we only give credibility to the threadbare allegations of foreign interference already made by tyrants with their backs to the wall.

By Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya.

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