Stephen Chan Blog: The Battle For Libya

STEPHEN CHAN is a professor of international relations, and the author of Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits. Starting this week, Stephen will be writing a regular blog, which can be read here and on Stephen’s own website. Here he discusses the escalating situation in Libya.

Article by Stephen Chan

Everyone thought that the protesters on the streets of Cairo were immensely brave – and they were. By their thousands and up to a million, they effectively persuaded the Egyptian army not to fire on them and then persuaded the Generals to force Mubarak’s retirement. It was not a revolution as such. It was a citizen-inspired coup. But I regret we are about to see a much bloodier bravery in the fight for Libya.

I have been wrong in these estimations before. Thirty years ago, when the Tanzanians were mobilising to force the departure of Idi Amin from Uganda, I was working for the Commonwealth Secretariat and sent up a note that, in terms of fire power, the Tanzanians could not win. I counted not at all things like determination, morale, and better officership. And the Tanzanians overwhelmingly won.

Well, let’s hope all these things I did not count thirty years ago are present now – and more. There is nothing more desolately hopeful and heroic than what we are watching now: a chunk of the regular army of Libya, that turned to the side of the civilians in Benghazi, sharing out guns and ammunition to these same civilians, teaching them how to use them, mounting a few anti-aircraft guns on the backs of Toyota pickups and pointing them forlornly towards the sky, estimating how much hardware they have, realising they don’t have much, and preparing to go forward. They know they have to attack Tripoli or Gaddafi will complete his regrouping and attack them. Already, he is regrouping fast.

But Gaddafi has modern MIG fighters. The rebels have a few old air trainers and no anti-aircraft missiles. Those things on the backs of the Toyotas won’t hit anything. The rebels are a mixture of regular soldiers and civilians who have just learnt to squeeze the trigger of a rifle. Gaddafi has his elite forces and merciless mercenary units. It is likely to be such an uneven fight.

I was in the Foreign Office today. The people I was meant to see were at a Cabinet meeting – hastily convened. A Crisis Group was also being held. I saw planners and transport specialists waiting to be called in. If the West declares, and enforces, a no-fly zone, then Gaddafi’s MIGs will not make the critical difference. But, frankly, the rebels need more arms, more hardware – maybe even air cover as they advance. And then, instantly, this genuine revolution will be compromised. It will be a foreign coup then, and Gaddafi will die a martyr in the anti-Western cause.

It is unlikely the West will let the rebels advance to certain defeat and death, nor would the West allow Gaddafi to retake Benghazi. In a way, Benghazi is ‘ours’. We and the Axis powers separately bombed it to bits in World War II. But Irony will not relieve a dire situation with dire choices to be made.

Meanwhile, I watch the footage of the rebel preparations. It is desolate, this preparation; desolate, heroic and humbling. And, unlike the news commentators and Western politicians, the rebels know Gaddafi is not mad. He is eccentric. He is odd. He is pompous. He is not mad. He will defend himself and counter-attack with cold and ruthless rationality. These deserts once saw Rommel and Montgomery fight it out in great tank squadrons. It won’t be quite so grand this time. I very much hope that it will not be tragic.

Read this on Stephen’s website

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About the Author

Stephen Chan is Professor of International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He writes regularly for Prospect magazine and the New Statesman. His many publications include Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence and the forthcoming Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits. Chan was recently awarded an OBE for his work in Africa.

Southern Africa is available to pre-order now from Yale University Press

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