In the standoff – not civil war – between state power in Tripoli and a tribal-based parallel government plus “irregular militias”, identifying key players in Libya gets increasingly murky. It’s a long (1,000 kilometer), windy, desert road from Benghazi to Tripoli, or from uprising to victory, with a crucial midway stop in Sirte – Muammar Gaddafi’s Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s home town) – until something emerges out of the final battle in a Tripoli encircled by a ring of steel. There’s no evidence Gaddafi is about to embrace the daring, brand new Barack Obama administration Middle East strategy of “regime alteration”.
Let’s try to survey the battlefield. As much as tribes in Cyrenaica – eastern Libya – were always his number one strategic nightmare, Gaddafi’s notorious co-option of tribal leaders is now history.
He still can count on some western and southern tribes, including his own and Magariha, the tribe of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi. But most – but not all – tribes remain against the bunker (see The tribes against the bunker Asia Times Online, February 25), including the top one, Warfallah (influential in the army), plus Zawiya (based in the oil-rich east), Bani Walid (they stopped collaborating with the security services), and Zintan (formerly allied with Gaddafi’s own tribe).
If – or when – Gaddafi falls, Libya’s provisional government will almost certainly be a mix of tribal leaders, with once again the more developed Tripolitania clashing with neglected Cyrenaica (one can’t forget that Gaddafi’s “modernizer” son Saif al-Islam blamed the uprising on tribal factions). Libyan tribes indeed have fought each other for centuries – much like in Afghanistan; but now the difference is that most are united against the common king of kings enemy.
The battle of Algiers
The military in Algeria is in dire need of pacemakers to keep up with events in Libya. No wonder; if Gaddafi falls, Algeria may be next (it’s placed ninth in The Economist’s shoe-thrower index – which aims to predict where the scent of Jasmine may spread next – ahead of already fallen Tunisia). Both are oil/gas powers – a wealth that does not trickle down to their increasingly desperate populations.
Rumors abound of Algeria being one of the only governments in the world practically supporting Gaddafi (Serbia is a different case; it’s silent because of an array of juicy of military and construction contracts). So far the closest instance of Algiers directly helping Tripoli has been provided by the exiled human right group Algeria Watch, which insists Algiers has facilitated the air link for mercenaries from Niger and Chad to reach Libya (see here). Algeria had done the same thing before – transporting troops to Somalia to help a US-backed puppet government fight rebel ”terrorist” Somali tribes.
What’s creepier, but still unconfirmed, is that one Colonel Djamel Bouzghaia – the “war on terror”-minded key security adviser to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – may be the designated smuggler of deposed Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s private security forces and Republican Guard to, where else, Libya. Among these nasty types are the snipers who killed Tunisian demonstrators in three different cities, and may now be killing Libyan civilians.
Tuaregs to the rescue
If Gaddafi can count on Tunisian snipers for his dirty work, what to say about the nomadic Tuaregs from the Sahel?
Historically, Gaddafi always wreaked havoc among his neighbors – and Tuaregs were always instrumentalized by his megalomaniac strategy of carving out a Grand Sahara nation around Libya. He could not but profit from Tuareg secession dreams.
Ten years ago, on the road in Timbuktu in Mali, Tuareg friends provided me a crash course on Tuareg rebellions and the secession movement. In the early 1970s, many Tuaregs enlisted in Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion – an outfit that would in thesis fight for a unified Islamic state in northern Africa. At the time there was absolutely nowhere else to go in a drought-stricken Sahel-Sahara. The legion lasted till the late 1980s, and then dissolved.
Gaddafi also propped up Tuareg rebellions, especially in Mali and Niger. He paid for installations in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in Mali, opened a consulate in Kidal, and turned on the petrodollar charm. Tuaregs from north Mali simply abhor the central government in Bamako. The nomadic Tuaregs obviously don’t trust any form of central government; essentially what they want is autonomy, or at least more investment in sanitation, health and education in the towns and desert villages they live.
Bamako and the Tuareg rebellion finally signed an agreement in July 2006, under Algerian mediation, leading in theory to peace and development in the Kidal region. The rebellion officially laid down their weapons in February 2009. Only one of the rebel leaders, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, did not agree with the whole set up. He is exiled in Libya.
There are Tuaregs living in the southwest Libyan desert. But Bamako is now spinning that at least 800 Tuaregs from Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria have already joined Gaddafi’s forces; how to resist an offer of $10,000 in cash to join, plus a $1,000 day-rate to fight, when you are a young, unemployed Tuareg?
The difference now is that Gaddafi seems to be creating not only a secession between the Tuaregs and the countries they live, but a secession inside the Tuareg communities themselves – especially in Mali, Niger and Chad. Some Tuaregs already worked for him in Libya for years; some have been members of the Libyan armed forces, with Libyan nationality; as for the new ones, they are being recruited by the force of the petrodollar – to the despair of many Tuareg communities.
That’s’ exactly what Abdou Sallam Ag Assalat, the president of the regional assembly in Kidal, told Agence France-Presse, “These young people are going en masse to Libya … the regional authorities are trying to dissuade them, particularly former rebels, but it’s not easy because for them there are the dollars, and weapons to be recovered … One day they will be back with the same weapons to destabilize the Sahel.”
The Tuaregs leave from north Mali, cross to southern Algeria and then cross to southern Libya; it’s a grueling 48-hour trip, usually in convoys. Of course these desert “borders” are mirages. The operation, according to Algerian media, is organized by a former rebel Tuareg leader from Mali, now in Libya; he could well be Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. And if there’s an air link involved – either from Algeria or from Chad – that’s where the Tuaregs meet the Algerian security facilitators.
One of his Ukrainian nurses, Oksana, now says that Gaddafi is a “great psychologist”. He’s a fine sociologist as well, because he has noted – and immensely profited from – the fact that there are no real nation-states in the Sahel-Sahara, from a sociological, political and juridical point of view. Blaming the Tuaregs is not the point. Both Algeria and Libya have done nothing to at least repair the ravages of colonialism – which has scattered nomadic Tuaregs among four countries. Algeria always benefited from – and repressed – Tuareg fragmentation. As for the African king of kings, he can always count on his nomadic reserve army.