Africa

Q&A: Libya’s stalled revolution

Libyan rebels in Ras Lanuf, 11 March
Image caption Some rebel forces have been compelled to retreat

For a short while following the Day of Rage announced by opponents of the Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi in mid-February, it seemed that the regime's time was coming to an end and that Libyans would soon follow the examples of Tunisia and Egypt in toppling their long-serving leader.

But now there appears to be no rapid end to the conflict in sight, writes Mohamed Madi of BBC Monitoring.

Q: How has the uprising developed?

The protests against Col Gaddafi's 42-year-long rule began peacefully but soon escalated into violent confrontation, giving the Libyan revolt a more bloody character than those in Tunisia and Egypt.

Within a few days one town after another slipped from the Libyan leader's grip, from Tobruk, Darna, al-Bayda, Benghazi and Ajdabiya in the east, to Zintan and Zawiya in the west. After a brief hiatus, important oil towns such as Ras Lanuf fell to rebels advancing from Benghazi and pledging to march on to Col Gaddafi's home town of Sirte and, ultimately, the capital Tripoli.

But as the Libyan regime mobilised its forces and began to strike back with superior firepower, the rebels' westward advance ground to a halt and in some places, such as in Zawiya and Ras Lanuf, they were compelled to retreat.

More than three weeks after the protests erupted, neither the rebels nor the regime appear to have the capability to rapidly overwhelm the other. Consequently a stalemate has developed with no immediate end in sight.

Q: Why is there a stalemate?

Much of this appears to be down to Col Gaddafi's own design.

To minimize the risk of his army making a decisive move against him, he has structurally limited its capability to project force while boosting the power of his most loyal elite units.

Consequently, the Libyan army's long-range capability is extremely limited, and the air force is outdated and poorly trained.

But it faces armed rebel groupings that are untrained, unorganised and poorly-equipped, but appear to have greater numbers and stronger morale.

Q: Is the perceived east-west split affecting momentum?

The protesters in both the east and west have been at pains to point out their mutual support and admiration for each other, invalidating the regime's claim that the rebels want to undermine national unity. Additionally, as the uprisings in Zawiya, Misrata and parts of Tripoli, in the west have shown, anti-Gaddafi sentiment runs high throughout the country.

The traditional resentment among inhabitants from the east, especially in Benghazi city, stems from the limited investment by the state in the region. Despite being Libya's second largest city after Tripoli, Benghazi receives little attention and resources from the state.

The east of Libya also has a history of hostility towards authority. Libya's national resistance hero, Umar al-Mukhtar, fought against Italian resistance from the east and drew much of his support from Benghazi. It was also in the east that the Sanusi monarchy, which Col Gaddafi overthrew in a bloodless coup in 1969, was based.

Accordingly, it was from Benghazi that Col Gaddafi chose to launch his revolution, playing to the rebellious and unruly reputation of the city. It is a reputation that has come back to haunt him since the current revolt began there on 15 February.

However, the differences do not translate into animosity between the people of eastern and western Libya. Many of Libya's tribes have families in both areas and there are little cultural or historical cleavages between the people.

Q: How unified are the pro- and anti-Gaddafi sides?

The rebel movement is a hastily assembled and disparate body. There are no alternative political organisations or civil society institutions in Libya. Unauthorised meetings of more than a few people are banned, and even under the monarchy political parties were ineffectual and discredited. This has prevented the formation of any kind of organised opposition movement, at least inside the country.

Image caption Anti-Gaddafi protesters united against the regime

The desire to topple the regime has been a unifying factor that has overshadowed any differences. The initial success of the rebels in pushing back government forces and then getting "liberated" areas back to some modicum of normality has surprised and encouraged many.

Exiled Libyans in Europe and America have been able to form opposition groups and lobbies abroad, though these are limited in their influence inside the country.

There have been numerous high-level defections from Col Gaddafi's regime, but there remains a hard-core of loyalists.

His sons, including the apparently reformist Saif-al-Islam, have rallied around their father, and for now he still seems to have the support of his hometown of Sirte and the desert stronghold of Sabha.

Q: What is the rebels' view of the West's statements about the conflict?

The rebels want to see greater international condemnation of Muammar Gaddafi. A popular refrain from protesters is to ask where are the UN and the Arab armies.

The question of the scope and nature of military intervention has become a pressing issue. The rebels are torn between accepting outside military help, which could spell a decisive end to the conflict, and the wish to topple Col Gaddafi on their own and therefore avoid being indebted to foreign powers.

Banners in Benghazi and chatter from the social media all indicate a very strong aversion to foreign forces on Libyan soil. There is also the fear that foreign intervention will play into Col Gaddafi's hands, as he has been adept at portraying himself as the defender of Libya from rapacious superpowers.

However, there does seem to be support for some types of intervention. Mindful of the fact that the Libyan leader's main advantage lies in his ability to project air power, protesters, rebel leaders and activists have called on the UN to immediately impose a no-fly zone over the whole of the country.

A petition to this effect posted on Avaaz.org has so far garnered over 830,000 signatures. Rebel leader Mustafa Abd-al-Jalil has said that he would favour a direct strike on Col Gaddafi's Tripoli headquarters in Bab al-Aziziya.

Q: What happens if the rebels win?

It depends on the circumstances of the victory, but the most likely scenario is that there will be some kind of temporary constitution and a framework put in place for elections as has been the case in Egypt and Tunisia.

Due to the unpopularity of the regime it appears unlikely that the former Gaddafi ministers will take part in any new government. This poses a potential problem as there is a shortage of experienced officials who are not sullied by links to Col Gaddafi. The Libyan diaspora could have a crucial part to play in any interim period, as many are expected to return to rebuild the country should Col Gaddafi fall.

Q: What happens if Col Gaddafi wins?

Col Gaddafi has said that the outcome of the struggle will be all-or-nothing so it is expected that he will only be able to remain in power through brute force rather than a process of negotiation.

In the event of Col Gaddafi prevailing, there are fears that there could be a purge of all individuals involved - or suspected of involvement - in the uprising, especially defectors from the regime. In the past, Col Gaddafi has publicly executed opponents and aired the footage on state TV.

Internationally, Col Gaddafi would find himself even more isolated than he was during the 1990s. The international community has all but forsaken him and is likely to impose heavy sanctions on Libya and seize Libyan assets abroad.

Another factor is the newly revolutionary status of two of Libya's neighbours, Tunisia and Egypt. Col Gaddafi explicitly supported both Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, which is unlikely to endear him to either country.

BBC Monitoringselects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.