Libya rebels believe tide turning against Gaddafi

Supporters of the rebels wave guns and pre-Gaddafi Libyan flags in Benghazi after an arrest warrant is issued for Muammar Gaddafi (27 June 2011)
Image caption Many in Benghazi seem impatient to see Muammar Gaddafi brought to justice

There was wild and jubilant gunfire and a sustained blaring of car horns on Benghazi's streets within seconds of the declaration in The Hague that the International Criminal Court (ICC) was seeking the arrest of Col Muammar Gaddafi.

This is in some way Libya's "Wild East".

Since the uprising against Libya's government began in February, this has become a city stocked with arms and a population of young men eager to let off exuberant volleys at the slightest provocation.

But there was real passion in Benghazi's reaction to the ICC's announcement.

Many in the rebels' eastern stronghold seem impatient to see their former leader brought to justice, not just for his attempts to crush their uprising in February, but also for what they remember as brutal oppression by his regime for more than 40 years.

And many appear to be increasingly optimistic that it could happen soon.

Steady advance

One hundred days into their campaign, Nato allies may worry about the cost of their mission and its possible length.

They may look askance at the rebels' ill-prepared and sometimes rag-tag forces.

But here in eastern Libya, the rebels seem to believe the tide may possibly be turning.

They think the Nato air-strikes have degraded Col Gaddafi's forces.

Morale among his supporters has been undermined and his inner circle diminished, they say.

Meanwhile, their own forces are moving towards Tripoli from the south. And out of the besieged capital is streaming a steady flow of high level defectors.

Quiet debate

The rebel leadership says there is still a plan to advance on Tripoli from all sides, squeeze Col Gaddafi's supporters, and undermine him through uprisings from within the city.

Image caption The rebels hope to win without more bloodshed

But they also seem to be hoping they can avoid a final military showdown, and instead force the Libyan leader out of office without more bloodshed.

There has been some quiet debate here among those who know Col Gaddafi personally about whether he would ever agree to step down, or whether he is determined to hold on until the bitter end.

Some worry he might leave Tripoli booby-trapped as a final act of revenge.

Others fear he has ordered diehard loyalists to organise the sort of devastation on the city's infrastructure as he apparently planned - but failed to carry out - in Benghazi.

And many in the leadership are wondering how to run the country if and when he goes: How to avoid a vacuum in those first crucial days is a critical question.

One hundred days

For the moment, though, the focus is on one thing:

"This entire crisis is about Gaddafi," the rebels' defence chief told me. "Once he goes, it's over."

Image caption Those who know Col Gaddafi personally wonder whether he will ever agree to step down

And the pivotal nature of this crisis may be relevant for the international community too.

This 100-day benchmark has focused minds among Western allies about the risks of embarking on humanitarian interventions that may not be easy to resolve quickly.

Questions have been raised about US leadership, about Nato's viability, and about the worrying lack of consensus among global powers at the United Nations Security Council.

Many of these are doubts that often surface when a military mission looks as though it could sink into a bog of inactivity, a costly stalemate which could lose the support of domestic voters.

But if this crisis were to be suddenly resolved, then the doubts could well be elbowed aside.

The questions about cost and mission creep would evaporate in the warm glow of victory.