The Libyan revolution’s best hope? Egypt

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — The Libyan revolution is losing the battle. Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s army does not have much logistical capability, but it can get enough fuel and ammunition east along the coast road to attack Benghazi, Libya’s second city, at some point in the next week or so. His army is not well trained and a lot of his troops are foreign mercenaries, but the lightly armed rebels cannot hold out long against tanks, artillery and air strikes.

Even sooner, Gadhafi’s forces will attack Misrata, Libya’s third city and the last opposition stronghold in the western half of the country. It will probably fall after some days of bitter fighting, as Zawiya eventually fell. And if Zawiya’s brave and stubborn resistance is repeated in the two larger cities then they will both suffer very large casualties, including many noncombatants, in the fighting.

What happens to the rebels and their families after active resistance is crushed will be much worse. When political prisoners in Abu Salim prison staged a protest at jail conditions in 1996, Gadhafi had 1,200 of them massacred. All the people now fighting him, or helping the Libyan National Council that organizes resistance in the east, or just demonstrating against him, will be tracked down by his secret police. They and their families are doomed.

The collapse of the democratic revolution in Libya will also gravely damage the prospects of the “Arab spring” elsewhere. Rulers in other Arab countries where the army is also largely made up of foreign mercenaries (Bahrain and several other Gulf states, for example), will conclude that they can safely kill enough of their own protesters to “restore order.”

How can this disaster be prevented? Condemnation from abroad, including from the Arab League, will not stop Gadhafi. An arms embargo is too slow-acting, as are economic boycotts and freezing Libyan government assets overseas. Gadhafi is fighting for his life, probably literally, and he know that if he wins, the embargoes, boycotts and asset freezes will eventually be lifted. Libya has oil, after all.

Even the famous “no-fly” zone over Libya (now endorsed by France, Britain and the Arab League) would not stop Gadhafi’s advance. It’s not that destroying or grounding the Libyan Air Force, which is poorly trained and badly maintained, is a problem. Neither are Libya’s decrepit surface-to-air defenses. It’s just that Gadhafi can win without his air force. Tanks and artillery beat courage and small arms every time.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was not being entirely honest when he said that a no-fly zone could not be imposed without the prior destruction of all Libya’s surface-to-air defenses, which would require a lot of bombing. It would be perfectly possible to enforce the no-fly ban from the air, and only attack Gadhafi’s ground-based defense systems if and when their targeting radars locked onto the enforcing aircraft.

Nevertheless, Gates is right to reject the no-fly solution, for two reasons. First, it wouldn’t stop Gadhafi’s advance. Second, if it were done by American and European air forces, it would undermine the Arab sense of ownership of this extraordinary revolt against tyranny. It would be pure gesture politics, to make the onlookers to the tragedy feel better about themselves.

What is actually needed is active military intervention on the ground and in the air by disciplined, well-trained Arab forces, sent by a revolutionary Arab government that is in sympathy with the Libyan rebels. So where is the Egyptian army when the Libyans need it?

Egypt has an open border with the rebel-controlled east of Libya, and just one brigade of the Egyptian Army would be enough to stop Gadhafi’s ground forces in their tracks. The Egyptian air force could easily shoot down any of Gadhafi’s aircraft that dared to take off, especially if it had early warning from European or American AWACS aircraft.

The Egyptian Army would probably not need to go all the way to Tripoli, although it could easily do so if necessary. Just the fact of Egyptian military intervention would probably convince most of the Libyan troops still supporting Gadhafi that it is time to change sides.

Arab League support for the intervention would not be hard to get, and the Libyan rebels are now desperate enough that they would quickly overcome their natural distrust of their giant neighbor. As for internal Egyptian politics, what better way for the Egyptian Army to establish its revolutionary credentials and protect its privileged position in the state than by saving the revolution next door?

It is very much in the interest of the Egyptian revolution that Gadhafi does not triumph in Libya, and even more that the forces of reaction do not win in the broader Arab world. For the first time since Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s, the giant of the Arab world would also be its moral leader.

It would be nice if the Tunisian Army could intervene from the west at the same time as the Egyptian Army went into Libya from the east, but it is a far weaker force belonging to a far smaller country: Tunisia only has twice Libya’s population, whereas Egypt has 12 times as many people. No matter. Egypt would be enough on its own.

Only do it fast. A week from now will probably be too late.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian whose columns appear in 45 countries.