February 21, 2011


[The escalating violence in Libya — a cycle of funerals, confrontations and more funerals — has made the revolt there the bloodiest in a wave of uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.]

Egyptian protesters taped a flag on the front
doors of the Libyan Embassy in Cairo on Sunday.
CAIRO — The son of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, warned in a nationally televised address early on Monday that continued anti-government protests could lead to a civil war.
The son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, said the army continued to support his father, although he acknowledged that protesters had seized some military bases, as well as tanks and weapons.
“We are not Tunisia and Egypt,” he said in his rambling and sometimes incoherent address, referring to the successful uprisings that toppled longtime regimes in Libya’s neighbors. But he also acknowledged that the army had made mistakes during the uprising.
Hours earlier, the protests against Mr. Qaddafi’s 40-year rule spread to the capitol, Tripoli, on Sunday night, and protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi were celebrating their takeover of the city and a prominent Libyan diplomat said he was quitting to join “the popular revolution.”
Witnesses in Tripoli interviewed by telephone Sunday night said protesters were converging toward the city’s central Green Square and clashing with heavily armed riot police officers. Young men armed themselves with chains around their knuckles, steel pipes and machetes.
The police had retreated from some neighborhoods, and protesters were seen carrying police batons, helmets and rifles. Protesters had set dumpsters on fire in some neighborhoods, blocking roads. In the early evening the sounds and smells of gunfire hung over the center of the city, which is Libya’s capital, and by midnight looting had begun.
“The state has disappeared from the streets, and the people, the youth, have practically taken over,” said Monsour Abu Shenaf, a resident of Tripoli.
In Benghazi, the country’s second largest city and the starting point of the revolt, three people said that special military forces called in as reinforcements had instead decided to help the protesters take over the local army barracks. “The gunshots you hear are the gunshots of celebration,” said Abdel Latif Al Hadi, 54, a Benghazi resident whose five sons were part of the demonstrations.
Mr. Qaddafi, 68, remained silent on Sunday night. He has watched both the strongmen to his West, in Tunisia, and his East, in Egypt, fall from power in the space of five weeks. But Mr. Qaddafi for decades has skillfully cultivated tribal rivalries to avoid any threat to his authority, and he showed no sign of giving up.
Over the last three days his security forces have killed at least 173 people, according to a running tally by the independent international organization Human Rights Watch. Several people in Benghazi hospitals, reached by telephone, said they thought as many as 200 people had been killed and more than 800 wounded there on Saturday alone, with many of the deaths from machine gun fire. And after protesters marched in a funeral procession Sunday morning, the security forces opened fire again, killing at least 50 more people, a doctor at one hospital said.
The escalating violence in Libya — a cycle of funerals, confrontations and more funerals — has made the revolt there the bloodiest in a wave of uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
Under Mr. Qaddafi’s four decades of idiosyncratic rule, Libya has become a singular quasi-nation, where the official oratory disdains the idea of a nation-state, tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military, and both protesters and the security forces have reason to believe that backing down will likely mean their ultimate death or imprisonment.
“The most dreadful crime against humanity is taking place in this city,” Mr. Hadi said Sunday morning in Benghazi, recalling the killings on Saturday. “In the eastern region, there is no going back after this bloodbath.”
In another break with the Qaddafi government, there were reports that the powerful Warfalla tribe had switched its allegiance to the cause of the protesters. A leader of the tribe appeared on the Al-Jazeera news network urging the Qaddafi government to stop firing on civilians and suggesting that it may be time for Mr. Qaddafi to step down.
The Libyan government has attempted to impose a near total news blackout on the country. Foreign journalists are not permitted to enter the country. Internet access has been almost totally cut off, although some protesters appear to be using satellite connections or telephoning information to news services outside the country. Al-Jazeera, viewed by many as a cheerleader for the democracy movements stirring up the region, has been taken off the air in Libya. Several people said Libyans were afraid to talk to the international news media over the telephone for fear of reprisals from the security forces.
Benghazi, the traditional hub of the country’s eastern province, has long been a center of opposition to the Qaddafi government, which is centered in the Western city of Tripoli. In 1996, Benghazi was the site of a massacre at the Abu Slim prison, where security forces killed about 1,200 prisoners. Those killings have since become a rallying cause for Mr. Qaddafi’s critics there.
Opponents of the regime had designated last Thursday as a day for demonstrations, dubbed the “day of rage” and inspired by the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. But on Tuesday, the security forces detained a prominent opposition lawyer, Fathi Terbil, who represented many of the families of prisoners killed in the prison massacre, and members of the families led the protesters into the streets the next day.
By Sunday, Fathi Terbil had been released and set up a live online video broadcast that appeared to emanate from the roof of the Benghazi courthouse overlooking what residents now call their Tahrir Square. “Free Libya Radio,” he called it.
“We are expecting people to die today, more people than before,” Mr. Terbil said early on Sunday, before the latest round of funerals and shootings began.
“If anything happens to us today, we are not going to leave this place,” he said. “I’m not afraid to die, I’m afraid to lose the battle, that’s why I want the media to see what’s going on.”
“At least if we die, so many people can witness, I can protest from everywhere,” he added, “Long live a free Libya. We are determined to fight ‘til the end for our country.”
Sunday morning, residents of Benghazi described a continuing battle for control of the city, which has a population of more than 500,000. Thousands of protesters occupied a central square in front of the courthouse. As they had for days, they were chanting slogans that had echoed through the streets of Tunis and Cairo, including “The people want to bring down the regime.”
A brigade of more than 1,000 members of the security forces were concentrated a few miles away from the courthouse in a barracks in the neighborhood of Berqa. Witnesses said young protesters were attempting suicidal attacks on the barracks by throwing rocks or stun grenades usually used for fishing. But the security forces responded by shooting from the cover of their fortified building, while others fired from vehicles as they cruised the side streets.
But by afternoon, witnesses reported streams of new protesters flowing to Benghazi from other cities around the eastern part of the country to support the revolt. Then another military brigade of reinforcements, described by witnesses as special forces, had begun collaborating with the protesters, with some lending their tanks to help assault other units of the government’s security forces.
Soon the protesters stormed the local headquarters of the state security services. “These young men are taking bullets in their chests to confront the tyrant,” Mr. Hadi said, speaking by telephone from the siege of the security building.
Within hours, several protesters said, they had taken control of the army barracks as well. “Despite the pain and victims, we are happy, because the blood of our sons was not spilled in vain,” Amal Mohaity, a lawyer and human rights activist, said. “Mark my words: Qaddafi is coming down, he is coming down, he is coming down.”
There were reports of uprisings in several other cities along the coast, including in Baida and Misratah. In the city of Darnah, about 70 miles east of Benghazi, a witness said five people had died in clashes with the police on Thursday, but that by Sunday the protesters had set fire to the security headquarters and the police had pulled out. “Right now, people are terrified,” said Ashraf Tarbah, a public employee, “and they are praying for the people of Benghazi.”
A group of 50 prominent Libyan Muslim religious leaders issued an appeal to Muslims in the security forces to stop participating in the violence against protesters. “We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognize that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator and by His beloved Prophet of Compassion (peace be upon him),” the statement declared, Reuters reported. “Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW!”
Over Twitter, Facebook and other online social networks, Libyans were calling for help on Sunday from across the eastern border with Egypt, pleading for sympathetic Egyptians to bring medical supplies to help the protesters. And Egyptians, with the help of Libyans living abroad, were organizing aid convoys to the border.
The Libyan protesters, however, may face a more daunting foe than did rebels in Egypt or Tunisia.
Mr. Qaddafi has styled his authoritarian government “rule by the masses” and, despite his pervasive security forces, cultivated a noisy disdain for centralized government. With little shared national experience aside from a brutal Italian colonialism, Libyans tend to identify themselves as members of tribes or clans rather than citizens of a country. Mr. Qaddafi has governed in part through the mediation of a “social leadership committee” composed of about 15 representatives of various tribes, said Diederik Vandewalle, a Dartmouth professor who has studied the country.
What is more, Mr. Vandewalle noted, most of the tribal representatives on the committee are also military officers, who each represent a tribal group within the military. So, unlike the Tunisian or Egyptian militaries, the Libyan military lacks the cohesion or professionalism that might enable it to step in to resolve the conflict with the protesters or to stabilize the country. “Beyond Qaddafi and a small circle, there really is a political vacuum,” Mr. Vandewalle said, “so the chance of sustained chaos is so much higher.”