Libya’s rebels may have won over the international community, but a decisive victory remains elusive against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi who is clinging to power in Tripoli six months on despite a NATO bombing blitz.
Following France’s lead, dozens of countries have recognized the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
Russia and China have so far held out, although Moscow has finally backed the UN sanctions regime imposed on Tripoli.
Africa, despite its resistance to Western interference and its economies having received large cash injections from Qaddafi, has also turned its back on the strongman.
“We are witnessing a desertion,” a foreign observer said.
Only a handful of Libyan embassies around the world continue to represent Qaddafi, while in Tripoli the sting of sanctions — power cuts, fuel shortages, price hikes — is taking their toll on the population.
Militarily, the rebels have made advances on three fronts, but they are moving at a snail’s pace despite concerted efforts to better train, organize and equip its volunteer army.
In a military spurt on Saturday, on the eve of the six-month mark, the rebels claimed gains on the ground in the port city of Zawiyah, a report denied by Tripoli.
They also said they strengthened their grip on the town of Tuarga in a bid to create a buffer zone between Qaddafi’s forces and the city of Misrata, and advances in the government-held oil town of Brega.
Breaking the siege of Misrata marked the rebels’ finest hour.
However, they have since got bogged down in Zliten, also western Libya. In the east, Qaddafi’s forces have so far held on to the oil hub of Brega despite punishing NATO air raids. In the western Nafusa Mountains, rebels have managed to push their adversaries down into the plains toward Tripoli.
Qaddafi still holds sway in the arid south, keeping a tight grip on the strategic Sabah, home to a major military garrison and vital node connecting supply lines between loyalist troops.
While air strikes by the NATO alliance have inflicted heavy losses on Qaddafi’s forces, rebels have failed to turn this to their advantage, despite an influx of weapons from Qatar and, to a lesser extent, France.
However, the ragtag rebel fighters who at the outset of the revolt advanced and retreated at whim are now organized into katibas — or brigades — that theoretically fall under one central command.
However, experienced officers who defected and joined the rebellion’s embryo army are suspected of being double agents.
The rebel army commander, Abdel Fattah Younes, a former Libyan interior minister and early defector, was murdered last month under mysterious circumstances, raising tribal tensions and prompting a leadership crisis in the NTC.
Tripoli may be reeling under sanctions, but the regime is still standing. And Qaddafi has made good on his promise to stay put in defiance of widespread expectations.
“Every day is a victory” for the Libyan leader, according to a local journalist.
“The wind of revolution is losing momentum,” in the rebel-held east, he said. “It lacks an orator, a man capable of mobilizing the masses.”
The NTC — an improbable mix of technocrats, regime apparatchiks, expats and Islamists — lacks cohesion and its credibility was badly compromised by the murder of Younes.