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Libya Slips Into Civil War, as Democratic Uprisings Rock the Middle East

The opposition is training with troops who defected, as estimates of the number killed by the government run to more than 1,000.

The horrific violence convulsing Libya illustrates the price people are paying for the democratic revolutions shaking the Middle East and North Africa. The Libyan government’s military response to the uprising has been by far the most brutal of any up until now, and there is no doubt those actions constitute grave human rights violations, war crimes and perhaps crimes against humanity. 

In Egypt, the relatively short-lived military crackdown by the hated security agencies and pro-regime thugs actually strengthened the opposition, reminding the millions in the streets exactly what they were protesting. In Libya, the Qaddafy regime seems to have turned that lesson on its head, apparently believing that if their response is violent enough, brutal enough, murderous enough, the opposition will stop.  

So far, it hasn’t worked. With earlier attacks from helicopter gunships and jet bombers, and with reports of machine-gun fire in and around Tripoli continuing at least through Feb. 24, the estimates of Libyans killed range from 300 to more than 1,000 people — but the popular resistance has continued unabated.  

What is different in Libya from the earlier iterations of the Arab world’s great democratic revolution of 2011 is that the anti-regime, pro-democracy side that has succeeded in ousting the regime from major cities and most of eastern Libya is now seeing huge sectors of the Libyan military defect directly to the opposition.  

Libyan democracy activists in Benghazi and elsewhere are apparently training and taking up arms with and alongside the military units now on their side, both to defend their cities and, reportedly, to prepare to help the people of Tripoli and the west, still under Qaddafy’s contested control, to finally overthrow the regime. Libya, unlike Egypt and Tunisia or the other states where revolutionary upheavals are underway, is moving toward a military confrontation closer to a civil war. 

Social, political, demographic, and other conditions in Libya are significantly different than in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain or elsewhere, so it is not surprising that the progress of the revolution has differed too. The first victories, ousting a dictator in Tunisia followed by the monumental achievement of the Egyptian revolution in getting rid of Mubarak, inspired democratic uprisings across the Arab world and North Africa, with parallel movements emerging in sub-Saharan Africa as well, in Gabon and elsewhere.  

Not only the inspiration but crucially the success of Tunisia and Egypt continue to empower the rest. The regimes and the societies differ widely — but the dissatisfaction is similar all over: widening gaps between wealth and poverty, rising unemployment and a lack of jobs for huge young populations, and most of all, the demand for dignity, hope, and for people to have a say in determining their own lives and how they are governed.

The Crumbling of the Qadaffy Regime

In Libya the opposition movement has actually seized control of cities, and now of whole sectors of the country, even while the embattled Qaddafy regime remains more or less in control of the capitol. The entire eastern parts of Libya, including the key city of Benghazi as well as numerous other cities and the long border with Egypt, all now appear to be in the hands of the opposition, in many cases reportedly with military forces joining the protesters rather than fighting them or fleeing.  

The takeover of cities by the pro-democracy demonstrators seems now to be moving closer to Tripoli in the western part of the country, with reports from the nearby city of Misurata claiming the protesters, backed by defecting army units, have been in control since Feb. 21. The  Financial Times quoted a local worker in Misurata describing how “the people are now organizing themselves into committees. Some are managing traffic, others are cleaning up after the fighting and the fires of previous days. There are also people handing out water and milk to the population.”

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