Libyans celebrated their liberation with mass demonstrations in Benghazi yesterday, the 28th anniversary of another landmark event in Middle East history. On Sunday, 23 October 1983, at 6.22 a.m., a suicide bomber rammed a truck into the US Marine Corps barracks at Beirut Airport and detonated what FBI forensics specialists would later describe as the largest conventional explosion in history. Two hundred and forty-one American service personnel died. A similar assault in Beirut that morning killed 58 French troops. The perpetrators were undoubtedly members of the nascent Hizbullah movement.
The Libyans are lucky that Muammar Gaddafi did not hold out longer. If he had, there might not be much of the country left. Nato long since ran out of military targets, and it had to hit something to get the ragtag rebels into the royal palace before they ended up shooting one another. ‘At present Nato is not attacking infrastructure targets in Libya,’ General Sir David Richards told the Sunday Telegraph in May. ‘But if we want to increase the pressure on Gaddafi's regime then we need to give serious consideration to increasing the range of targets we can hit.’ (UN Security Resolution 1973 grants no authority to increase the range of targets, its stated intent being to protect Libyan civilians from an onslaught on Benghazi.) The running total for Nato air strikes is 7459. At about 2000 bombing runs a month, another six months would have added 12,000 sorties. As bad as Libya looked when the rebels at last forced the gates of Tripoli, it would have looked a lot worse by next February. Diminishing military targets had to be replaced by something.
The Libyan dictator is resisting the popular forces ranged against him in ways that his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt did not. In Tunis and Cairo, Zine Abedine Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak were the faces of military regimes. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is not the face: he is the regime. The Egyptian and Tunisian army chiefs calculated that sacrificing their nominal commanders-in-chief would preserve their own positions without jeopardising the interests of their American benefactors. Playing the role of saviours of the nation, after years in which the officer class enriched itself and ordinary soldiers were made to repress dissent, the armies in Tunisia and Egypt emerged as arbiters of whatever order will follow the post-dictator era.