A Libyan rebel walks toward a checkpoint in the outskirts of Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
How did the current crisis in Libya begin?
Inspired by a united front of Egyptian demonstrators who forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, cities across Libya held a “Day of Rage” on February 17. Two days before the event, Libyan human-rights activist and dissident lawyer Fathi Terbil was arrested in Benghazi, prompting several people to gather in front of the police station in protest. Some of the protestors also were arrested. After Terbil was released, the protest turned into an antigovernment demonstration. Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi promised to release 110 political activists and raise government salaries as a concession to the opposition.
Why are things so out of control?
After the Day of Rage several people were killed and many more were arrested. The violence escalates after security forces fire on a funeral procession. By February 20 more than 200 people reportedly have died nationwide and antigovernment demonstrations spread to Tripoli, the nation’s capitol. Gadhafi called the rebels and protesters rats and cockroaches. The number of casualties reached 1,000. On February 28, Libyan government forces began using air attacks against the rebels.
How has the international community responded?
The Arab League suspended the Libyan delegation. World leaders, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke out against the military’s use of violence to quash the protests. French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked the European Union to impose sanctions against the Libyan leader. On February 26, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to sanction Gadhafi and said that he should be investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, American warships started making their way to Libya in the event there’s a need for humanitarian or evacuation efforts. Mid-March, France pushed for the no-fly zone, which the Arab League and Great Britain support. The U.N. passed Resolution 1973, authorizing the no-fly zone and “all necessary measures.” On March 20, U.S. and European forces began executing air strikes in Tripoli.
As of March 27, NATO is in full command of the Libyan military operation and coalition forces have begun air attacks on Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte. Rebels also have begun advancing on the city, but have been stalled by Gadhafi loyalists who are firing back.
What’s at stake?
According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the U.S. does not have any vital interests at stake in Libya but it was critical to push back at Gadhafi because of concern that Libyan unrest would lead to destabilization in nearby Arab countries. Gates, President Obama and other administration officials insist that “regime change” was not part of the plan, but it may be what occurs. The problem, however, is that nobody knows what would be worse: the Gadhafi we know or the rebels we don’t. In addition, some congressional lawmakers have expressed concern that U.S. involvement in Libya could result in a potential terrorist backlash. In addition, a long-term commitment could severely stress an already strained military.
What’s the way forward?
This is one of many questions Obama must address in his speech Monday night, although both Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have suggested that U.S. involvement may last a while. So far the American public has been supportive of the military engagement, but that support is almost certain to recede if it goes on for too long, because they do not have the appetite for another Iraq or Afghanistan. Turkey may step in to negotiate a cease-fire and avoid a long war. Gadhafi is steadfast in his resolve to remain leader of the country he’s ruled for more than four decades.
What’s Gadhafi’s response?
There have been reports that Gadhafi is arming residents in his hometown where he was forced to retreat. There also have been reports that the beleaguered leader and members of his regime have reached out to the Spanish government.