Dispatch from Benghazi

Professor Juan Cole is tracking the growing chaos in Libya and received this eyewitness comment from Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch: ‘ I am just back from Eastern Libya, and have had extensive contacts with the transitional authorities in Benghazi, was on the phone with them this morning. Having visited the eastern cities of Benghazi, al-Baida, Dernah, Tobruk, al-Bregah, Ras Lanoof, and Ajdabiya, I certainly didn’t see any AQ influence among the authorities or among the rebels. Al-Baida and Dernah in particular have been home to strong Salafist movements (and have been subjected to bombing campaigns by Qaddafi to suppress them), but this salafism is more inward-looking and seems to be an expression of opposition to the regime, not the kind of internationalist salafism associated with AQ. And even most Islamists I met were in favor of Western intervention, remarkably. Like in Egypt, the religious fundamentalist danger is vastly overstated and used as a scare tactic by Qaddafi.

I got to know more than half of the members of the Benghazi-based council, and they impressed me with their secular and modernist outlook. Most are academics, lawyers, and activists, and clearly dedicated to bringing Libya into the modern world.

The rebel movement is indeed badly organized, but this is for a simple reason: it exists mostly out of young volunteers, protesters turned fighters, who have no military experience and are holding a gun for the first time in their lives. They cannot hold back a desert offensive by an army with tanks, artillery, and war planes–their weapons don’t even have the required reach or power. But that doesn’t mean that Benghazi, al-Baida, or Dernah will fall as easily. Urban fighting is very different from a series of desert battles, and the advantages of heavy weapons are diminished. It could get a lot bloodier.

Peter Bouckaert Emergencies Director, Human Rights Watch ‘