As the G-8 leaders and the U.N. Security Council continued debating a no-fly zone over Libya on Tuesday, the country's capital erupted in wild celebrations after reports that Muammar Gaddafi's forces had retaken the crucial rebel-held town of Ajdabiyah the last major obstacle on the road to the rebel capital of Benghazi. The question that may soon face the international community is, What if Gaddafi manages to put down the rebellion and survive in power?
Two weeks ago, journalists were landing in Tripoli, body armor packed, ready to witness the triumphant arrival of the rebels. Around that time, President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had all declared it was time for Gaddafi to go, apparently confident that his collapse after 42 years in power was imminent. Those statements raised expectations of Western backing among rebel leaders and their ragtag fighters, but none has been forthcoming. As Western leaders remain locked in inconclusive debate on how to respond, Gaddafi's forces have blasted the rebels into retreat all the way back to Benghazi. Now, the rebels face impending disaster.
On Monday, as G-8 leaders meeting in Paris remained deadlocked over a no-fly zone, state-run Libyan television said Gaddafi's forces had retaken Ajdabiyah, a critical intersection in eastern Libya, after a day of heavy artillery and rocket fire from ships, planes and ground forces, according to al-Jazeera's reporters in the area. That sent Gaddafi's loyalists into the streets for hours of celebratory gunfire and fireworks, while drivers honked their horns long after dark. Earlier in the day, government forces had also reclaimed Zawarah, the last rebel-held town west of Tripoli.
Lebanon, backed by Britain and France, introduced a U.N. Security Council resolution Tuesday night to impose a no-fly zone, but if Ajdabiyah falls, that could come too late to save the rebellion. The town sits at the start of two highways, one snaking north to Benghazi, the other cutting east to the rebel-held oil port of Tobruk near Egypt. Rebel leaders disputed government claims that Gaddafi's forces had retaken Ajdabiyah. But with the specter of defeat looming, the rebels face grim choices of whether to flee to the Egyptian border or to dig in for a bloody fight to the finish in Benghazi.
Either way, Gaddafi's prospects for surviving the monthlong uprising seem to be steadily improving. With victory in sight, a confident Gaddafi addressed a gathering of tribal leaders and other supporters in his palace compound late Tuesday night, and raged against the "imperialism" of Western leaders. "You say Gaddafi is going to leave his country," he thundered, banging his fist on the table, railing against the U.S. and Britain. "They want to conquer Libya, they want to take our oil. Who gave them that right?"
If he defeats the rebels, he could exact bitter reprisals against eastern towns, with mass arrests and perhaps killings of those who led the rebellion. And beyond that, it's not clear how Western countries will relate to Libya, where U.S., British, Spanish, French and other Western oil companies have invested billions. In an interview in Tripoli last Thursday, Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi's powerful son, told TIME he was confident that those companies would seek a quick return to Libya. "Soon they will come back, and cut oil deals, contracts," he said. "We know this game." But his father said Tuesday that in light of the response of Western governments to the uprising, only Germany which steadfastly opposed a no-fly zone would be allowed to do business in Libya.
Though the war is not yet over, Libyans are already debating how Gaddafi's foes had managed to so overestimate the power of the revolt. Rebel leaders and Western governments, say some, badly misjudged Gaddafi's ability to survive an exercise, perhaps, in wishful thinking. Sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt, where peaceful uprisings had dispatched dictators, Gaddafi, who had ruled far longer than his neighbors, seemed to be the obvious next target. Saif and other key figures have admitted that the regime was badly caught off guard, and took a while to set their military strategy. Once they did, however, their battlefield prowess easily outmatched the rebels. "The West's interpretation was very, very stupid," says Mustafa Fetouri, director of the M.B.A. program at the Academy of Graduate Studies in Tripoli, who spent decades living in Europe. "They just gambled on the wrong thing, and made a huge, stupid mistake."
One crucial error by Western leaders, says Fetouri, has been to downplay Libya's complex web of tribal loyalties, which has helped to keep Gaddafi in power for more than four decades an impressive achievement, given several assassination attempts and years of Libya being an international pariah under stiff economic sanctions. Some tribal alliances date back decades to the bloody rebellions against the Italian colonial forces before World War II, and even some tribal leaders who hold grudges against Gaddafi, for having failed to deliver services or cutting them out of certain privileges, rushed to his defense once the antigovernment demonstrations in Benghazi became an armed rebellion. For those people, says Fetouri, "they will die for Gaddafi, because he belongs to their tribe."
Gaddafi boosted his own forces by attracting volunteers ready to fight to hold Libya together, a sentiment reinforced when the rebels adopted the flag used by King Idris al-Sanousi, Libya's former monarch, whom Gaddafi overthrew in his 1969 coup. That flag, says Fetouri, "represents the misery my country lived through as puppets of the West." He cites one of his relatives no fan of Gaddafi who traveled 400 miles (640 km) to join the government forces against the rebels; he had driven from the Bani Walid area, the heartland of the Warfalli tribe southeast of Tripoli, which has long been the bedrock of Gaddafi's support. Fetouri, who says he himself had been tempted to join the antigovernment protests before they morphed into an armed rebellion, asked his relative why he was "fighting for Gaddafi." He said the man told him "it was about Libya the country, not Gaddafi."
On Tripoli's Green Square, where die-hard Gaddafi supporters have kept up round-the-clock pep rallies, with loudspeakers blasting patriotic songs day and night, a banner was strung between two trees this week, proclaiming to the leader, in English, "We are all willing to sacrifice ourselves for you." It looks like it may not require huge sacrifices to keep Gaddafi in power.