Civil War In Libya And What's Changed In Tunisia

Guests

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, foreign correspondent, NPR
Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor, Financial Times

NATO warplanes are striking targets in Libya's capital as rebels claim new gains in Misrata. And in Tunisia, four months after mass protests forced out dictator Zine El Abadine Ben Ali, democratic elections are on the horizon.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

It's been four months since mass protests on the streets of Tunisia forced change in a country that seemed an unlikely candidate for revolt. The sudden departure of the long-time dictator there sparked a series of demonstrations across North Africa and the Middle East.

In a few minutes, we'll check back on Tunisia and explore whether the change has been cosmetic or profound.

But we begin in Tunisia's neighbor, Libya, where popular uprisings developed into civil war with a fragile rebel government based in the east, in Benghazi, and the regime of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi retaining power in the capital, Tripoli.

Over the past day or so, the rebels reported what may be significant progress. If you have questions about what's changed in Libya, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a transgender transition in the public eye: Chaz Bono on becoming Chaz.

But first to Benghazi, and NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who joins us from the Libyan rebel capital.

Nice to have you back, as always.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you.

CONAN: And we're hearing reports today of what appear to be significant gains. And why don't we begin around the besieged town of Misrata, to your west?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. We are hearing reports that the rebels have broken through one of the main front lines and have moved about 15 miles outside of the city to Misrata.

And that is a significant move forward. I mean, they were - have been pretty much encircled in that city, the port the only way in or out. And now the rebels have managed to push through one of the front lines and make their way into the Gadhafi-controlled areas.

The road to Tripoli, it's about three hours to Tripoli down that road, but having been down that road before, it is heavily fortified. So there are many caveats to this. We have to think rebels have made advances before, and they've been pushed back. It is a very fluid situation.

Right now, it does seem that they have the upper hand, but it remains to be seen if this is something that will be sustained, or if indeed they will be pushed back.

One of the key things, of course, is NATO's sustained bombing campaign. They have been hitting around the areas of Misrata particularly hard, and that seems to have had an effect.

CONAN: And we apologize if there are further hiccups on the line from Benghazi, but it's a swell line otherwise. It sounds really good.

But we have to ask: There may be strategic gains out of this, but the tactical goal, as far as we understand it, is to push Gadhafi's forces at least 12 miles away from the city. That would put them out of range of the Grad surface-to-surface rockets that have been raining down on the city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's exactly right. That is exactly what the rebels are hoping for. Their aim at the moment is not to, you know, push forward to Tripoli. It's simply to push Gadhafi's forces far enough away so that those Grad rockets are not hitting the city of Misrata.

The city of Misrata is about 300,000 people, and it was very quickly encircled. And so most of the civilian population is still inside that city. That's women, children, families. And Gadhafi's forces have been firing indiscriminately in that city.

And so therefore, really, what the rebels want is to be able to push Gadhafi's forces back so that those Grad missiles cannot hit the civilian population in the way that they have been.

CONAN: And there is, yes, progress toward the western part of Misrata, but as I understand it, Gadhafi forces are still well within range on other fronts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, absolutely well within range. In fact, there's been fierce fighting at the airport today in Misrata, and also another neighborhood - I'm being told by my sources in Misrata - as well.

So this is a city that is still very much in war-footing, and fighting on many, many different fronts. On the one hand, they have made, in one particular area, advances, but they're still facing very stiff resistance from Gadhafi forces and others.

CONAN: As you mentioned, the one way in and out of Misrata, still, is through the port there. And there has been a big controversy as pro-Gadhafi forces have, from time to time, shelled the port itself, shelled ships trying to leave and depart - arrive and depart, rather. And yesterday, as we understand it, some NATO vessels intervened to try to sweep mines out of the harbor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. I mean, the issue has been extremely complex at the port. On the one hand, you've had Gadhafi forces mine the actual harbor. Another point, they actually dropped mines from the air and sort of mined the area around the harbor.

They really want to stop that area from being used by the rebels, because that will, of course, choke them off.

If you think today - for example, there was a boat that was supposed to leave Benghazi. It was laden with weapons. It was laden with fighters - old weapons let me say, not new ones. And some of the fighters were wounded. They had come here to Benghazi, had been sort of patched up and were being shipped back to Misrata.

And the ship couldn't depart because of bad weather. So it's a very difficult way to get in and out of the port, not only because of weather concerns, but also because Gadhafi forces regularly shell the port, mine it, and so it is a real focus of concern for the people there.

CONAN: You mentioned aid trips, and there where you are, in Benghazi today, the first American aid arrived.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It did. You know, here in Benghazi, it's very interesting. For the first - having covered this for now quite some time, you really are seeing many different groups come here.

At this particular hotel where I'm staying at, there's an American envoy here. We've just apparently seen Dutch embassy officials come. Really, Benghazi is now opening itself up to the world, in a way, and you're seeing a lot of representatives from many different countries coming in here and trying to establish relationships with the Transitional National Council.

That has become a kind of a complicated and controversial issue, if you will, because on the one hand, I've spoken, for example, to someone who came from Misrata and came to talk to the Transitional National Council for the first time as a representative of the city, saying: You have to help us. Your focus has to be on the fight, the very real and continued fight that's happening here.

And he felt that the Transitional National Council was being pushed by the international community into assuming a more political role, trying to form a government, if you will, that was sort of accountable to the international community.

And that - and so on the one hand, they're trying to do that, but on the other hand, there is a very real war, battle going on, and they're trying to fill both roles. And so it's become rather difficult.

CONAN: Now, Misrata is further to the west. There is another front nearer to where you are in Benghazi, out towards, well, a place whose name we've come to know pretty well as we've followed the ebb and flow of the warfare across the -near the Mediterranean coast: Ajdabiya.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ajdabiya. I was just there a few days ago, and it's very strange. It's a very eerie place. The city is completely deserted. The only sort of cars you see running around are the rebel vehicles with guns mounted on the back.

And the front line is pretty static. We saw yesterday - they made a push towards the town of Brega, which is the next town up, which had been in the control of Gadhafi forces. There was fierce fighting.

We know that four rebels were killed. Their funerals were held yesterday here, in the city of Benghazi. And - but then NATO forces told them: Listen. Pull back, and we will bomb those positions.

And so actually what we saw is, again, rebel forces withdrawing back to Ajdabiya and leaving Brega to the Gadhafi forces. So they're fighting over a very narrow strip of territory. They've been trading these cities back and forth for weeks, if not months, actually.

And so it's a very static frontline for the moment. It remains to be seen if the rebels will be able to make a push farther to the west. But right now, as it stands, NATO has asked them - they are in coordination with NATO. NATO has asked them to sort of pull back and keep a buffer zone between Gadhafi forces and the rebels in Ajdabiya.

CONAN: Encouraging news from around Misrata, some encouraging news from around Ajdabiya and Brega, as well. Any indication, though, that this is going to mean a sustained momentum for the rebels?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We just don't know. The key, I think everyone is fully aware, is Tripoli and what happens there. That is the capital city. That is the seat of Gadhafi's power. And frankly, where Tripoli goes, so goes the country, many here do feel.

And so everyone is watching extremely closely to see what is happening in Tripoli. We saw again, overnight, a very heavy bombing campaign by NATO. It lasted about three hours, the heaviest bombing campaign for several weeks, in and around Tripoli.

And so there clearly is a focus on Tripoli, but how that is going to play out -we've heard many rumors that there have been gun battles in the streets at night over recent days, that rebels have taken over an airport on the outskirts of town - all of this very difficult to confirm.

We don't know if it's true, but certainly the focus here in the rebel east and in Misrata and in many places is on Tripoli. Will this bombing campaign have an effect? Will the people of Tripoli eventually rise up?

They're suffering a great deal. The sanctions have had a real biting effect. There is almost no gas. People have to wait in line for days, in some cases, to get their tanks filled, still a shortage of bread and other things. And so they really are feeling the squeeze.

CONAN: Can you - you've had the opportunity to report both from Tripoli earlier in this conflict and now from Benghazi. Can you compare and contrast? What is it like? What are the differences between those two cities?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I couldn't - the differences are so stark. It's a completely different feeling. Tripoli is a city that is in the grips of fear and paranoia and terror, essentially. You go out on the streets, and people don't want to talk to you. There is a heavy military presence everywhere, sometimes actually civilians or people dressed in civilian clothes, but carrying guns.

You don't know who anyone is. People really don't feel comfortable speaking. There's also sort of an enforced sense of calm because of all these checkpoints. Everything's sort of strangled, and, you know, pictures of Moammar Gadhafi everywhere, sort of these supposedly spontaneously demonstrations supporting the, you know, brother leader - very, very surreal.

Here in the east, there's a different set of problems - also a very strange environment. Every day at 5 o'clock outside my window, you have a parade, where, you know, rebels start shooting off guns, some of them heavy-caliber weapons, some of them sort of - all sorts of different weapons.

And it's also a very sort of bizarre way of celebrating their freedom. People here also feel that the future is uncertain. They don't know how long they can survive. Money is in short supply. People are - children aren't going to school. There is no work.

And so on both sides of the divide, there is similarities, because they don't know what the future will hold. But there is, of course, stark differences between part of the country that has been liberated and part of the country that hasn't.

CONAN: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, with us from Benghazi in Libya. Let's see if we can get Bob on the line, Bob with us from Cincinnati.

And Bob, we just have a very few seconds, if you could make it very quick.

BOB (Caller): OK, Neal, this morning I hear on NPR that NATO claimed they had struck the Libyan parliament building. And I want to know: If we're establishing a more representative government there, for heaven's sakes, why are we striking the parliament? I mean...

CONAN: And I have to stop you there, Bob, and give Lourdes a chance to answer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, one of - that's one of the big questions, of course. I mean, I don't know that they hit the Libyan parliament building. I'm not in Tripoli. It's very difficult to confirm what the actual targets were.

I know that my colleagues in Tripoli haven't been able to establish what they are, because they're not allowed to move around freely. But what I can say is one of the real concerns of the Transitional National Council here in the rebel east is that they are representative, and they've tried to make that clear to the world.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the call, and we apologize for the truncated opportunity to speak. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, thank you very much for joining us tonight from Benghazi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

CONAN: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, with us from Benghazi, the capital of rebel-held Libya. You can trace the civil war there back to events in neighboring Tunisia. We'll focus on that when we return.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. (Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the Arab Spring today at very different stages in very different countries - in North Africa, the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf.

We turn now to where it started, the small North African country of Tunisia. In December, a young street vendor, frustrated beyond endurance, immolated himself to protest police harassment.

That sparked a mass movement that quickly ousted a dictator, but as that country now prepares for democratic elections, is this a revolution or a reshuffle?

If you'd like to know about - more about what happened in Tunisia and whether that's local and how much is common across the Arab world, our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Roula Khalaf is the Middle East editor of the Financial Times, just back from a visit to Tunisia. She wrote a piece titled "Tunisia: After the Revolution." She joins us now on the phone from London. Nice to have you tonight on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. ROULA KHALAF (Middle East Editor, Financial Times): Hi.

CONAN: And I wonder: How, in retrospect, did a single, though spectacular, act of defiance and despair ignite a nation?

Ms. KHALAF: I think the answer to that is accumulated frustration. What that young man, Mohammed Bouazizi, felt was actually shared by a lot of people, particularly young people, in Tunisia and particularly the group that we refer to as the graduates, the unemployed graduates, people with degrees who can't find jobs. And there are about 150 of them. There could be, you know, more than 200,000 by the end of this year.

And once - you know, once an uprising started in a small town, then a lot of people joined in - lawyers, union leaders, politicians who have been repressed for years and years.

And I think everyone had different types of frustration, but they all boiled down to essentially one thing, that people wanted freedom, they wanted dignity, and they wanted to be ruled by a more representative and also by a less corrupt government because the Tunisian regime was actually, in many ways, more repressive than other regimes in the Middle East. And, you know, if we say that by Middle Eastern standards, you can imagine what that means.

It was also increasingly corrupt and very much based - the corruption is based around the family of the ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. And so while some people were very obviously getting richer and trying to accumulate more and more wealth, the rest of the population could feel that they were - they had neither hope nor opportunity.

CONAN: And obviously many have reported on the demographic bulge in many Middle Eastern and North African countries, that there are so many young people and so many young people seemingly without a future. That appears to be something that Tunisia has in common, well, with Egypt and with Libya and with Syria and with other countries that are now described as parts of the Arab Spring.

Ms. KHALAF: Yes, I think there are very common elements for youth in the Middle East. There are the majority of the population. They can't find jobs. The education systems actually do not teach them and do not lead them to end up with degrees that are needed in the job market.

But also I think the young people today are connected to the world. They see how other people live. And this is a generation that simply doesn't want to be subjected to the same kind of repression as their parents.

You know, there's a whole generation that has lived under autocratic regimes in the region and hasn't done anything about it, and I think that this is a generation that wants to assert itself and that this year have felt, for various reasons, have felt empowered and able to speak out and to actually fight for what it believes in.

CONAN: Your piece is titled "Tunisia: After the Revolution." Some might argue that, indeed, parts of the Ben Ali regime are still in place in Tunisia and that in fact what we may be seeing is, well, an afternoon of revolution and that autocracy could well return.

Ms. KHALAF: I don't think that autocracy will return. I think that the revolution is perhaps not completed. I think a lot has been done. But there are - you know, when a system exists for decades, and when there is no alternative to it because it doesn't allow an alternative to develop, you end up with a vacuum, a political vacuum.

And that makes the transition very difficult. It also makes getting rid of the remains of the regime difficult because, you know, there are a lot of institutions that you cannot do without.

But in the case of Tunisia, you need a complete overhaul of the security apparatus, of the interior ministry, of the judicial system. There's a lot still to be done.

But I would say that, you know, particularly compared to other places, the -it's tricky, but they're moving in the right direction.

CONAN: You spoke of the enormous frustrations, particularly of the younger generation, particularly of the graduates. Are their prospects any brighter now with the departure of Ben Ali?

Ms. KHALAF: I think the problem that the political class is now facing is that there's a huge expectations gap. Young people who took part in this uprising want results, and they want results very quickly. They don't understand or they don't want to understand that, you know, a country has certain resources and can deliver a certain amount of jobs.

And, you know, the economies are critical here because this is a very bad year for the Tunisian economy. It depends a lot on tourism, for example, and the tourists have not - you know, there haven't been any tourists, and I don't think there will be for a while.

So there's a very big gap between people's expectations and what any government is going to be able to deliver in the short term.

I think in the longer term, the change in Tunisia will be very good for the economy and will be good for business. But, you know, you need a lot of patience in the meantime, and young people are more impatient than their parents' generation.

CONAN: You spoke of institutions that needed to be changed in Tunisia. Interestingly, the military refused orders to open fire on protesters just as the military in Egypt declined to do the same. That was a key moment in the uprisings in both countries. Yet the leadership of that military owes its place to the departed dictator.

Ms. KHALAF: Yes, I think there's a difference between Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, the military actually took control of the country. The military, a military council now runs the country.

In Tunisia, the military is still playing the role, but it's not the lead role. It's actually politicians and representatives of unions, of human rights groups and civil society who are playing the major role.

I think if we are to look at Egypt, yes, I think there's a big question that will eventually in Egypt because now people are still grateful to the army for having gotten - helped them to get rid of the previous regime.

But there will be questions raised about the power of the army, the economic power of the army, and what its role should be.

CONAN: We're talking with Roula Khalaf, the Middle East editor of the Financial Times, just back from Tunisia. She just wrote a piece called "Tunisia: after the revolution." 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And Jamie's(ph) on the line calling from Medford, Oregon.

JAMIE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Well, Roula, I'm just going to ask a simple thing. Like, the gentleman that seemed to have sparked the entire spring uprising, I just wanted to ask, did he survive his immolation, or did he pass away? And I'll take the results off the air, if I could.

CONAN: All right, Jamie, thank you.

Ms. KHALAF: He passed away two weeks later.

CONAN: You were lucky enough, though, to talk with his mother, and she described his situation.

Ms. KHALAF: Yes, she did. There has been a bit of confusion as to exactly what happened. But essentially, this is a young man who had been selling vegetables and fruit for years on the streets of a town called Sidi Bouzid. He was often harassed by police who wanted him to move his cart away.

On that particular day, he placed his cart in front of a government building, where usually he's not supposed to. He was asked to leave, and eventually his produce were confiscated.

But he wasn't given - he wasn't given any paper or anything to prove that. So he went through this bureaucratic nightmare where he was asked to see officials in order to get his produce back, and they would ask him for proof from the police that they've taken it.

And at the end of it, he said I want to see the governor, and if I don't see the governor, I'm going to burn myself. Obviously, no one believed him because, you know, they didn't care, and he did. And I think there was - he very, very quickly became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Tunisia, that this is a government that simply did not care about its people.

CONAN: And as we think of Tunisia as the spark that started the Arab Spring, there might be some elsewhere in the Middle East and across North Africa who wonder that this country, often regarded as generally peripheral to Arab affairs, might be so important.

Ms. KHALAF: Yes. Well, in some ways Tunisia is peripheral to Arab affairs, but I think Tunisia is also a place where certain trends have started. Tunisia is -has traditionally been, historically been at the forefront of a lot of movements. For instance, if we look at women's rights in the Middle East, women rights were more advanced in Tunisia than they were in the rest of the region. The region has just been able to catch up.

So while what happens in Tunisia doesn't usually spread to other parts of the Middle East, it's not a country that should be ignored as it has now proved.

CONAN: And as you wrote in your piece, it's a country - well, its role in this Arab Spring did not come as a surprise to some in Tunisia.

Ms. KHALAF: No. Absolutely. I think because people do think of themselves as having been pioneers whether it's in, you know, the first Muslim country that abolished slavery. And so to them, what they are now thinking is that they would also really like to present an example to the rest of the region.

But, of course, it's - in many ways, it would be easier for a transition in Tunisia to go more smoothly, let's say, than others, particularly because this is a homogeneous society. We don't have the issue of sectarianism, for instance, that we now see in Syria and to a certain extent in Egypt.

CONAN: Where 10 percent of the population...

Ms. KHALAF: So in some ways...

CONAN: ...is Coptic Christians, yes.

Ms. KHALAF: ...transitions will be easier in more homogeneous societies.

CONAN: Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Tony(ph). Tony with us from Boulder in Colorado.

TONY (Caller): Good afternoon. Thanks for the show. I'm very much enjoying it. You mentioned earlier the - there's a large youthful, sort of restive and unemployed population. Why is there such a - this youth bulge in - I don't think it's just Tunisia but other Arab countries. Is that a function of social or government policies to create this youth bubble, and is - because that doesn't sound like a sustainable type of demographics.

Ms. KHALAF: It's a combination of still high population growth, and, as I mentioned earlier, the real problem is that economies have not been growing fast enough to absorb the new entrants into the workforce. And the education system has been - and I think this is across the region - there's a very serious problem with education. The education system has not been producing people with the degrees that would facilitate their entry into the workforce. So you end up with a lot of people who are highly educated but who can do nothing with their diplomas that they come out with.

CONAN: Thanks...

TONY: OK. Thank you. But is there - so is their population, is their youthful population an anomaly or different than other parts (unintelligible)?

CONAN: I think if you look at other parts of the world, Tony, it's a result of better hygiene, better nutrition to some degree, and it's not restricted to North Africa but Southern Africa as well, South America, India, a lot of places like that.

TONY: OK.

Ms. KHALAF: I think in most places, there tends to be - I mean, people look at this as a potential, and in many ways, it's sad that in the Middle East, it's been looked at as a problem.

CONAN: Let's go next to Zee(ph). And Zee is on the line with us from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

ZEE (Caller): Thank you for your important program. My question is: Does it seem like the continued war in Libya could possibly drag Tunisia into a much broader war? I'll take my answer on air. Thank you.

CONAN: Oh, thanks, Zee, for the call. And, yes, we've heard reports of Tunisian border posts exchanging hands between Libyan rebels and pro-government forces there. Is there a possibility that there could be a war spreading into Tunisia?

Ms. KHALAF: No. I think that there is no reason for the war to spill into Tunisia, but I think that the Libyan conflict has made it harder for Tunisia because of the flow of people out of Libya that the Tunisians have had to deal with.

And on - at the borders, as you just mentioned, there have been tensions at border posts, but I don't think that there is a risk of a real conflict in Tunisia because of what's going on in Libya.

CONAN: And finally, where in the run-up to democratic elections that some might say are a little too soon for people to organize political parties and such. Have you seen this kind of democracy establishing a foothold in Tunisia?

Ms. KHALAF: You mean the same kind of that I saw in Tunisia. It's - in Egypt, I think that the cases are very similar. And both cases, the elections are, as you say, perhaps a bit too early, and people are scrambling to set up political parties and to compete in the elections.

And that is why I say in both cases the Islamist parties are going to do well because they have - they're able to organize faster. They've done it in the past, and their message is perhaps a bit more simple for people to follow than other secular parties that are now organizing. So I think in both cases, we're going to see Islamist parties emerging as possibly the biggest blocks in Parliament.

CONAN: Roula Khalaf, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Ms. KHALAF: Thank you.

CONAN: Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor for the Financial Times. There's a link to her article on "Tunisia: After the Revolution" at our website. She joined us today by phone from London.

Coming up, Chastity Bono's decades-long journey to becoming Chaz. He joins us next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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