Turtle Bay

Libya’s diplomatic core implodes

As Libya’s leader Muammar al-Qaddafi vowed today to escalate his campaign to crush the popular uprising that threatens his rule, the country’s cadre of once loyal foreign envoys began offering up resignations and challenging the strongman’s decision to crack down violently on civilians. In the past 24 hours, Libyan diplomats posted in the United States, ...

As Libya’s leader Muammar al-Qaddafi vowed today to escalate his campaign to crush the popular uprising that threatens his rule, the country’s cadre of once loyal foreign envoys began offering up resignations and challenging the strongman’s decision to crack down violently on civilians. In the past 24 hours, Libyan diplomats posted in the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League, Australia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia have either stepped down or broken ranks with what one Libyan envoy called the "dictatorship regime."

But one prominent Libyan diplomat, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgam, Libya’s U.N. envoy, stood up for Libya’s self-styled Leader and Guide of the Revolution even as he acknowledged his government’s role in killing civilians. "I am still with Qaddafi. He is my friend," Shalgam, an old schoolmate of Qaddafi and member of his inner circle, told reporters. "I am not one of those who would kiss his hands and his feet in the daytime and denounce him at night."

Only yesterday, Shalgam appeared to have surrendered control of Libya’s diplomatic mission at the United Nations to his deputy, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who turned against Qaddafi on Monday. In a hastily arranged press conference at the Libyan mission, Dabbashi, acting as Libya’s chargé d’affaires, accused Qaddafi of planning genocide and mounted a diplomatic campaign for foreign intervention in Libya to halt the bloodshed. It was in response to Dabbashi’s request for action that the U.N. Security Council met today to condemn the violent crackdown on protesters.

This morning, Dabbashi showed up at an informal session of the U.N. Security Council, where he lobbied members of the world’s premier security body to intervene to stop Qaddafi’s forces from killing Libyan protesters. The council agreed to his request to hold an urgent emergency session of the Security Council later in the afternoon. "I have already asked a no-fly zone, a safe passage for the medical supplies, and also the lifting of restriction on the media, and also to investigate the crimes," he told reporters.

Dabbashi’s challenge to the Libyan regime provided the strongest evidence yet that Qaddafi’s loyalists are breaking ranks. It also raised questions about the fate of Shalgam, Qaddafi’s former foreign minister, who had been missing in action for days. Asked early yesterday about his whereabouts, Dabbashi told reporters: "I think he is in New York and he is not working."

But shortly after Dabbashi spoke, Shalgam unexpectedly showed up at U.N. headquarters, where he defended Qaddafi’s historical role in overthrowing the Libyan monarchy and upholding the country’s independence, saying that his leader had ended Libyans’ "slavery" from foreign occupiers. He also made it clear that he, not Dabbashi, would address the council in the afternoon session.

Diplomats said that Shalgam was highly emotional, breaking down into tears in a private room outside the Security Council and struggling to maintain his composure as he briefed U.N.-based reporters. "He was ashen faced," said one observer. "He looked like the collapse of the regime was weighing heavily on him."

The reappearance of Shalgam came as the U.N. Security Council — convening its first emergency meeting since a series of uprisings toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt — condemned the "use of force against civilians" in Libya and "deplored the repressions against peaceful demonstrators." The council also called for Libyan authorities to act with restraint, respect human rights, allow press freedom, and provide access to international human rights investigators and aid workers. The council, however, stopped short of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya or authorizing an international investigation into war crimes by Libyan authorities, measures that had been backed by Dabbashi, but opposed by Shalgam.

In sometimes contradictory remarks, Shalgam told reporters that he believed his government was responsible for killing civilians, yet also insisted that Qaddafi’s government was prepared to end the violence within 24 hours. He also denied reports that foreign mercenaries and the Libyan Air Force had fired on protesters. "That’s not true. I ask my brother. He is in Tripoli. He told me there is no air bombing. There are no mercenaries. There are people from the south of Libya who are brown like me."

Asked who was responsible for killing protesters, he said: "All the regime is responsible. I am one from the regime. All of us are responsible." Shalgam said that he had personally appealed to his colleagues in Tripoli to end the government crackdown on civilians. "I am speaking every hour with Libya on the ground, the prime minister, with the leadership in Libya, the foreign minister; I am asking them to stop this escalation, this bloodshed, and they are listening to me." Shalgam said he had not spoken directly to Qaddafi, but that he was attempting to appeal directly to the Libyan leader to show restraint. "I [would] ask him to stop the crackdown. I [would] ask him to change. I [would] ask him for a constitution, for freedom. I am trying to reach him."

Shalgam’s staff at Libya’s mission to the United Nations was clearly not listening to his appeal. For more than 24 hours, Dabbashi, who served as the Libyan chargé d’affaires until Shalgam’s return today, had been lobbying the U.N. membership to come to Libya’s rescue.

"Tripoli is in control of the mercenaries, and they are shooting anybody who goes to the streets in Tripoli," Dabbashi told reporters today. "The whole area of the main square of Tripoli is controlled by the mercenaries. Now they are trying to have a propaganda campaign against the facts. I am sure they will not succeed. They will try their best to show that Tripoli is under control and that Qaddafi is safe and he is in full control of the country. Don’t believe him. They are shooting everybody in the streets of Tripoli."

U.N. Undersecretary for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe told reporters that a group of about 30 U.N. employees in Tripoli were unable to confirm reports that aircraft were used to kill civilians. But he said U.N. staff did see Libyan aircraft and helicopters flying over the capital. Pascoe said that the U.N. couldn’t confirm the presence of foreign mercenaries. But he said there was widespread belief among many Libyans that Qaddafi had recruited foreign mercenaries. Pascoe also said the U.N. was very concerned about Qaddafi’s public address today, saying, "I think anyone that is inciting the population against themselves, asking some people to attack other people, is a very dangerous thing.… [We are] quite concerned about threats of various kinds of retaliation that was in that speech. Frankly, I found it a huge concern."

Despite their differences, Shalgam and Dabbashi stopped short of criticizing one another, saying they both simply held different opinions on tragic events unfolding in their homeland. After reporters informed him that Shalgam had returned to the U.N. and planned to address the Security Council in a special session, Dabbashi — who said initially that he had planned to address the council — deferred to Shalgam.

"He’s not with Qaddafi to kill the people. For moral reasons, he has worked with Qaddafi for a long time," Dabbashi said in defense of his senior colleague. "For us as Muslims, when you have a friend, it is very bad … to come [to] a certain moment and say that you are against them. So for moral reasons he doesn’t want to mention Col. Qaddafi, but he’s completely against what he’s doing now. I’m sure when he speaks in the Security Council this afternoon, he will speak much stronger in defense of the Libyan people."

But Dabbashi made sure he had the last word. After the council issued its statements, Dabbashi returned to the press stakeout, claiming he had received fresh evidence that Qaddafi had launched a new campaign of killing today in western Libya. "I think the genocide started now in Libya," Dabbashi told reporters. "The Qaddafi statement was just a code for his collaborators to start the genocide against the Libyan people.… I hope the information I get is not accurate. If is it right it will be a real genocide."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy@columlynch

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