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Libyan rebel fighters mourn comrades killed during clashes with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi at a hospital in Misrata July 11, 2011. (THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)
Libyan rebel fighters mourn comrades killed during clashes with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi at a hospital in Misrata July 11, 2011. (THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)

Libya's rebels fear a setback as Ramadan approaches Add to ...

As he surveyed the empty oil-tanker port and the bomb-damaged pumping equipment meant to bring Libya's coveted crude oil to market, the executive from the rebel-held petroleum company looked to the sky and fretted over a holy deadline.

"I know that we need to get it flowing again in the next three weeks so that we can have petroleum sales by the end of July, God be willing," said Muhammad Al-Ubaydi, an engineer with the Brega Petroleum Marketing Company. "We know that it will be a disaster if we cannot begin making sales before Ramadan begins."

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Suddenly, the conflict in Libya has become a fast-ticking countdown to the night of Aug. 1, when Muslims around the world begin the holy month of Ramadan. In normal times, much of the economy shuts down as everyone enters a 30-day period of all-day fasting, prayer and the strict avoidance of conflict.

But with dangerously undersupplied and underfunded rebels facing the army of dictator Moammar Gadhafi with improvised duct-tape militias in a battle that is barely making progress at the best of times, and with NATO forces, including Canada's military, attempting to bomb Mr. Gadhafi out of office in time for a new government to take shape, the looming holy month has become a perilous black hole threatening to undermine the whole campaign.

"All we are really talking about today is the problem of Ramadan," said one of many European diplomats who have come to the rebel capital of Benghazi, in eastern Libya, to work out the problem of continuing a war that, when it began on Feb. 17, was predicted to last weeks. It has now become a much lengthier campaign.

At the Benghazi offices of the National Transitional Council, the rebels' political body serving as an interim government in eastern Libya, there have been marathon meetings over the question of how to handle Ramadan. Both Col. Gadhafi's troops and the rebels will likely continue fighting, but with soldiers fasting all day they will not be in a position to make major advances.

And without supplies or food - which have been in alarmingly short supply in recent days, as have paycheques, which in many cases haven't arrived in months - there is the risk that a fasting, expectant public will abandon a rebel government whose promises of a better life fuelled by democracy and petroleum sales may begin to look hollow.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, the Ramadan deadline has been virtually the only topic of discussion in recent days, officials from the military alliance said.

The problem is that even if Libyans continue fighting, it may deeply offend Muslim populations if European and North American countries were bombing an Islamic state during the holy month. Having defended Muslim populations in successive wars in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and now Libya, NATO officials are keenly aware of the damage that can be caused by such moves, and are seeking advice from the Libyans and the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Diplomats said it's possible that NATO could cut back on air strikes during Ramadan - even though the rebels are already complaining that the alliance is striking far too few targets. That said, officials from Qatar, one of two Muslim states participating in the operation to defend the rebels, told the Financial Times this week that they do not see any change in military behaviour as being necessary.

Whatever the case, within the cluster of highly defended hotels that form the international diplomatic community in Benghazi, there was a deep sense of alarm among officials from most countries that a month-long pause or severe slowdown could push an already tenuous campaign into outright failure or retreat, requiring many months more combat in order to return to current positions.

Underlying this is a sense of alarm that the rebels have almost no sources of funds to provide food, fuel, weapons and paycheques to their military and government - a situation that TNC leaders have described as unendurable during Ramadan. With little hope of soon receiving petroleum revenues - which are virtually the sole source of foreign-exchange earnings in eastern Libya - the entire eastern half of the country is relying on goodwill and donations to get through the month.

On Monday, the United Nations said it had received requests from both the rebels in Benghazi and from Col. Gadhafi's government in Tripoli to release hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen assets in order to fund the country through Ramadan.

It wasn't clear whether those funds would be forthcoming, but the government of Turkey did respond to requests by promising food, tents and an extra $200-million in aid to the rebels to support the eastern rebels through Ramadan.

"Honestly, Turkish people cannot be at ease when they are breaking their fast if their Libyan brothers are not," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference. "They don't have food to break fast, but we do, so they should have it too."

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