Mired in a slow-moving ground war, Libya’s warring parties are turning to propaganda to try to splinter each other’s support base and gain leverage in talks on a political settlement.
Muammar Qaddafi is playing on fears among Libyans that Western-backed rebels will tip the country deeper into chaos. The opposition’s message is that only an end to Qaddafi’s 41-year-old rule can bring peace, stability and justice.
The war of words is not new: Both sides took to the airwaves and the Internet within hours of the February start of a revolt against Qaddafi’s government.
But now international contacts are under way on a political solution, both sides are looking more urgently at psychological warfare to boost negotiating clout in the absence of a decisive military move in Libya’s deserts, mountains and towns.
An eye-catching example of the information struggle emerged on Wednesday when one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons aired the possibility of an alliance with Islamist “terrorists,” a startling U-turn after the government’s previous insistence that its main enemy in the conflict was Al Qaeda.
“Libya will look like Saudi Arabia, like Iran. So what?” Saif Al Islam told the New York Times, adding he would now form an alliance with Islamists among the rebels.
Saif Al Islam has campaigned prominently for reconciliation with Islamist militants over the past five years, and helped arrange the release of hundreds of them from prison.
But the killing by Colonel Qaddafi loyalists of civilians in the 2011 uprising destroyed Saif Al Islam’s credibility with Islamists, analysts say. His latest remarks were greeted with derision by a wide range of Libyan opposition commentators.
“It’s childish scare tactics,” US-based Libyan activist Hafed Al Ghwell told Reuters. “The logic is, ‘Let’s frighten the hell out of the West by suggesting we’ll ally with Islamists.’”
“He knows very well that if Islamists ever move on Tripoli, their first target will be Qaddafi and his family.”
Islamist link is ‘desperate’
Ashour Shamis, a UK-based opposition activist and editor, said Islam’s remarks showed the Qaddafi camp was “absolutely desperate. It’s pathetic.”
“They are clutching at straws,” he said.
Noman Benotman, a former opposition guerrilla commander who once worked closely with Saif Al Islam on his reconciliation program, said the government had started to work with some members of a highly conservative, apolitical group of Salafi Islamists in Tripoli to try to counter rebel influence.
State television has also spoken vaguely of a possible Islamist tie-up.
Benotman said, however, that Saif Al Islam’s claim of a link to Islamists working within the rebel camp were false and “psychological warfare.”
But if the purported Qaddafi-Islamist tie-up sounds outlandish, the rebels’ credibility is if anything more compromised.
Despite weeks of sporadic gains on the ground and advances on the diplomatic arena, the rebels are on the defensive in the battle for Libyan hearts and minds as never before following the unexplained death on July 28 of their military leader Abdel Fattah Yunis.
His killing has drawn attention to rifts in the rebel camp, an assortment of armed groups that, especially in the east, has struggled to project an image of unity.
Yunis’s family has criticized the handling of the murky case by the rebel National Transitional Council and said it might take justice into its own hands unless rebel leaders come clean over exactly who killed him.
A propaganda gift to Qaddafi, the killing has raised concerns over instability and sustained trouble even if the opposition ousts the veteran leader.
Qaddafi points to Egypt, Tunisia unrest
Worries are running so deep that when a rebel spokesman on Friday reported the death of another of Qaddafi’s sons, Khamis, Libya-watchers immediately suspected it was a propaganda ploy to distract attention from Saif Al Islam’s New York Times interview, which received wide attention in the Arab world.
“It’s probably just propaganda,” one Libya analyst said. “It looks a bit desperate.”
The report was denied with hours by a Qaddafi spokesman.
Apparently buoyed by Yunis’s death, Saif Al Islam on Aug 2 seemed to remove a government offer of ceasefire talks if NATO stopped bombing, saying regardless of whether NATO disengaged from Libya, the war would continue until all Libya was freed.
Pointing to post-revolution unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Colonel Qaddafi said in a July 23 audio address that the uprisings there had resulted in looting and destruction.
The message may well have been intended for a local audience, analysts say.
Qaddafi in June posed playing chess with a senior Russian chess player, looking relaxed and focus.
Al-Ghwell, the US-based Libya activist, said he worried that the ousting of Colonel Qaddafi was taking such a long time, although he was confident the rebels would eventually win.
“The fact is that the longer this lasts the more likely we’ll have more incidents like the killing of Yunis and the more likely we’ll have a messy situation in general.”