The Two Faces of Libya’s Rebels

The anti-Qaddafi forces are a strange mix of ragtag fighters and defector technocrats. And more than guns, the latter desperately need Western moral support.


If you let strangers know that you research Libya for a living, there seems to be only one question on their minds: "Who are the Libyan rebels?" I’ve been asked it at cocktail parties, on ski lifts, at academic seminars, and even by Western journalists in Benghazi who have developed the flattering habit of Skype-ing me at odd hours. Americans seem captivated by this question, perhaps because they have heard senior U.S. officials from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to various Republican congressmen proclaim that they do not yet know enough about who the rebels are. I do not take such statements at face value. U.S. statesmen know quite well who the rebels are — but pretend otherwise to obscure the fact that the United States has yet to formulate a comprehensive policy toward them.

The rebels consist of two distinct groups: the fighters and the political leadership.

First, the fighters. In the prologue to the Libyan uprising, prior to mid-February, most of the peaceful demonstrators were young people inspired by what they saw in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. As the situation has evolved, elements willing to risk their lives to remove Muammar al-Qaddafi from power have come to embody the spirit and the legitimacy of the rebel movement. These fighters are a ragtag bunch of men of all ages and degrees of military training riding pickup trucks around the eastern coastal desert. You have probably seen pictures of them triumphantly showing the "V"-for-victory hand signal as they move westward and fleeing in unorganized columns when they retreat eastward. What you may not have realized (unless you too get woken up by those random Skype calls from Ajdabiya) is that the vast majority of these fighters have never actually arrived at the front and are not contributing to the rebels’ effective fighting strength. Such organization as there is tends to be on the unit level only, and this does not facilitate the formation of an effective line of battle.

The units with the highest degree of organization are former Libyan army battalions that were stationed in eastern Libya, also known as Cyrenaica. These units, including those led by former Interior Minister Abdul Fattah Younis al-Abidi, defected en masse in mid-February, retaining their organizational structure. Bizarrely, these units are largely absent from the current fighting. It is unclear why.

The next most organized units are those composed of bearded men with Islamist leanings. These fighters are likely to be from certain cities — most famously Darnah — and of certain backgrounds, such as unemployed men with university degrees. Some have attended Salafi seminaries; a smaller proportion have trained together secretly in Libya. A minuscule inner core fought in Afghanistan alongside Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and created the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) upon their return to Libya in the early 1990s. That group’s raison d’être was to violently overthrow Qaddafi. After failed putsch attempts at the end of the 1990s, the Libyan state effectively crushed and co-opted the LIFG during the 2000s. Over the last five years, prominent former LIFG leaders have renounced their previous ties to al Qaeda and articulated an innovative anti-extremist Islamic theology. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Charles Levinson, who has met with prominent former LIFG elites in Darnah, has reported, "Islamist leaders and their contingent of followers represent a relatively small minority within the rebel cause. They have served the rebels’ secular leadership with little friction. Their discipline and fighting experience is badly needed by the rebels’ ragtag army."

Although hard-core Islamists are likely to remain bit players politically in the rebel movement, it would be unrealistic to expect Islam not to play a significant role in post-Qaddafi Libya. Much of eastern Libya remains traditional and religiously conservative. Adherence to the Senussi Sufi order served as the defining social, religious, and political lodestar of the Cyrenaicans from the mid-19th century until 1969, after which point Qaddafi suppressed them. Indeed, because Qaddafi excluded all conservative Muslim sensibilities from having a say in politics after 1969, Muslim groups must be granted their rightful seat at the table from now on.

Islam has always served to unite disparate tribal, social, and regional groupings in Libya. In Qaddafi’s wake, assuming he falls, we can expect moderate Islam to be a key rhetorical factor in both popular discourse and politics. This should not frighten Western observers, as the use of Islam as a uniting, stabilizing factor will be a bane to jihadi recruitment efforts.

In any case, the Islamists, like the army defectors, don’t comprise the bulk of rebel fighters. The most prevalent form of unit organization is ad hoc: a few brothers or friends sharing gas money, a few rifles, a rebel flag, and a pickup truck. Occasionally, whole villages or subsections of tribes have joined the rebels as a semicoherent unit. Yet even then, village headmen or tribal sheikhs do not appear to be leading or orchestrating the fighting. In fact, military leadership at the front, inasmuch as it exists, is entirely spontaneous. In late March, for example, the top military brass in Benghazi strongly advised the fighters not to push past Ajdabiya when it was retaken due to coalition airstrikes. The fighters did not obey orders and were quickly routed by Qaddafi’s counterattacks.

Indeed, it is nearly impossible to imagine that the revolutionaries can defeat Qaddafi by military force alone. Lacking an effective chain of command or training, they have not yet learned to employ guerrilla tactics, siege tactics, or any formal coordinated military maneuvers. Arming the rebels with more sophisticated munitions will not help them congeal into a coherent fighting force. Training them might help, but it would take too much time.

The best hope for the rebels is that the Qaddafi regime crumbles from within — a distinct possibility as key defections, daily hardships in Tripoli under international siege, and Qaddafi’s diplomatic blunders all progressively demoralize his supporters. So far, coalition air power has been crucial in keeping the rebels alive long enough that Qaddafi’s forces may self-destruct. But merely preventing slaughter and a rebel defeat is not enough. Now that the no-fly zone has fulfilled its key humanitarian and strategic mission, it is time for the coalition to shift gears. As Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya, puts it, "Precisely because it is unlikely that the rebels will be able to militarily defeat Qaddafi even with increased coalition air support or more arms, Western and Arab countries can best help the rebels through politics, diplomacy, and propaganda — all of which, if employed with savoir-faire, may tip the scales away from Qaddafi."

Helping the rebel political leaders effectively requires understanding who they are and how the Libyan uprising began. On Feb. 15, Qaddafi’s men seized Fathi Terbil, a lawyer and activist, for trying to organize a "Day of Rage" on Feb. 17 to commemorate the five-year anniversary of protests in Benghazi against the Danish cartoons, in which Qaddafi’s security forces killed at least 11 people. His arrest sparked spontaneous, nonviolent demonstrations that were crushed by force. Youth activists were quickly joined by lawyers, judges, local administrators, and technocrats who opposed Qaddafi’s repressive response to the protests. Many of these individuals were previously government officials or consultants who had become increasingly disillusioned by the failure of Libyan détente with the West to produce genuine political reform at home. On Feb. 27, the most prominent among them banded together in Benghazi to form the Transitional National Council (TNC). The TNC has gained legitimacy as grassroots committees have sprung up across eastern Libya to select local town notables, who have in turn endorsed the TNC. (Ironically, this practice is akin to Qaddafi’s ideology of "direct democracy" with its imperative for the creation of local Basic People’s Congresses.)

Thus, what began as a youth revolt has been taken over by reformist regime technocrats and defected diplomats, who are the only groups capable of representing the rebels to the outside world. The TNC top leadership has extensive experience interfacing with Western governments and the international business community. The rest of its members were deliberately chosen to represent the various major factions of the opposition. It includes relatives of the former Libyan king, human rights lawyers, former Qaddafi intimates upset with the slow pace of reforms, conservative Muslims who are against al Qaeda, pro-Western businessmen, technocrats with American Ph.D.s, and representatives for women and youth.

One potential shortcoming of the rebels’ current political structure is its heavily Cyrenaican, Arab, and elite makeup. If the rebels succeed in overthrowing Qaddafi, they will face enormous pressure to rapidly incorporate new players from western Libya, the Libyan diaspora, and the Berber, Tuareg, and Tabu ethnic groups. Simultaneously, they would have to focus on the social and economic issues that concern the youth and the unemployed, not merely those of reformist technocrats. Most crucially, after a hypothetical rebel victory the predominantly Cyrenaican fighters will no doubt clamor for their place in the sun as the saviors of Libya. It would be highly inappropriate for outside powers to attempt to micromanage or pre-empt the delicate evolution of the representative structure for the new Libya.

Amid reports that personality clashes may be enveloping the top TNC leadership, I remain reasonably hopeful that the TNC will be able to successfully incorporate most elements of Libyan society and that political infighting and factionalism can be kept to normal levels. Libya is an artificial colonial creation. But unlike other colonial entities, it lacks the social fissures and historical grievances that have led to sectarian or ethnic violence in places like Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The idea that a civil war might ensue between east and west after Qaddafi’s departure is overly pessimistic. Paradoxically, as Qaddafi repressed so many of Libya’s social groups other than the Qadhadhfa and Magarha tribes, it is foreseeable that all the former out-groups will be able to strike a rough consensus about building a post-Qaddafi Libya.

The rebels appear to be hard at work in paving the way for this new Libya. They insist that they have organized secret cells in the country’s west, a plausible claim given Qaddafi’s evident unpopularity in towns like Misrata, Zintan, and Zawiyah. And even though tribesmen of the Magarha and Qadhadhfa will probably stick by Qaddafi and fight on until the end, other more urban and technocratic pillars of the regime are likely to wither if the major Arab and Western players give the TNC more effective support.

But that support should primarily be political, not military in nature. The Western and Arab allies are beginning to recognize this, yet more sophisticated and high-level efforts are urgently needed. Prominent defectors like Moussa Koussa should be harnessed for all their propaganda value and asked to speak out against Qaddafi on Arabic satellite TV. Additionally, the coalition could help rebel leaders voice their cause to their potential comrades in Qaddafi-controlled western Libya. Qatar has already set up a satellite channel for the rebels; more countries should give them airtime, funding, and more diplomatic support. French President Nicolas Sarkozy — who has recognized the TNC as the legitimate government of all of Libya and seems the most politically committed of Western leaders — could extend another invitation to Mahmoud Jibril, the rebels’ de facto foreign minister, this time to the Élysée Palace, granting him international prestige and a platform to ask for more specific assistance.

Moral power, not firepower, is what will ultimately defeat Qaddafi. The fighters are the heart and soul of the Libyan revolt, but they will never be able to lead it. Savvy diplomatic support and a little bit of good fortune could very well produce a tipping point over the next weeks or months. Until then, the international community must not take its eye off the ball as other crises emerge in the Arab world or the situation on the ground appears to become stalemated. Libya’s future depends on it.

Jason Pack is the founder of the consultancy Libya-Analysis and was previously the executive director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association. Twitter: @JasonPackLibya

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