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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Who are the Libyan rebels?

Q&A: Who are the Libyan rebels? / World -
By Andrew England

Published: March 20 2011 14:48 | Last updated: March 20 2011 14:48

Who are the opposition?

The unrest in Libya began on February 15 when a lawyer/activist was arrested two days before Libyans had called for a “day of anger” to protest against Muammer Gaddafi’s regime as Libyans sought to emulate the protests that had swept across Tunisia and Egypt.

But Libya, one of the region’s most closed societies, is very different to its north African neighbours, with no established opposition groups, civil society groups or strong state institutions after 41 years of Colonel Gaddafi’s oppressive rule. The uprising was also far more violent than in Egypt or Tunisia, with security forces repeatedly using live fire in a bid to crush the protests while civilians responded with their own attacks on military bases. These factors meant that when the regime’s hold on the east was broken, there was no clear leadership in the so-called liberated areas. In an effort to fill the vacuum, lawyers, academics, businessmen and youths who participated in the “February 17th revolution” formed committees to organise themselves and run cities and towns.

Who is in charge?

At the beginning of March, as the crisis looked set to drag on and increasingly bore the hallmarks of a civil war, opposition officials in Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the rebel stronghold, announced they were setting up a national council to co-ordinate between opposition-controlled areas and reach out to the international community. Eager for the uprising to be seen as a nationwide and not just an eastern-led rebellion, officials said the council would have 30 members (later increased to 31) with representatives from across the country, including Tripoli, the capital. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a judge from the eastern town of al-Bayida who resigned as justice minister after the uprising began, was named as its leader.

Although he had been a member of the regime, opposition officials said Mr Abdul Jalil had regularly criticised the government, had sought to resign in March 2010 and was seen as “clean” and “transparent.” Importantly in a country where Col Gaddafi’s cult of personality had dominated for four decades, he was also considered as someone who had a national profile.

Two other men were tasked with communicating the council’s message to the outside world - Mahmoud Jebril, who had been involved in a project to bring reforms to Libya before the uprising, and Ali Aziz al-Eisawi, who had been Libya’s ambassador to India but was the first among several envoys to resign during the crisis. They initially based themselves in Cairo but have been travelling extensively meeting senior western diplomats, arguing the case for international recognition for the council, as well as an UN-backed no-fly zone and air strikes against the regime’s bases.

The council describes itself as a transitional body that will lead until Col Gaddafi’s is ousted then help prepare a new constitution so the country can move to multi-party democratic elections. Many of its members have not been named for security reasons.

Who are the rebel fighters?

The opposition’s disorganisation and lack of clear leadership structures has been at its most conspicuous with its fighting forces. Army, air force, and naval personnel defected to the opposition, but their strength and capacity, as well as who led them, has often been unclear. When Col. Gaddafi’s forces launched counter-offensives in the east, most of the rebel fighters were young volunteers in looted uniforms who careered into battle in pick-up trucks with virtually no training. The defected army units, officers said, supported them with arms and some volunteer officers, but there was no mass movement of the professional soldiers as army officers spoke of shoring up the defences of territory under opposition control.

A military council under the national council, was set up to co-ordinate security matters, headed by Omar Hariri, who was involved in the 1969 coup that brought Col Gaddafi to power, but was later jailed. His prominence rose after Libyan state television broadcast a tape of what it purported was a telephone conversation between him and the US ambassador.

Another key figure on the opposition’s military front is General Abdul Fatah Younis. He was also involved in the 1969 coup and was a seen as an integral part of the regime and close ally of Col. Gaddafi until the uprising wrought bloodshed on Benghazi. He resigned as interior minister around February 20 and used his post as head of Libya’s special forces to support the civilian fighters. However, some Libyans are still wary of his true loyalties. As the regime forces moved eastwards towards Benghazi, the army appeared to take on a more active role.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011 / World - Q&A: Who are the Libyan rebels?

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