GOMA, CONGO — It was supposed to be a big rally, a show of popular support for the rebels on the verge of taking over a giant African nation, Congo.
"It's going to be big," one resident warned. "Very big." Punctuality, he added, was of the essence: "Nine o'clock sharp. At the traffic circle."
By noon the following day in the town of Goma, headquarters of the two-week-old revolt, only about a hundred people could be found, many straying off to look for sodas or a bit of shade. It was a sign that Congo's likely new rulers might gain power but not respect.
A woman in high heels and heavy gold earrings held up one end of a banner that read: "Yes to the Armed Forces of Congo. No to dictatorship." On the other end was a young man in a T-shirt advertising "Dr. Death and the Destroyers" on tour in America. He then tucked the banner under his arm and rushed to his cell phone.
As reporters approached, the crowd uttered feeble invectives against Laurent Kabila, the embattled Congo leader: "Tokolongola Kabila!" ("We'll chase Kabila!").
Shaken from their apathy, two kids in flip-flops rushed to lift the biggest sign of all: an ad for Basco Paints.
Asked whether the paint company was making a political statement, the young people shrugged.
"We carry the sign," one of them said, "We carry it here and back to the shop."
Unsolicited, a man next to him screamed:
"We are all Congolese here! You got that? All Congolese!"
With rebels across the continent closing in on the capital Kinshasa, the hastily choreographed rally in Goma spoke volumes about the forces that are shaping Congo's history for the second time in two years.
Neighboring Rwanda still denies involvement. So does Uganda.
But both countries played a crucial role in the war to topple longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko last year. They are believed to be behind the current rebellion, which followed the July 27 order expelling all Rwandan troops from Congo. Continued Rwandan and Ugandan interference in Congo raises questions about the future of a country that risks finding itself periodically overrun by neighbors and unable to form a political leadership of its own.
To counter allegations that the insurgency has little to do with the people of Congo, rebels in Goma announced the formation of a new political coalition composed of more than 20 military and civilian leaders. Among them are Wamba dia Wamba, an exiled academic with a brief history of opposition to Kabila's regime, and Bizima Karaha, President Kabila's former foreign minister.
Mr. Karaha defected to Goma immediately after the start of the rebellion. A Banyamulenge belonging to the ethnic minority that is spearheading the rebellion in Congo, Karaha is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a foreign agent serving Rwanda's interests.
Another leader of the coalition is Deogratias Bugera. One of the original members of Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, he served as presidential affairs minister in Kabila's Cabinet until the start of the rebellion. He is believed to have cultivated relations with Kigali, Rwanda's capital, as Kabila's own ties deteriorated rapidly. After Bugera left Kinshasa, the Congolese government issued an international arrest warrant for him, Karaha, and Arthur Z'Ahidi Ngoma.
There has been no mention yet of the role Mr. Ngoma may play in the months to come. A former UNESCO official with a degree in international law from the Sorbonne in Paris, Ngoma is not an ethnic Tutsi. He was among the first to organize a political opposition to Kabila. He was arrested in Kinshasa while trying to hold a rally six months after a ban on political parties was imposed. Condemned to 12 months in prison, he was eventually allowed to go to France for medical treatment. At the start of the rebellion, he moved to Goma and has been broadcasting calls for support in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu.
"None of these people are credible for the obvious reason that they have been riding a rebellion led by Tutsis," says a Nairobi-based member of Rwanda's exiled opposition. "You'll see. Even Ondekane is going to get some ridiculous post at the end of this."
Jean-Pierre Ondekane, the young commander of Congo's 10th brigade, has declared himself the leader of the rebellion. But sources in Goma say the placid army officer was called upon with considerable delay to pose as a figurehead for the insurgency. According to the same sources, his second in command, Sylvain Mbuki, a quiet officer from Kabila's home province of Katanga, spent the two months prior to the rebellion at the Meridien Hotel in Kigali.
"Mbuki is the man to watch," one source says. An indication of Mbuki's standing in the rebellion came last Saturday in Bukavu, a town in Congo's far east, in which he addressed a rally of several thousand. (He also spells his family name as Buki.)
While rebels tried to woo the Congolese in Goma, Kabila was reported traveling for support to Lubumbashi in his home province of Katanga and to Angola across the border. Sunday he called to the Congolese people on state TV.
The next day, Monday, Kabila was scheduled to meet in Zimbabwe with defense ministers from Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. A meeting there Aug. 8 had set up a committee of Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe to seek peace in Congo.