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So who are Libya's rebels exactly?

With the US expanding ties – and possibly aid – to the Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Qaddafi, it's a question a lot of people are asking. But it isn't an easy one to answer.

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I was in Benghazi the night of March 18, when the UN authorized the use of force against Qaddafi, and I mingled in the joyful crowds waving American, French, and British flags and firing round after round of celebratory gunfire in the air. I was in town the next morning, when it looked like Qaddafi was going to overrun the city, prompting panicked and angry complaints that "the UN has abandoned us." (French war planes saved the day a few hours later.)

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In the weeks after the NATO air cover was put into place, I had countless discussions with TNC members and average residents, angry and suspicious that the foreigners weren't doing more to defeat Qaddafi. And I began to try to piece together, as much as I could, who exactly the "rebels" are and what they want.

The official answers to these questions were straightforward and designed to reassure. The TNC says it wants democratic elections, a separation of powers, and respect for human rights. Its spokesmen have consistently promised that while they want trials for Qaddafi and some of those closest to his regime, which has executed and tortured thousands of Libyans since he seized power in a 1969 coup, they will do what they can to stop mass reprisals the day Qaddafi falls.

The vast majority of Libya's people are also devout Sunni Muslims, and the council and its supporters want Islamic law to be a "a source" of legislation in the new Libya. That's been seized on by those in the West who think an Islamist takeover of Libya post-Qaddafi is in the offing. But that formulation is fairly standard in the constitutions of Muslim majority states, and one of the assertions I feel most confident in making is that the likelihood of a strict, sharia-based order emerging post-Qaddafi is close to nil.

Islam is probably the most powerful social force in the country, and a free Libya will see more Islamist political organization (Qaddafi ruthlessly repressed Islamist groups, as he did secular opponents). But there are powerful forces that want secular law in Libya as well. Abdel Karim Hasadi, a rebel commander and devout Muslim in the city of Derna, is one of the Libyans whom Qaddafi officials have tried to paint as members of Al Qaeda. He fled the country in the 1990s, and lived for a time in Afghanistan.

“What do I want?" he asked me, a little exasperated at the latest in a string of journalists to pop the Al Qaeda question. "Three basic rights: a constitution, freedom, justice. No more one-man rule. Is that what Al Qaeda wants? Really, having a beard and being a Muslim doesn’t make you Al Qaeda.”

Fatih Terbil, a human rights lawyer whose arrest in Benghazi on February 15 spurred the uprising, has been among the leading secular opponents of Qaddafi. He told me that he was in the front lines of protesters outside the Italian Consulate on Feb. 17, 2006, when a protest that was ostensibly about the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper quickly devolved into an attack on Qaddafi's rule. That protest, in hindsight, was the first glimmering that a general uprising was possible.

"Look, we are part of the Islamic world and Islam is an expression of who we are," Mr. Terbil said. "But the revolution didn't start with religious people, and it's not about religion. This is about basic rights, and holding elections."


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