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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The TNC itself is largely drawn from upper middle-class professionals, lawyers, doctors, professors, and some wealthy businessmen, with a sprinkling of Qaddafi officials who have defected. Many of them come from prominent families that suffered when Qaddafi seized power, and harbor grievances about businesses and property taken from them in the years since.Skip to next paragraph
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Among this core, there's still fury at Qaddafi's attempts to outlaw private industry earlier in his reign, and they profess a generally free-market outlook. Libya's oil? They say it should be sold to the highest bidders. There's also a reflexive distaste for the sorts of foreign interventions, like the war in Chad and support for smaller African rebellions, that Qaddafi was so fond of. After all, the blood of their sons was spilled and national wealth squandered in those efforts.
What of the rebel military? Nominally they're answering to the TNC, but in practice the former Qaddafi officers who are organizing the rebel army are pretty much calling their own shots. There have also been signs of rivalry among their ranks. In March and April, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a long-time US exile with CIA ties who returned home weeks after the uprising began, insisted that he was in charge of the rebel military -- over the objections of the TNC. Their man was recent Qaddafi defector Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes. The dispute was quieted with Hifter receding into the background, but it's a reminder that strong personalities are operating without any clear institutional frameworks.
They say Libya will be eternally grateful to the NATO members who intervened in their rebellion.
Should they be taken at their word on that? I think they sincerely mean it when they say it, but a post-Qaddafi Libya, rightfully, is going to look after Libyan interests first. That those interests won't be perfectly aligned with the US, for instance, is hardly surprising. And given the character and culture of the country's people (distaste for Israel, for instance, is as high or higher than it is in any other Arab country I've visited) there will be plenty that a theoretical new Libya will disagree with foreign powers about.
The real question is how they will manage a transition when there are so few road maps for what comes after Qaddafi. His regime is a peculiar one in the regional context. Hosni Mubarak's Egypt may have been a dictatorship, but there were strong functioning institutions and bureaucracies – not least the military – that provide some structure to that country's transition. Qaddafi was reflexively hostile to anything that could resemble institution-building. He set up a system through which power and favor must directly flow through him.
As a consequence, Libya's people have next to no experience with the sorts of coalition-building and compromise that will be needed in any transitional period. And Libya is filled with authoritarian characters who, given the chance, would probably be delighted to be the next Qaddafi. The TNC insists these issues will be managed well, but the "day after" is certain to be a fraught and difficult period.
Who are Libya's rebels? They're, well, Libya. Nationalistic, flawed, proud, inexperienced in government. On balance, they're the best hope for a better Libya than what Qaddafi offered.
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