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.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters
Libyan rebels pray at the frontline, 37 miles west of Ajdabiyah on July 18.

From almost the moment the embryonic Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) began to come together in Benghazi and other eastern cities that successfully rose up against Muammar Qaddafi's rule in February, a deceptively simple, hard-to-answer question began to dominate the international conversation: "Who are these people?"

That question contains a host of subsidiary questions with implications for what the US and other foreign powers involved in the Libyan war should do: "Are they democrats, will they be friendly to the West, do they want an Islamist government, do they have it in them to lead Libya towards a more open society?" One of the most common criticisms here in the US about America's backing for the NATO air campaign against Mr. Qaddafi is that we don't know who it is, really, that we're helping.

Now, with the US deepening ties with the TNC and considering releasing some of the $30 billion of Qaddafi funds currently frozen in US accounts to the rebels, those questions are gaining renewed urgency. Last week, the US joined France and other nations in recognizing the TNC as the "legitimate governing authority" of Libya in a meeting with rebel representatives in Istanbul. Over the weekend, US Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz met with Qaddafi representatives in Tunisia, the first such meeting since the war began and a sign of the growing push for a managed departure of Qaddafi from power.

I spent six weeks in Eastern Libya in February and March and was warmly welcomed everywhere I went. The country and its people are also, like most places, hard to pigeon-hole. Libya is a very, very socially conservative place. Most women cover their hair. But the first person to great me on the "liberated" side of the Egyptian-Libyan border was a beaming woman with short hair, a black leather jacket, and an AK-47 slung over her shoulder. A day later, I met Maj. Salma Faraj Issa, the spokeswoman for Maj. Gen. Suleiman Mahmoud, a Qaddafi officer who'd defected with his forces when ordered to fire on unarmed protesters in Tobruk in the early days of the uprising.

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.)

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."

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.

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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