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Who Are the Libyan Rebels?

Inside their leadership structure.

Benghazi, Libya—After the February 17 start of the revolution against longtime Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, rebels moved swiftly to capitalize on their success by establishing interim governing and administrative bodies: the National Transitional Council (NTC), Crisis Team (CT), and Military Council. But who, exactly, is in these groups? A basic taxonomy can help illuminate this important question, revealing the strengths and flaws of the rebels’ leadership and providing insight into how the anti-Qaddafi forces might fare going forward.

The NTC, which functions as the rebels’ broad political body, has 31 members, but only 13 names have been revealed. The rest remain secret for security reasons; they are believed to be dissidents living in the western part of the country under Qaddafi’s control. The CT, composed of technical experts in fields ranging from economics to foreign affairs, has less than half as many members as the NTC does. Though the members of each group are diverse, it is possible to categorize them into four distinct categories.

Former Qaddafi officials. The first circle includes those who occupied key positions under Qaddafi. The leader of this faction is former Justice Minister Mustafa Abd Al Jalil, who chairs the NTC. Though the soft-spoken Jalil is not charismatic, he is widely respected by Libyans in the east. During his four years as justice minister, he was often frustrated with Qaddafi’s policies. In January 2010, he announced his intention to resign over the continued incarceration of 300 political prisoners whom the courts declared innocent of all charges. The objections he raised before the Libyan parliament were highly unusual in an autocratic state, where criticism of Qaddafi and his policies were the exclusive domain of the military officers who brought him to power in 1969. Despite Al Jalil’s challenge to the regime over domestic political prisoners, however, he had earlier proved himself a docile Qaddafi accomplice in scapegoating foreign detainees. As president of the country’s court of appeals, he twice upheld death sentences for six Bulgarian medical personnel who were accused of infecting more than 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus.

Other members of this group include the CT’s International Affairs director Ali Al Essawi, who served as minister of economy, trade, and investment between 2007 and 2009, and the rebels’ military Chief of Staff Abd Al Fattah Yunis, who is also part of the Military Council. Yunis was interior minister until the revolution. This pair, as well as Al Jalil, assumed their ministerial positions during a January 2007 cabinet reshuffle.

Saif’s modernizers. Another group is composed of people associated with Qaddafi’s son, Saif Al Islam. Considered the driving force behind Libya’s modernization campaign   over the last decade, Saif wooed academics and technocrats back to Libya after spending years in the West. The chief figure in this group is CT leader Mahmoud Jibreel. After serving as professor at the University of Pittsburgh, he returned to Libya in 2007 to chair the National Economic Development Council, a government-funded think tank focused on privatizing state industry and fostering economic transparency. He won the respect of American embassy officials, who dubbed him “a serious interlocutor who ‘gets’ the U.S. perspective,” according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. The CT’s justice division leader, Muhammad Al Alaqi, also belongs to this group. A lawyer, he headed the human rights division of the Qaddafi Foundation, a Libyan organization established by Saif to fund international projects and enhance his family’s stature. Sayeed El Barghathi, a former political science professor who is now secretary of the NTC, was also affiliated with institutions run by Qaddafi’s son.

Out of exile. The third group in the NTC and CT includes Libyans who lived in exile for decades. Among them is Ali Tarhouni, the interim government’s economics and finance division chief. He was expelled from college in the 1970s for his political activities and compelled to complete his studies in the United States, where he remained until the revolution. The same is true for the rebels’ media and information boss Mahmud Shammam, who, until recently, worked with the Arab news channel Al Jazeera in Qatar.

Professors and activists. The final group is composed of academics and civil society activists. Their leader is NTC Spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga. A lawyer who chaired the Benghazi Lawyers Syndicate, he has a keen political sense and a clear vision of a new Libya. Other members of this group include Fathi Al Baja, a political science professor at Garyounis University in Benghazi; Salwa Al Dighayli, a member of the school’s law faculty; and Fathi Terbil, a lawyer who led a campaign demanding that the regime account for a 1996 massacre at the Abu Slim prison.

While the NTC and CT’s technocrats have proved themselves relatively capable of managing the nascent opposition’s political and economic affairs, the Military Council, which is subordinate to NTC, is the rebels’ weakest link. It follows Qaddafi’s guiding principle of staffing based on tribe and geography, rather than merit. All three of the rebels’ senior military leaders come from the eastern region of Tobruk, and their tribes were instrumental in either convincing them to join the revolt or placing them in their positions. These three men, however, have weaknesses that threaten the viability of the Military Council—and, thus, the rebels’ strength fighting on the ground.

Umar Hariri. The council is headed by this major who fell from political grace following his involvement in a failed 1975 coup attempt led by Major Umar Al Muhayshi. Hariri was imprisoned roughly between 1975 and 1988 and he was re-incarcerated in 1994. He was under house arrest until the revolution and thus has had very little contact with military and political officials for the last 36 years.

Khalifa Hiftar. A colonel, he directed Libya’s dismal campaign against neighboring Chad in the 1980s before being captured in March 1987 by Chadian fighters. While in captivity, he joined forces with the anti-Qaddafi Libyan National Salvation Front (LNSF), which was then using Chad as a launching pad for its operations in Libya. But, after a 1990 coup in Chad brought a Qaddafi protégé to power, American intelligence officials evacuated Hiftar first to Zaire and then to Virginia. There, he directed a LNSF military camp funded and equipped by the United States. He returned to his native Libya for the first time in 34 years just a few weeks ago.

Abd Al Fattah Yunis. With none of its military figures experienced in commanding roles, the NTC has been forced to look to officers with long ties to the Qaddafi regime. As a result, the council appointed Yunis, a general and  former interior minister, as its chief of staff. A Free Officer who helped Qaddafi plot the 1969 coup that brought him to power, Yunis understands the inner workings of the military and how the Libyan leader thinks. Yet his assets have proved to be liabilities as well. During a press conference in early April, a Benghazi civilian interrupted Yunis’s remarks, yelling, “You killed our children. You worked with Qaddafi for years!” Many others in rebel-held territory harbor similar doubts.

Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation.

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