Rag-tag Revolution

“All we want is our freedom. It does not matter if we are poor and have nothing. We just want Gaddafi out,” one rebel tells the 'Report.'

April 14, 2011 21:54
Libyan rebels celebrating

Libyan rebels celebrating 521. (photo credit: Steven Sotloff)

JUST OUTSIDE THE STRATEGIC oil town of Brega in eastern Libya, where the fight between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi is centered, a group of rebels stops in early April to fill up their depleted gas tank.

“We are on the march and we won’t stop until we reach the capital Tripoli,” says Ahmad al-Ubaydi, 24 years old. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and a dusty olive cap, he is optimistic that the rebels could retake the town they had lost just days earlier.

The dismal state of his fighters, however, belies his optimism. The Libyan rebels are a rag-tag group of fighters with no leadership and no discipline. They do not even know how to use their Russian-made weapons. Yet though their fighting units are unorganized, their political leaders have been able to impose more control over the population and appear to have support in regions liberated in the east.

The Libyan revolution began February 16, when the government arrested human-rights lawyer and activist Fathi Terbil. His incarceration sparked widespread unrest in the eastern part of the country, which Gaddafi has neglected since he came to power in 1969. Opposition to his rule has been strong here for decades. In the 1990s, his forces fought an Islamist insurgency and bombed the mountains southeast of Benghazi, killing scores and arresting hundreds more.

As the rebels advance from the town of Ajdabiyah toward Brega, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the rebel capital of Benghazi, twisted remains of tanks demolished by US air strikes litter the road while camels forage among the sand dunes. Fighters huddle for warmth in the back of pick-up trucks as they speed down the open highway.

About 10 kilometers outside of Brega, the rebels have erected roadblocks. In a change of policy, they have decided to prevent journalists and spectators from reaching the front lines, where the fiercest fighting was taking place.

“I fought to retake Ajdabiyah,” said Mustafa al-Tartuni, 32. A plumber by trade, he left his home of Derna in February to fight against Gaddafi’s forces. “Gaddafi gives us two choices – love me or I will kill you,” he says, as he wipes the blowing sand from his forehead. “I don’t want to live under this oppression anymore. I want to be free.”

Dozens of vehicles have stopped on the shoulder to take a break from their advance.

Pick-up trucks with Russian made anti-aircraft weapons welded in their flatbeds idle as young boys distribute rolls of bread from large nylon bags to the fighters. Though they have sophisticated weaponry, the rebels have no idea how to use them or even how to mount them properly. “The vehicles cannot handle the distribution of these guns’ weight,” says a security guard working with a foreign media outlet. A former Australian special forces officer, he dismisses the effectiveness of the rebels’ arsenal.

“If they can’t measure distances between themselves and their targets, they are unlikely to able to fire with any accuracy,” he explains.

The rebels, however, do not share his pessimism.

“We need Obama and Sarkozy to give us better weapons,” says 28-year-old Muhammad Idris, referring to American President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Nicholas Sarkozy. “We are ready to take Gaddafi down in Tripoli, but they must help us.”

The rebels’ commanders are more blunt.

“We are fodder in the face of Gaddafi’s longrange guns. We need weapons with a range of over 40 kilometers. If we do not get them, we will be stuck in the sand outside Brega for months,” says Colonel Ahmad al-Bani, an air force pilot, who is the spokesman for the opposition’s military council.

But Western powers are uneasy about arming rebels they know little about. Foreign policy specialists have warned that fighters at the front may be al-Qaeda members who are bent on establishing an Islamic emirate.

Others have cautioned that once Washington has opened its doors to its weapons arsenal, it will be difficult to get them back at the end of the fighting.

“These weapons are pretty valuable to guerrillas in Africa and Asia,” says the Australian security specialist. “Once the war here ends, many will be tempted to sell the weapons on the market where they will fetch hefty prices.”

But it is not only weapons the rebels need. They are desperate for professional training. They cannot handle their Kalashnikov rifles correctly and exhaust their ammunition supplies by firing in the air when they hear of successes at the front. Recently, one fighter accidentally killed himself when he pointed his weapon at his chest.

BACK IN BENGHAZI, THE REBELS’ political leadership is busy explaining their political plans. Led by former justice minister Mustafa Abd al- Jalil, who defected in the early days of the revolution, they have organized political and economic committees to manage affairs in the areas they control. They have established military, economic, foreign affairs and infrastructure bodies – a kind of blueprint for a transition government – to ensure a smooth transition from the dictatorial system that has ruled Libya for the last 40 years. In doing so, they have largely avoided the chaos that paralyzed Iraq when the Americans overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The opposition council holds a daily briefing for the foreign press where they announce the latest defections and denounce Gaddafi’s plots. “He flew in 3,500 mercenaries from Chad,” asserts the opposition’s spokesman Abdul El-Hafeed. Though it is difficult to verify such claims, foreign journalists say that dead Gaddafi loyalists were mostly Africans and not Libyans.

Other council members explain the political system the opposition seeks to create once Gaddafi falls from power. “We will first draw up a new constitution,” says Muhammad al-Alagi, head of the group’s justice committee. “Then we will have a referendum for the people to decide. And only then will we proceed to elections. We must be very cautious here.”

Residents of Benghazi seem to approve of their politicians and their plans. “Mustafa Abd al-Jalil is our leader. We have faith in him and his council,” says 29-year-old Khalid al-Faqih, sitting in a local pizza parlor.

Outside, children at traffic lights sell stickers of the flag of the Libyan monarchy Gaddafi overthrew in 1969. Others sell posters of Umar al-Mukhtar, a Libyan who led the fight against Italian colonial forces before being hanged by them in 1931.

Throughout the city, spray-painted slogans denouncing Gaddafi and expressing support for the revolution cover the walls of buildings. Some denounce Gaddafi as a Zionist agent. Pick-up trucks with rocket launchers have the words “February 17” painted on their doors to mark the day they rose up against Gaddafi’s forces in the city.

The economy is paralyzed – the flow of oil has stopped and the revolution has forced businesses to close. Western products such as Coca-Cola are no longer available in Benghazi. But the hardships have not dampened the mood of residents. “All we want is our freedom. It does not matter if we are poor and have nothing. We just want Gaddafi out,” says Nuri Hasbi, 34.

It will be difficult to retain such high hopes if the rebels at the front cannot make their way to Tripoli in the coming months. With oil refineries closed, the east is exhausting its reserves. If the petroleum cannot be refined, the opposition council will have to find a way to pay for imported oil, or risk having no electricity and fuel.

But such worries are for tomorrow. Today, Libyans are celebrating their new-found freedom, hoping for a true representative democracy in the future.

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