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.
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
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.
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.
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’
“If they can’t measure distances between themselves and their
targets, they are unlikely to able to fire with any accuracy,” he
The rebels, however, do not share his pessimism.
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
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
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
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
But such worries are for tomorrow. Today, Libyans are
celebrating their new-found freedom, hoping for a true representative democracy
in the future.