Dampened Spirits

In eastern Libya, the killing of General Abd al-Fattah Yunis, a key rebel leader, has put a dent in efforts to overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

General Abd al-Fattah Yunis  (photo credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
General Abd al-Fattah Yunis
(photo credit: Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
The Muslim month of Ramadan is a time of fasting and feasting, during which work slows down markedly in the Islamic world. Many Muslims pass their days sleeping and sitting in the shade or working on a limited schedule, fervently waiting for sunset to break their fast.
But in eastern Libya, residents are not in a festive mood. The killing of a senior rebel official spearheading the fight to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on July 28 under mysterious circumstances has left them angry and demanding answers from their politicians. And with their six-month uprising stalled and society increasingly feeling the economic hardships of war, many here have soured on the revolution that only a short time ago they ardently embraced.
The killing of General Abd al-Fattah Yunis dealt a serious blow not only to the rebels’ morale, but to their fighting abilities as well. The 65-year-old former Interior Minister was the most senior military official to abandon Gaddafi. A skilled soldier, Yunis was one of the few military men in the rebels’ ranks that had any significant combat experience. He was also popular with the fighters. He spent most of his time at the front, gaining their admiration. For many in the East, Yunis was the face of the fight to topple Gaddafi.
But his experience came with a price. He acquired his military knowledge and his ministerial position as a result of his close ties with Gaddafi. His patron elevated him through the ranks of the army, giving him choice positions and the perks that accompanied them.
Ultimately, his intimate ties with Gaddafi led to his demise. Across rebel-held territory, many never trusted Yunis, refusing to forgive him his 40-year friendship with Gaddafi. “Yunis was Gaddafi’s man. Why should we believe he all of a sudden turned against him?” asks Yusuf Boughagis, a 23-year-old dry cleaner.
So when Yunis was summoned back from the front by the rebels’ political body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), to answer charges he was negotiating with Gaddafi, many were ready to draw their knives. But before public opinion could condemn him, the bullets of an assassin’s rifle did. Days after being called in for questioning, his body and those of his bodyguards were found burned and full of bullet holes.
His death inspired a whirlwind of anger and disbelief throughout eastern Libya. Spearheaded by his tribe, many demanded answers the NTC could not provide. Shortly after Yunis’s death was announced, members of his Ubaydi clan stormed the Tibesti hotel where NTC Chairman Mustafa Abd al-Jalil was holding a press conference. Yunis’s relatives chided Abd al-Jalil, who was quickly whisked away.
Residents in the rebel capital of Benghazi were equally dismayed. “I was never sure what to make of Yunis,” admits Adil Sanoussi, folding his newspaper to talk to a foreigner in his dark grocery store. “But to die in humiliation like that should be no one’s fate.”
Many turned their fury at the NTC, believing the council was complicit in Yunis’s death. “The council called him back. They were responsible for him,” says the 62-yearold Sanoussi. “If something happened to him, they need to provide answers.”
The NTC moved quickly to dispel mounting anger by claiming that a fifth column of Gaddafi loyalists had ambushed Yunis. But the attempt to deflect public anger only stoked fears of insecurity that the council could not even provide its top soldier the necessary protection to travel freely in rebel areas. “The NTC did itself more harm than good with its answers,” says a professor who closely monitors local politics and spoke with The Report on condition of anonymity. “The council revealed its disarray. Its amateurish response illustrated that it is just a group of unpolished officials.”
Yunis’s death was just the latest blow to the NTC. With its forces stalemated with Gaddafi’s troops, it has been unable to meet peoples’ expectations that a free Libya is within sight. The initial euphoria has dissipated, replaced by exhaustion and fear that there will be no end to the war. “I hate Gaddafi just as much as anyone else here,” says Hassan Imam in the coastal city of Tobruk, 90 miles from the Egyptian border. “But there is a reason he has been able to stay in power for 40 years.” The high school history teacher pauses and grimaces. “He knows what it takes to outmaneuver his enemies and that is exactly what he is doing to the NTC.”
Indeed, though the international community is lined up against him, he cannot sell the oil that provides 90 percent of government revenues and his fighters are largely composed of African mercenaries and child fighters, Gaddafi has been able to weather the storm. In doing so, he has been able to frustrate the Western NATO coalition bent on his ouster to the point that many of its European leaders have conceded that an end to the war may not necessitate his departure from Libya. “Whether he stays in Libya or not, that’s for Libyans and nobody else to decide,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has declared. Countries such as England, France and Italy are overextended militarily, with their elite units and fighter jets devoted to fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and do not have the resources to fight an endless campaign in Libya.
“Sometimes I am afraid that the Europeans will abandon us,” worries an NTC member. “What do they have to lose here? Only their pride. It’s not their country. Why should they have to spend billions to defend us?”
Libyans’ fears have been compounded by the lack of security that pervades eastern Libya. Gaddafi supporters, known locally as the fifth column, have been active in rebel control territory and are often caught revealing rebel troop movements back to the Libyan leader’s subordinates. Their actions have eroded the citizens’ sense of security, adding fears to their already mounting worries.
On July 31, rebel units arrested about 40 members of what they claimed was a Gaddafi brigade in Benghazi after a five-hour shootout. The skirmish left five rebels and 11 Gaddafi supporters dead.
It is not only the military situation that troubles Libyans in the rebel-controlled east. The NTC has not been able to pay salaries to the population, which largely works in government jobs, because it is not able to pump the oil that fuels the country’s economy. Though the cash crisis has not paralyzed the country, it has only further demoralized a nation that is already beset by a number of other dilemmas.
“The war, the security situation, the economy – none of it looks promising,” admits Muhammad Huni. “We thought we could get rid of Gaddafi in a few days. Now it looks like he is going to get rid of us,” worries Huni, 58, a consumer electronics store owner.
Outside the courthouse on Benghazi’s corniche, children play on air-filled slides erected especially for Ramadan. The comic herothemed mattresses feature characters such as Spider Man and the Incredible Hulk. Their parents and relatives watch gleefully as the children enjoy a respite from the stifling heat. Off the shore and closer to town, men sit in small groups of three and four on plastic chairs, counting the hours until sunset to end their fast. Ahmad Zaytuni and his friends thumb through their cell phones to distract themselves from their boredom. “We waited 40 years to overthrow Gaddafi,” the 41-yearold engineer explains. The heat and the fast leave his words sluggish and lacking focus. “We know the NTC is not perfect and that the rebels have no training. But we thought with time things would get better. Now all we hope for is an end to the war and a return to our lives.”
The euphoria gone and hardships setting in, most Libyans share Zaytuni’s sentiments. They merely want the conflict to end and their lives to resume.