If you let strangers know that you research Libya for a living, there seems to be only one question on their minds: "Who are the Libyan rebels?" I've been asked it at cocktail parties, on ski lifts, at academic seminars, and even by Western journalists in Benghazi who have developed the flattering habit of Skype-ing me at odd hours. Americans seem captivated by this question, perhaps because they have heard senior U.S. officials from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to various Republican congressmen proclaim that they do not yet know enough about who the rebels are. I do not take such statements at face value. U.S. statesmen know quite well who the rebels are -- but pretend otherwise to obscure the fact that the United States has yet to formulate a comprehensive policy toward them.
The rebels consist of two distinct groups: the fighters and the political leadership.
First, the fighters. In the prologue to the Libyan uprising, prior to mid-February, most of the peaceful demonstrators were young people inspired by what they saw in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. As the situation has evolved, elements willing to risk their lives to remove Muammar al-Qaddafi from power have come to embody the spirit and the legitimacy of the rebel movement. These fighters are a ragtag bunch of men of all ages and degrees of military training riding pickup trucks around the eastern coastal desert. You have probably seen pictures of them triumphantly showing the "V"-for-victory hand signal as they move westward and fleeing in unorganized columns when they retreat eastward. What you may not have realized (unless you too get woken up by those random Skype calls from Ajdabiya) is that the vast majority of these fighters have never actually arrived at the front and are not contributing to the rebels' effective fighting strength. Such organization as there is tends to be on the unit level only, and this does not facilitate the formation of an effective line of battle.
The units with the highest degree of organization are former Libyan army battalions that were stationed in eastern Libya, also known as Cyrenaica. These units, including those led by former Interior Minister Abdul Fattah Younis al-Abidi, defected en masse in mid-February, retaining their organizational structure. Bizarrely, these units are largely absent from the current fighting. It is unclear why.
The next most organized units are those composed of bearded men with Islamist leanings. These fighters are likely to be from certain cities -- most famously Darnah -- and of certain backgrounds, such as unemployed men with university degrees. Some have attended Salafi seminaries; a smaller proportion have trained together secretly in Libya. A minuscule inner core fought in Afghanistan alongside Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and created the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) upon their return to Libya in the early 1990s. That group's raison d'être was to violently overthrow Qaddafi. After failed putsch attempts at the end of the 1990s, the Libyan state effectively crushed and co-opted the LIFG during the 2000s. Over the last five years, prominent former LIFG leaders have renounced their previous ties to al Qaeda and articulated an innovative anti-extremist Islamic theology. As the Wall Street Journal's Charles Levinson, who has met with prominent former LIFG elites in Darnah, has reported, "Islamist leaders and their contingent of followers represent a relatively small minority within the rebel cause. They have served the rebels' secular leadership with little friction. Their discipline and fighting experience is badly needed by the rebels' ragtag army."
Although hard-core Islamists are likely to remain bit players politically in the rebel movement, it would be unrealistic to expect Islam not to play a significant role in post-Qaddafi Libya. Much of eastern Libya remains traditional and religiously conservative. Adherence to the Senussi Sufi order served as the defining social, religious, and political lodestar of the Cyrenaicans from the mid-19th century until 1969, after which point Qaddafi suppressed them. Indeed, because Qaddafi excluded all conservative Muslim sensibilities from having a say in politics after 1969, Muslim groups must be granted their rightful seat at the table from now on.
Islam has always served to unite disparate tribal, social, and regional groupings in Libya. In Qaddafi's wake, assuming he falls, we can expect moderate Islam to be a key rhetorical factor in both popular discourse and politics. This should not frighten Western observers, as the use of Islam as a uniting, stabilizing factor will be a bane to jihadi recruitment efforts.