The Two Faces of Libya's Rebels

The anti-Qaddafi forces are a strange mix of ragtag fighters and defector technocrats. And more than guns, the latter desperately need Western moral support.

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.

In any case, the Islamists, like the army defectors, don't comprise the bulk of rebel fighters. The most prevalent form of unit organization is ad hoc: a few brothers or friends sharing gas money, a few rifles, a rebel flag, and a pickup truck. Occasionally, whole villages or subsections of tribes have joined the rebels as a semicoherent unit. Yet even then, village headmen or tribal sheikhs do not appear to be leading or orchestrating the fighting. In fact, military leadership at the front, inasmuch as it exists, is entirely spontaneous. In late March, for example, the top military brass in Benghazi strongly advised the fighters not to push past Ajdabiya when it was retaken due to coalition airstrikes. The fighters did not obey orders and were quickly routed by Qaddafi's counterattacks.

Indeed, it is nearly impossible to imagine that the revolutionaries can defeat Qaddafi by military force alone. Lacking an effective chain of command or training, they have not yet learned to employ guerrilla tactics, siege tactics, or any formal coordinated military maneuvers. Arming the rebels with more sophisticated munitions will not help them congeal into a coherent fighting force. Training them might help, but it would take too much time.

The best hope for the rebels is that the Qaddafi regime crumbles from within -- a distinct possibility as key defections, daily hardships in Tripoli under international siege, and Qaddafi's diplomatic blunders all progressively demoralize his supporters. So far, coalition air power has been crucial in keeping the rebels alive long enough that Qaddafi's forces may self-destruct. But merely preventing slaughter and a rebel defeat is not enough. Now that the no-fly zone has fulfilled its key humanitarian and strategic mission, it is time for the coalition to shift gears. As Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya, puts it, "Precisely because it is unlikely that the rebels will be able to militarily defeat Qaddafi even with increased coalition air support or more arms, Western and Arab countries can best help the rebels through politics, diplomacy, and propaganda -- all of which, if employed with savoir-faire, may tip the scales away from Qaddafi."

Helping the rebel political leaders effectively requires understanding who they are and how the Libyan uprising began. On Feb. 15, Qaddafi's men seized Fathi Terbil, a lawyer and activist, for trying to organize a "Day of Rage" on Feb. 17 to commemorate the five-year anniversary of protests in Benghazi against the Danish cartoons, in which Qaddafi's security forces killed at least 11 people. His arrest sparked spontaneous, nonviolent demonstrations that were crushed by force. Youth activists were quickly joined by lawyers, judges, local administrators, and technocrats who opposed Qaddafi's repressive response to the protests. Many of these individuals were previously government officials or consultants who had become increasingly disillusioned by the failure of Libyan détente with the West to produce genuine political reform at home. On Feb. 27, the most prominent among them banded together in Benghazi to form the Transitional National Council (TNC). The TNC has gained legitimacy as grassroots committees have sprung up across eastern Libya to select local town notables, who have in turn endorsed the TNC. (Ironically, this practice is akin to Qaddafi's ideology of "direct democracy" with its imperative for the creation of local Basic People's Congresses.)

Thus, what began as a youth revolt has been taken over by reformist regime technocrats and defected diplomats, who are the only groups capable of representing the rebels to the outside world. The TNC top leadership has extensive experience interfacing with Western governments and the international business community. The rest of its members were deliberately chosen to represent the various major factions of the opposition. It includes relatives of the former Libyan king, human rights lawyers, former Qaddafi intimates upset with the slow pace of reforms, conservative Muslims who are against al Qaeda, pro-Western businessmen, technocrats with American Ph.D.s, and representatives for women and youth.

One potential shortcoming of the rebels' current political structure is its heavily Cyrenaican, Arab, and elite makeup. If the rebels succeed in overthrowing Qaddafi, they will face enormous pressure to rapidly incorporate new players from western Libya, the Libyan diaspora, and the Berber, Tuareg, and Tabu ethnic groups. Simultaneously, they would have to focus on the social and economic issues that concern the youth and the unemployed, not merely those of reformist technocrats. Most crucially, after a hypothetical rebel victory the predominantly Cyrenaican fighters will no doubt clamor for their place in the sun as the saviors of Libya. It would be highly inappropriate for outside powers to attempt to micromanage or pre-empt the delicate evolution of the representative structure for the new Libya.

Amid reports that personality clashes may be enveloping the top TNC leadership, I remain reasonably hopeful that the TNC will be able to successfully incorporate most elements of Libyan society and that political infighting and factionalism can be kept to normal levels. Libya is an artificial colonial creation. But unlike other colonial entities, it lacks the social fissures and historical grievances that have led to sectarian or ethnic violence in places like Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The idea that a civil war might ensue between east and west after Qaddafi's departure is overly pessimistic. Paradoxically, as Qaddafi repressed so many of Libya's social groups other than the Qadhadhfa and Magarha tribes, it is foreseeable that all the former out-groups will be able to strike a rough consensus about building a post-Qaddafi Libya.

The rebels appear to be hard at work in paving the way for this new Libya. They insist that they have organized secret cells in the country's west, a plausible claim given Qaddafi's evident unpopularity in towns like Misrata, Zintan, and Zawiyah. And even though tribesmen of the Magarha and Qadhadhfa will probably stick by Qaddafi and fight on until the end, other more urban and technocratic pillars of the regime are likely to wither if the major Arab and Western players give the TNC more effective support.

But that support should primarily be political, not military in nature. The Western and Arab allies are beginning to recognize this, yet more sophisticated and high-level efforts are urgently needed. Prominent defectors like Moussa Koussa should be harnessed for all their propaganda value and asked to speak out against Qaddafi on Arabic satellite TV. Additionally, the coalition could help rebel leaders voice their cause to their potential comrades in Qaddafi-controlled western Libya. Qatar has already set up a satellite channel for the rebels; more countries should give them airtime, funding, and more diplomatic support. French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- who has recognized the TNC as the legitimate government of all of Libya and seems the most politically committed of Western leaders -- could extend another invitation to Mahmoud Jibril, the rebels' de facto foreign minister, this time to the Élysée Palace, granting him international prestige and a platform to ask for more specific assistance.

Moral power, not firepower, is what will ultimately defeat Qaddafi. The fighters are the heart and soul of the Libyan revolt, but they will never be able to lead it. Savvy diplomatic support and a little bit of good fortune could very well produce a tipping point over the next weeks or months. Until then, the international community must not take its eye off the ball as other crises emerge in the Arab world or the situation on the ground appears to become stalemated. Libya's future depends on it.



The Widening Net

China's crackdown on human-rights lawyers, activists, and online dissidents goes from bad to worse.

In China, the most extensive crackdown against pro-democracy and human rights activists in more than a decade continues with no end in sight. In the four weeks since my Foreign Policy article "Missing Before Action" -- on Beijing's nervous response to calls within China for a "Jasmine Revolution," modeled on the revolutions sweeping across the Arab world -- the situation for Chinese human rights activists and lawyers has only gone from bad to worse.

Over the weekend, the prominent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has been vocal about human rights abuses in China, was detained at Beijing Capital Airport. Previously, his high international profile may have afforded his some greater protection, but no longer.

Today, he's just one name among many. Since mid-February, the nonprofit I work for, Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), has confirmed that Chinese authorities have detained at least 28 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under house arrest or round-the-clock scrutiny. Three of the criminally detained have been formally arrested, five have been released on bail to await trial, and two have been sent to "residential surveillance" in unknown locations. At least a dozen of the disappeared remain missing, including a number of prominent human rights lawyers.

But these numbers only provide clues to the real picture. CHRD has received information about many more cases of criminal detention, disappearances, and torture than we can currently verify or make public. For instance, there is an unconfirmed report about four artists being criminally detained for "creating disturbances" after opening a performance art installment, called "Performance Art in Sensitive Zone," wherein an artist strapped with jasmine flowers was buried in the ground. One artist who filmed the exhibit in Beijing and put it online was also reportedly detained. Families have told CHRD that they have been warned against talking publicly about such detentions, on threat that their loved ones will face longer sentences.

One nagging question is why these particular individuals -- some with no apparent connection to calls for a Jasmine Revolution -- have been singled out for punishment. Many of those detained were previously not known internationally; so what does the persecution of this particular group of activists say about the regime's tactics and motivations?

The order to nip in the bud any reactions to the Middle East uprisings was issued from the top on Feb. 19, as Perry Link has reported in his blog for the New York Review of Books. It was delivered by top Party officials at a closed-door emergency meeting on the campus of the Central Party School in Beijing to top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, including members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and leaders from the ministries, provinces, and the army, as well as universities and large corporations. It was coded, in typical CCP parlance, with language of maintaining "social harmony" and protecting the interests of the people. And as the order was relayed down the rungs of the bureaucracy, it was, as always, read by security police at all levels as a license to arrest, detain, raid, and intimidate without legal constraints.

For lower-level national security police, the order is also an opportunity to fatten their budgets by claiming a larger piece of the pie known as "funds to maintain stability." On March 5, the Ministry of Finance announced the 2011 budget for maintaining stability would approach $95 billion -- up 21.5 percent from 2010. With the incentive to boost local security budgets, police have aggressively pursued anyone who might fit the profile of "de-harmonizing elements." In other words, the greater the number of individuals whom police can label as "dissidents" within their communities, the greater the amount of funding they can request in the future.

Police in various provinces and cities have grabbed their newly authorized power to serve their own varied purposes, sweeping up veteran activists and community organizers, targeting a new crop of younger Internet-savvy activists, and punishing anyone who blogged, Tweeted, or was actually present at the Jasmine Revolution protests, which took place in various cities across the country on Feb. 20. (Subsequent calls for rallies on Feb. 27 and March 7 were largely unheeded, due to heavy preemptive police action.)

In Beijing, police went to the extreme of disappearing some of the most prominent human rights lawyers and activists, abandoning any pretense of acting within the boundaries of China's laws. After being taken away by police in mid February, lawyers Teng Biao and Jiang Tianyong and activist Gu Chuan have been incommunicado for more than 40 days. Beijing police sent lawyer Tang Jitian, who was detained on February 16 and then went missing, back to his ex-wife in Jilin province after subjecting him to severe torture and warning him not to disclose any details.

In Guangzhou, human rights lawyer Liu Shihui was attacked and severely beaten by unidentified men on February 20. He was subsequently detained for criminal investigation. Guangzhou police also detained the human rights lawyer Tang Jingling (whose license to practice law was stripped in 2006 after he advised Guangdong farmers in their drive to remove a corrupt village chief), and Ye Du, a writer and active member of an independent Chinese authors' association. Both have been forcibly sent to locations away from their homes for "residential surveillance." Both have had their residences repeatedly searched, and their families have been intimidated by police and warned against speaking up. CHRD has received information about another Guangdong lawyer being detained, but was told not to publicize the account.

In Shanghai, police detained lawyer Li Tiantian on February 19; nothing has been heard from him since. Meanwhile, the activist Feng Zhenghu was briefly detained for interrogation, and his home was raided by police. Two older women, Tan Lanying and Yang Lamei, veteran petitioners, who were said to be present at the Feb. 20 protest, were criminally detained: Yang for "creating a disturbance," and Tan for "assembling a crowd to disrupt the order of a public place."

Also notable is the aggressiveness with which authorities in Sichuan province have pursued local activists. Three activists -- Ran Yunfei, Chen Wei, and Ding Mao -- detained last month for criminal investigation were formally arrested for "inciting subversion against state power" on March 28. (Chen Wei and Ding Mao have both previously served jail time for their roles in the Tiananmen protests.)

But the recent zeal of Sichuan authorities, according to Chinese activists I have spoken to, can only be understood in the context of the upcoming 18th CCP Plenary Meeting, which will decide who enters the country's most powerful decision-making body -- the Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo. The current party secretary of Sichuan province, Liu Qibao, is eyeing a spot for himself. With his predecessor, the former Sichuan boss, Zhou Yongkang, as the current head of the CCP Central Committee of Politics and Law, which oversees the country's judiciary and law enforcement, Liu is in a position where producing results to please Zhou may win him political advancement.

Whatever the motives, the crackdowns have gained momentum. In recent weeks, even activists with no evidence of a direct connection to the Jasmine Revolution protests have been targeted by police. Take the case of Wang Lihong, who is one of the most venerated longtime citizen journalists and rights-campaign organizers in China. Her detention in Beijing since March 25 has sent a chill through the activists' community. Wang witnessed the 1989 suppression of the pro-democracy movement; she quit her government job shortly thereafter in protest. Over the past two decades, she has traveled all over the country to document rights abuses and interview victims and witnesses in her capacity as an independent "citizen with conscience." But at 55, she is now often bedridden with back problems and not often on the road. Yet on March 25, without warning or obvious reason -- other than a longstanding grudge against her on the part of local security officials -- she was detained for "creating a disturbance." Her son tried to deliver medicine and warm clothes to the detention center where she is being held, but was turned away.

In addition to targeting older activists, the regime is also turning its attention toward the new Twitter generation in China. The case of Zhang Jiannan, better known by his online name, Secretary Zhang, is illustrative. Police accused Zhang of taking part in an "illegal demonstration," namely joining the Jasmine Revolution protest. A few years ago, Zhang was unknown. But the founding of the website 1984 BBS (named after George Orwell's novel 1984), an online discussion forum dedicated to discussion of current events and the publication of censored news, put him under the microscope of censors. It was shut down by the government on October 12, 2010. The last entries on his Twitter account @SecretaryZhang included messages about the Jasmine Revolution in Egypt, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and other news blocked within China. He was detained on March 2, and has not been heard from since.

CHRD has also confirmed the formal arrest of Ran Yunfei, the Chengdu-based online opinion leader; the disappearance of the Beijing-based online writer/editor Gu Chuan; Communication University student Lan Ruoyu; and the blogger/journalist Hu Di, among others. Those detained without formal charges include 1984BBS moderator Zhang Jiannan and cyber activists Hua Chunhui and Guo Weidong.  

Meanwhile, Ran Yunfei, a prolific 46-year-old writer and signer of the pro-democracy tract Charter 08, has been held in detention since Feb. 20. In the last entry on his microblog, he wrote that China is "a country where ugly and horrible events beyond human imagination still take place." Some of the last entries to his account, which had attracted more than 44,000 followers, included messages about Bahrain, Libya, and Jasmine Revolution.

Another blogger and activist targeted by police is 31-year-old Gu Chuan, a signer of Charter 08 and a protégé of Liu Xiaobo. Gu was taken from his home by police on Feb. 19 and has not been heard from for more than 40 days. During this time, police have visited his wife, who is nursing a baby and taking care of a toddler, to pressure her to urge her husband to quit activism. She has refused. Following orders from the police, her landlord has recently canceled her lease, leaving the family in dire straights.

One can never guess precisely how the police choose whom to arrest or how severe a punishment to mete out. In a regime such as China's, these are often decisions made by faceless officials. What is clear is that the Middle East revolutions have made Chinese leaders nervous. They have gone after those they fear most, but the scope and arbitrariness of the recent sweep is shocking.

The fact the state feels emboldened to openly target an internationally known figure like Ai Weiwei is chilling. At the time of publication, nothing has yet been heard from him. His fate remains unknown, as does the severity of the ongoing crackdown. But so far, there are few signs of pressure lifting anytime soon.

Getty Images/Peter Parks