Libya's rebels are embraced, but only on the battlefield

The Libyan rebels who fight have been brave. But in the afterglow of any liberation should be the reminder that the land they are liberating must be ruled for all Libyans, even those who now only stand and wait.

The rebels in Libya are liberating a nation by fighting for a neighbourhood.

This is true in two senses. First, as the conflict in Libya has dragged into its fifth month, the rebels have fought the troops of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi house by house in Misurata, and kilometre by kilometre on the long road to Tripoli.

Col Qaddafi's threat to hunt the rebels down "zenga zenga" - alley by alley - was a prediction that has come back to haunt him.

It is also a neighbourhood fight because most of the rebels are not soldiers but a ragtag band of rebels, drawn mainly from neighbourhoods and villages and fighting for those spaces only.

So if Col Qaddafi goes, the men who now fight him zenga zenga will have a hand in ruling the country. But who are these rebels, who now carry the imprimatur of the international community?

This weekend the international Libya Contact Group, a grouping of Nato, Arab League and UN representatives that serves to plan for a democratic Libya, recognised the Libyan rebels as the country's "legitimate authority". By unfreezing Libyan assets, foreign powers hope to embolden rebel fighters in their bid to turn the tables.

There is a romantic tendency to imagine that Libyan rebels are like the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square, only with guns. Bearded, rugged men who moved seamlessly from political activity to military battles.

There is some truth to that - some of the rebels now fighting Col Qaddafi's army had never before held a gun. At the same time, some of them were part of the regular army. In particular, a whole battalion from the Libyan army defected en masse early in the revolution, with all their members and their chain of command intact.

There are also other fighters among the rebels with a more eclectic combat history. Some come from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a religiously-inspired militant organisation that previously tried to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. Members of the LIFG fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Iraq in the past decade. There have been reports that fighters with links to the LIFG make up the second largest group of foreign fighters in Iraq.

Such is the twisted world of politics in which Libyans find themselves. Men who fought an occupying power in one Arab country are now being endorsed by that same power to liberate a different Arab country.

Yet look again at the groups and individuals that make up the TNC and it's not immediately obvious that, as the group stands, it would be a more representative group for all Libyans.

Think back to how this started: after nonviolent demonstrations were violently crushed back in February, a group of politicians, judges and lawyers broke away and formed the TNC in the eastern city of Benghazi.

These were not plucky rebels with naive ideals, but were (and are) seasoned politicians and military men, many with close links to the Qaddafi regime. The man who chairs the TNC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, was until the middle of February the country's justice minister, one of the most senior figures in the regime. Omar Al Hariri, the TNC's military spokesman, was one of the officers who conducted the military coup that first brought Col Qaddafi to power.

Links with the Qaddafi era are not necessarily a problem. Such institutional knowledge will be valuable if and when the council moves to government. But by recognising the TNC, the international community has given its blessing to a group that has not been chosen by the Libyan people, a group self-selected chiefly because they fight the man in power. And the international community was happy to do business with that man until a few months ago. That is hardly a ringing endorsement for a representative revolution.

Moreover, speaking for a country is not the same as governing it. If and when the rebels become the new order, their first task will be to decide how closely to draw in former regime figures and - in particular - those who benefited from the regime.

The two groups are not the same. By necessity, the political and business elite of the capital Tripoli have so far been excluded. The most important city in the country will be the last to fall and thus many of those who have benefited most from Col Qaddafi's rule will come late to a new political reality.

One of the lessons from the chaotic aftermath of the invasion of Iraq is that, when a regime lasts so long and is so brutal, many ordinary people find ways to make an accommodation with it, to find ways to survive. Tarring all those whose business and political links kept them (and, simultaneously, the regime) afloat as sympathisers who should be excluded is nonsensical. Just as Arab and western governments had political and economic dealings with the Qaddafi government, without agreeing with all its policies, so did individuals.

Without the backing of Tripoli, the rebels will simply have replaced one unrepresentative government with another. Doubtless the Contact Group knows this but at the moment is more concerned with toppling Col Qaddafi than with what comes after. That was a criticism that was also made in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

The Libyan rebels have been brave. They have risen up against a regime that has proved its brutality and tried to crush them by force. They have spoken of creating a more representative Libya. But in the afterglow of any liberation should be the reminder that the land they are liberating must be ruled for all Libyans, even those who now only stand and wait.

Published: July 19, 2011 04:00 AM


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