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Monday, April 4, 2011

They behaved like children,” said Fathi Baja, a political science professor who heads the rebel political committee. Little was accomplished in the meetings

Rebel leader, Abdul Younes, whom many rebel leaders distrust, pushes out Khalifa Heftar (Hifter)



BENGHAZI, Libya — With the rebels’ battlefield fortunes sagging, the three men in charge of the Libyan opposition forces were summoned late last week by the ad-hoc leadership of their movement to a series of meetings here in the rebel capital.
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Rebels waited on Sunday for dinner to be served at their makeshift camp in Ajdabiya. The inexperienced opposition movement is still trying to assert its authority.
Multimedia

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The Libyan Rebellion
Interactive map of the major clashes in Libya, day by day.
    Christophe Ena/Associated Press
    President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, left, met in Paris with Ali al-Essawi, center, and Mahmoud Jibril of the rebel council.
    The rebel army’s nominal leader, Abdul Fattah Younes, a former interior minister and friend of Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi whom many rebel leaders distrusted, could offer little explanation for the recent military stumbles, two people with knowledge of the meetings said.
    Making matters worse, the men could hardly stand one another. They included Khalifa Heftar, a former general who returned recently from exile in the United States and appointed himself as the rebel field commander, the movement’s leaders said, and Omar el-Hariri, a former political prisoner who occupied the largely ceremonial role of defense minister.
    “They behaved like children,” said Fathi Baja, a political science professor who heads the rebel political committee. 
    Little was accomplished in the meetings, the participants said. When they concluded late last week, Mr. Younes was still the head of the army and Mr. Hariri remained as the defense minister. Only Mr. Heftar, who reportedly refused to work with Mr. Younes, was forced out. On Sunday, though, in a sign that divisions persisted, Mr. Heftar’s son said his father was still an army leader.
     As the struggle with Colonel Qaddafi threatened to settle into a stalemate, the rebel government here was showing growing strains that imperil its struggle to complete a revolution and jeopardize requests for foreign military aid and recognition.
    In an appearance Sunday on “State of the Union” on CNN, Gen. James L. JonesPresident Obama’s former national security adviser, said that the United States “is buying space for the opposition to get organized.”
    But a White House official said last week that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was extremely reluctant to send arms to the rebels “because of the unknowns” about who they are, their backgrounds and motivations.
    “It’s a moment in time where there is no real clarity,” said General Jones, who is now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “But the things being worked on are being worked on to get that clarity.”
    The meeting on the faltering military effort was a study in the struggles of an inexperienced rebel movement trying to assert its authority, hold on to its revolutionary ideals and learn how to run a nation on the job.  In a country where politics was dominated for decades by the colonel, his family and his loyalists, the rebels have turned for leadership to former government figures and exiles they seem to know by reputation alone, and whose motives they do not always trust.
    There have been several hopeful signs. Experts on oil and the economy have joined the rebel ranks, and a spokesman prone to delusional announcements was quietly replaced. Police officers appeared on the streets of Benghazi this week, in crisp new uniforms. Despite the dismal progress on the battlefield, thousands of Libyan men still enthusiastically volunteer to travel to the front every week.
    Still, many decisions remain shrouded in secrecy and are leaked to Libyans piecemeal by a few rebel leaders who seem to enjoy seeing themselves on Al Jazeera, the satellite news channel. And with each day that Colonel Qaddafi remains in power, the self-appointed leaders of the rebel movement face growing questions about their own legitimacy and choices. 
    After the Benghazi meetings, a screaming match broke out when Mr. Heftar’s supporters berated a rebel leader for choosing Mr. Younes to lead the army. A young lawyer, Fathi Terbil, who helped start the uprising, was reduced to running around trying to separate people.  Watching the argument, Wahid Bugaighis, who was recently appointed to oversee oil interests, said the tumult was the inevitable result of Colonel Qaddafi’s long dictatorship. 
    Even so, he was cautiously hopeful.   “At least they’re not shooting each other,” he said, before security guards escorted a reporter away from the scene.
    On Sunday, the military shake-up seemed to be under review again. An adviser to the rebels said they were now consulting field commanders as a way of determining who should lead the army.
    The location of the meetings last week, in a hotel conference room, signified how the rebel movement has evolved from its earliest days. The courthouse by the Mediterranean where the rebels started their protests now often seems empty, more of a shrine to a popular movement than its headquarters. 
    It has become increasingly difficult to locate the center of rebel power.

    Many rebels have never met two of their most prominent leaders: Mahmoud Jibril, an exiled former government official, and Ali al-Essawi, the former Libyan ambassador to India. Mr. Jibril, a well-regarded planning expert, has not returned to Libya since the uprising began, spending some of his time meeting overseas with foreign leaders. The two sit on a rebel executive council, one of several governing structures that the rebels refuse to call a government. 
    Multimedia

    1 of 6
    The Libyan Rebellion
    Interactive map of the major clashes in Libya, day by day.
      Calling it one, they say, might alienate opposition figures in western Libya and promote fears about a civil war.  The rebels also clearly think that Mr. Jibril, who was educated in the United States, and another executive committee member, Ali Tarhouni, who until recently taught economics at the University of Washington, will be able to help sell the rebels’ cause abroad.
      Mr. Tarhouni, the picture of a rumpled professor, has injected a rare dose of realism into the rebel pronouncements, debunking claims made by rebel army leaders about a large, powerful force at their disposal.
      The voice of Libyans is supposed to be represented by a national council, headed by the former justice minister, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a religious conservative in a council that includes free-market liberals and men like Mr. Baja, the professor, who calls himself a social democrat. 
      Mr. Jalil never had the same close ties to Colonel Qaddafi that Mr. Younes did, and many of the rebel leaders say they remember modest stands he took against the government. At the same time, as justice minister, he presided over a system manipulated by the government.
      On the edges of the rebel leadership structure, volunteers have assumed powerful roles, often away from the public eye.  They include surgeons who have driven ambulances, businessmen who have supplied besieged cities with arms, and Islamists who have taken their experience fighting in Afghanistan to Libya’s front lines.
      Another volunteer, Fawzi Bukatef, a soft-spoken petroleum engineer, heads the February 17th Brigade, a group of fighters who battle Qaddafi forces in cities like Brega and on the streets of Benghazi, where hundreds of loyalists are said to be hiding.
      Mr. Bukatef operates from a base that used to be a headquarters for the loyalists and is now a training center that is being outfitted to serve as a detention center for prisoners of war. His men have killed the colonel’s troops in gun battles, and he says they need more arms. It is unclear whom he answers to, or how many fighters he commands, but it is clear that this was work he did not choose.
      “Our revolt started peacefully,” he said, repeating a mantra of the resistance leaders, at once an explanation and an apology.
      In a sixth-floor office in Benghazi, a law professor, Ahmed Sadek El Gehani, along with three colleagues, has been quietly helping to create a temporary constitution for the country.  Mr. Gehani represents the mainstreaming of the revolt: he once worked as a consultant to the Qaddafi government on legal matters abroad, and is now trying to end the state’s intervention in the judicial system.
      A draft article in the Constitution says: “All citizens, men and women, are equal in their rights and duties and equal before the law, without discrimination because of gender, ethnicity, color or religion."
      The document, which Mr. Gehani called “progressive,” was a reminder that away from the drama in the upper echelons of the leadership, a core of activists is still protecting the aims of the uprising, including a new constitution and greater freedoms. This group has pleaded for patience as the young movement struggles, and refuses to apologize for seeking foreign help. “What were we supposed to do, just die?” asked Iman Bugaighis, a university professor who has become the rebels’ tireless spokeswoman.
      Mr. Baja, who said he had been investigated by Libya’s security services more than 18 times, said there was no way to prepare for the aftermath of the uprising. “Nothing was planned. This was all spontaneous,” he said, adding that he and his peers would not let the movement fail.
      Mr. Younes — or whoever led the army — would have to answer to civilians, he said. “They will be held accountable.”
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