The Rebels from Benghazi Chaos and Uncertainty in Libya's Revolutionary Leadership

The international community is using air strikes and missiles to defend freedom, human rights and democratic ideals in Libya. But are those also the values the rebels themselves are fighting for?


By Juliane von Mittelstaedt and

The chief of staff of the Libyan revolution receives guests in a villa not far from Benghazi's airport. When the uprising began, Abdul Fattah Younis was celebrated in the streets for having his soldiers raid the city's military base, thereby stripping Moammar Gadhafi of control over the eastern part of the country.

Now, Younis has found shelter in a living room outfitted with brocade curtains and plush carpeting. When the general wants to know what's happening outside, he watches the BBC's Arab-language TV channel and calls his associates on a satellite telephone. It is his connection to the outside world -- a connection he uses to support American and French air strikes, which he keeps track of on a map along with the new front lines.

Tomorrow, Younis will sleep in yet another house together with his wife and daughter, who sit next to him in silence. These days, Benghazi is home to hit squads of both rebels and Gadhafi loyalists. Shots pierce the nighttime silence. By sunrise, the morgues and emergency rooms are full.

Formerly Libya's interior minister, Younis has been leading the fight against Gadhafi since February 22. To that point, the brawny 66 year old with silver hair had spent almost his entire life serving the dictator. And for that reason, his defection marked a major turning point in this revolution. Now wearing green fatigues, he refers to himself as the chief of staff. This is not his first revolution, and he therefore knows that events now depend on military leaders rather than on politicians.

Posing for Photographs

Younis' special forces have vanished, having either deserted or rushed to the front. Now, he's assembling an army to liberate Libya. His associates, he says, have trained 15,000 men in recent weeks. In the Benghazi stadium, they learn how to shoot, to fire rockets and to drive tanks. They are taught to avoid the mistakes of the early days of the revolution, when the young fighters -- known as the Shabab -- accidentally killed each other up, ruined captured tanks and shot down their own airplanes. Younis, though, has been talking about these troops for weeks, and there is still little difference from the chaos seen at the beginning. Even with the backing of the air strikes, advances have been halting and temporary. They seem to prefer posing for photographs on wrecked tanks.

Since the air strikes began, the revolution has become a war with foreign support legitimized by a United Nations resolution and, as of this week, led by NATO. Western planes -- whether American, French, Spanish or Canadian -- have flown hundreds of sorties, bombing Gadhafi's supply convoys, military bases, tank columns and primary residence in Tripoli.

It was a moral decision, meant to help people rising up against one of the most brutal dictators in the Arab world. But there is no turning back. If the West intends to liberate the country from its dictator, it really has only three options: annihilate Gadhafi's forces in a massive bombing campaign; send in ground forces; or equip the rebels with heavy weapons. The rebels have ruled out peace negotiations with Gadhafi.

For the international community, the intervention in the Libyan conflict is about defending the fundamental values of freedom, human rights and self-determination. But the question is: Are all those who have a say in Benghazi just as interested in freedom, human rights and self-determination?

An Opportunist?

The first time that General Younis participated in a revolution was in 1969, in an uprising against the king. He was a 24-year-old army officer at the time, and he successfully took control of Benghazi's radio station. The revolution ushered Colonel Gadhafi into power, a man who calls himself "king of the traditional kings of Africa."

Younis rose to the rank of general. For 41 years, he headed Libya's special forces, from the end of one revolution to the beginning of the next. He was a rare constant in a country ruled by a paranoid leader, one who saw enemies everywhere. For the last three and a half years, Younis was also the interior minister, and many saw him as the country's second most powerful man behind Gadhafi. He says, however, that he was never a politician and that for four and a half months, he refused to assume the post. He only gave in, he says, on the condition that he would never fire upon his own people.

Still, there are many who do not trust Younis, particularly younger Libyans, who view him as an opportunist who waited six days before switching sides. But maybe Younis did indeed have too much of Gadhafi. Maybe he really does want to become a hero in this war of liberation?

Younis recounts how he sent a letter to Gadhafi in January warning him about unrest in the country and about the anger triggered by sharp rises in food prices. He says Gadhafi sent the letter back to him with the text crossed out in red pen. A warning letter -- that was Younis' form of protest.

Now Younis is a revolutionary for the second time -- but, this time, he says he's fighting for democracy. When asked the kind of democracy he envisions, Younis says: "I dream of a genuine democracy in which we Libyans can lead a five-star life. Libya earns $150 million (€106 million) with its oil -- in a single day. And just look around at the condition Benghazi is in!"

Fighting Could Drag On for Months

Younis believes that establishing a democracy in Libya won't be all that difficult. "We have no political parties, no diverse ethnicities or different religious beliefs," he says, "so it will be entirely unproblematic." Once his dream has been achieved, he adds, he intends to withdraw from public life and spend his time reading books.

It could be some time before Younis can make a dent in his reading list, however. The stakes are infinitely high for Gadhafi. He's not going to give up any time soon and fighting could drag on for months.

For the time being, it seems unlikely that Gadhafi's troops will be able to capture Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. But it's just as unlikely that the rebels will take Tripoli. Indeed, if the capital's inhabitants do not rise up, this will be a long war.

Still, Younis is optimistic. "In two or three weeks," he says, "the balance of power will tip in our favor." He speaks of reinforcement lines, positions and snipers -- all while trying to emit that calming aura of military professionalism. He fears nothing more than a sudden halt to the air attacks because he believes it would cause the resistance to crumble.

But, as long as they continue, he claims that Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte will be captured in at most 10 days, and that Tripoli will follow soon thereafter. Younis only believes the fighting will end once Gadhafi has either died or fled, perhaps to northern Chad. He puts the chances of the latter occurring at about 75 percent.

What happens after that is anyone's guess. Libya is a political no man's land. There are no parties or unions, and the highest form of political organization are soccer clubs. The only thing this country can draw on is the ruling elite in the leadership circle surrounding Gadhafi and his children.

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