Who Is the Libyan Opposition?

The Major Players and Factors

Avram Winer provides an overview of the Libyan opposition and the roles of extremism and tribalism in Libya’s transition.

Ali Aujali speaks to reporters at the  Libyan ambassador's residence in Washington, February 25, 2011. Aujali explained at a Center for American Progress event last week that the Interim Transitional National Council, which he heads, is the mouthpiece through which the opposition interacts with foreign actors. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Ali Aujali speaks to reporters at the Libyan ambassador's residence in Washington, February 25, 2011. Aujali explained at a Center for American Progress event last week that the Interim Transitional National Council, which he heads, is the mouthpiece through which the opposition interacts with foreign actors. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

As intervention in Libya enters its sixth week, the multinational coalition currently enforcing U.N. Security Council resolution 1973—which calls for an immediate ceasefire, the implementation of a no-fly zone, and undefined means to protect civilians—must reckon with several possibilities as the conflict continues. The most favorable outcome of the conflict is for the rebels to capture the remaining western portion of Libya, for Qaddafi’s regime to crumble, and for a new government to quickly be established via the Interim Transitional National Council, or ITNC, which is a representative body of the anti-Qaddafi Libyans currently based in the eastern city of Benghazi. But such an outcome is unlikely at this time given the de facto stalemate, the stubbornness of Qaddafi’s inner circle, and current intervention policy.

Consequently, the United States and its NATO allies must prepare for alternative situations. Rebel forces are proving unable at capturing regime-held cities and Qaddafi supporters are failing to defect en masse even as NATO airstrikes restrain attacks by Qaddafi forces in western areas. This de facto divide of Libya will either require further military intervention or a negotiated settlement.

It is likely, though, that at least part of Libya will be controlled by an opposition-led government no matter which scenario emerges in the next few weeks. The ITNC has assumed the political role on the governance level while affiliated rebels constitute the military struggle.

A key challenge in averting further deterioration of the situation in Libya is ensuring the potentially fractious Libyan opposition does not collapse from internal divisions. Understanding whom the rebels and opposition leaders are is vital in gauging the amount of interaction the United States should have with them, as well as measuring prospects of instability and violence as the situation progresses.

There are three primary concerns pertaining to the intentions and cohesiveness of the opposition:

  • Knowledge of the role, leadership, and capability of the ITNC
  • The potential threat of extremism
  • The lack of strong tribal bonds in Libya

Reviewing each of these in turn can lead to a greater understanding of who the opposition is and how Libya’s transition could play out.

Meet the Libyan opposition

Ali Aujali, the representative of the ITNC, explained at a Center for American Progress event last week that the creation of the ITNC was announced on February 17 and has henceforth been the mouthpiece through which the opposition states its objectives and officially interacts with foreign actors.

The ITNC is comprised of a 31-member council from various cities, towns, and regions liberated by the rebels. It is headquartered in the main opposition city of Benghazi. The ITNC has announced its members’ identities except for a few because of safety concerns in volatile places. ITNC membership and activities within Libya may not be known by ordinary Libyans if their representatives’ identities are not public.

The council is headed by Chairman Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, a former judge from the eastern town of al-Bayida. Abdul Jalil resigned as justice minister when the uprising began but he had previously been critical of the regime and is viewed as “clean” by members of the opposition.

Mahmoud Jabril, former head of the National Economic Development Board, and Ali AlIssawi, former Libyan ambassador to India and former minister of economy, are in charge of foreign affairs and international liaison.

The opposition’s military side is the rebel forces. They are headed by the ITNC’s Military Council head Omar Hariri. Hariri took part in the coup that brought Qaddafi to power but he was later jailed.

Khalifa Hifter, a veteran of Libya’s war with Chad, is commander of the rebel army. Hifter’s chief of staff is Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, a recently defected regime veteran who helped in the coup that brought Qaddafi into power. He is the least trusted among rebel troops. Hifter returned to Libya just weeks ago after spending exile in the United States, and the power dynamic between Younis and Hifter remains unclear.

Extremism in the margins

The rebels’ ideological ambitions are a source of concern for the United States and its allies. But the fear that rebels seek to establish an Islamist government and are infiltrated by extremists is not supported by strong factual evidence at this stage.

It’s true that Libya under Qaddafi supported groups such as the Red Army Faction, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Irish Republican Army, and other revolutionary terrorist organizations from the 1970s to the 2000s.

This support did not extend, however, to religious extremist groups. The two primary religious opposition groups in Libya were the Muslim Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, both of which faced repressive policies.

Since the late 2000s the LIFG has renounced violence and senior members have renounced affiliation with Al Qaeda through agreements made with the Qaddafi Foundation run by regime heir apparent Saif al-Islam Qaddafi. These were in exchange for the release of prisoners, though some members—who are unrepresentative of the majority of rebels—may still harbor violent tactics in their ideology, especially in the eastern portion of Libya.

According to a trove of insurgent records discovered in Sinjar, Iraq, 18.8 percent of foreign fighters entering Iraq to join Al Qaeda between 2006 and 2007 were Libyan and primarily from eastern coastal cities. On a per capita measure, Libya contributed the most fighters to Iraq, with the rebel-controlled eastern city of Derna contributing the most foreign fighters. Rebel fighter and ex-combatant in Afghanistan Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi has stated that Libyans who fought in Iraq are currently fighting on the front lines against pro-Qaddafi forces.

Al Qaeda has had little physical presence in Libya. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, began in Algeria and was then forced to relocate to Northern Mali and Nigeria. Libya has been of strategic interest to Al Qaeda since the 1990s as it is seen as a possible entry point into the larger societies of Egypt and Algeria.

Al Qaeda attempted to formally ally with the LIFG but it has not been successful. Libyan membership in AQIM has grown with 40 Libyans joining in the past two to three years but Libyans do not dominate AQIM.

With the Qaddafi regime weakening, AQIM has supposedly begun operating in Libya with its first operations on January 15 resulting in the death of a policeman and two AQIM operatives. AQIM is also attempting to inspire a domestic jihadist organization via anti-Qaddafi and anti-Western intervention propaganda.

But in sum, extremist infiltration has thus far been regarded as unsuccessful in Libya. The rebellion appears aimed at removing a dictator and not establishing an Islamist form of government. Al Qaeda attempts to inspire grassroots extremist organizations within Libya are unlikely to be successful as long as the rebels remain relatively strong, unified, and in support of NATO intervention.

In fact, recently, members of the effectively disbanded LIFG created the al-Haraka al-Islamiya Lil Taghier group that supports intervention and has expressed positive views toward ITNC member Abdul Jalil in Benghazi.

The role of tribes in Libya

The role of tribes in Libya is a matter of chosen affiliation and not an issue of extragovernmental structure. When Qaddafi captured power he limited tribal power by abolishing the tribe as a legal institution and bisecting administrative boundaries with sections from several tribes.

But 10 years later Qaddafi was forced to rely on his own kinship groups as tribal relationships retained their importance and opposition grew. Tribal relationships were eventually absorbed into the state structure as Qaddafi sought to form a sort of supertribal Libyan national identity that is not superseded by other identities.

Qaddafi provided job opportunities, rights, and protection to certain tribal groups as a form of patronage. Tribal identities were largely absent in the urban areas and were used as a means to access state services—not as an identity that fostered “permanent states of hostility” toward other tribes.

It is important for policymakers to understand that the Libyan rebellion’s momentum is not based on the limited territory of a tribe or religious fanaticism. It is based on the removal of an erratic and violent leader.

Alaa al-Ameri eloquently wrote of this in a Guardian article entitled “The Myth of Tribal Libya,” asking, “If there is any genuine tribal separatism among the democratic movement, why are they still fighting to liberate the west of the country?”

Knowing the limited power that tribe membership can have is key to understanding that unity remains among the rebels and violence is unlikely to emerge among tribal lines.

Where we must go

Helping to create an environment in which the ITNC can develop into a robust interim government requires decisive and speedy action to ensure rifts among the mostly united opposition do not emerge.

Last week’s meeting in Doha, Qatar, may be a step forward because it shows that opposition representatives are willing to talk. And there is strong international support for them. But their unwillingness to meet with Koussa—who is often seen as a brutal benefactor of Qaddafi’s regime—is evidence that basic principles of the opposition are still strong and a negotiated settlement may prove elusive.

What’s more, prolonged conflict in Libya will provide opportunities for the opposition to be infiltrated by extremists who may represent alternative reasons for fighting against Qaddafi or contribute to opposition fracturing. This is true even though extremism has not played much of a role in the opposition movement so far.

The United States and other intervention partners must calculate the risks they are willing to take politically, financially, and in potential loss of lives. As they have all clearly shown through their actions, a stable Libya is in the interests of all involved. But time is of the essence. The United States and its partners must pressure Qaddafi loyalists as well as opposition forces into a ceasefire and negotiated settlement. Although this will prove difficult as demonstrated by Koussa’s visit to Doha, respect toward the fundamental demands of the opposition and extending some sort of agreement to Qaddafi’s men will save NATO members from much unneeded pain.

The risks of Libya slipping into prolonged war and resulting vulnerability to extremism are too high to allow for the stalemate to continue. It will be financially costly, be politically precarious, and not put Libyan civilians comfortably out of harm’s way.

Avram Winer is an intern with the National Security team at American Progress.

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