BENGHAZI – In the days since the February 17 revolution against Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, opposition forces in Benghazi have formed a Transitional National Council (TNC) and a Crisis Team (CT) to serve as an interim government. The two groups are drawn from a cross-section of society. Some members held senior posts in Qaddafi’s government; others were social activists. Both groups are now quite popular among the population in rebel-controlled parts of Libya.
But if rebel troops are unable to advance toward the capital of Tripoli, and instead remain deadlocked with Qaddafi’s forces between the towns of Ajdabiyya and Brega, the opposition will face a serious dilemma. A military impasse could erode their support and even delegitimize them.
When forming the councils, the opposition sought to achieve a balance between government experience, technical expertise, and tribal support. Thus, while some members, such as former Justice Minister and TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, were affiliated with Qaddafi’s government, others, such as CT Economic and Finance chief Ali Tarhouni, have lived outside of Libya for almost 30 years. And powerful clans from Tobruk have succeeded in placing their members in key military positions.
The councils are, moreover, largely a regional affair, with members mostly coming from eastern Libya. Those with roots in the western regions are mainly dissidents who have lived abroad for decades. TNC officials admit that some council members are based in western Libya, but have refused to identify them for security reasons.
The two bodies are far from uniform and monolithic. Conflicts have already erupted between TNC members as well as between members of the military leadership. Bolstered by his high profile as Justice Minister, Jalil has emerged as an interim leader. But once the TNC makes the transition toward becoming an elected body, the more charismatic CT Director Mahmoud Jibril and the astute council spokesman Abdul Hafiz Ghoga may emerge as the rebels’ true leaders.
On the military side, simmering tensions between two officers are frustrating combat strategy. Colonel Khalifa Hifter, a close Qaddafi supporter before he deserted following his capture by Chadian forces in 1987 during Libya’s war with its southern neighbor, has proved unwilling to fall into line behind the chief of staff, former Interior Minister Abdul Fatah Younis. Such political and military spats are likely to continue as officials attempt to consolidate their positions.
The two groups are hard-pressed to formulate a clear political and social platform. TNC and CT members are largely unified in their desire to end Qaddafi’s 41-year rule and redistribute the country’s wealth to the country’s long-neglected eastern region. As a result, they have not articulated a coherent vision of a post-Qaddafi Libya. And, though the two councils are certainly staffed by people with the technical credentials needed to manage the economy, few members have any real political skills or experience overseeing bureaucratic bodies.
So far, these shortcomings have not prevented the TNC from achieving widespread support in the rebel-controlled east. Inhabitants of Benghazi praise Abdul Jalil and his colleagues. Municipal councils in Bayda, Darna, and Tobruk have pledged their support for the TNC, and fighters who battled American forces in Iraq have lined up behind the body’s military leaders.
People here are content to be free from Qaddafi’s erratic policies and pervasive security services. “Anyone but Qaddafi,” one man in Tobruk told me. This partly explains why Libyans are willing to embrace dissidents who lived abroad for decades, about whom they know little. This warm welcome contrasts with Iraqi distrust of the political exiles who returned on the coattails of the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
But support for the TNC is largely skin deep – it is neither grounded in knowledge of how the opaque council functions, nor based on an understanding of its goals. As such, once the initial euphoria dissipates, Libyans are likely to turn against the TNC if it cannot deliver battlefield successes. With the rebels lacking professional military training and discipline, such gains look increasingly unlikely.
To ensure that the rebels have a fighting chance against Qaddafi’s better-equipped troops, Western countries will have to move beyond air strikes and offering the TNC diplomatic recognition. They will need to provide medium-range rockets and light armored vehicles to anti-regime forces, in addition to training them to use their weapons properly. Such a mission will require sending hundreds more military specialists to Libya than the few dozen that Britain, France, and Italy have pledged.
Without a large influx of instructors and weapons, the rebels will not be able to advance toward the capital, Tripoli, in the coming months. Such a stalemate is likely to leave Libyans frustrated with the council. And the vague slogans that its leaders are currently offering will likely be viewed as hollow promises. Since the council’s legitimacy stems exclusively from Libyan good will and blind faith, rather than from success at the ballot box, this could be devastating.
In a few short weeks, the Libyan opposition has been able to win the support of the population in the east without accomplishing much more than forming a provisional political body. To maintain that support, however, opposition leaders must ensure that they can respond to their constituents’ demands. And, above all, that means piling up military victories on the road to Tripoli.