The rebellion’s leaders
The new Libya is in the hands of a largely self-selected bunch of civilians and fighters who have done pretty well so far. What comes next is a lot hazier
Aug 27th 2011 | Benghazi | from the print edition
Those independent militias
The NTC may be less able to restrain its fighters once the threat from Colonel Qaddafi is removed. Much of the rebel manpower is grouped into 40-plus privately organised, privately funded militias known as katibas (brigades). Each katiba is usually drawn from one town, commanded by a respected local military veteran or, in some cases, by the businessman who financed it. They drive privately owned pickups or jeeps with mounted anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns, captured from government arsenals or supplied by foreign benefactors. Members are enthusiastic but usually have only cursory training and very little sense of military discipline, often commuting to the front from their homes. Katiba leaders say that they meet the NTC’s more formalised military wing in an operations room to plan battles, but decisions appear to be arrived at by consensus rather than through any military chain of command.
Relations between the NTC and the katibas were brought to crisis point by the assassination on July 28th of Abdel Fatah Younis, a defecting general who became the NTC’s top military commander and may have wanted to bring the militias under centralised control. The circumstances surrounding the killing have yet to be explained. NTC judges had issued an arrest warrant for General Younis on suspicion that he had made unauthorised contact with Colonel Qaddafi, but the killers themselves are reported to have been rogue katiba fighters with a personal vendetta against the one-time Qaddafi loyalist.
They may have been members of the Abu Ubeidah Ibn al-Jarrah brigade, said to be a force of former political prisoners, some of them radical Islamists. After Younis’s death, the brigade was reportedly dissolved, and the NTC has turned him into a martyr, standing for proper military discipline. Posters of the confident, neatly uniformed general smilingly greet motorists on several of Benghazi’s main streets.
In the aftermath of Younis’s assassination, katiba members swear that they answer to the orders of the NTC. “We all have the same goal. We all want to end this,” says Muftah Barrati, a senior official at the camp of one of Benghazi’s largest katibas, the 17 February Martyrs Brigade. “When this is complete, we all will return to our jobs.” He himself was a financial manager for the computer company of Mustafa Sigizli, a businessman who helped set up the brigade. Rebels, with no former jobs to return to, may be given the option of joining a national army.
However, it would be a rare rebel force that did not derive some sense of entitlement from the sacrifices made during a hard-fought war, and the katibas still brush off requests by NTC officials to place themselves under the authority of a unified command. Based on the barrages of celebratory gunfire in Benghazi that erupt nightly to mark weddings, funerals or good news from the front, katiba members enjoy owning automatic weapons and would be reluctant to give them up.
Council members say that they know they would have more authority were they an elected body. They have thus opted for a fairly swift transitional period. The fall of Tripoli, when it is fully established, will set off an eight-month countdown to provisional elections. Some say this timetable is too short for a country with no experience of even single-party politics, let alone of genuine democracy. A group of protesters holding a sit-in outside NTC headquarters last week said that they suspected senior council leaders of having cut a deal with a handful of Libyan political groups, such as the Muslim Brothers and the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a long-established exile group. The experienced groups, complained the protesters, had an unfair advantage in knowing how to campaign and win votes.