Tales from the front: A Libyan rebel speaks

Who are Libya’s fighters? And can they defeat Gaddafi? An injured rebel says yes, but military analysts aren’t so sure.

Libya fighting
Hamis Mohamed Zuwei wants to go back to Libya’s front lines, as soon as his wounds heal [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

Sporting a crisp well-tailored grey suit and pink tie, Hamis Mohamed Zuwei looks more like an aspiring banker than a Libyan pro-democracy fighter who took a bullet for the cause.

Limping with crutches into the security office of a Qatari hospital where he has been recovering for the last two weeks from a bullet wound in the leg and shrapnel injuries, Zuwei only wanted to talk about one thing: revolution.

“We are just a group of young people seeking freedom without being organised,” Zuwei, 26, says during an interview at the hospital. “We don’t have any military experience; the only objective is to topple [Muammar] Gaddafi.”

Less than a dozen injured rebels are receiving medical care in Qatar, after they were airlifted out by a plane delivering aid, he says. 

Before the rebellion, Zuwei worked as an administrator in a government office, earning about $170 per month. He never considered himself an activist. “I was only motivated when I saw innocent people being shot dead,” he says. “I joined other young people to defend myself and others from Gaddafi.”

Meet the rebels

The rebels he fought with in Ras Lanuf, a key oil producing region, lacked formal command and control structures. They made decisions on the fly by collectively discussing strategy together. “When we were attacked, we collectively retreated,” Zuwei says.  

The young man’s experiences of trying to topple a dictator with idealism and no training are indicative of the problems Libya’s rebels face, as pitched battles rage in different parts of the country.

“Through courage and determination they can win battles, but they cannot win the war,” says Abdulkader Sinno, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Indiana University. “They are not coordinated enough to expand into territories where they don’t have a presence.”

George Joffe, a Libya expert at Cambridge University, echoes Sinno’s concerns about the capacity of young men like Hamis Mohamed Zuwei to defeat Gaddafi, but he is encouraged by the broad cross-section of Libyan society from which the rebels draw their ranks. “The rebels – they hate being called that as they consider themselves the legitimate government of Libya – are a coalition of different people.

They have the intelligencia in Benghazi, some of whom are connected to the constitutional committee and the university. They have links to exiles abroad, including human rights activists. There are elements of tribal leadership, a military component and finally an Islamist component,” Joffe says.

Jon Lee Anderson, who is covering fighting in Libya for The New Yorker magazine, seems to agree with Joffe’s analysis, writing that rebels “range from street toughs to university students (many in computer science, engineering, or medicine), and have been joined by unemployed hipsters and middle-aged mechanics, merchants, and storekeepers”, in addition to oil company employees, former soldiers and “a few bearded religious men”. 

Zuwei puts the demographics of the rebels in more simple terms: “We are just the Libyan people trying to reclaim out political rights.”

‘Force can vanquish spirit’

The anti-Gaddafi uprising is, naturally, compared with revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. But those examples don’t offer much of a comparison, analysts say. Egypt, in particular, had a plurality of opposition groups and a limited degree of press and academic freedoms before the fall of Hosni Mubarak. And, today, the military remains in firm control of the country.

The raw ability to exert deadly military force did not determine the course of recent, successful rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia. In contrast, the struggle in Libya looks more like a traditional conflict, where rebels control the east of the country and Gaddafi has the West.

“They [rebels] are basically fighting another state, from a technical stand-point,” Sinno says, adding that non-hierarchical forces are great for battling foreign occupations but less effective in conventional war. 

Rebels like Zuwei, who took up arms when peaceful protests couldn’t deliver, may have more in common with fighters from the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s, where various leftists and republicans confronted a fascist dictator, than with contemporary Arab pro-democracy forces.

“In the Spanish case, there was an unconventional struggle, based along the lines of volunteerism or affinity, it was deeply rooted in the spaces where people lived and worked,” said Alex Khasnabish, a sociology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada who studies radical social movements. “Perhaps Spain is an ambivalent example because of the victory of fascism. We can take lessons of the successes and failures from that.”

For Albert Camus, the French existentialist writer, the lessons were bleak: “It was in Spain, that [my generation] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense.”

One reason for Spain’s failure to defeat fascism is linked to a lack of military hardware. The army of Francisco Franco received advanced military hardware from Germany and Italy, while republican and leftist forces couldn’t get sufficient weapons from the West. While the Soviet Union provided a few military advisers, the US and UK feared that weapons would end up in the hands of anti-capitalists.

A role for foreigners?

Today, some western policy makers fear weapons provided to Libyan rebels could be used by groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, reminiscent of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan when the Americas and Saudis provided arms to forces that would become the Taliban and al-Qaeda. NATO, has however, enforced a no-fly zone, bombing Gaddafi’s military installations while accidentally hitting some rebel forces. 

But, the situation in Libya is different from Afghanistan in the 1980s, professor Sinno says. “A terrorist organisation could easily buy enough weapons to do whatever they need to do, al-Qaeda already has access to plenty of weapons in several countries.

The bigger risk is what to do about all the weapons Gaddafi has stockpiled over the years, including anti-aircraft weapons.”

Zuwei says rebels captured most of their weapons from government troops. “I hope the United Nations will supply arms to bridge the gap with Gaddai’s forces.” Like most rebels, Zuwei does not want foreign soldiers on Libyan soil.

While training the rebels is crucial, political realities mean NATO countries should not send substantial numbers of soldiers, Sinno says. “Knowing how things work, it could be Pakistani trainers, coming under the guise of a Gulf state military.”

Qatar and Kuwait, petroleum rich Gulf states, have recognised the transitional council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya. That support for an end to Gaddafi’s regime is likely part of the reason why Hamis Mohamed Zuwei was flown to Qatar, the non-democratic state where Al Jazeera is based, in order to recover at a publicly funded hospital.  

As Zuwei and his injured friends rest to heal their wounds, political wrangling over their country’s future is happening in Benghazi, London and beyond. “The worst case scenario is that Gaddafi forces make inroads and the Americans decide that Saif al-Islam [one of Gaddafi’s sons] is a decent interlocutor to negotiate with,” says George Joffe, the Cambridge professor.

When he recovers Zuwei says he is going straight back to Libya to fight again on the front lines. Gaddafi may have weapons, often wielded by mercenaries from sub-Saharan African countries, but rebels have significant popular support and determination.

If Gaddafi’s force can vanquish Zuwei’s spirit, it will provide solace to despots across the region, who will use extreme force, rather than political change, to placate restless populations. Zuwei and thousands like him hope Libya will not be Spain for the Facebook generation.

But as battles rage across the country, it could go either way. 

Source: Al Jazeera