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Libya's rebel leaders struggle to get a grip

The Benghazi lawyers, professors and others who lead the rebellion against Moammar Kadafi acknowledge that they and their fighters are hindered by disarray.

March 24, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • A man in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, loads a shell into the back of his car. The rebel stronghold faces shortages, and the opposition's fighting force is disorganized and suspicious of its leadership.
A man in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, loads a shell into the back of his car.… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — They work 18-hour days inside two dingy courthouse buildings streaked with graffiti that ridicules Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. When they enter, they wipe their shoes on a portrait of him.

These are the lawyers, businessmen, college professors and political defectors risking their lives to lead the eastern rebellion against Kadafi. Thirty-seven days ago, they demonstrated at the courthouse for political rights, and in four days of street fighting overran Kadafi's lejan thouria, the gun-toting Revolutionary Legion that had terrorized Libya's second-largest city.

Suddenly the rebel leaders had to fight a war and build a new government in a region starved of resources by Tripoli. They found themselves riding a revolution they have been unable to fully control.

Photos: U.S. and allies strike Libya targets from air and sea

"You're talking about people with no experience in running a government, and overnight we had to build a new country and figure out how to run it," said Zahi Mogherbi, a retired political science professor who advises the Provisional National Council.

Their goal, they say, is to replace Kadafi with a unified nation with Tripoli as its capital. They do not seek an Islamic emirate or Sharia (Islamic law), they say. Instead, they envision free elections, a bill of rights, an independent judiciary, a free press and a democratic government that guarantees free speech.

But the rebel leadership ruefully acknowledges that it has done a poor job of organizing itself and presenting a coherent message to the world. Like the enthusiastic but inexperienced rebel fighters, the political leaders have suffered from good intentions undermined by shoddy execution.

Officials who deserted Kadafi, expatriates and longtime foes of the Libyan leader jostle for power. The area faces shortages of cash and fuel. Its fighting force is disorganized and suspicious of its leadership.

"The process is still pretty chaotic. The Provisional National Council has dropped the ball in many places," said Ali Tarhouni, a University of Washington economics professor who handles economics for a "crisis management committee" formed this week to bring order to the chaos in Benghazi.

One of the council's main goals is to convince the world its members are not nihilistic Islamic radicals, as Kadafi claims.

The students, oil engineers, bank clerks and jobless young men fighting Kadafi's tanks with outdated weapons represent a generation that has known only Kadafi's regime. Many young fighters are hooked on Facebook, YouTube, Britney Spears and lowbrow American TV shows like "American Idol" and "Pimp My Ride." Some tell American reporters they want to emigrate to the U.S.

Iman Bugaighis, an orthodontics professor and a council spokeswoman, said the revolution was dominated by moderate Sunni Muslims.

"The last thing we want is to turn our country over to Al Qaeda," she said.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose members were jailed by Kadafi, also has called for a democratic form of government.

The leading voices at the Benghazi courthouse are the Gheriani brothers of Michigan: Mustafa and Essam. Both are tall, balding and urbane. Fluent in the American argot and passionate about the revolution, they are affable but often exaggerate the rebels' progress while discounting Kadafi's military gains.

Mustafa lived in Fenton, Mich., for 30 years with his American wife and two sons, ran a successful construction company, and lost a school board race before returning to Benghazi for the rebellion. He has a master's degree in industrial engineering from Western Michigan University. Essam earned a master's in psychology from Michigan State.

Both men say they and other rebel leaders will be targeted for death if Kadafi prevails.

"Kadafi can stand on my grave," Essam said, "but he will never rule me as a living person."

The nominal opposition leader is Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Kadafi's former justice minister who has a $400,000 bounty on his head after defecting last month. The soft-spoken and uncharismatic Jalil, who maintains a low profile, engaged in an early power struggle with Abdelhafed Ghoga, a cocky human rights lawyer who announced that he, not Jalil, was in charge. The two men eventually made up and Ghoga became council vice president and chief spokesman.

Ali Essawi, Kadafi's ambassador to India before he defected last month, and Mahmoud Jibril, a planning expert who earned a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, are designated foreign ministers who meet diplomats in Europe.

The council's military expert is Omar Hariri, a Libyan army officer who helped Kadafi mount his 1969 military coup but tried and failed to overthrow Kadafi in 1975. Hariri was jailed for years and under house arrest in Tobruk when the rebellion broke out.

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