Analysis: Who are the Libya rebels?

According to most experts they’re just days away from running Libya. But who are the rebels and what do they want?

By Ian Dunt

Mustafa Abdul Jalil took to the stage yesterday to give the international press some information about his force's remarkably successful advance on Tripoli. With a backdrop of pre-Gaddafi Libyan flags and a small army of translators to hand, he seemed every inch the future leader in waiting. But his insistence that Colonel Gaddafi's sons were under arrest will have come back to haunt him last night, after a confident Saif al-Islam pulled up to a hotel full of journalists and took them on a tour of Gaddafi-controlled Tripoli.

With that incident calling the reliability of the National Transitional Council (NTC) into question and continued criticism of its haphazard military strategy, many observers are starting to ask searching questions of the body ready to take over from Gaddafi. Who exactly are the rebels and what do they want?

The need for a new body to provide a political face to the fighting in Libya derived from the total lack of civil society in the country. After 41 years of oppressive rule, there simply were no opposition groups or strong state institutions. By late February, with the fighting in full swing and civil war a distinct possibility, the national council was established with a view to coordinating activity between liberated areas. The NTC was set up with 30 members (now 31), with officials making sure representatives came from all over the country – a result of fears that the rebellion would appear eastern-dominated. Only 13 of the members were identified in the beginning, for security reasons.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil instantly emerged as leader of the council, chairing the meeting and offering liberal-democratic proscriptions for the country. Just days earlier he had been a part of Gaddafi's government, acting as justice minister, although he had started to regularly criticise Gaddafi in the run up to the fighting. Originally a judge from the eastern Libyan town of al-Bayida, his national profile made him an attractive figure in a country which is used to being dominated by the cult of personality around a long-lasting dictator.

Mahmoud Jebril, a leading figure in the push to privatise state-industries under Gaddafi, and Ali Aziz al-Eisawi, former ambassador to India, led the diplomatic efforts. Originally based in Cairo, they started to travel extensively, pushing for international recognition and UN-backed military support. Their mission was staggeringly successful. France and the UK recognised the NTC as the rightful government of Libya early on, followed by the US. At the time of writing they were recognised by 32 countries with many other countries, such as Norway and China, meeting their officials to start ties.

Much of that international support resulted from the attractive political agenda mapped out by the NTC. It’s 'declaration of the founding of the Transitional National Council' lists its goals which include ensuringhr safety of citizens, the restoration of normal civilian life, facilitating the election of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution to be put to referendum and a transitional government to pave the way for free elections. Later statements committed the NTC to "political pluralism", "inalienable human rights" and free expression. It also rejected racism, intolerance, discrimination, and terrorism.

But the NTC military capacity did not live up to its political triumph. Despite many defections from the army, navy and air force, there was no widespread backing from the armed forces, which are fully ingrained into the Gaddafi regime in a way they were not in Egypt, for instance. Government counter-offences in the east had a brutal effect on the rebels, who were comprised mainly of young men with little to no training. They were quick and brave in driving straight into the fighting, but equally quick to retreat under fire. Military analysts were horrified by the lack of discipline on the front line.

Abdul Fatah Younis was announced as commander of the armed forces in April, in a bid to introduce some sort of organisational structure to the force. He was killed in late July, in an attack which may have come from the government, rogue rebels or, some say, the NTC itself.

Even the current level of military success is not treated as a vindication of the group's strategy, but rather a result of Nato bombing strikes, which have debilitated Gaddafi's military resources while he defends against sporadic and opportunistic rebel attacks on front lines. American drones and the real-time information they offer rebels about planned government ambush positions were also crucial, as was an impeccably organised uprising by anti-Gadaffi civilians in eastern Tripoli.

It's quite common – textbook even – for ethnic, tribal and political divisions to emerge when a dictator is overthrown. This is particularly so in the Middle East and acutely possible in Libya, given its complex system of tribal loyalties. The NTC will need to demonstrate extraordinary skills in guiding Libya from its current situation to that of a functioning sovereign state in days, not weeks, if it is to hold the country together. Its record thus far is so mixed that it's difficult to predict whether it will be able to, although western plans for organising opposition groups and kick-starting the economy may help.

With Tripoli beset by street battles and events seemingly coming to a head, we're still no closer to understanding the true nature of this mysterious and perplexing organisation.