Dispatches > News
Associated Press/Photo by Francois Mori

Instant legitimacy

It may have come too soon for Libya's rebels

Issue: "Remembering 9/11," Sept. 10, 2011

"Religious chants could be heard above the noise of the engine as a jeep-load of militia crossed their own frontline. 'Allahu Akhbar!' chanted the turbaned fighters clutching AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launchers . . ."

That news account is of the Taliban entering the streets of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, in 1996. It eerily paralleled the scenes of Libyan rebels cruising the streets of Libya's capital, Tripoli, on Aug. 22. Libyan fighters in street clothes riding in the backs of white pickups hoisted their automatic weapons in the air and shouted, "Allahu Akhbar!" for the cameras. And now, as then, Western media and Western leaders may prove too eager to headline the changeover as triumphant news.

Libyan rebels who for six months battled Col. Muammar Qaddafi captured key sections of the capital starting Aug. 22. But the entrenched leader, who has ruled Libya since 1969, could not be found, even as rebels ransacked his compound. He broadcast this message via a Tripoli radio station: "I call on all Tripoli residents, with all its young, old and armed brigades, to defend the city, to cleanse it, put an end to traitors, and kick them out of our city."

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At the same time, Qaddafi's second-oldest son Seif and presumed heir, whom rebels claimed to have arrested the day they entered Tripoli, appeared free and touring the city with journalists, stirring Qaddafi supporters to retake the capital. His freedom shocked rebels and illustrated how far the group, organized under the name National Transitional Council (NTC), has to go: "We had confirmation Saif al-Islam was arrested, but we have no idea how he escaped," NTC leader Waheed Burshan told al-Jazeera.

Chaos and confusion hasn't slowed Western leaders: European countries and the Arab League moved quickly to offer formal recognition to NTC and its leader, Mahmoud Jibril. The UN began debating easing longstanding sanctions against Libya Aug. 25, following pleas from Jibril that the country needs $5 billion in aid to avert a humanitarian crisis. But the African Union had yet to recognize Jibril, with South Africa saying it would block the release of funds until that happened, even though the Obama administration supports unfreezing up to $1.5 billion in Qaddafi regime assets to support the rebels and provide humanitarian aid.

There's little information about the rebels' pedigree and intent once in office, though the NTC has pledged to support "a pluralistic democracy." An Aug. 4 article in The New York Times said rebel leaders and Western governments have "long acknowledged the presence of Islamists among the rebel fighters"-including at least one imprisoned for terrorist activities at Guantanamo Bay and another believed to have been in Afghanistan when al-Qaeda ran training camps under Taliban rule.

Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, is skeptical: "By committing forces in Libya on behalf of the rebels . . . without quite knowing who they are, what they believe in, or what kind of government they would institute on achieving power, the NATO allies did something unprecedented in March 2011."

Listen to Mindy Belz discuss how it is too soon for legitimacy for Libyan rebels on The World and Everything in It.

Libyan prayers

"Every day around noon, a part of the small Christian community gathers to encourage each other" in Tripoli, according to a representative with Open Doors in Libya who asked not to be identified. The group estimates the number of indigenous Libyan Christians is around 150, but prior to the start of the revolution, the expatriate Christian community was believed to be approximately 180,000. Large numbers of migrant workers left Libya after the revolt that started Feb. 15. Concerning the future of the church, the Open Doors worker noted: "The situation will change, that is for sure, but will Christians gain from the change? Will there be more religious freedom under a new administration? No one knows. The government will be Islamic, but the question remains how strict it will be and how strong fundamentalist influences will be shaping the new Libya."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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