Getting to Know the Opposition

Co-authored by Tarkowski Tempelhof

With the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi, Libya has a whole new political spectrum that covers a formal transitional government to remnants of the monarchy. Each will play some telling role over the next few months as the North African country struggles to redefine itself. Here's the basic breakdown.

Who did the world recognize?

The transitional government emerged as four pillars: National Transitional Council (NTC), The Executive Board (TEB), the Libya Stabilization Team, and The Local Councils.

Among Eastern Libyans there is a consensus that an official body is needed, and few have expressed opposition to the NTC as a governing body. The main concern has been over the selection process. The NTC seems to be dominated by two key-families: the Bogaigis and the Garianis. For most Libyans, faith is placed with the President, Mustafa Abdel Jalil who benefits from popular support. His recent announcement that he will be the first to stand trial in any country for transitional justice was well received, and confirmed people's faith in him to lead Libya into the transition.

The Executive Board's (TEB) primary mandate has been to focus on diplomacy. The TEB is not well known to local groups, and perceived by many to be out of touch with the Libyan streets. On a political level, many still question how the TEB and NTC work together, with some local activists suggesting that they appeared to be evolving into competing entities. The success of the NTC and TEB will be determined by their ability to integrate with the Tripoli technocrats in the next phase.

As a testimony to the NTC's recognition of the need to respond immediately following the fall of Gaddafi, a group was formed by presidential decree called the Libyan Stabilization Team to deliver safety and stability during the transition phase. The LST consists of committees dedicated to delivery on everything from basic services to governess to civil society. The Chairman of the Team is Dr. Ahmed Jehani, NTC's Minister of Reconstruction and the Spokesman is Dr. Aref Nayed (Ambassador to the UAE).

The governance was not only on a national level, but also resulted in the creation of local councils in the liberated cities. The rapidity of the emergence of local councils' after February 17th was largely due to preexisting structure of local councils under Gaddafi. There is still a large question as to level of coordination with the NTC, but an overall consensus that the councils have been able to deliver more efficiently.

The February 17th Youth Movement

The February 17th Youth Movement perceive themselves as the initiators of the revolution. The Youth Movement constitutes a key political constituency that may eventually form a distinct party. They have taken a largely populist stance, with a platform revolving around eliminating corruption and bringing the voice of the people into government.

Currently, they are the primary voice calling for accountability and transparency of the NTC. They are proving to be an impetus for developing key checks-and-balances upon the NTC.

The Armed Forces, The Rebel Fighters, and the Militias

According to the NTC, the Armed Forces consisted of about 1000 people, mainly trained armed forces that defected from the Gaddafi military. There currently is no data on the number of 'rebel fighters.' Early popular impressions of the rebels indicated that the rebel fighters were drawn from a broad cross-section of the society -- from the bread baker to the jihadist to the urban law student. Two trends amongst militias have emerged: large and organized militias who coordinate with the council, and smaller, looser 'groups' that perform various activities. The latter tends to be comprised of groups of friends who take up weapons either to fight at the frontlines, guard neighborhoods, or conduct the now infamous targeted executions of Gaddafi loyalists.

Recently, however, the 'rebels' category has been further divided. Since the death of General Abdel Fatah Younis, clashes have been breaking out in Benghazi. The General's tribe, the Obeidat, has agreed to a ceasefire pending further investigations. However, with the recent development in Tripoli, there is a fear that NTC will neglect a full investigation and report on Younis. This will further antagonize the Obeidat tribe.

The biggest question concerns the response of the rebels to the NTC's call for disarmament. Col. Ahmad al Qutrany, the leader of the 3,000 fighters strong Saraya al Shohada -- meaning 'Battalion of Martyrs' -- stated that all his "fighters have signed a contract with the council to hand over our weapons when the fighting has ended." Such reassurances are crucial, yet many have little faith in their implementation.

From a stability perspective, it may be difficult for bread bakers turned rebel fighters who have experienced the adrenaline rush of the frontlines, to simply hand over their weapons and return to being a bread baker once the conflict is over. Further, the rebel groups' shift in alliances will prove problematic in negotiating power sharing deals.

Volunteers & Civil Society

The first wave of volunteerism was primarily led by the 17th February revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as by unaffiliated individuals. The volunteers collected garbage, established neighborhood watches, distributed food to the poor, and boy scouts acted as traffic policemen. In focus groups conducted by Shabakat Corporation, many expressed gratitude to the role the volunteers performed directly after the revolution. The volunteers become more formalized, creating formal registered non-governmental organizations (NGOS), of which there are currently over 200 operating in the eastern areas. The response by the NTC has been very supportive, including the creation of a Ministry of Culture and Civil Society.


Although eastern Libya is a culturally and religiously conservative society, most women are well educated. According to Gaddafi's statistics, more women than men have obtained a higher education. Despite this trend in higher education, however, many women stay at home without working once they are married. During the revolution, however, this trend was reversed: many women demonstrated and took to the streets and became very active in providing food and clothing for the fighters on the frontlines, giving charity for the poor, producing media, organizing civil society, etc.


A large number of Libyans from the Diaspora have returned from abroad. Some are currently serving in an advisory role to the council, whilst others are focusing on the creation of media outlets, and fighting on the frontlines. Many from the Diaspora remain engaged in the conflict from outside the borders of Libya, providing financial and operational support to both sides of the conflict.

Recently, public grievances against the Diaspora and the desire to have more "local Libyans" in the council have led to extensive re-shuffling of council positions. As in many conflict and post-conflict situations, the Diaspora is often comprised of well-educated people who have the ability to provide technical assistance during a transitional phase.

The Muslim Brotherhood

In Shabakat public perception research it appears that Libyans consider themselves as religious but not extremist. There is little fear that Islamic groups will dominate the political process moving forward.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya is a very strong, well funded and organized. The eastern regions of Libya have historically been particularly receptive to the ideology of political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood is commonly perceived as an organization that has provided an underground resistance against the Gaddafi regime throughout the years, and its members have subsequently suffered numerous arrests and terms of imprisonment.

In stark contrast to many other groups, who try to play down their future political ambitions, the Muslim Brotherhood is refreshingly honest about it.

"Of course we are a political party. We will run in the future elections, and we will win. Otherwise I would never have joined!" said Mohamed Alkouafi, the leader of a Muslim Brotherhood local group.

This is also obvious in their approach to public relations, profiling themselves as moderates by organizing events where women are invited to attend and to speak.


The salafists appears to be a large part of the society in the east, where many believe in strict Islamic traditions. Libyan Salafists are distinct from other groups in the region in that they claim to renounce violence. Some claim that they did not even participate in the revolution, on either side, because of their non-violent approach. They seem to be popular amongst most Libyans, and are perceived not to have any particular political objectives.


Most Libyans feel the fear of jihadi presence in Darna to be overstated. While many can testify that radical elements are found within the rebel groups, there are too few radicals to be considered a true threat. However, if a prolonged period of instability plagues the country, and the reality that tangible change to daily life will be a long journey (specifically those that have become fighters) -- radical Islam may emerge as a catalyst for those grievances if proactive measures are not taken.


The majority of citizens in Benghazi are quick to dismiss the role of the tribes. Different reports suggest that Gaddafi both undermined and empowered tribes at various times. One person in the opposition leadership expressed that the tribes were widely disliked because Gaddafi had previously used them to overpower the traditional legal system, such as courts and police, and thus created a corrupt alternative power system.

Arabic graffiti stating 'no to tribalism' can be spotted around the courthouse in Benghazi. People are quick to insist their role is social, and has no role in political power negotiations. Although tribes are widely seen as social entities rather than political entities, it is difficult to draw the line between the political realm and the social realm, and the tribes' roles in each.

Tribes have essentially become political entities in Libya. Each Libyan must pay a small tax to his/her tribal leader. When dealing with killings and rapes, tribes are still a central moral authority. Khalil Altheb, the leader of the largest tribe in the east, Alawager, explained that tribal law systems overrule national laws. With weak institutions plaguing Libya, this comes as no surprise. Nonetheless, tribal leaders maintain their role is social and not political, and do not overtly express any interest in governance.


The southern ethnicities, the Touaregs and the Tebus, are different from the northern tribes in lifestyle and in culture. They have resented the Gaddafi regime because local rulers in the south were commonly Arab, and during the Gaddafi regime, both tribes had no right to speak their own languages and express their culture. Both the Tebu and the Touareg tribes have expressed strong grievances towards the NTC, citing a lack of representation in the NTC and claiming that they are not receiving enough support for the revolution in the south in terms of weapons, food and medicine. Nonetheless, they are looking to a new Libya, where their rights are minorities are protected.

One Tuareg refugee explained, "We hated the Arabs and Islam because of what Gaddafi did. But since the revolution we feel that Arabs are our brothers, and Islam our religion". "We are looking for the new Libya, not the new Arabic Libya" says Ali Agari, a Tebu leader during the same discussion.

The Berbers, or more commonly referred to as the Amazighs, are found in the west. They have historically been impoverished, were denied their cultural rights including the use of their language. Recent reports from humanitarian workers in the Nafusa Mountains not only confirm underlying tensions between the Berbers and the Arabs, but also inter-Berber tribal rivalries and conflicts. The Amazighs are currently cooperating with the eastern tribes, united against their common enemy, but in the post-Gaddafi setting, historical grievances are likely to re-emerge.

The Monarchist

Eastern Libyans tend to romanticize the former government of King Idris, whose power derived from the religious legitimacy of the Sanusi order. The popular claim is that King Idris united the Libyans and brought infrastructure and wealth to the country, though the GNP was significantly lower during his rule than under Gaddafi. Ultimately, the monarchy's mismanagement of resources undermined its authority, and by 1969, the Idris monarchy collapsed. This newly-forming nostalgia for the former monarchy amongst the Diaspora could translate into a desire to have returned to power the self-proclaimed 'crown-prince' Mohamed el-Senussi, who is currently based in London. However, there seems to be little or no appetite amongst local eastern Libyans to have Libya return to a monarchy, or even a constitutional monarchy, despite of the general sense of respect for the past ruling family. Eastern Libyans have expressed, rather, a genuine wish for a democratic system

Manal Omar is Director of Iraq, Iran, North Africa Programs, United States Institute of Peace (USIP); Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof is President of Shabakat Corporation.