Benghazi Meets, To Show Broad Unity Against al-Qaddafi

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"We are overcoming our tribal identity--it is certainly not part of our political future," said Aiman Tarsin, a representative of Tripoli who lives in Washington D.C.

[Global: Libya]

BENGHAZI, Libya
--Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi has boasted many times in the past that he's in the hearts of "millions of" Libyans and warned of "tribal wars" should he be ousted from power.

His opponents, the rebels who control Benghazi and all of the eastern part of the country beg to differ and in recent weeks have got together to show that there’s a Libya behind the boss in Tripoli.

"Our goal is for all Libyans to meet--and express to Qaddafi: whatever you do is a lie," said Hassan, a robe-swathed rebel fighter from the Qaddafi-controlled town of Zintan, declining to identify himself further.

Representatives from 23 of the areas that are still in Qaddafi’s sphere of control gathered in the rebel capital of Benghazi on a recent Friday to declare their support for the Interim Transitional National Council (TNC), the official name of the opposition coalition. Some of these leaders say they traveled for up to three weeks through mountain passes and around battlefields while others flew in from abroad. The rebels wanted to convince the world that many Libyans from loyalist areas are against the Colonel who must use an increasing number of mercenaries to suppress them, they say.

The declaration was timed to the arrival of opposition representatives to Washington D.C. and London where they tried to muster additional foreign support for their cause. The Washington representative got words of support but no financial aid nor official recognition from the U.S. government because of how poorly known the rebels are, according to a statement by U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates. The U.S. is also uncertain about the degree of unity in the transitional council. Libyans in Benghazi blamed Qaddafi’s propaganda.

"Qaddafi wants to give the illusion that the tribes are in conflict," said Fawzia Bariun, a professor at the University of Michigan and Tripoli native, who attended the event. "This gives the world assurance that all Libyans are one."

Libya’s 5 million non-foreign residents are divided among 140 major "tribes" and "tribal networks," with hundreds of smaller "sub-tribes," making it the most balkanized country in North Africa. The "tribes" have a complex system of relationships, sometimes pitting them against one another.

Some experts such as Alberto Coll, a professor of international law and politics at DePaul University’s College of Law, said that Libya’s modernization, though modest, has weakened tribal identities and strengthened national ones over the 42 years of the government’s rule. He added, however, that the recent unity may largely be inspired only by the opposition to Qaddafi and may not endure.

To reinforce the notion of unity, the representatives identified with cities and districts rather than individual "tribes."

"We are overcoming our tribal identity--it is certainly not part of our political future," said Aiman Tarsin, a representative of Tripoli who lives in Washington D.C.

Colonel Qaddafi, who derives his name from his Qaddafi "tribe" claimed to have brought together many "tribal" leaders who pledged support last week. But rebels claim many of the individuals who attended the gathering were compensated. "They were paid to put on traditional outfits and say that," said Tarsin. "Political mercenaries."

Qaddafi has been reported to have used mercenaries in his military as well. Opposition General Farag al-Fattury from Benghazi said that while Qaddafi’s army included Libyans, most of his forces consisted of hired troops "from Nigeria, Mauritania, other countries." But Paul Kinsinger, a professor and former CIA agent, remains skeptical of this claim, saying that the loyalist body count has yielded mostly Libyans, many of who are either members of the Qaddafi "tribe" or who have profited under its power.

Nonetheless, even support from these seems to be wavering. Many diplomats in Qaddafi’s employ have resigned, with media reports of defection of his oil minister, Shukri Ghanem.

The growing consensus in Benghazi is that the colonel is living on borrowed time.

"Gaddafi is mostly done as a regime and ideology. The tribes have recognized this and most of them are behind the change," said Mehdi Noorbaksh, an Associate Professor of International Affairs at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. "They very much know that they have to be on the right side of the history now."



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