Skip to main content

A ragtag rebel army emerges in Libya

By the CNN Wire Staff

Libyan civilians turned amateur soldiers say they're united by one mission: toppling the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Libyan civilians turned amateur soldiers say they're united by one mission: toppling the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
  • Members of Libya's opposition were civilians just a month ago
  • Opposition leadership comes from a group of 31 people
  • Libyan opposition says it is united against Gadhafi

(CNN) -- Just a month ago, members of the Libyan opposition army were civilians of all ages and from all walks of life.

Wesam, 22, was in college.

Ahmed, 32, is a husband, father and an engineer.

Adrees, 18, was studying business.

But now, they're amateur soldiers in the rickety rebel army of Libyan opposition. They say they're united by one mission -- to topple the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Since protests began in earnest in February, there has been no single, unifying figure in charge of the revolt. People of all ages and tribal affiliations have been taking part.

One man told CNN that when government forces began using live ammunition against the protesters, it turned the whole community against them.

With the rebels pushing west, gaining momentum and territory, a Libya without Gadhafi appears more likely by the day.

But whether democracy will follow is far from clear. Libya has long been a patchwork of tribes and rival sects, kept largely intact in the grip of Gadhafi's autocratic regime.

Traditionally, opposition to Gadhafi has been hampered by the fact that Libya's sense of national identity is "very weak," according to Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Tribal loyalty in the sparsely populated North African country has come first -- which made it tough for Gadhafi's opponents to present a unified front.

A nationwide network of "social leadership" committees set up by Gadhafi in 1993 and composed primarily of traditional leaders and tribal leaders could seek to take charge, according to Ronald Bruce St John, who has written seven books on Libya.

Gadhafi tried without success to eliminate the more than 100 tribes in Libya between 1969 and 1980, St John said.

In 1993, he began reinforcing the tribal system and recognizing its leaders as important by creating social leadership positions, St John said.

If Gadhafi leaves power, "those tribal leaders will try to find a way to put together some kind of a new government," St John said. "I think you'll see the tribes being the ones that will, in the short term anyway, try to find a way through the obvious chaos that's going to occur."

So far, leadership for anti-government forces has been a group effort.

The National Transitional Council, created in early March, is made up of 31 representatives from across Libya -- local politicians, military officials who switched sides, lawyers, doctors, academics and activists. They have settled on Benghazi as a temporary location until the "liberation" of the capital, according to a decree the council issued.

The council said its main missions are to represent all of Libya internationally, liberate the country, draft a constitution and hold elections.

Opposition leaders know the path to democracy won't be easy. But, they say, whoever tries to turn them from their path will face what Gadhafi is facing now.

CNN's Reza Sayah contributed to this report.