Professor: In Libya, A Civil War, Not Uprising

Every day we hear reports of rebel advances and retreats in Libya— but who, exactly, is behind the fighting? Host Guy Raz speaks to Trinity College International Studies professor Vijay Prashad about the true identity of the Libyan rebels.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Turning now to Libya. It's been two weeks since NATO launched a campaign of airstrikes against that country. The biggest beneficiaries for now are the anti-Gadhafi rebels. But who's in charge?

It's a question we asked Vijay Prashad. He's a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford.

Professor VIJAY PRASHAD (International Studies, Trinity College): In Benghazi and the eastern part of Libya, you have a group of people who have been in a long-standing rebellion against the western part of Libya. That rebellion dates back to the Ottoman period.

In the eastern part of Libya, you have the most fierce resistance against Italian colonialism when Gadhafi conducted his coup d'etat in 1969 against King Idris I. King Idris is from the eastern part of Libya. And the regime that Gadhafi created largely benefited people of the west.

So the first answer to the question who are the rebels, they are the people of the east and therefore they have risen up against the west.

RAZ: Let's talk about some of the personalities. Who are the military leaders? Who is organizing groups of fighters? And are they organized?

Prof. PRASHAD: The earliest leader was the interior - former interior minister, General Abdel-Fattah Younis, was the first face of the armed rebellion from Benghazi. Very quickly, he was joined by a mysterious man, a colonel, who had fought quite bravely, it seems, in the war in Chad on behalf of Gadhafi.

And in the 1980s, he had defected away from Gadhafi and joined army that's a sort of rebel army based in Chad fighting against Gadhafi in the 1980s. His name is Khalifa Hafter. And when the Chadian government changed power, Khalifa Hafter had to flee Chad, and he fled to a very interesting place. He came to Vienna, Virginia.

RAZ: Uh-huh.

Prof. PRASHAD: Yes, Vienna, Virginia is an odd place. Firstly, it struck me as interesting how quickly he was able to move from Chad to Vienna, Virginia. You know, when one goes to get a visa to enter the United States, all kinds of complications arise if you've been in the military of a foreign power. But for some reason, he was able to come quite quickly with his family to Vienna, Virginia. It happens to be only seven miles away from Langley, Virginia, which some people might recognize as the home of the CIA.

RAZ: CIA, yes.

Prof. PRASHAD: Yeah, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PRASHAD: So, Khalifa lived in Virginia for about 25 years. In the 1990s, he created an army called the Libyan National Army. They had a post office box in Virginia and they were conducting operations in eastern Libya.

RAZ: These sounds very familiar, Vijay Prashad. The story you tell about Khalifa Hafter sounds very similar to the story about Ahmed Chalabi.

Prof. PRASHAD: Yes, it's a similar story. After all, Chalabi also had an army (unintelligible) a post office box somewhere in London. Various attempts inside Iraq to conduct insurgency and was (unintelligible). So, yes, indeed, the parallels are quite striking.

RAZ: Tell me about the man who we've been hearing about a little bit lately. His name is Mahmoud Jibril. Apparently, he was one of the Libyan representatives who met with foreign ministers in London last week. Who is he? What does he represent? Where does he come from?

Prof. PRASHAD: Mahmoud Jibril is an interesting person, who was very close to the inner circle of Gadhafi's regime right through the 1990s. And his role was quite simple. Gadhafi had wanted to somehow make peace with Europe and the United States. He was very eager to solve the problem of Lockerbie, the bombing in Lockerbie. He wanted to start privatizing some of his economy, bringing oil to the markets without too much pressure from foreign governments, et cetera.

Mahmoud Jibril was the perfect person to run interference here. He had a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in strategic planning, a very able person who was in charge of the National Economic Development Board. He was a regular visitor in the U.S. embassy in Tripoli. Of course, we know all this, thanks to the WikiLeaks (unintelligible). He met the ambassador several times. So Jibril is, in a sense, the person who is abroad settling the political table while others are doing the military work in Benghazi.

RAZ: Are these the people who presumably lead Libya, run the government if Gadhafi is ousted?

Prof. PRASHAD: It is very likely that this is the case. In other words, in other uprisings where there's not so much (unintelligible) to foreign support. All kinds of different people might come in and become, you know, the leadership.

In Libya, on the other hand, because there is the foreign intervention, military assistance, this section has, in a sense, usurped the energy of the eastern rebellion.

There is no Tahrir Square in Libya. There is no Google executive among them. This is an old-fashioned civil war, and here, the outcome is going to be quite different and less as it were inspiring than what one saw in Tunis and Cairo.

RAZ: That's Vijay Prashad. He's a professor of international studies at Trinity College and specialist on Libya.

Vijay Prashad, thank you so much.

Prof. PRASHAD: Thank you.

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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