In ‘Free Libya’: Hey, Who, Exactly, Is in Charge Here?

It’s easy to find the headquarters of the Libyan opposition in Benghazi, the country’s second city and the hotbed of the uprising against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Just head down to the Corniche, the city’s Mediterranean waterfront, and follow the cheering crowds hanging Gaddafi in effigy to the city’s district courthouse, where the revolution began on Feb. 17 as a protest by the city’s lawyers and judges. But once inside the now battle-scarred and graffitied building, it’s hard to figure out who, exactly, is in charge.

Scores of newly minted revolutionary officials — middle-aged volunteers from the city’s professional and business classes — have many meetings but appear to make few decisions. They hold press conferences in what used to be a courtroom, while about a dozen opposition spokesmen roam the halls trying to be helpful but often offering conflicting information. Trucks full of eggs and baby formula arrive at the courthouse doors without an apparent system for delivering them to the needy and without clear reports of shortages. And though spirits are high, especially among the young volunteers sporting Che Guevara–style berets, the institutional vibe is more like that of a steering committee of a future liberal-arts college than of a guerrilla movement gearing up for a long fight. “The problem is that we don’t have anyone with any political experience whatsoever,” says Iman Bugahaighis, a professor of dentistry now acting as an unofficial spokesperson. “We didn’t have any institutions other than regime. That was part of Gaddafi’s plan: to make everyone loyal only to him.”

Perhaps sensing the vacuum, former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who resigned from the Gaddafi government only a week ago, told al-Jazeera television on Saturday that he’s in charge of a transitional government that will pave the way for elections in three months, that could possibly negotiate with the regime and that might even end up splitting the country between the opposition-controlled east and the government-controlled west. (He also told al-Jazeera that Gaddafi has chemical and nuclear weapons, a claim that military commanders sympathetic to the opposition told TIME was highly unlikely.)

But a new revolutionary committee that just announced its existence on Sunday undermined Abdel Jalil’s claim to leadership. Calling itself the National Libyan Council, its members claim to be an umbrella group representing the many local committees that spontaneously formed in the past 10 days to liberate the country city by city. However, a 30-minute question-and-answer session with the foreign press showed that the committee is still very much a work in progress, with its actual membership, selection criteria and most of its agenda yet to be announced. And though the National Libyan Council appeared to be working with Abdel Jalil, and may even include him, it made it clear that that the views expressed by the former Justice Minister — such as his apparent willingness to negotiate with the regime — did not necessarily represent the opposition. “These are personal opinions of Mr. Mustafa [Abdel Jalil],” said Ghoga. “The principle of negotiation with a human-rights violator is an issue for the whole council to discuss. In my personal opinion, there’s no room to negotiate.” Moreover, any discussion of elections or other constitutional matters was premature while Tripoli, the capital, remained in Gaddafi’s control. But at least one thing the National Libyan Council did agree upon, according to Ghoga, was that Libya should be united and free from Gaddafi. “The word is out,” he said. “Libya is one society and one nation. The capital is in Tripoli and it will always be in Tripoli.”

Though it’s understandable that Libya’s leaderless revolution is in some state of disarray a mere 10 days after it began, the consequences could be severe. The Gaddafi regime has enough of its security apparatus intact in Tripoli, and it seems sure enough of its survival that it invited a junket of foreign press to the capital on Saturday in an attempt to control some of the damage to its international reputation caused by reports that it systematically used deadly force against peaceful demonstrations. So now in Benghazi, the opposition is growing increasingly worried that the regime may launch a counterattack to retake liberated territory, order an aerial bombardment or activate sleeper cells to terrorize the city.

But the opposition has yet to detain former regime members or set up security checkpoints inside Benghazi. On Saturday, the opposition’s media center began issuing handwritten badges to foreign media and volunteers, but besides that and one metal detector at the courthouse, there’s very little to prevent trained intelligence operatives from dealing a major blow to the nascent opposition government. “We know we are infiltrated,” says Bugahaighis. “We might be assassinated at any time.”

Nor does there appear to be much in the way of a military strategy for completing the revolution, aside from hoping that Tripoli will liberate itself as Benghazi did. There was some debate among officials about whether or not the committee should start a military committee in order to coordinate the volunteer soldiers willing to travel to Tripoli, though it also appeared to want to leave such matters in the hands of army commanders who had sided with the revolution. “The army has been with the revolution since the beginning, so we have full confidence in it,” said Ghoga.

But it’s also not exactly clear who’s commanding the parts of the military that have turned against the regime or how significant a military force those units represent. In an interview with TIME on Friday at an air base on the outskirts of Benghazi, Colonel Tarek Saad Hussein said he was coordinating volunteers and soldiers to lead a large-scale march on Tripoli. But on Saturday, Brigadier General Mohamed Hassan Mahanna, who identified himself as the head of air defense in eastern Libya, said he had never heard of a Colonel Hussein. And in turn, it’s not clear how much of an air defense there actually is in eastern Libya. Another air force colonel told TIME that at the outbreak of the uprising, the regime moved most military aircraft from eastern Libya to Sert, Gaddafi’s hometown and a government stronghold on the central coast.

And yet, volunteers continue to show up at military bases around Benghazi, including a former army accounting office that’s now run by a ragtag band of volunteers wearing newly acquired green fatigues and wielding a few captured automatic weapons and the occasional shotgun and hunting rile. “Every day, kids come here and say, ‘Please let us go to Tripoli,’ and we’re just waiting for the orders to go,” says the newly appointed commanding officer, an air-force pilot. “We don’t need a plan,” says one of his men, a former mechanic. “We’ll liberate Tripoli with our hearts.”

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