Who Is Running Libya's Revolution, and Does It Matter?

Libya is awash in so-called "rebels" -- the conventional moniker granted by the international media covering the conflict to anyone battling to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi's regime. The press is full of headlines like "the rebels are fighting,"... "the rebels are running Benghazi,"... "the rebels are asking for foreign military intervention...".

The noun has a certain, pejorative connotation, patently unfair given what these freedom fighters are hoping to accomplish from their liberated sanctuary in Benghazi's courthouse -- their equivalent of Tahrir Square.

So just who are the Libyans placing their lives on the line to take Tripoli and establish a post-Gaddafi regime in Libya?

If the U.S. and its allies are going to pour economic aid and military support into their hands, in the best of all worlds it would be wise to know just who is on the receiving end.

Right now, there is no simple answer. And given the chaos inside Libya and the see-saw nature of the struggle taking place between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces, the revolution has not had much time to ponder the question.

Who can blame Libyans for having a hard time knowing how to organize a revolution? They have been captives of Gaddafi's "1984" style utopia for more than 40 years.

Libya -- a country sewn together from its tribal history of which there are no less than 140. It is really two countries -- one centered on the capital city Tripoli, the other centered on the eastern city of Benghazi. The two are 480 battle-scarred miles apart from each other as the crow flies.

Each city has a number of tribes that control their environs. Gaddafi has his tribe (the Qadhadhfa), and Benghazi is protected by the largest adversarial tribe to Gaddafi known as the Senoussi.

Another tribe, Libya's largest, known as the Warfala, could very well decide Gaddafi's fate since its leadership has turned against Gaddafi and thrown its vast influence and resources into the fight against the regime.

Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, is now the capital of the freshly-minted National Council, now led by former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who quit the regime and fled to Benghazi. Being a "justice minister" in what passed as the Gaddafi government may be an oxymoron. But Abdel-Jalil has a well-deserved reputation for honesty as an international jurist. Whether he is able to become the de facto leader of the revolution is still very much an open question.

The National Council was not elected by anyone, and its membership is being shielded from the press to protect itself. On any given day, members of the National Council are separately speaking to the media without adequate coordination.

It is composed of representatives of the defecting military, tribal elders, former government officials, and designated officials from cities and towns that are under the control of anti-government forces. Surely its members have different priorities and strategies. It also has a number of young cyber-revolutionaries who are using social networking weapons to outfox forces loyal to Gaddafi.

Benghazi is also home to the younger revolutionaries known at the February 17 group, whose membership is largely drawn from the young Benghazi intelligentsia that imported Tahrir Square's ideas and tactics from which to launch the popular revolt.

There is no shortage of military officers who bolted from Gaddafi and are now leading revolutionary forces. Any of them could emerge as the strongman opponent to Gaddafi. One of the preeminent military leaders is Abdul Fatah Younis, a former Libyan general and interior minister. Younis resigned right after the revolution broke out and called on the army to join the upheaval. Whether he enjoys universal support among the members of the National Council as Libya's equivalent to "George Washington" is unclear, and no one knows what his own democratic leanings may be.

Circulating in Benghazi are also remnants of the Libyan Fighting Group, a franchise cell of al Qaeda and theoretically linked to the larger al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) as well as Islamic militants who escaped prison during the initial days of the revolution. They should not be underestimated. AQIM is a growing, potent al Qaeda franchise throughout the Sahara.

There is a credible fear that if the fighting reverts into a "Spanish Civil War" stalemate Libya may disintegrate into factions and tribal regions divorced from a central government. That would spell disaster for the country and enable radical Islamists lurking around North Africa to set up shop in oil-rich Libya.

This is sufficient reason alone for the Obama administration not to get hamstrung in a losing internal debate whether or not to impose a "no-fly" zone. The United States may not have the international imprimatur to impose a "no fly zone" but there are many other ways to help Libya's freedom fighters now, even if it's hard to figure out who will ultimately take charge after Gaddafi meets his well-deserved fate six feet under the Libyan desert. That list of possible assistance includes financial aid, military equipment, special forces support, intelligence and satellite imagery, and humanitarian support, etc.). We can cross the bridge of who will run Libya after Gaddafi is gone once and for all.

The tide of battle hangs in the balance tonight. The revolutionary National Council needs to find its one, true voice that can rally its countrymen and the international community to turn the tide and end the bloodshed. Unity, for the National Council, is job number one.

For the White House, this is an historical opportunity to embrace some of Lafayette's ingenious courage when it comes to aiding Libya's revolutionaries -- "fly zone" or "no fly" zone.