Libya’s New Generals (III): Conflicting Loyalties

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Libya fighter waits for the arrival of Libyan Transitional National Council chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil in Tripoli. (Photo: AP - Francois Mori)

Published Thursday, September 8, 2011

Suleiman Obeidi was one of the first senior officers to break ranks with Gaddafi following the start of the Libyan popular revolt in February. His appointment as successor to assassinated rebel army head Abdel Fattah Younes is seen as an attempt to appease Libya’s powerful Obeidat tribe. His role in a future Libya is likely to reflect the influence the Obeidat in the new Libyan order.

Part III: Suleiman Obeidi: The Tribal Factor

Both Suleiman Obeidi and his predecessor as rebel army head, Abdel Fattah Younes, hail from the Obeidat tribe. Younes was assassinated June 28 by members of a rebel faction that alleged he had ties to Gaddafi’s regime.

Younes’ killing enraged members of his tribe — largely based in eastern Libya — who were early supporters of the revolution. In response, Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil named another member of the Obeidat as rebel commander. Notables of the Obeidat tribe supported Obeidi’s appointment, pledging to overlook his record as an associate of Gaddafi since the September 1969 coup. However, according to insiders, the appointment led to division among supporters of Abdessalam Jalloud, Gaddafi’s former second-in-command and current pro-Rebel figure.

Obeidi’s televised resignation from Gaddafi’s ranks was made under pressure from tribal elders and during opposition attacks in the Jebel Nafusa area. He declared that he was leaving the armed forces to join the revolution, responding to popular demands for change. Speaking on February 23, just days after the start of the uprising, Obeidi said he had lost confidence in Gaddafi after learning of his orders to open fire on civilians in Benghazi, home to many members of the Obeidat tribe. In particular, Obeidi said he was appalled at Gaddafi’s unrestrained use of force, including aircraft bombings of unarmed protesters.

Because of Obeidi’s top military rank and tribal standing, the regime’s propaganda outlets fiercely attacked him after he defected. Rumors of his death were circulated to undermine rebel morale, and a report on the website of Libyan newspaper al-Watan claimed he died in skirmishes in eastern Libya.

During Obeidi’s first press conference held in the liberated territory, his prediction that Gaddafi would fall in a matter of days was overly optimistic. It took several more months before that happened.

The Obeidat of eastern Libya was one of the first tribes to join the revolution and are one of its driving forces. The tribe called upon its members serving in Gaddafi’s security forces to quit in protest of the fierce repression of protesters during the first days of the revolution. The resignation of many Obeidats from the regime’s ranks played a key role in weakening the regime’s security apparatus.

Part II: Abdel Hakim Belhaj: The Conqueror of Bab al-Azizia

This article is translated from the Arabic Edition.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly displayed the image of Abdelati Obeidi, Libyan Foreign Minister, as that of rebel leader Suleiman Obeidat.

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