Libyan Football Stars Defect to the Mountains Join anti-Gaddafi Rebels
Four members of Libya's national football team and 13 other leading figures in the sport have defected to the rebels.
By Nick Meo in Tripoli
25 June 2011
For 40 years Libya’s footballers have been the pride of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s repressive regime, hailed as heroes of the nation for every victory against a foreign team.
From the moment Libya first qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations in 1982, surprising the continent by making it to the final before losing a penalty shoot-out, to its recent Fifa listing as 58th in the world, its highest ever ranking, every triumph on the pitch has been celebrated across the country.
So enthusiastic was the Libyan leader about the prowess of his country’s players that he installed his son, Saadi, as president of the Libyan Football Federation after a spell as captain of the national football team.
So there must have been cold fury at the top of Gaddafi government on Saturday when 17 footballing figures, including four who said they were members of the national team, turned up unexpectedly in a rebel-held town and declared themselves opponents of the regime.
“I am telling Colonel Gaddafi to leave us alone and allow us to create a free Libya,” said Juma Gtat, 33, who has played as goalkeeper in the national team. “In fact I wish he would leave this life altogether.”
He was speaking in Jadu in Libya’s western mountains, 50 miles south of Tripoli, where rebels have seized a swathe of territory that stretches to the Tunisian border after driving Gaddafi’s forces back towards the capital.
Adding insult to injury he was flanked by Adel bin Issa, the coach of Tripoli’s top club al-Ahly where Saadi Gaddafi used to play, who said he had come to the town “to send a message that Libya should be unified and free”, adding: “I hope to wake up one morning to find that Gaddafi is no longer there.”
Others were afraid to be named, in case of reprisals against their families.
A Libyan official in Tripoli poured cold water on the claims, saying: “This is not true. It is just a goalkeeper who has appeared for al-Ahly and a coach, who is from Bayda and has been with the revolution from the beginning. No players from the national team have defected.”
But The Sunday Telegraph has confirmed that, although not listed on the most recent national squad, Mr Gtat has played for Libya on several occasions and was celebrated as the saviour of the team after saving a penalty shot by Tunisia during a qualifying match for the 2009 African Championship of Nations.
Gaddafi had “done nothing for Libya since he took over; there’s no proper infrastructure, no good education, no health care,” he told the BBC.
“The young people are not well educated. This is because of the last 42 years.”
The western mountains are now almost wholly in the hands of lightly-armed ethnic Berber rebels who have driven out government forces and fought off counter-attacks.
They lack the weaponry to march on Tripoli — less than an hour’s drive from their positions — but claim to have cut one of the regime’s last oil pipelines and say they are assisting guerrilla fighters in the capital. Rebels claim to be launching more night-time attacks against Gaddafi’s security forces in preparation for a new uprising.
The rebels’ mountain enclave also makes defections much easier.
Saddoun al Misrati, of Misurata council, said: “Just like in England, footballers here are big celebrities. For these men to willingly make the move shows how bad the situation must be in Tripoli, about how much they want to bring change.”
Gaddafi’s son Saadi played one game for the Italian club Perugia before he was suspended for failing a drugs test. He also signed with a Maltese club, but never showed up to play, and was for a while president of the Libyan Football Federation.
Fans in Benghazi once dressed a donkey in the kit of al-Ahly to mock Saadi, a notoriously poor player, provoking a vicious crackdown. Fans believe it was Saadi who ordered their stadium bulldozed and dozens of supporters jailed.
In February he directed the brutal security crackdown in Benghazi at the beginning of the uprising, where he was accused of ordering soldiers to shoot unarmed protesters.
The defection of players from his club comes as 100 days of Nato bombing are reached today. Muammar Gaddafi looked doomed four months ago when the uprising broke out; yet he has survived the initial shock of rebellion, and then the worst that the world’s strongest military alliance could throw at him.
“It has been a glorious victory just to withstand for so long,” Gaddafi declared on state television last week, as a loop of pictures showed burning buildings, gigantic explosions, and dead and wounded children and civilians in Libya’s hospitals.
His voice quivered with emotion as the camera lingered on the dead face of the four-year-old grandchild of one of his oldest comrades. Khoweildi al-Hamidi was a fellow army officer who helped Gaddafi launch his revolution in 1969, then served him loyally for years before taking command of the brutal operation to crush rebels in the town of Zawiyah in February.
Eight Nato bombs released from aircraft three miles high in the sky smashed precisely into Hamidi’s luxurious home 40 miles west of Tripoli, turning it into a field of rubble in which servants and family members were buried as they slept. Miraculously, the man who Nato said used his home as a command and control centre escaped without a scratch.
The attack seemed to mark a new willingness by Nato to target key regime figures, even if that meant a risk of some civilian casualties.
Fifteen more civilians died yesterday when an airstrike hit a bakery and restaurant in the frontline oil town of Brega in eastern Libya, the government claimed — the third reported loss of civilian lives in an airstrike in the past week.
Pictures of civilian casualties have handed a potent propaganda weapon to the hardliners and old revolutionaries who now run things.
“The people still around him have genuine loyalty, and there is an element of wanting to avoid punishment for the crimes they have committed,” said Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya.
“Muammar Gaddafi himself is very tough and can take a lot of punishment.”
What has heartened the remaining members of the regime is the sense that there are growing fractures within Nato. The US and Italy look less than fully committed and in Britain, military chiefs have publicly expressed doubts about their ability to sustain the fight.
It would threaten the RAF’s ability to carry out future missions if Britain’s intervention in Libya continued beyond the summer, Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant, the head of combat operations, said last week.
Gaddafi loyalists are clinging to the hope that, if they can only hold on in the current stalemate for a few more weeks, Nato will lose heart - or interest - and some kind of negotiated deal will become possible.
“They are fighting for time now, not land or victory,” said Noman Benotman, a Libyan analyst based in London.
“Their strategy is either to reach a political settlement which includes leaving the Gaddafi family in power, or to split the country.”
The loyalist line in Tripoli, repeatedly endlessly, is that Gaddafi will never go.
“If you think Muammar Gaddafi will step down, you don’t know Muammar Gaddafi,” said Abdul Najid al-Dorsi, a former foreign ministry official, over a cup of mint tea in the seven-star Rixos Hotel, which is now home to foreign journalists, government minders, and gentlemen who sit in chairs in the foyer all day pretending to read newspapers but staring intently at every new arrival.
According to this theory Gaddafi is an Arab hero and a leader who would never let down his tribal supporters by backing away from a fight with foreigners.
Libyan officials, who raise the spectre of civil war if he goes, point out that already 400 of the Warfala tribe have died fighting for Gaddafi, as have 200 of the much smaller Gaddafa tribe to which he himself belongs - making it impossible for him to step down now without betraying the memory of these martyrs.
It is partly for that reason that the rebels mistrust the feelers put out to them by the regime in recent days.
Last week Bashir Hamed, Gaddafi’s personal secretary and adviser for 35 years, quietly travelled to Paris to deliver a message to the French government that the regime was ready to talk about Gaddafi stepping down.
Yet when pressed Mr Hamed could not say when Gaddafi would actually go - making it look like another attempt at stalling by the Libyan leader.
Some in both Benghazi and Tripoli whisper quietly that perhaps Gaddafi might accept internal exile, perhaps in the remote south of the country deep in the Sahara where his greatest popular support lies.
Such an outcome could remove him from political life but leave him beyond the reach of the International Criminal Court, where he would face trial for war crimes if he tried to flee Libya.
The regime’s battle for survival is now based around his sons and a few trusted old comrades like Hamidi, the lieutenant who was targeted in last week’s airstrike. Nearly all the modernisers and reformists have defected from the regime, or are lying low.
As well as the footballer Saadi, three of Gaddafi’s sons have taken prominent battlefield roles fighting against rebels. Moatessem, an army officer, has been reported in the loyalist city Sirte directing operations.
Hannibal, a playboy formerly best known from his troubles with police in various European capitals, has also taken a combat role, but the most prominent of the warrior sons has been Khamis, formerly the obscure youngest son. He is in command of the crack 32 Brigade, one of Gaddafi’s most effective forces, around Misurata and elsewhere in the east.
As Khamis’s star has risen during the course of the crisis, Saif-al Islam’s has waned.
Saif was the English-educated reformist who had been positioned as his father’s likely successor.
His interventions early in the crisis, threatening brutal treatment to rebels, were disastrous miscalculations which ruined his carefully-crafted nice guy image. The regime has however tried again to portray him as the peacemaker; a fortnight ago he surfaced to make an unconvincing offer to hold elections, an offer which was contemptuously rejected by the rebels.
“Saif is finished,” said one regime supporter last week in Tripoli. “He got us into this mess by trying to reform too quickly.” Many of the rebel leaders in Benghazi are former protégés of Saif.
A sixth son, Saif al-Arab, was killed in a bombing attack in May along with three of Gaddafi’s grandchildren, the regime says.
Gaddafi’s pregnant daughter Ayesha was reported to have fled to Tunisia early in the bombing campaign with her husband, a soldier who had been injured, accompanied by her mother Safiya, Gaddafi’s second wife.
But there have been no sightings of them for weeks and so they are believed to have returned home.
The flow of high-level defectors, including men like the former foreign secretary Moussa Kusa, has slowed to a trickle.
Remaining officials, the hard-core of loyalists, remain convinced that somehow they are going to stay in power. They even have an answer for their biggest problem — Nato’s insistence that Gaddafi must step down.
“Gaddafi could accept elections,” one said. “Elections would be regime change, after all. That’s Nato’s exit strategy.”
Additional reporting Ruth Sherlock in Misurata.