RAS LANUF, Libya – Perched on a dune off the lone strip of highway that leads from Libya’s “free” east to the capital in Tripoli, a lean, sinewy man in camouflage fatigues and a pink kifaya wields a rocket launcher on his shoulder, one eye closed as he squints through the eyepiece.
Nineteen days into the Libyan uprising, the loose coalition of opposition forces are pushing further and further west. After repelling forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi from the strategic oil complex of Ras Lanuf on Friday, the rebels are pushing closer and closer to the capital, Tripoli.
“Gaddafi is a man of only one mind, and it is not the mind of the people,” said Ahmed Tawaray, who fought for the Libyan army between 1981 and 1992, before leaving to work for Sirte Oil Company. “Even his own forces feel no loyalty to him. He will have to give up.”
Like most who have thrown in their lot with the opposition, what is at stake in this fight weighs heavily.
“Libya, it can be for Gaddafi, or for us, but not both,” Tawaray said. “Either we win or we die.”
This once disparate group of former military personnel, lawyers, opposition figures and young people comes from different tribes, different regions of Libya and different social classes. Some are experienced military strategists; most are not.
But differences aside, they have banded together, at least for now, with a determined sense of mission to put an end to Gaddafi’s 41 years in power. And now, what began as a protest movement similar to the one that brought down the leaders of of Egypt and Tunisia, appears to be lurching toward civil war.
Hard numbers of fighters for either side are not available, but local media have estimated that Gaddafi retains command of somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000 security forces, largely in regiments commanded by his sons. There is also an unknown number of African mercenaries on Gaddafi’s payroll.
The opposition claims to control 5,000 soldiers who have defected from the Libyan army, in addition to a large number of eager volunteers. But while the volunteers might be short on military experience, many note the irony that Gaddafi had long ordered weapons training for all high school students and that now that training is “being turned against” him.
Among their ranks are a second wave of cabinet ministers and experienced military officers – most notably Mustafa Mohamed Abud Ajleil, the former justice minister – who have left Tripoli to support the rebel movement.
“I just joined today,” said Inser Ali Alwami, an electricity student from Ajdabia. “There are no jobs for us, no future. He was robbing us.”
“We cannot wait. We must make our own future,” he added.
More than 50 percent of Libya’s 6.5 million people are under 18 years old, and the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the Arab world, more than 20 percent, according to a recent estimate.
As the fight between the Libyan rebels and forces loyal to the dictator moves closer to Sirte, the town where Gaddafi was born and which stands between the rebels and the capital, the increasingly organized opposition is united behind one goal – Tripoli.
“Libya is one country, we are one family,” said Asraf Kuafi, a former petroleum engineer who had never picked up a gun before joining the opposition forces 10 days ago. “This fight is for all of us.”
Abdullah Al Mahdi, a former colonel who defected from Gaddafi’s military and is now a spokesperson for the opposition, told Al Jazeera on Friday that the conflict has killed 6,000 people. He said the rebels expect to reach Tripoli soon. Opposition forces clashed with Gaddafi loyalists for a second day in the rebel-held city of Zawiyah, just 30 miles from the capital.
Although the opposition continues to take more and more ground, and Gaddafi has lost the little support he might ever have had from the international community, which has frozen his assets, banned his travel and issued arrest warrants, the longtime Libyan leader continues to fight back. During prolonged battles in Zawiyah and elsewhere near Tripoli, state television ran continuous reports of apparently false claims of government victories.
For Gaddafi, and those closest to him, the rebel push and international response appears to have only hardened his stance. With nowhere else to go, holding on to Tripoli and Sirte means, for Gaddafi, survival.
“This is a fight for Libya, by Libyans,” one opposition fighter said. “We are united, and we will win.”