How the Libyan Rebels Came to Be Called 'Rebels,' Against Their Will

Anti-Qaddafi forces prefer "freedom fighters" or "revolutionaries"

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Al Jazeera's Sue Turton had an interesting exchange recently with a Libyan tradesman named Mohammed near the front in Misurata. As they waited by a makeshift hospital, Mohammed asked Turton why she called the men (and women) battling Muammar Qaddafi's security forces "rebels." "They are not fighting men," he stated. "You need to tell the world that these men are normal people. Gaddafi has forced them to take up arms."

Mohammed's not alone in his thinking. In March, opposition fighters told Time's Abigail Hauslohner that they wanted to be called "revolutionaries" or "mujahideen," not "rebels"--a sentiment that other fighters echoed in interviews with Clare Morgana Gillis at The Atlantic in April. Earlier this week, Marc Herman explained why the rebels don't like being called rebels. They consider it "Qaddafi's term," he noted at The Atlantic, and prefer Ronald Reagan's phrase for groups like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan or the Contras in Nicaragua: "freedom fighters." Herman added, however, that the distinction only mattered for public relations reasons, since the "anti-Qaddafi militias don't speak English, but rather Arabic and Amazir--the Berber language--and call themselves thwar, which roughly means revolutionaries" (Al Jazeera Arabic, interestingly enough, seems to go with that word as well: thuwar in formal Arabic, or ثوار, which can be translated as rebels but comes from a root meaning "to agitate," having a noun form meaning "revolution"). The English-language website for the opposition's Transitional National Council, meanwhile, makes no mention of "rebels," referring instead to the "revolutionary people of Libya."
So how did this whole "rebel" thing get started? A Lexis Nexis search of English-language news sources suggests that the term was first used on February 21, less than a week after peaceful protests first erupted in Libya, by the wire service AFP, which referred precisely once to a statement from "rebel diplomats" at the U.N. Adoption grew on February 24 as the conflict grew increasingly violent and opposition forces advanced toward Tripoli, with headlines like "Rebels Hope for Qaddafi's Fall but Remain Fearful" and "Libya Rebels Isolate Qaddafi" cropping up. By early March Brooke Gladstone of NPR's On the Media had noticed that news outlets were calling the Libyan opposition "rebels" rather than protesters, and addressed the change on her show. Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell told Gladstone that he thought the word "rebel" was rather romantic, not pejorative as some had suggested, and added that the term made sense once the peaceful uprising turned into an armed struggle. "You can't really call someone with an RPG a protestor anymore. At that point they really then become a rebel."
The backlash against the word "rebel," moreover, may soon spread elsewhere in the Arab world. In recent days news outlets have been tossing around a new term: the "Syrian rebels."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.