1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Fractious rebels

August 22, 2011

As the Libyan conflict enters its endgame, the time for the country's rebels to seize power is almost at hand. But are they ready to govern Libya when divisions and rivalries pull at the very threads of their alliance?

Libyan rebel fighters
Once Gadhafi is defeated, what will hold the rebels together?Image: dapd

The struggle for peace, security and stability is unlikely to end once Gadhafi's regime falls. If anything, it could be just as hard for the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) to win the peace as it has been to win the war.

With long-held distrust and divisions over potential power-sharing roles threatening to rip the loosely-aligned rebel factions apart, there are even fears that the gunfire of celebration may soon be redirected in anger at rivals for control over the scraps of post-Gadhafi Libya.

The NTC, recognized as the sole representative of Libya by 32 countries, currently lacks a ruling cabinet. The last one was dissolved by Mustafa Abdul Jalil - a judge who resigned as justice minister after the uprising began and is now the NTC's chairman - over the failed investigation into the murder of army commander Abdul Fatah Younis in July.

Existing divisions deepen

Libyan rebel military leader Abdel-Fattah Younis
Younis' murder led to increased tensions among rebels groupsImage: dapd

The mysterious death of Younis, the rebel army commander who was once one of Gadhafi's former right-hand men and one of the war's most high-profile defectors, opened up deep ravines in the already divided rebellion. Accusations over his death flew between rival factions and Jalil was apparently uncooperative when faced with questions over his government's role in the murder.

"Divisions exist between rebels who defected from the Gadhafi regime and those who had never been integrated into it," Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a North Africa and Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, told Deutsche Welle. "The killing of Younis in July exposed the rifts and basic distrust between these two groups."

The murder of Younis has exacerbated the confusion over who takes orders from whom, the chaotic nature of operations and the ineffective command structures within the rebellion which had hindered many of the rebels' early offensives. It has also increased the bickering and mud-slinging between rival groups, many of which reject the NTC's claim to be the government of all Libyans.

Herein lies one of the major problems which the NTC will face should it assume power after Gadhafi has gone. While Jalil presents the NTC as the only true voice of a free Libya, to both the citizens of his country and the international community, it is a view that rebels from Misrata, Libya's third city, and those from the Nafusa Mountains have taken issue with.

Regional power squabbling

Chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council (TNC) Mustafa Abdel Jalil
Jalil's NTC has lost the faith of a number of rebel factionsImage: picture alliance/dpa

In Misrata, the rebels there are so critical of Jalil and his NTC units, which they claim have been disorganized and mostly ineffective in battle, that they have told reporters that they no longer take orders from the NTC.

Jalil's grip on control could also be weakened by the fact that rebels from Misrata and from the Nafusa Mountains were largely responsible for the push into Tripoli via the strategically important towns of Zawiya, Garyan and Zlitan and did so without any assistance from his eastern forces.

Jalil could face increased pressure from the leaders of the Misrata and Nafusa rebels who could demand powerful roles in a future government as reward for their heroics should their forces bring about the fall of the capital.

As well as satisfying the demands of its allies, the NTC will have to placate and police an angry society suddenly free from the often brutal suppression it has suffered under for 42 years. In doing so, it will have to avoid making the same mistakes of the past.

"Restoring public order without resorting to indiscriminate force and falling prey to the temptation of revenge acts against Gadhafi loyalists will be a huge challenge," Thorsten Benner, a security expert from the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) in Berlin, told Deutsche Welle.

"There is a huge danger that a new government will use the revenue from oil to cater to its own cronies rather than the population at large," he added. "There is a also a huge temptation to stage show trials rather than slowly build an independent judiciary."

While the make-up of any post-Gadhafi government, even a fractious one, remains a complex calculation, the NTC does appear to have made plans for the short-term at least; making sure public utilities and services remain online once control is gained and revealing a roadmap outlining its vision for Libya's 20-month transition to democracy.

As well as planning a relocation of its leadership from Benghazi to Tripoli within 30 days of the capital's capture, the roadmap also includes plans to expand the NTC to become more inclusive, including representatives from all over the country, and plans to hold elections for a 200-member interim national congress within eight months of claiming control.

Despite the plan, the fear both within Libya and in the wider world is that the NTC is too divided and faction-riven to even agree on who should form the new executive which will oversee the roadmap. Many see Jalil as incapable of uniting a country given that he can't even unite his own administration.

NATO wary of power vaccum

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen
NATO wants to avoid having to choose sides in a civil warImage: dapd

There is a real concern among the international community that the rebels will win the war but will fail to fill the political vacuum created in Gadhafi's wake, leaving Libya open to similar feuds and sectarian rivalries which followed in the wake of Saddam Hussein's removal from power in Iraq.

"New outbreaks of violence are a danger, particularly if elements linked to the new regime feel cut out of the post-Gadhafi political settlement," Ulrichsen said.

In such a scenario, NATO may find itself in the role forced on the United States; a military power responsible - to a certain extent in Libya's case - for the removal of a dictator which became bogged down in the middle of a civil war it helped to create. The concern is that NATO could be dragged into another long-term - and messy - military commitment like in Afghanistan.

"NATO cannot place itself in the position of having to take sides in an internal conflict, in the way it has effectively been pushed into doing in Afghanistan," Ulrichsen said. "The results from Afghanistan demonstrate that this undermines the possibility of reaching any form of durable political settlement, and it is to be hoped that they can avoid this in Libya."

According to Thorsten Benner it is vital that NATO recognize that political stabilization is not something it excels at.

"NATO had a very limited UN mandate in Libya which it consistently overstepped so it should now scale back its involvement and let the UN and regional organizations such as the African Union and European Union take the lead on the international front."

In an ideal world, he added, the Libyans should take their fate into their own hands - with advice from the international community.

"Global and regional organizations can offer advice on state building issues through a political mission although we shouldn't expect a new government which will be fuelled by oil riches to be a good listener."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge