| Ander Nieuws week 42 / Midden-Oosten 2011 |
The Wall Street Journal
October 8, 2011
Six weeks after the fall of Tripoli, the palmy days of rebel unity have begun to disintegrate into a spiral of infighting, political jockeying and even the occasional violent flare-up threatening to derail Libya's post-Gadhafi transition.
Regional rivalries between fighters from the western mountains and Tripoli have in recent days come perilously close to exploding into open warfare in the capital. In some neighborhoods, multiple leaders claim sovereignty for their groups amid a deepening battle over the makeup of a citywide military council.
The brewing tensions could be the beginning of a healthy and robust political contest between Libya's competing regional, tribal and ideological interests. But there are also fears that the vacuum created by a transitional period which has dragged on without a new interim government could cause these tensions to explode into destabilizing internecine bloodshed around the country.
The rivalry between fighters from Tripoli and the western mountain town of Zintan encapsulates many of the broader rifts that are tugging at the threads of the former allies' unraveling unity, pitting rural against urban, ex-military officers versus irregular militias and Islamist against those with a more secular vision for Libya.
The more-secular leaders in Tripoli voice concerns over the Islamist leanings of many of the commanders who now hold sway as they clash over seats on the city's military council. Similar divisions are also present within the country's Islamist leadership, where regional loyalties add to the confrontations over ideology.
Mehdi Herrati, the commander of the Tripoli Brigade, has threatened to resign his leadership twice in recent days during confrontational meetings with neighborhood militia leaders who feel excluded from decision making in the capital, according to Hashem Bishr, Mr. Herrati's deputy.
Mr Bishr, a longtime Islamist, is critical of the city's top military commander, the controversial Islamist Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who is facing a growing chorus of discontent, including from fellow senior Islamist commanders within his own ranks.
Mr. Belhaj fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later became a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant group dedicated to overthrowing Col. Gadhafi. He was captured by the Central Intelligence Agency in Malaysia after the Sept. 11 attacks and eventually handed over to Col. Gadhafi's regime after being interrogated in Thailand and Hong Kong.
Critics are uncomfortable with Mr. Belhaj's television appearances and his exaggerated claims about his role in ousting Col. Gadhafi. which they fear smacks of political ambition. Others worry about his Islamist militant background.
Mr. Bishr says Mr. Belhaj hasn't given leaders from his home neighborhood of Suq al-Jumaa sufficient say in decision making.
The prominent Islamist leader from eastern Libya, Ismail Sallabi, said he too is skeptical of Mr. Belhaj because he seems to be pushing Eastern Libyan leaders aside.
As criticisms of Mr. Belhaj have mounted in recent days, he has largely disappeared from public view. Neither he nor his aides responded to numerous requests for comment. A senior Tripoli commander close to Mr. Belhaj said he is working to address the concerns of local neighborhood militia leaders and hopes to announce the makeup of an expanded and more inclusive city military council within coming days.
Zintan's leadership is composed mostly of defected ex-military officers, whereas the Tripoli leadership is mainly newly minted militia leaders, many of whom have strong Islamist backgrounds.
Mistrust and tension has plagued the relationship between the two groups of fighters throughout the conflict and throughout Libya.
Tensions between the groups fighting against Col. Gadhafi became evident during the earlier days of the conflict. The assassination in July of General Abdel Fatah Younis, a top military commander killed hours after he was detained on orders from a rebel minister and a panel of judges, exposed rifts within the factions.
Libya's rebels disbanded the group's de facto cabinet soon after Mr Younis's death, but with the exception of a few isolated incidents, the leadership managed to quell anger and maintain order within the ranks until now.
With the alliance in command of most of Libya and the National Transitional Council in charge, frictions are flaring up again.
"Everybody is getting their knives out," said Mohammed Benrasali, a leader from Misrata and head of Tripoli's civilian stabilization team.
Most Zintan's leaders back Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jabril, who is deeply unpopular in the capital, and other parts of Libya, and is especially mistrusted by many of the country's Islamist leaders.
"The problems with the Zintanis is they are all uneducated, they drink, they drive around at night in muddy pickup trucks with guns, and they won't leave," said a commander in Tripoli.
A Western official in Libya said he believes the rivalry also has regional dimensions, with Qatar, the tiny Gulf emirate, throwing its weight by Tripoli's leadership, particularly Mr. Belhaj, while Qatar's Gulf rival, the United Arab Emirates, has backed the Zintan leadership.
The top commander of Zintan's forces in the capital, defected army colonel Mukhtar al-Akhdar, slammed his fist down on the table of his office at the city's international airport that remains closed, while the Tripoli-controlled military airport is running a full schedule of military and civilian flights.
"Tripoli is for whom?" he asked. "It's for all Libyans. It's our capital too. This is the essence of the matter."
Zintan's fighters played a storied role in the six-month conflict, fighting off a blistering weeks-long siege by pro-Gadhafi forces, and then driving those forces out of Western Libya and eventually opening the path into the capital.
Tripoli's fighters, by comparison, had it easy, in the eyes of Zintanis and many other Libyans, since the capital fell within just a few days amid light resistance.
Copyright ©2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
| Ander Nieuws week 42 / Midden-Oosten 2011 |