Courtesy Reuters

Rebel Rivalries in Libya

Division and Disorder Undermine Libya's Opposition

In mid-July, when I visited Benghazi, the stronghold of the Libyan rebels who are fighting to unseat Muammar al-Qaddafi, the brigade headquarters from where Qaddafi's forces once ruled the eastern part of the country had been reduced to a graffiti-encrusted, burned-out wreck. It was a sight I could never have imagined in the 25 years I have studied Libya.

But despite the recent rebel advances at Zawiyah, any expectation that the collapse of the Qaddafi regime is imminent -- a statement made regularly by all of the NATO militaries now contributing resources to the anti-Qaddafi campaign -- remains wishful thinking at this time. The Libyan uprising against the Qaddafi regime is now six months old, and there is no immediate end in sight. Long gone is U.S. President Barack Obama's insistence that multilateral military action against Libya would be a matter "of days, not weeks."

For now, the scenarios most likely to bring the conflict to an end revolve around what many close observers refer to as "catastrophic success" -- the sudden removal of Qaddafi by internal revolt or other means, which would leave a profound political and security vacuum -- or extended negotiations between Tripoli and Benghazi led by a neutral interlocutor.

The first seems unlikely for now, given the security measures that surround Qaddafi and the fierce loyalty of his immediate supporters. As for the second, although many sides have proposed road maps for talks between the rebels and the Qaddafi government, the prospect of direct negotiations remains distant. After all, road maps are of little value where roads are nonexistent. The two sides in Libya have put forward baseline demands that make a diplomatic solution unlikely: The rebels refuse to consider any negotiation that involves Qaddafi or anyone representing him, while Tripoli rejects any talks that would question Qaddafi's legitimacy. 

Thus, it seems likely that conditions will have to get much worse before either side will blink. This leaves open the possibility that Libya's civil war will be decided by a grinding, prolonged military conflict in which Qaddafi's regime is gradually exhausted by NATO-supported rebel attacks. Conditions in Tripoli have already become uncomfortable for the Qaddafi government: supplies of food, gasoline, and even ordinary household items are in increasingly short supply. The regime might not have the resources to continue to buy loyalty for much longer.

Although this may suggest that time favors the rebels, the killing of their rebel military commander, Abdul Fattah Younes, last month and the disarray that followed his death have shown that the rebels are plagued by their own internal divisions, which will only get worse as the conflict drags on. Put simply, the rebel government is in danger of losing strategic control over its campaign, with the climate of lawlessness and lack of control in eastern Libya threatening to upend whatever gains the rebels may make on the battlefield or in diplomatic circles.

The press conference held by Mustapha Abdul-Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council, in the wake of Younes' death is just one example of the continuing weaknesses of the rebel government. As it fights to reunify the country, the NTC itself remains far from a truly integrated, unified movement. As Jalil spoke at the Tibesti Hotel, angry supporters of Younes emptied their guns into the hotel's windows. For his part, rather than using the loss of Younes as a rallying call for greater unity, Jalil predictably blamed loyalist forces for the military commander's death. The NTC was soon forced to recant this statement, however, when it became clear that an out-of-control militia on its own side was likely responsible. 

The fact that at the conference only members from Younes' powerful tribe, the Obeidi, were seated around Jalil further belied the illusion that the NTC could function as neutral powerbroker and arbiter, not privileging one group or faction at the expense of others. Fearing retaliation, no top NTC members were present at the press conference or at Younes' funeral the next morning. Although this does not necessarily mean that the rebels' revolt will inevitably lead to inter-tribal fighting, as articles in The New York Times and elsewhere have suggested, it does illuminate one of the important fault lines: Powerful players in the country, in this case, a tribal group, need to be placated for fear of provoking unrest.

The most problematic part of Jalil's statement was his call to eliminate what he described as "fifth columns," Qaddafi loyalists still active in eastern Libya. Such talk is dangerous and irresponsible in a place as lawless as eastern Libya, where retaliations, violence, and score settling remain common. Worst of all, as in all rebellions, trying to identify so-called fifth columns only antagonizes and alienates those people who are content to remain neutral but are forced willy-nilly to align themselves with the NTC and its policies for fear of being identified as traitors. Jalil's speech was indicative of the unawareness and inexperience that the NTC continues to exhibit.

In the aftermath of the killing, the picture in eastern Libya became both darker and more revealing. The temporary appointment of Suleiman Mahmoud al-Obeidi as the NTC's new military commander and the dismissal of several individuals from the NTC's executive committee were widely interpreted as a way to meet charges by the Obeidi tribe that part of the NTC had been complicit in Younes' killing. For now, the changes have kept the peace, but the larger issue -- that NTC structures and policies can be kept hostage to different groups' interests -- has been left unresolved.

Although the focus on tribal rivalries took prominence after Younes' death, several other fault lines are becoming increasingly visible: between those fighting on the front versus those staying behind in Benghazi, Libyans inside the country who have taken part in the uprising versus those outside the country, and rapidly organizing Islamists versus those with a more secular vision for Libya's future. (Many rebels are also uneasy over the absence of Mahmoud Jibril, the NTC's political leader, from the country; he apparently has his own fears of assassination.)

In all of this turmoil, the essential question for Libya's future remains whether the NTC will continue to function as a credible, unified political movement, or whether its credibility will further decline as the civil war continues and other incidents inevitably reveal more internal cleavages?

In terms of organization and diplomacy, the NTC has made undeniable progress over the last two months. It has established offices in a number of major cities around the globe, and in July the International Contact Group for Libya (consisting of all the countries participating in the NATO-led campaign against Qaddafi) recognized it as the legitimate representative of Libya. Despite these successes, there are two almost contradictory sets of feelings palpable in Benghazi today. The first is one of invincibility and unwillingness to compromise, expressed by the soldiers doing the fighting and seen in the intransigence many NTC representatives have toward negotiations. The second is a lingering sense of uncertainty about the future; no one will acknowledge this fear publicly, however, for fear of being considered disloyal. 

This uncertainty is caused by the sense that the NTC has so far spent much its time on procedural issues related to a new constitution and to other practical military, security, and social arrangements for a post-Qaddafi Libya. But many people in eastern Libya are afraid that these proto-state institutions will be increasingly undercut by spreading chaos and disagreements before their roots are allowed to take hold.

One way the NTC could prevent the growing disarray that further civil war will bring would be to forge a compromise among its supporters for negotiations with Tripoli. In July, I took part in a workshop on negotiations in Benghazi, during which some NTC members, particularly those representing Tripoli, proved immovable. But ultimately they must remember that reconstructing Libya is not simply about creating the institutions of a future state, which, admittedly, the NTC has made good progress on.

Instead, it is ultimately also about nation-building: instilling in Libyans a sense of unity and consensus, creating a common vision of what Libya should look like in the future, and of providing a sense of leadership to which most citizens can subscribe. And here the rebel leadership has faltered for a number of reasons: disagreements and suspicions rooted in the country's history, the everyday constraints of waging a civil war, and the contradictory signals coming from the international community. Negotiating a way out of the current impasse before the civil war establishes a fait accompli would go a long way toward convincing many Libyans and the international community that the NTC has the courage and vision to compromise with its adversary. No matter how repugnant and seemingly unfair such a compromise would be -- for example, that Qaddafi and those close to him are provided with immunity and are allowed to leave Libya -- such a move would add to the NTC's leadership credentials. It would also serve as one small but symbolically important step in setting Libya on its way toward the kind of national reconciliation that will need to follow any resolution of the conflict.

The NTC should also realize that its current impasse over negotiations pales in comparison to its most difficult challenges in forging a united Libya, bringing the eastern and western parts of the country back together. Starting serious negotiations with Tripoli would be a significant step in creating a greater consensus -- a step the United States and the international community should encourage, preferably through the UN special envoy to Libya, Abdul Ilah al-Khatib. If the rebels fail to overcome their growing fault lines and their reluctance to compromise, they may well win the war but lose the larger battle: the true unification of Libya as a modern state and nation, in which both former loyalists and former rebels can co-exist.

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