Can Libya's fledgling government get along, or will internal rivalries and tensions tear it apart?
- By Sarah A. TopolSarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @satopol.
TRIPOLI, Libya — When the head of Libya’s transitional government, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, took the stage on the night of Monday, Sept. 12, for the first time since Tripoli fell to rebel forces, the crowd in the capital’s central square went nuts. Women and young girls screamed his name. Clutching the podium, Jalil, the justice minister under Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, urged the Libyan people to have faith in their new leadership. At times, he had to pause because the rapturous chanting became too intense. Fireworks boomed every five minutes, and armed rebels from the Tripoli brigades guarded the podium from the pressing crowds.
But Jalil’s speech wasn’t all rock-star theatrics. The contents of his speech, for those who were listening, were relatively milquetoast. Jalil asked for faith in the new leadership, stressed national unity, and offered thanks to the rebel forces who liberated the country. Unsurprisingly, given his own background, he cautioned listeners against ostracizing former regime members and warned them to resist the temptation of seeking vengeance for Qaddafi-era crimes. "If we put in people from the old regime, it means we trust them; don’t think we’re doing something wrong," he pleaded. Jalil’s speech offered a remarkably honest look at the problems his nascent government faces — problems that have dominated the coverage of Libya’s civil war over the past few days, as Qaddafi continues to elude his captors and the leaders of the National Transitional Council (NTC) continue to squabble, often in public.
About a week ago, the NTC promised that this week would bring the announcement of an interim government. This has kicked off an intense burst of political infighting and smear campaigns. While most Libyan factions appear to respect Jalil, theirs is a political system traumatized by decades of submission to the personal whims of a madman. No one wants to go back, but no one is sure about how to go forward.
Behind the scenes and off the record, officials close to the NTC describe the fissures that have opened up between top military commanders and political officials. Tensions between Western-backed liberals and homegrown Islamists are on the rise, bolstered by the international community’s fears that Islamist militant groups will hijack the revolution. On Al Jazeera just an hour after Jalil’s speech, Ali Sallabi, a popular Islamist cleric, denounced the NTC as composed of "extreme secularists" and warned that they were taking the country into "a new era of tyranny." Sallabi has ties to Tripoli’s military commander, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who once led the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant group with links to al Qaeda.
Then there are the divisions between the leadership that spent most of the uprising in the relatively safe rebel-controlled city of Benghazi and the people who fought on the ground to liberate Libyan cities, block by block. Regional rivalries are also coming to a head, with fighters from Misrata, the western mountains, and Tripoli clamoring for credit and control of the revolution. But most of all, everyone seems to have it out for Mahmoud Jibril, the de facto prime minister who is effectively Jalil’s deputy and foreign minister.
Jibril is another former Qaddafi loyalist whose place at the top of the new government has some NTC insiders and high-ranking military committee members wary. The blunt, U.S.-educated leader has the ear of Western governments, but his aloofness and apparent lack of appreciation for local fighters have rankled some on Libya’s streets. Already, he has been accused of appointing too many old-regime elites to top positions, spending too much time outside the country, and not delivering on all his promises of collecting foreign aid.
"Mr. Jibril, I can’t say it to the press," Mohamed El Fortia, a political advisor to the powerful and well-armed Misrata rebels, told me. "He has a lot of things that are not good, but he’s famous now and he’s accepted by the world governments. But he has problems with the members of the government," i.e. factions like the Islamists and the military, as well as leading figures of the NTC itself.
That’s as far as Fortia would go on the record. But several other highly placed NTC insiders were more candid in private. One said, "Jibril is appointing family members and businessmen to high positions. That’s exactly what Qaddafi did and exactly what we don’t want." The insiders pointed to Aref Nayed, the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and head of the stabilization team, as an example of a Jibril loyalist who has been given a free ride. Others complained that Jibril is working to gain control over Qaddafi’s frozen assets, which a few countries including the Netherlands and Spain have started to release back to the NTC.
"If he does that, he will be the most powerful man in Libya, even if he doesn’t have a position, because he’ll have everybody that is in position under his control and he will manage to get his hands on most of the money," one official told me.
At the beginning of September, the NTC promised that after announcing liberation, it would form an interim government that would run the country for eight months before holding elections. All members of the initial interim government would be ineligible to run for office in Libya’s elected government. So when last week’s announcement that a new unity government would be formed came without the official declaration of "liberation" and only vague plans for how all this was to be accomplished, the new political elite was alarmed.
"We don’t know the mechanism for how they will found this interim government," Fortia said. "How do they choose the people? Do they have their CVs?"
Elements of the military, too, have voiced their opposition to Jibril’s leadership. While the civilian government has attempted to control the different armed brigades that have parked around the capital, units have not responded to their requests to pack up and return home. Brigades from Misrata, including some of the country’s fiercest fighters, refuse to leave until they believe Tripoli is secure — no matter what the NTC or the Tripoli Military Committee says.
"Our Misrata battalions, they don’t follow orders," Fortia admits with pride. "They will not leave except when Tripoli is stabilized. I told this to the minister of internal affairs: When you start building associations, when we see police, we can go."
This divide threatens to destabilize the whole NTC enterprise. "Mr. Jibril has tried very hard in the last few weeks to appoint people who had been very close to and in high positions in the Qaddafi regime," a high-ranking member of the Tripoli Military Committee told me on Tuesday. "He’s trying to build a new power with the people we have fought to remove for the last six months … . We can’t allow Jibril to be the leader."
Already, small public protests have sprung up in Tripoli denouncing Jibril’s leadership, and the military committee member told me it was only the first step. "We appreciate their work," he said of the NTC. "We don’t want to interrupt it, but most people are saying enough is enough. We cannot leave just a few to decide the future for the Libyan people." He told me to stay tuned for mass demonstrations later this week.
The NTC, of course, denies any hint of trouble. "These are not rifts; they’re disagreements within the executive committee. Disagreement is healthy in a democracy; we don’t all have to agree on the course of actions. We must engage each other, all the sectors and parties and throughout the political system, to come up with a solution. It’s not a rift; it’s just different approaches to the same objectives," said Jalal al-Gallal, an NTC spokesman.
But if mass demonstrations kick off, the new government’s democratic credibility — and Jalil’s credibility as a leader — will be sternly tested. Insiders told me Jibril has been trying to get on Jalil’s good side for years, working to curry the former justice minister’s favor even under the Qaddafi regime and supporting his candidacy for head of the NTC in hopes of gleaning political favors in the long term.
And no one seems particularly enthused by either man, or by the government that is meant to lead this nascent country into a new, democratic future. "Jalil can remove Jibril like that," one of the officials told me, snapping his fingers. "Jalil is inherently a good man with good intentions. His problem is he’s politically naive. Administratively, he’s zero. The biggest fault of all: He’s stalled by Jibril. He’s got utter blind trust in him … . We’re infiltrated by Qaddafi, even now. Anybody that tells you anything different is lying."