With rebels on the verge of ending Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s long reign, the character of their movement is facing its first real test: Can they build a new government of unity and reconciliation, or will their own internal rivalries mean divisions in the new Libya?
Six months after their revolt broke out, the day-to-day leadership of the anti-Qaddafi movement remains an unanswered question, with no figure emerging as the rebellion’s undisputed leader. Even the common struggle against Colonel Qaddafi never masked latent divisions between east and west, between political leaders and fractious militias, and, some say, between liberal public faces and Islamists in the rebel ranks.
The rebels from the western mountains who stormed into Tripoli on Sunday night often roll their eyes at their ostensible political leadership, the Transitional National Council, which is based in the eastern city of Benghazi. Many complained that their national leaders did not give them enough support, even after Western governments began allowing them access to the frozen assets of the Qaddafi government.
“The N.T.C. did not work so hard to bridge the gap” between what western rebels forces had and what they needed to subdue Tripoli, said Youssef Mohamed, a management consultant working as an adviser to one of the rebel units charged with securing the capital.
Seeking to avoid sectarian strife
American and European officials said on Monday that they have been working for weeks to foster cohesion in the rebel ranks and to avoid a repeat of the sectarian strife that gripped Iraq in 2003 after the American invasion. Officials said they thought that one reason Tripoli fell as quickly as it did was that important rebel groups closed ranks and came up with a coherent strategy to invade Colonel Qaddafi’s last stronghold.
Even so, rivalries began emerging on Monday well before Tripoli was fully subdued, along with questions about the rebels’ credibility. Officials of the Transitional National Council in Benghazi said Sunday that their forces had captured Colonel Qaddafi’s son and would-be successor, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi. But then on Tuesday he appeared at a Tripoli hotel housing foreign journalists — moving freely around the city — and even before then some in Tripoli appeared not to trust their Benghazi leadership to handle him.
Emhemmed Ghula, a leader of the Tripoli rebel underground stationed at a newly established military headquarters on Monday, said he worried that the Benghazi leadership had wrongly agreed to turn Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he is wanted on war crimes charges.
“It was not us,” Mr. Ghula said, referring to the Tripoli rebels. “If we caught him, we are not going to give him to anyone. We would just take him to trial — a fair trial — under Libyan laws.”
Pressed on his relationship with the movement’s national leadership, he acknowledged: “We belong to them, politically. They did help us with the plan for this revolution.” But he added: “The general plan, I should say. Not with the local plan.”
Tensions were also on display Monday after the rebels captured a prominent broadcaster from Libyan state television, Hala Misrati. She was spotted driving in the city and was arrested, several rebels said, in connection with her role as Qaddafi propagandist. She was taken to a local office building for questioning, and through a cracked door a heavyset man could be seen leaning over her seat as she screamed, “I am innocent!”
A mob of rebels, many armed, tried to storm the office. They were pushed back when a rebel officer emerged from the interrogation room and fired his gun through the ceiling. He fired another shot to scare off the press.
Ultimately, however, order appeared to win out: an older officer made his way through the mob counseling patience, and the crowd dissipated. Ms. Misrati was quietly whisked away.
Working towards national unity
Rebel leaders say they have worked for months to try to pave the road to a national unity, including within their own ranks. At the start of Ramadan, for example, the chairman of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, flew to the western mountains — after getting NATO’s permission to breach its no-fly zone — so he could pass out financial aid to needy families for the holiday season.
By design, the council includes representatives from across the country. They pledged from the start to keep Libya’s capital in Tripoli, in western Libya, not in Benghazi in the east, a rival center of power in during Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. On Monday, the council announced that it was beginning to relocate its operations.
And despite the grumblings of some on the ground, local and national rebel leaders have sometimes coordinated closely. When rebels in Tripoli began to rise up Sunday, two senior officials from Benghazi were huddled in Tunis with a leader from the western mountains to monitor the movements together. On Monday, Jeffrey D. Feltman, under secretary of state for Near East affairs, said in an interview with CNN’s Web site that he was surprised by the closeness of the communication among rebels across the country.
“Saturday night we were seeing high-level officials in Benghazi who basically said: ‘O.K., in an hour Tripoli’s going to rise up and this is what’s going to happen. It’s going to start in this neighborhood, they’re going to go out to the mosques and start doing the call to prayer,’ ” he said. “So it was clear from that description that there’s a lot more communication than what was apparent publicly between the N.T.C. in Benghazi and Tripoli.”
Officials in Washington said that for the last several weeks, representatives of the rebel council had met quietly with American, European and other diplomats in Qatar and laid the groundwork for building a democratic government in a country that has never known one.
With the lessons of postwar Iraq very much in mind, the Obama administration and its allies oversaw the drafting of “a transition road map” that creates an interim governing authority to fill the vacuum created by the monolithic Qaddafi regime until elections are held.
The road map did not specify dates or a timetable for the election. But the officials said the rebel leaders had consistently pledged to have an open, inclusive government. They have also pledged not to pursue vendettas or a “de-Baathification-style” purge of the political and security bureaucracy, something that fueled the insurgency in Iraq.
“We try to learn lessons,” a senior administration official said. “That’s why there was such as emphasis on post-Qaddafi planning. It wasn’t strictly because of April 2003, but that definitely was on people’s minds.”
Trying to avoid 'a bloodbath'
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke by phone with Mr. Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the Transitional National Council, to discuss the arrangements.
“He’s not perfect, but we’ve been very impressed,” a senior administration official said. “They’re focused, and we’re focused now, on not having a bloodbath.”
France, Britain, the United States and other powers involved in the Libyan struggle will meet with rebel leaders in Istanbul on Thursday to discuss the transition. Mrs. Clinton and other foreign ministers are considering meeting next week. The United Nations Security Council is also expected to meet to continue negotiations over a resolution that would allow countries to give the rebels the assets frozen under the council’s resolutions.
Still, American officials have also acknowledged that they do not yet know how well that leadership speaks for the military leaders or, for that matter, the many novice fighters in their loosely organized brigades.
Those questions were brought to the fore by the killing three weeks ago of a rebel military chief, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, by other rebels, apparently in revenge for his role in the Qaddafi government, which tortured and imprisoned many Islamists. The council has not yet identified the killer, but his assassination follows the murder of at least four lower-level security officials by an armed band who roamed Benghazi hunting them down. None of their killers have been found.
In the aftermath of General Younes’s killing, many in Benghazi blamed the Islamists in their ranks. And, although no evidence has linked Islamists with the killing, at least two liberals close to the rebel leadership said they appreciated the rumors, because they called attention to the Islamists’ threat.
Also after the killing, the Transitional National Council tried to organize its many quasi-independent militias into a national army. But that effort has faltered as the militias have insisted on forming their own independent coalition.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, and Steven Lee Myers from Washington. Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris.
This article, "After Libyan revolt, rebels face a struggle for unity," first appeared in The New York Times.