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Libya rebels, triumphant in Tripoli, now face a different kind of battle

How the rebels address immediate challenges – including regional and tribal divisions, as well as a thirst among some for revenge – will signal their ability to govern fairly in a new Libya.

By Correspondent, Gert Van LangendonckCorrespondent / August 26, 2011

Rebel fighters gestured and fire into the air as they celebrated overrunning Muammar Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 24. Strains are emerging among the factions that united to overthrow the regime.

Sergey Ponoma rev/AP

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Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya

Libya’s rebels have lost one of their greatest assets, the common enemy that drove an untrained band of students, shopkeepers, and bureaucrats into a guerrilla army that – with NATO’s help – defeated a tyrant: Muammar Qaddafi.

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Mr. Qaddafi remains at large, with rebel militias scouring his shabby palaces in Tripoli and marching on his hometown of Sirte to firmly slam the door on his 42-year reign. But whatever slim hope he and his sons had of keeping power has been extinguished. The “mad dog” of the Middle East, as former US President Ronald Reagan called him, is finished.

The near-total collapse of the regime has overjoyed the rebels, who lost hundreds of comrades in the conflict. Millions of average citizens in this oil-rich North African nation are elated as well. But the true test of the rebels’ unity – if they can set aside a thirst for revenge and long-simmering regional and tribal rivalries – begins now.

If they can hang together and restore order, Libya’s oil wealth and relative homogeneity – in contrast to Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divisions – will give them a better-than-even shot at building a new order in a country with few working institutions and a culture of tyrannical caprice rather than the rule of law.

If they can’t, then the threat looms of a wider, more chaotic civil conflict than the six-month war to oust Qaddafi.

Ali Senussi, a grandfatherly leader of Libya’s Obeidi tribe, is a warning of what can go wrong. He’s elated – and angry.

But he’s not focused on the massacres Qaddafi’s men allegedly carried out as they sought to contain the uprising, which Mr. Senussi supported. Instead he’s demanding justice for the murder of rebel commander Gen. Abdel Fatah Younes, a member of his tribe who was assassinated in late July while – ironically – in rebel custody.

He’s demanding that the killers, whom he suspects were Islamist rebels angry at Younes’s past involvement with the Qaddafi regime, be brought to justice by the National Transitional Council (NTC) setting up camp in Tripoli. But he warns that his patience is limited.

“If we [need] to take our justice by ourselves, we will do it,” he says in a tent surrounded by fellow tribesmen in Benghazi, after breaking the Ramadan fast. A nearby tribal leader adds: “Tribal law is stronger than government law.”

A rebellion with disparate agendas

Younes’s murder was a reminder that the rebellion is composed of disparate factions and agendas. Raw wounds remain after 42 years in which tribal rivalries were exploited and a whispered denunciation could land one man a coveted government job and another a trip to a government torture chamber.

There are also divisions between east and west, which were historically divided into Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, maintaining different trading relationships and outside ties. The increasing centralizing of money and power in Tripoli during Qaddafi’s rule bred resentment, and the eastern city of Benghazi – Libya’s second-largest – became a focal point for resistance to the regime.

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