As rebel fighters held back the sparse traffic, a Russian-made jet landed on an improvised airstrip on the Nalut to Jadu road in Libya’s western mountains.
It was Aug. 22, and fighting was still raging between rebels and supporters of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in Tripoli. But several members of the National Transitional Council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, had arrived at the makeshift airstrip to make the two-hour drive to Tripoli and establish the NTC as Libya's sovereign power.
Among them was Faraj Sayeh Eltayef, a Tripoli native and minister in the NTC’s executive council, who announced on Saturday that a democratic transition is already well under way.
“We’ve established task forces for every sector in Tripoli: water, electricity, security, preserving the infrastructure,” said Mr. Eltayef, who is in charge of preparing the country for a democratic transition. “In eight months' time we will hold elections for a national council, which will select a new government. At the same time, 15 individuals will be appointed to write a new constitution."
But while the rebels successfully came together to expel Mr. Qaddafi from Tripoli after 42 years of dictatorship, their ability to maintain that unity and lead a successful transition to democracy is already coming into question.
If an interim government fails to take firm control very soon, Libya could face a power vacuum in which disparate armed groups fight for control of the oil-rich country.
One of the key problems is a division between the eastern rebels, based in Benghazi, and the western rebels who led the assault on Tripoli that broke Qaddafi's hold on the country.
Benghazi and Tripoli have long been regional rivals, and were played against each other by Qaddafi. Even if the NTC were to appoint a temporary government tomorrow, some in Tripoli say they won’t accept ministers chosen by the Benghazi leaders.
“We think the government should be formed by someone from Tripoli, or at least from the western part of the country," says Mohammed Omeish, the coordinator for the Coalition of February 17, an umbrella organization for opposition groups in the capital. "It would be a good way for the NTC to show that it is serious about national unity and that it is not Benghazi that’s running the show.”
A list of 40 NTC members, which has not been circulated previously for security reasons, shows at least five members from Tripoli, along with five from Benghazi. But some of those who represent Tripoli have lived abroad for decades, which may not be received well by Tripoli residents.
NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil said in a recent press conference that the current council, which includes 42 members, would grow to 80 members once all areas of Libya come under opposition control. Qaddafi forces still control some areas of Libya, including the cities of of Sirte and Sabha.
According to Mr. Omeish, “the people of Tripoli will not accept a government formed by Jibril,” who is from the east.
NTC waiting to name a temporary government
NTC officials in Benghazi, however, don’t appear to feel pressure to consolidate leadership in Tripoli to avoid a rift. Mr. Abdel Jalil has not announced plans to move from Benghazi to Tripoli, and the NTC will not name a temporary government until "total liberation," which will come with Qaddafi's capture, says NTC deputy chair Abdel Hafidh Ghoga.
“We don't believe that the crowning of this revolution will be complete until such time as Qaddafi and his inner circle and his sons are captured. As long as he is at large, he will always be a threat to Libya, and to the international community,” says Mr. Ghoga.
Waiting to install a credible government that can steer the transition period risks further instability, says a Western diplomat who asked not to be named. “That's a little bit risky because if it takes a long time [to find Qaddafi] you have this weak institution leading the state,” he says. “I think it's really important for them to take over the government institutions there quickly. Otherwise there will be a vacuum.”
Those living in difficult humanitarian circumstances in Tripoli after fighting to rid the city of Qaddafi’s forces say they want leadership on the ground in the capital, not talking with foreign leaders abroad or in Benghazi.
While at least eight members of the NTC are now in Tripoli, along with most of the members of its executive council, the top two NTC leaders – Abdel Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril, who is sometimes called the prime minister, have yet to be seen in the capital.
They attended a meeting in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday and have been invited to Paris this week. They are working urgently to get foreign banks to release billions in Libyan assets that were frozen in a global bid to pressure Qaddafi.
“People want to see Jalil and Jibril in the streets of Tripoli,” says Omeish. “If you want to be a national leader, you should be in the capital in this time of crisis. This is not the time to be working behind the scenes.”
Their absence may have left a vacuum that has already been filled. “It has already been decided that the local Tripoli council will run things in Tripoli,” says Mr. Omeish. The NTC, he adds, “is mostly symbolic now.”
If Qaddafi remains at large for an extended period – Saddam Hussein was not captured for nine months after the US invaded Iraq – the NTC says it will appoint a new executive committee, instead of a temporary government, giving the reins to a weakened institution at crucial time of transition.
The current executive committee – in practice the transitional government – was ordered dissolved early last month. The move came immediately after the rebel’s military leader, Abdul Fatah Younes – a former Qaddafi interior minister – was murdered in Benghazi on July 28 while in rebel custody. At least one member of the council was found to have been at fault for “administrative mistakes” that allowed the assassination to happen.
Jibril’s extended time spent outside Libya – he has rarely set foot in his home country in recent months – has paid dividends. Dozens of nations have recognized the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, and the US and European nations have begun unfreezing government assets to give the new government the cash it needs to keep services running and police on the streets during the transition period.
In Tripoli, another challenge to the new authorities are the thousands of fighters who roam the streets, Rambo-style, who also display regional rifts.
Celebratory gunfire is a staple of any rebellion, but the Libyan rebels come equipped with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back of pick-up trucks, and they take pleasure in firing them into the air. For the residents of Tripoli, for whom the reality of war only set in a week ago, it is quite a shock.
“All the Tripoli fighting units have been brought under control of the Tripoli local council,” said Omeish. “But it is true that the fighters from outside Tripoli sometimes behave in an improper fashion, like going into neighborhoods and shooting off their anti-aircraft guns. This has angered some people.”
Omeish admits that the fighters from places like Misurata in the east, or Zintan, Jadu, and Nalut in the western mountains, have not submitted to the authority of the Tripoli council.
“We try to ask them not to do that," says Omeish, "but it is not always easy."