Turmoil in Benghazi, rebel advances in western Libya

While NATO-backed rebel forces have made stunning territorial gains against Qaddafi, the rebels' government is in complete disarray after the murder of its top general. What's going on in Libya?

Alexandre Meneghini/AP
National Transitional Council chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, passes by a picture of Libyan rebel military leader Abdel Fateh Younes, killed last month, after a press conference at the rebel-held town of Benghazi, Libya, Tuesday, Aug. 9. The rebels' NTC dissolved the committee, which serves as a sort of government cabinet, after determining that 'administrative mistakes' were made surrounding last month's slaying of Gen. Younes, Mr. Jalil told Al Jazeera.

The argument that Libya's rebels have a united, responsible, and broadly supported transitional government in waiting for the moment Muammar Qaddafi falls has been shredded this week by the harsh reality of factionalization and political inexperience.

The July 28 murder of rebel military commander Gen. Abdel Fateh Younes laid bare rifts in Benghazi, the rebel capital, that had been simmering below the surface for some time. Who exactly killed General Younes, a longtime stalwart of Mr. Qaddafi's engine of repression who defected shortly after the uprising began in February, still remains murky.

But the conflicting, sometimes contradictory statements that the rebels' Transitional National Council (TNC) have issued in the days since then support the likelihood that it was members of the anti-Qaddafi camp. The statements also suggest that unified command of the patchwork of defected soldiers and officers, neighborhood militias, and eager young revolutionaries who make up the rebel forces is largely a fiction.

The killing outraged the Obeidi tribe to which Younes belonged, and its immediate aftermath raised the specter of internecine fighting for the rebels. That day, gangs of gunmen in pickups roared through Benghazi's streets and the Obeidis warned that if justice isn't delivered, they would take matters into their own hands.

On Monday, TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil started to come to grips with the situation by dismissing the 14 members of the council's executive committee, a sort of cabinet for the rebel leadership. Mr. Jalil, a former justice minister for Qaddafi, told Al Jazeera that the dismissals were connected to "administrative mistakes" that somehow led to Younes' murder. The general had been summoned back from the eastern oil town of Brega – where Qaddafi's forces have held on for weeks thanks to the extensive laying of anti-personnel mines around the town – for questioning, and was killed en route.

At first, the council said he was killed by agents of Qaddafi. Then, it was whispered the killing was carried out by a rogue Islamist militia taking revenge against Younes for his work in suppressing Islamist movements inside Libya for Qaddafi. His body was said to have been burned beyond recognition. Others said he'd simply been shot. No one independent seems to know exactly what happened yet, but the overall impression was of both internal confusion and concealment by the rebel leadership, something that has set much of Benghazi on edge.

The British foreign office and the US State Department, which recently recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya, put a brave face on the situation.

The British said "this reshuffle shows that those responsible will be held to account and the dismissal of the executive committee demonstrates the strength and maturity" of the council. A State Department spokeswoman said, "What we see is an effort by the NTC to take a hard look at itself and to make an important step forward that can reassure Libyans that in reshuffling the government, that they have a truly democratic and a truly transparent leadership group."

But so far, no one has been held accountable for Younes's murder. The cabinet dismissal has left the political leadership in a sort of limbo, with a replacement not yet forthcoming.

Some new faces may be brought in, perhaps to reassure rebels in the west who are increasingly estranged from and suspicious of the Benghazi leadership. New faces may also be meant to balance tribal and other interests. But that remains to be seen.

As for democracy, the rebel government remains largely self-appointed. While many Libyans in the east have been comfortable with that until now – someone needs to represent them and there's a war on, after all – there have been increasing complaints from average Libyans about incompetence and a lack of communication.

Meanwhile a NATO air strike may well have killed a number of Libyan civilians near Zlitan yesterday. The Times of London reports that the Qaddafi regime took foreign journalists based in Tripoli to the site where it claimed more than 80 civilians were killed. The press pack in Tripoli has grown extremely jaded after months of Potemkin-like guided tours of alleged civilian death scenes in which Libyan "witnesses" have gone off script, pulled stragglers aside to whisper they've been ordered to lie about events, and in which bodies were in short supply.

But while there appears to have been some deception in this case – The Times's report says a local doctor said 37 dead were counted before quickly correcting himself to match the official death toll – that something tragic happened seems more credible than usual. Journalists saw at least 14 dead, including an infant girl.

Zlitan has become a hotly contested frontline between Tripoli and the opposition-controlled town of Misrata to the east. NATO has conducted dozens of raids in the area in recent weeks, and rebels are hopeful that if the town could be taken, a route would open up to the capital.

The rebel – and NATO – pressure on Zlitan is a reminder that for all the political problems back in Benghazi, stunning gains have been made in the area since the war began. Six weeks ago, Misurata was entirely besieged by Qaddafi's forces, the town reliant for supplies from the sea. Since that siege was decisively broken, rebels have pressed their gains towards Tripoli, as other rebel groups in the Nafusa mountains to the north of Tripoli have also grown in strength.

While that's good news for those hoping for Qaddafi's downfall, it also raises troubling questions about the aftermath, were Tripoli to fall. In those areas, local rebel leaders are in command, and they insist they don't take orders from Benghazi.

The facade of coordination and unity among rebel groups that was well maintained in the early days of the war has seriously slipped in recent weeks. Now, any assurances given that there will be no reprisals or score-settling in the wake of a rebel victory have to be taken with a grain of salt. Battlefield gains, with large dollops of NATO help, are clearly being made. But on the political front – particularly regarding what a transition might look like – the picture grows cloudier by the day.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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