The rebel council that sprang up in Libya's liberated eastern cities in February and March has done an admirable job of presenting a united face to the world of the country's rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi.
The group has racked up a string of diplomatic victories, with a dozen countries recognizing them as the "legitimate" representatives of the Libyan people. This week, the group even received praise from China.
But there has also been growing unease that the collection of regime defectors, lawyers, and businessmen, most with roots in the country's east, could be setting themselves up for a power grab once Qaddafi goes.
Rebel fighters in the west of the country have been grumbling that they have little voice with the Transitional National Council (TNC), and others have worried that months of talk about drafting a new Libyan constitution could lead to a document that favors eastern Libyan, not national, interests. The rumblings of dissent – faint to be sure – have had some analysts worried about a war after the war.
Now the council says it hears those concerns, and is taking steps to address them. Fathi Mohammed Baja, head of political affairs for the TNC, says that while a "provisional constitution for the transitional period" was agreed to by the TNC's members on Sunday, that it is neither permanent or binding. He insists TNC leaders won't seek power in a post-Qaddafi Libya, and is taking steps to reach out to and coordinate with resistance figures in the west of the country.
“We have to make it very clear to the Libyan people that this is not a constitution,” he says. "We want to avoid at all cost giving the impression that this is the (TNC) in Benghazi deciding the future of Libya."
Mr. Baja says all NTC members have signed a pledge not to run for any office in the first elections following the fall of Qaddafi regime and that the proto-government now extant in Benghazi will not outlive Qaddafi. “The new Libya will not be run from Benghazi,” says Baja. “The day we announce the fall of Qaddafi’s regime is the day all of us will get on a plane to Tripoli.”
The NTC was formed in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, shortly after the violent repression of pro-democracy protests there led to the routing of Qaddafi’s troops from eastern Libya. It now serves as a provisional parliament, with an executive committee chosen by the council.
The history of modern Libya has largely been drawn along an east-west fault that draws from both geography and culture. The vast stretch of desert between Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte in the west and the eastern city of Ajdabiyah divided Tripolitania from Cyreneica in ancient times.
The cultural differences that rose from that separation extend to the modern day, and 20th-century Libya was frequently defined by Benghazi's struggle for autonomy and resources with Tripoli. To alloy western suspicions, the eastern rebels have consistently said that Tripoli should by Libya's capital.
Though Qaddafi has hung on against relentless NATO air pressure, when regimes like his crack they crack hard. There has been increasing pressure from the West for the rebels to come up with a plan for the day after, which they hope will encourage top officials from Qaddafi’s regime to switch sides.
The provisional constitution addresses some of these issues.
Under the plan, the existing 45-member council will be enlarged to 60 members immediately following the fall of Tripoli. An extra 10 seats are reserved for top Qaddafi officials, says Baja. “These are people that do not have blood on their hands but know Tripoli and know Qaddafi’s secrets. We need these people,” he says.
“Too many people have collaborated with the Qaddafi regime,” says rebel health minister Naji Barakat. “We can’t execute or imprison all of them.”
According to Barakat, “only 30 to 40 people,” presumably including Qaddafi himself, will be excluded from a role in the new Libya. Some top Qaddafi officials, say NTC members, have already been quietly contacted and have agreed to cooperate.
One thing that they're not planning for is fast elections, in order to give ample time for preparation in a country unfamiliar with democratic government. “Last Saturday we had to intervene in the local school board elections in Benghazi because some people had brought their gunmen to the meeting," says Baja. "We don’t want to see that kind of thing repeated on a larger scale in Tripoli.”
The plan envisions a national conference to decide on the members of the enlarged council, from which a new provisional government will be chosen.
Some of the seats on the new council have already been filled.
“We will start from the local councils,” said Baja. “We are told that the people in Tripoli have already formed four such councils in secret. We shall see. We were given an additional eight names from Tripoli by tribal leaders at their meeting in Dubai.”
At the same time, 15 people will be asked to begin work on a new constitution. Forty-five days after it is finished, the constitution will be submitted to a popular referendum. Legislative elections will be held four months later, with presidential elections to follow two months after that, he says. “We’re looking at a time frame of 10 to 13 months from the fall of the regime to the presidential elections."
The draft constitution says Islam is the religion of the state, but guarantees freedom of religion.
There were long discussions over whether Islam should be “a source” rather than “the only source” of inspiration for future legislation, but the in the end “a source” prevailed. That subtlety of language is frequently argued over for the constitutions of Muslim majority countries, with the weaker "a source" allowing wiggle room for compromise.
Details of the provisional constitution are expected to be released soon, and will be food for further debate among the rebels.
Meanwhile, the members of the executive committee have been busy making their own plans for the transition.
“We are ready,” says health minister Barakat, whose office has prepared a detailed plan for taking over the health sector, initially with lots of foreign help.
The cabinet members returned to Benghazi three weeks ago after being publicly admonished by council members and in street demonstrations in Benghazi over their prolonged absences from Libya.
But victory is far from secured. Qaddafi remains in power in Tripoli, as defiant as ever. In mid-June, he vowed to crush NATO troops in the face of renewed bombings on targets in the capital.
Despite help from NATO bombings on Qaddafi troops and installations, the rebels are struggling militarily as Libya’s civil war enters its fifth month.
The eastern front near Brega has been at a standstill for months, but an uprising of the Berber population in the Western Mountains and renewed fighting in Zawiya, west of Tripoli, have raised hopes here that anti-Qaddafi forces in Western Libya are ready to take on the regime.
US defense secretary Robert Gates said on June 19 that the demise of the Qaddafi regime was only “a matter of time.”
Benghazi running out of money
But time is an enemy of the rebels as well. Transitional Oil and Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni says the NTC is fast running out of money. “We have literally days before the lights are turned off,” Tarhouni told The New York Times in mid-June.
The government in Benghazi is footing the bill for most of the fighting in the West. Benghazi’s mayor, Saleh el Gazzel, went to the western Mountains just last week to pay government salaries there. Both Misuratah and Zawiya are being supplied with guns and ammunition from cash-strapped Benghazi.
“With oil production at a standstill, we are basically running on zero revenue and 100 percent imports,” an adviser to Tarhouni said on condition of anonymity.
Tripoli is increasingly facing the same problem. But, said the adviser, “whether it is weapons or money, the trouble is Qaddafi will always have more than us.”
To be sure, any prediction of the course of events after Qaddafi's fall is risky. Not only has Libya suffered from decades of one-man rule, but with a leader resolutely hostile to the building of state institutions, reliant almost entirely on patronage networks and personal contacts. The TNC are making all the right noises today, but there real influence over Libya's future will only really be assessed when the actual transition begins.