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.

Sergey Ponoma rev/AP
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.

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.

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.

In the early days of the uprising, ragtag militias surged westward along Libya’s coast toward Qaddafi’s hometown, Sirte, the gateway to Tripoli. But they were often overrun and forced to retreat just as quickly, despite a curtain of airstrikes from NATO to support them.

Meanwhile, in the western mountains, a separate network of rebels coalesced, demonstrating greater organization and tactical planning. Joining up with
fighters in besieged cities like Misurata and Zawiyah, they severed Qaddafi’s key supply lines and led the triumphal capture of nearly all of Tripoli on Aug. 21.

Within a few days, the NTC, which has been recognized by the West as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, began to decamp from its Benghazi headquarters to establish itself in Tripoli as the sovereign power of a new Libya.

But a large portion of the population is now heavily armed and remains beyond the reach of any centralized authority.

It’s possible that if Qaddafi somehow slips out of the noose that’s tightening around him, perhaps to southern areas where some tribes remain loyal to him, he could become a rallying point for an insurgency, a spoiler for the new Libya.

That risk is small – Libya’s people own this uprising in a way the Iraqis never owned theirs, and their far superior infrastructure will prevent the sort of discontent that let Iraq’s insurgency flourish. But capturing Qaddafi would do much to snuff out any insurgency, as well as encourage Libyans still afraid to throw in their lot behind the new order led by the NTC.

Rebel fighter Bashir Budufira says a rebel brigade was sent to Sirte to convince residents to lay down their arms. “I think 75 percent of the people there want a peaceful solution, but there are some people from Qaddafi’s tribe and ... they have committed murder, so they’re afraid they’re going to be punished if they give up.”

‘This is forbidden!’

As rebels in Tripoli wildly fired guns in celebration while others hunted Qaddafi on Aug. 25, there was grim evidence of how volatile the capital remains.

Just outside Qaddafi’s sprawling Bab al-Aziziya compound, the symbolic heart of his regime that had been ransacked in the past few days, two dozen bodies lay in the dust, each wearing the green wristband normally worn by pro-Qaddafi fighters. But the wristbands looked suspiciously clean compared with the state of their clothing.

Two of the dead had their hands bound, and one – still hooked up to an IV tube – appeared to have been receiving medical care in a makeshift field hospital when he was killed. Nearby rebels said Qaddafi’s troops were responsible for the killings. But it seems just as plausible that rebel fighters had taken revenge on their enemies.

That was not the only sign of trouble. Outside a warehouse filled with electronics and air conditioners, a traffic jam of looters – ignoring the danger of pro-Qaddafi fighters still on nearby rooftops – came to claim their share of the new Libya.

“This warehouse used to be the property of the Qaddafis. Now it belongs to the Libyan people,” said one man armed with an AK-47.

The looting continued until a convoy of rebel soldiers arrived. The fighters angrily shot in the air and ordered people to return the looted appliances.

“This is haram [forbidden],” shouted an angry rebel.

To be sure, early signs in Tripoli indicated that the rebel militias who poured into the city from the Nafusah Mountains and from neighboring towns were cooperating with each other, if chaotically.

At one point a traffic jam of rebel vehicles at an intersection resulted in a shouting match between fighters asserting pride in the overthrow of their various towns.
“Get out of the way! We are from Zintan!” shouted one driver. “I don’t care if you’re from Zintan. We’re from Jadu!” the other driver shouted back.

Building a state based on rule of law

But corralling Libya back into a state of law and order won’t be an easy task. Some of the rebel fighters have developed a strong sense of entitlement connected to their sacrifice, and the chances that others will spend the coming months seeking to settle old scores can’t be discounted.

The NTC has urged police to stay on the job and is arranging the release of frozen regime assets abroad to pay salaries.

Libya’s crucial oil industry, meanwhile, has been virtually shut down by six months of war. NTC members in Benghazi say that key refineries and export oil terminals in Ras Lanuf and Brega, secured in late August, have only minor damage. But restoring full production and exports is at least months away – particularly since one of Qaddafi’s sons controlled most of the tanker contracts for delivery.

NTC leaders like Mahmoud Jibril have repeatedly insisted that the rebellion is truly national, seeking to preempt centuries-old rivalries between eastern and western Libyans.

NTC member Mustafa Almanea says that the council doesn’t anticipate that retribution will be one of the major challenges during the transition period.

But many here warn that if the NTC doesn’t restore order quickly, tribal rather than government law will probably be strengthened.

“Today what remains to be seen is whether Libya’s new leaders can break free of the tribalism that has historically plagued the country and move to a more representative and geographically dispersed government,” says Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation who has been in Libya researching the conflict for five months. “If they cannot do this ... the new Libya will fail.”

The NTC has been putting together a national reconciliation program, with input from the United Nations, to try to persuade Qaddafi supporters that they still have a place in society, as well as promising fair trials for those who committed crimes during his regime.

The road map for the next year also includes a plan to transition civilian fighters back to civilian life and to disarm the country.

“The transition for Libyans is going to be from the revolution to the state,” says Mr. Almanea. “It will need a lot of hard work, but it’s not impossible.”

Libyan passions run high

But passions in Libya are running high, and the clock is ticking on the NTC delivering on its promises. In Tripoli, a brief argument among militiamen illustrates the thirst for victors’ justice – and an awareness of its dangers. What should be done with the Qaddafis?

“They should be given a fair trial,” says Imad Shabaan, an oil company manager who organized an anti-Qaddafi militia in his neighborhood.

Ahmed Ferhat, a local sheikh, demurs. “We should hang Qaddafi in Green Square,” he says.

“You’re not supposed to say that!” interjects Mr. Shabaan. “We’re supposed to say that Qaddafi. too, deserves a fair trial.”

“All right,” Sheikh Ferhat says. “We’ll give him a fair trial; then we’ll hang him in Green Square.”

Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report from Boston.

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