Assassination of Libya's rebel military leader brings tribal divisions to forefront

The murky death of Gen. Abdul Fateh Younes, who led Libya's rebel forces, has called into question rebels' ability to transcend tribal divisions and their credibility to lead a democratic transition.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
In this photo taken Wednesday, July 6, Libyan rebel forces chief commander Abdul Fateh Younes speaks during a rally in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Libya.

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The death of Libyan rebel military leader Gen. Abdul Fateh Younes, announced Thursday by the government in Benghazi, risks inflaming rivalries within the rebels' ranks and thus weakening their fight against Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

The gunfire and angry threats that erupted from members of Younes's tribe, the Obeidi, after the announcement is a reminder of deep tribal divisions among Libyans and calls into question their credibility, The New York Times reports.

"The specter of a violent tribal conflict within the rebel ranks touches on a central fear of the Western nations backing the Libyan insurrection: that the rebels’ democratic goals could give way to a tribal civil war over Libya’s oil resources. Colonel Qaddafi has often warned of such a possibility as he has fought to keep power, while the rebel leaders have argued that their cause transcends Libya’s age-old tribal divisions."

Rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil announced the news at a hotel press conference Thursday night in Benghazi. He spoke flanked by men he said were elders of the Obeidi tribe, rather than other members of the National Transitional Council (NTC), and thanked the tribe for its sacrifice and understanding, according to the Times.

Mr. Abdul Jalil said that General Younes had been summoned to the rebel capital for questioning because of doubts about his loyalty but subsequently released "on his own recognizance." Abdul Jalil said that after Younes's release, assassins in Benghazi killed him and two others. But the fact that he confirmed the deaths but then said the location of their bodies was unknown spurred speculation that rivals within the rebel ranks may have killed Younes.

Much of Younes's tenure as leader of the rebel troops has been spent in a power struggle with his rival, Gen. Khalifa Hefter. Younes's loyalty to the rebels was questioned by many of them because of his close ties to Qaddafi in the past – he was his interior minister prior to his defection – and when General Hefter returned to Libya's east from exile in the United States, he declared himself the leader of the rebel troops, the Monitor's Dan Murphy reports.

Younes won out and Hefter faded to the background, but distrust of the leader remained among many of the rebels. For example, many suspect that Younes allowed regime troops to escape Benghazi unharmed after the decisive battle in which the rebels drove the government troops out of the city and claimed it as their capital, Al Jazeera reports.

His death is a blow to the rebels' morale not just because he was the top military leader, but because he was the first high-level Libyan government official to defect to the rebels, Murphy notes.

The whispers of tribal fighting are problematic for Britain because it comes on the heels of British recognition of the rebel government as the legitimate representative of Libya and the expulsion of the diplomats who were in London on behalf of Qaddafi's government. The tribal divisions belie London's assertion that the NTC is "fit to govern," the Guardian reports.

Unless Abdul Jalil can provide a solid explanation of Younes's assassination – particularly who is responsible, to quiet rumors that it was done by one of his rivals – Britain will have to reconsider whether it believes the NTC is ready to lead, the Guardian suggests.

The New York Times notes "the eruption of tribal animosities within Benghazi is itself a blow to the rebels’ self-image as a movement bringing the whole country together behind the banner of freedom and democracy." Qaddafi's supporters claim that the war is not about democracy, but old grievances between the east and west.

The NTC has not yet announced who will be taking Younes's place as leader of the rebel troops.

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