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Rivalries threaten Libya’s new rulers

The NTC is struggling to control factional differences within the country. Will it be able to govern with authority?

LIBYA is exporting oil again, production has hit a healthy 350,000 barrels a day (b/d) and will rise quickly in coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Temporary Financial Mechanism (TFM), the fund set up to collect money for the rebellion against the Qadhafi regime, is being inundated with cash as assets frozen in foreign bank accounts at last find their way home.

Tripoli's posh hotels are chock full of businessmen queuing for their moment with Ali Tarhouni, the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) elusive finance minister. The cafes, markets and shops are doing brisk trade. Each night a throng of smiling youths, AK-47s in hand, arrive in Martyrs’ Square – formerly Green Square – to spray bullets skyward in celebration.

Last week, it was the turn of rebels from Zintan, whose courage in the Western Mountains campaign helped turf the dictator and his army from Tripoli.

But amid all the joy in the capital, it’s easy to forget that the war isn’t over and Libya still doesn’t have a government.

Celebrations on hold

Two hours and 30 checkpoints down the road in Misrata, the celebrations are still on hold. Doctors in the hospital have been working flat out since the early days of the rebellion, treating countless wounded during the brutal March-to-May siege of the city and, in the past month, doing triage for soldiers of both sides in the battle for Sirte.

“We sleep in the hospital,” said Mustafa Omar, a 32-year-old radiologist who has been working as a surgeon. “We never know when more will be brought in. We can’t go home.”

The siege destroyed vast parts of Misrata. Its main thoroughfare, Tripoli Street, has become a symbol of the war’s brutality. Miles of apartment blocks, stores and other buildings along the road were blown apart. Muammar Qadhafi’s troops raped women and killed men. Libyans from outside Misrata can enter only with special permission, or in the company of foreign journalists, who also need a laissez-passer from authorities in Tripoli.

The town’s brigade has grown famous for its fierce pursuit of Qadhafi’s army since the siege was broken, earning a reputation for discipline and, occasionally, bloodlust. A town close to Sirte, Tawergha, which fought for Qadhafi, has been ruthlessly attacked from Misrata. Loyalist soldiers captured in Sirte and held in a prison in Misrata told Petroleum Economist they had been beaten after they surrendered, and showed stab and gunshot wounds inflicted by their captors. (It is also true that anti-Qadhafi forces have frequently shown remarkable restraint in handling enemies who surrender.)

The prisoners’ jailers in Misrata are now their protectors from more retribution. “Why is Misrata still fighting in Bani Walid and Sirte?" asked Said Akhmed Said, a manager at a local fuel-pump supplier. "Because of revenge.”

Resentment in Misrata

But festering resentment in Misrata is a problem for the NTC’s leaders and their hopes of forming a new government recognised in all parts of Libya. A movement that was united in war against the tyrant is coming unstuck now that the threat of his return has dissolved. Recognising the competing claims to victimhood and heroism coming from Misrata and other towns that bore the brunt of Qadhafi’s violence in the past seven months – Zliten, Zawiyah, Zintan, Benghazi – is proving tricky.

Technicians in critical industries, such as energy, may be getting on with the job, but economic recovery will stall in a power vacuum. Security is still dicey. And in the absence of authority from Tripoli, say analysts, Islamists – better organised than secularists – will grow more influential.

Sirte and Bani Walid, when they emerge from under Qadhafi’s yoke, will also need help – and take up seats reserved for them on the council, too, despite having backed the regime. Regions further south, such as Ubari and Ghadames, are not under the full control of anti-Qadhafi forces, either. It all makes the mood of jubilation in Tripoli feel premature, at best, and even inflammatory. The combination is a threat to Libya's recovery.

The NTC’s executive committee is struggling to transcend the factionalism that is emerging from all of this. Jostling for position on the committee has grown intense. On 3 October, prime minister Mahmoud Jibril told a news conference in Tripoli that a full cabinet would not be formed until all of Libya was free – an open-ended deadline that may be months away. It may be both a wise move, giving the NTC time to build consensus and street credibility, and a risky one, leaving grudges to ferment.

Jibril’s own position is under threat. Some Libyans criticise him for being absent from the country for much of the Qadhafi era and again during the war – although supporters counter that as NTC foreign minister he did much to win international support for the uprising.

Complaints that he worked too closely with the regime abound, especially from Islamists persecuted by Qadhafi. He has some support on the street, but praise is faint. "After 42 years, it doesn't matter who it is, he will be better," said one Tripoli resident.

Meanwhile, Misrata has proposed its own candidate, Abdul Rahman Swehli, to replace Jibril as prime minister. Mohamed Benrasali, a vocal member of the NTC and spokesman for Misrata’s rebels, told the New York Times last week that Jibril should “just vanish”, adding that his town would “never accept” the prime minister.

Some people on Misrata’s streets are just as upset. “He thinks we’re stupid,” said Nasreddin Rhouna, a post-graduate student just returned from the UK. “He came to visit us for just a couple of hours, to try to gain support.” Misrata’s leaders say other towns also support Swehli. As a nod in the town’s direction, Salem Joha, a military commander from Misrata, was appointed as the NTC’s new defence minister. Joha earned praise from many Libyans recently when he scolded fellow townsmen for their belligerent parochialism.

A confusing situation

It is a confusing situation and it’s made worse by basic misunderstandings in foreign media about the post-war process proposed by the NTC. Members of the council’s executive committee – Jibril, chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Tarhouni among them – have pledged not to stand in free Libya’s first elections, probably in 18 months time. Jibril reiterated this on 3 October, saying he would resign as soon as Libya was liberated. Those close to him say he is serious; and some lament the fact. If Tarhouni (who in the latest reshuffle retained authority over oil matters “temporarily”) also goes, it may leave a vacuum.

To calm sentiments that could destabilise the council’s authority, Jibril and the NTC are starting to spread the money that is flowing into Libya. Anti-Qadhafi forces are now referred to as “NTC forces”, although fighters identify themselves as rebels (in English) or revolutionaries (thuwar in Arabic) and answer first to their factional leaders and second to the council.

With UN recognition under his belt, Jibril is spending more time in Libya. Tarhouni, who has a knack of popping up in freshly liberated towns, was in Sebha last week to represent the council. Mustafa El Huni, an NTC official with some authority in oil, was in Jufrah region to do the same.

Doctors from Zliten, oil workers in Zawiyah, teachers in Benghazi and others across Libya who went months without a pay cheque are now being paid again, including back-pay for seven months without salaries. Even in Misrata, this is garnering some admiration for the council, if not for Jibril. “It’s improving,” said Atunisie Abdallah, a French teacher now receiving 750 dinar ($600) a month from the government. "They are helping us."

Inundated with money

The TFM, now inundated with money, is also showing the regions that a central authority can make a difference. With a slug of $400 million brought in from its growing bank account in Doha, Qatar, the fund is flying wounded soldiers to hospitals in Turkey, Jordan, Italy and Tunisia and covering the cost of their treatment, helping to relieve over-worked medics in places such as Misrata, from where up to three flights depart daily.

Mazin Ramadan, who runs the TFM, wants to establish a scheme of “regionalisation” that will disperse money across Libya’s towns. “No-one sitting in the Corinthia can decide there’s a local school in Ghadames that needs money,” he said, referring to the Tripoli hotel where the NTC holds court and the town deep in Libya’s south where Qadhafi may be hiding. “It will change how Libya is governed.”

Ramadan, an ally of Tarhouni (both men lived in Seattle before the war and remain close friends), hopes the NTC will approve the plan and turn it into a monthly disbursement. It may help win the hearts of people whose biggest beef with post-Qadhafi Libya is their dire financial plight.

Small-scale devolution may also pacify towns such as Misrata. Containing the aspirations of Islamists, however, could prove more difficult. Their spectre is now worrying some in Libya – and many more outside, especially in the US.

Islamist fears

It is not clear how much popular support Islamists have in the new Libya, or whether they can turn their minority cause into genuine political influence. Brigades under the authority of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an opposition party during the Qadhafi era, control much of Tripoli, including Mitiga airport. According to one security analyst, Belhaj, who was arrested by the CIA in 2004 and later tortured in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, has denied the US access to the landing strip. Islamists are said to dominate the capital’s ruling council, too, although there is scant evidence of resurgent Islamism on Tripoli’s streets.

Belhaj and his ally Ali Sallabi, a prominent cleric and leader of the rebellion who spends much time on Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel, both want Jibril and his allies out of the way. Sallabi reckons the NTC is composed of “extreme secularists”. Both men played seminal roles in mobilising support for the rebels and, in Belhaj’s case, leading them into battle, including the storming of Qadhafi’s compound in Tripoli.

One unconfirmed rumour doing the rounds is that Qatar sent several planes laden with weapons to Belhaj last week. True or not, it has reinforced Libyan suspicions that the emirate is pushing an Islamist agenda on the country it helped liberate from Qadhafi. Well-funded and well-armed Islamists are far better organised than liberals in the NTC. “They hold all the cards,” said Henry Smith, a North Africa specialist at Control Risks, a consultancy, following a visit to Tripoli.

With the war nearing its end and the frozen money thawing, outside interference in Libyan affairs, whether from Qatar or the West, won’t help the NTC establish popular legitimacy, either. Wisely, the NTC has repeatedly told foreign companies that existing contracts will be preserved and new ones agreed only by an elected government.

Investment and re-construction are needed, but an unseemly scramble for deals while Libyans are still dying in Sirte and Bani Walid is not.

A delicate period for the NTC

So this is a delicate period for the NTC, and a tricky time for its foreign supporters. It must establish its authority soon, but must wait for victory in Sirte and Bani Walid first. Rushing the anti-Qadhafi forces outside those two towns could worsen a grim humanitarian situation inside them. The weeks or months in between carry risks. Tripolitanians are weary of the provincial rebels and their celebratory gunfire. (Badge-wearing fighters have been charged with ending the practice and seizing the many unregistered weapons, but are making slow progress.) But the boys with guns aren’t going anywhere while the political free-for-all persists, or the threat of violence remains, even in the capital.

Some Qadhafi renegades fired a missile at Tripoli’s international airport last week, said a security source. Gunfights in the capital still occur on a nightly basis, said Hesham Belhaj, one of the men who captured Qadhafi’s Bab al Azizia compound and who is now helping to secure the city. If a senior NTC official such as Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the popular chairman of the council, were assassinated, the balance could collapse.

The as-yet unexplained killing – probably by Islamists – of the rebels’ general Abdul Fatah Younis in late July has been one factor behind changes in the NTC’s executive committee, and still causes friction. It is possible that solving the murder would cause even more.

Meanwhile, despite the rapid growth in oil production in recent weeks – Arabian Gulf Oil says its output alone will hit 350,000 b/d in the coming days, and National Oil Company has targeted 400,000 b/d of exports within two weeks – the political paralysis will also hinder wider recovery of the economy. A massive rebuilding programme to fix demolished towns, roads and other infrastructure will draw in colossal sums of money. So will plans to lift oil production beyond the 1.6 million b/d Libya produced before the war.

But under what rules will new contracts be signed and the income divvied up? Foreign oil producers have flocked to Tripoli to talk projects, but aside from schedules for re-starting operations there is little to discuss.

“We need a government here,” said John Jenkins, the UK ambassador to Libya, in a briefing to UK journalists after a visit by Shell and BP to Tripoli. “This is a transitional government and they know there’s another stage needed,” said Lord Green, the UK’s minister of trade and industry.

Pledges by the NTC now about transparency in the oil and construction industries – not to mention any promises about contracts – will mean little if the people who make them don't remain in the new government. Dark accusations against some oil officials are already flying around Tripoli. Corruption will flourish in the power vacuum.

A waiting game

It may not come to that. The rebels’ political process “stuttered along” for the past seven months and could do so for many more, said Smith. The anti-Qadhafi movement has already defied great odds to come this far. But navigating a way through the factionalism, even in peacetime, will be increasingly difficult for potential investors and other outsiders.

Confusion about who governs the country now and who is to rule it after Qadhafi’s last bastions are liberated will lengthen free Libya’s troubled birth. Until Sirte falls, the country is physically and psychologically divided. Until Bani Walid is captured, the regime can still claim a place in the heart of Libya. Winning the war must come before governing the peace.

“We waited 42 years,” said Omar, the doctor still treating injured men from the frontline. “It’s better to wait a bit more now.”

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