Rifts among Libyan rebels stalling creation of a credible government


ANALYSIS: Weapon donations have become the latest issue to draw out the chaos within anti-Gadafy forces

SPLITS have opened in the Libyan opposition administration over claims that Italy is about to break the UN arms embargo and provide weapons to the rebel army.

With the ruling National Transitional Council deadlocked in its attempts to agree an executive committee, two of its most high-profile members have clashed over the most sensitive issue between the rebels and the West – weapons imports.

Last week, vice-president Hafeez Ghoga told The Irish Times that Italy would be sending weapons “within days” to rebel troops in apparent violation of the UN arms embargo, a claim flatly denied hours later by council president Mustafa Abdul Jalil.

But the following day, Ghoga convened a press conference to insist Rome had agreed to send arms and claiming rebel officials were finalising the details.

Italy itself has said it has provided aid such as flak jackets but has declined to comment on plans. But in Benghazi, this public spat has come at a sensitive time as rebels try to turn a hastily formed revolutionary command structure into a government.

For more than a week, the council has set deadlines for a 15-strong executive committee to be agreed, only for the deadline to pass with no announcement.

On Saturday, eight names of the committee were agreed, with Jalil’s ally, Mahmoud Jabril, confirmed as foreign minister. But other key posts, including defence chief, are left unfilled.

The lack of a government is worrying western aid donors, who are nervous about forwarding development cash until there is an executive to account for it.

And then there is the split in the military. For now, the rebels have two generals, each insisting that they are the commander.

The council has backed Adbul Fattah Younes, Gadafy’s former interior minister, who switched sides to the revolution after being sent to Benghazi by the dictator to quell it. Opposing him, so far only in the smoke-filled rooms of the council committees, is Khalifa Heftar, an army general who defected to the US in the 1980s. For now, Gen Younes wears the trousers: he brought an interior ministry brigade over to the side of the rebels in the early days of the rebellion.

But Gen Heftar also has his supporters, not least because his defection came 20 years ago, and that the army was never seen as the weapon of oppression as was the interior ministry. This split is the last thing the underequipped rebel army needs as it tries to organise itself.

Gone are the wild days of March, when young men with guns would speed down the highways towards Tripoli, only to speed back the other way at the first sign of fighting. A visit to the front line east of the town of Adjabija showed rebel volunteers now assembled into organised units. Soldiers still wear sandals and jeans, but are equipped with machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and recoilless rifles.

However, the situation in the south is more fluid, with Gadafy’s patrols able to cut the main road to the oil fields. Without tanks and heavy guns, the prospect of the rebels pushing west appears non-existent. For most who gather at the nightly rallies in support of the revolution outside the Benghazi courthouse, the rebel headquarters, Jalil remains the figurehead of their revolution.

Soft-spoken, even bland, Jalil made his bones with millions of Libyans when he publicly resigned as Gadafy’s justice minister last year, saying promised reforms were never implemented.

Ghoga, former head of the bar association, came to prominence when he joined protests held by lawyers at the start of the revolution. Initially, he set up a rival national council, but quickly abandoned it when it became clear public support was with the National Transitional Council, and was offered the vice-presidential post, apparently as compensation.

Council supporters insist there is no rift between the two men. The council is made more unwieldy by the insistence that some of its 31 members are nominated from areas still under Gadafy’s control, amid concerns it be seen by the outside world as the government of only rebel-held areas. Diplomats from the US, Britain, France and Italy are in Benghazi, trying to prod the ruling council in the right direction. They say teething troubles are to be expected of a ruling council whose members have little political experience.

Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia, where popular revolutions earlier this year were able to build on existing parties and a freeish press to build consensus.  In Libya, there are almost no organisations. The reason Benghazi’s 3,500-strong Boy Scouts have taken over rubbish collection is that there is no other organisation that flourished under Gadafy’s autocratic rule.

For now, Jalil seems to call the shots. His ally, Jabril, also doubles as the foreign affairs chief, and has been instrumental in garnering western support at conferences in Doha and Rome.

Kingmaker in this set-up may prove to be the oil and finance minister, Dr Ali Tarhouni: he was a former student activist who fled Libya in 1973, becoming a professor in the US and returning home to be given perhaps the most powerful cabinet post.

Tarhouni has already begun talks with Qatar to whom the rebels want to sell their oil, but his control over both oil and finance have raised eyebrows among foreign donors about whether too much power is concentrated in a single pair of hands.

Western diplomats insist the rivalries can be overcome. “I think it’s good-natured chaos,” said one western official. “There is unity – they all want to get rid of Gadafy.”

A few hours amid the euphoria of the nightly street protests-cum-rock concerts in downtown Benghazi is testimony to that. But what supporters, both in the West and the Arab world, want to know is whether the council can agree on how to accomplish the task – and who gets control of the donor cash.

Chris Stephen is a freelance journalist and war crimes expert