Analysis: Libya adrift

Crucial questions remain unanswered in North African country; a continuation of the conflict would have serious consequences for Europe.

Anti-Gaddafi forces prepare for Sirte battle 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Anti-Gaddafi forces prepare for Sirte battle 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Nothing is settled yet in Libya, and it is unclear what will happen in the coming weeks and months.
Will the National Transitional Council be able to extend its authority over the whole of the country? Or will the fighting go on and on, with no stable regime being established?
No less important, is there a consensus among the members of the Council regarding such key issues as the next government, holding elections, drafting a constitution and taking steps to restore order? How strong are the Islamists in the Council? To what extend will they shape the new regime?
These questions are crucial not only for Libya itself, but also for the European countries on the other side of the Mediterranean; a continuation of the conflict would have serious consequences.
These countries would have to keep on giving costly military assistance to the rebels out of their depleted defense budgets. They would also have to deal with the flood of refugees pouring in from Libya – and from Africa, through Libyan territory. The recent visit to Tripoli of Sarkozy and Cameron illustrates that concern.
Though the capital city, Tripoli, has been taken by the rebels, the NTC still does not control the country.
Libya is huge – nearly two million square kilometers, with wide swatches of desert - and bitter battles are still being waged in key areas. Gaddafi’s faithful have managed to repel attacks on their leader’s birthplace, Sirte; fighting goes on at Beni Walid, and so far the rebels are not making progress.
On the other hand they claim to have “liberated” Sabha and Jofra in Central Sahara (not confirmed yet) where they found a huge depot of ammunition, including biological weapons that were to be destroyed following Gaddafi’s pledge to the West in 2004.
What is obvious is that the ousted leader’s supporters are holding their own with courage and tenacity while the rebels forces – which have benefited from massive NATO aerial strikes as well as the discreet support of a limited number of European special units – are still largely disorganized and lack heavy artillery and ammunition.
In fact, NATO reluctantly extended for another three months its aerial support – without which the rebellion would have been a dismal failure. The National Transition Council owes a heavy debt of gratitude to European countries, and especially to France, which pushed for their intervention.
According to a Gaddafi’s spokesman, some 17 mercenaries - French, British and Qatari - were allegedly captured and will stand trial publicly. What is not clear if these are regular soldiers or mercenaries.
France and Great Britain have said that their soldiers were not involved.
Gaddafi himself is still free, probably hiding somewhere inside the country, and urging his followers to fight to the end. None of his sons have been captured.
Heavy bombardments from NATO’s planes are killing civilians in areas controlled by his forces.
How long will he be able to hold on?
Yet even should Sirte and Beni Walid be taken, guerrilla warfare could go on, hampering all efforts to establish a stable regime.
The National Transitional Council has appointed Mahmoud Jibril, a former Gaddafi minister, as interim prime minister tasked with forming the government.
He still has not been able to do so.
Yet the NTC needs to establish a provisional government as soon as possible to reassure world public opinion and demonstrate that it is in control and that the “First Democracy in North Africa” is about to be born through democratic elections and the drafting of a new constitution.
Last week the National Transitional Council was officially recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate representative of the country, and its new flag – the old flag of the kingdom of Libya – now flies proudly on the building.
The Union of African States followed suit after a lengthy hesitation and unsuccessful attempts at mediating between Gaddafi and the rebels. The Arab League, the United States and most members of the European Union have also done so. All very promising.
Unfortunately, 40 years of authoritarian rule have left the country with no political parties. The only organized groups which managed to survive were the Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the “Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.”
It will take two or three years for new political forces representing all currents of a very divided society still partly tribal to emerge and get organized. Meanwhile the unified rebel front in Misrata has stated that their candidate for premiership was Abd el Rahman Al Sowiehaly, a longtime opponent of the regime known for his moderate positions.
Sowiehaly has declared in a number of interviews that it was not clear what forces Jibril, the NTC candidate, represented; though from various reports it appeared he had numerous links with many figures of the Gaddafi regime – a fact that could be a threat to the establishment of a new democratic regime.
While the long dormant political arena is thus waking up, the conflict between Islamist and secular forces is growing. Mustapha Abd el Jallil, who heads the NTC, stated in his “victory declaration” last week in Tripoli that Islam would be the main source of legislation.
Such was the case in all Arab States before the revolutions that shook the area, and such will probably be the case in the future.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the main political force in all these countries and it is well represented in the Libyan NTC; it’s hard to see how their demands could be turned down for the time being.
Worse, the leader of the rebel forces that took Tripoli is none other than Abd el hakim Belhaj, an extremist Islamist who fought in Afghanistan against the Russians. His true identity was revealed after the taking of Bab el Azizia – Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli. It turned out that he had been the one to set up the “Libya Islamic fighting Group” in the ‘90s.
He managed to leave the country and joined jihadist groups. Arrested by American agents in Thailand in 2004, he was handed over to Libya. Strangely enough, Gaddafi released him in 2010 after he had allegedly mended his ways.
When the first manifestations started on February 17, 2011, Belhaj immediately threw his lot with the rebels and became the driving force in the Rebels Council, according to Libyan media and Islamist sites.
When his true identity was revealed, the Europeans were in shock. Belhaj “appeased” them by stating that he had no links to al-Qaida and no intention of setting up an Islamic state in Libya, though what his real intentions are is anybody’s guess.
Suddenly people started wondering what part the man had taken in the timely assassination of Abdel Fattah Younes, the commander-in-chief of the rebel forces.
Younes, who had been Gaddafi’s minister of the interior, after having been one of the Free Officers who toppled the king with him in 1970, joined the rebels on February 21 – a scant four days after the beginning of the revolt. He was immediately appointed commander-inchief of the revolutionary forces – the position now taken by Belhaj.
Younes belonged to the Obeidat tribe, one of the largest of the Eastern Libyan tribes, and was destined for an important role in the new regime. The circumstances of his death are still unclear; a commission of inquiry has been set up by the NTC, without results so far.
It is being said that the Islamists had the most to gain from the disappearance of a man who wielded so much influence; his presence on the NTC would have reinforced the secular elements.
Nothing has been proven so far, but last week members of the Obeidat tribe demonstrated in Benghazi, calling for accelerating the investigation in order to find and punish the culprits.
At the same time, they proclaimed the creation of the “Military Council of Cyrenaica,” though insisting on the fact that they were not intending to secede but only to set up a national army at the disposal of the NTC.
Nevertheless, these are the first seeds of a secession between the tribes of Cyrenaica and those of Tripolitania, which could tear the country apart.
A new generation of newspapers with liberal tendencies which appeared after the flight of Gaddafi from Tripoli, are now attacking the Islamists, as well as Belhaj. They accuse Islamist elements of having entered the city and set up new “morality patrols” roaming the streets and threatening beauty parlors and dance halls, demanding that they cease all activities.
At the same time, a number of Fatwas – Islamic decrees – issued by unknown sources have been published, calling on women to put on veils and reminding them that they are forbidden to leave home to go to work. Threats have been sent to television channels, warning that women should not appear on the small screen.
According to the newspapers, the CNT in Tripoli, headed by Belhaji, is taking over a number of public buildings housing media groups and television stations – without informing the Benghazi CNT.
One newspaper, Arouss el Bahrthe, printed on September 20 that nine planes carrying 100 tons of weapons, communication material and binoculars, recently landed at Tripoli International Airport coming from Qatar.
Qatari officers accompanying the cargo handed it over to Belhaj – but remained in a command basis at the airport.
According to that report, Belhaj intends to take over the whole of Libya, as Hezbollah did in Lebanon, and a bloody civil war is in the works. There has been no confirmation by any other source; however it does look as if, under cover of the CNT, Belhaj and his men are trying to set up some form of Islamist type of control.
Libya is adrift in a sea of uncertainty.
The international community has recognized the CNT, but the war is far from over. The political scene, awaking from a long freeze, is still getting its bearings; Islamist forces are attempting a stealthy take-over.
Will the fighting go on? Will another type of civil war break out leading to a possible break up of this huge country along tribal lines? Or will the Libyan revolution, against all odds, bring about a democratic regime?
The answer is blowing in the sands.