Libya’s democratic dawn at risk from tribalism legacy

AS REBEL forces consolidate their hold on the Libyan capital, attention is turning to what comes next – and how a disparate faction-led opposition government can take the reins of power.

Nato made no secret of the fact that it always hoped that Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi would fall through an uprising by those inside Tripoli, rather than see the city conquered by force from outside.

Yet it is this latter scenario that has now come to pass, with rebel forces attacking from Zawiya in the west and Misrata in the east. It is these troops, rather than Tripoli’s own security forces, who are now controlling the capital. They make take a long time to shift, and so will the leaders who sent them there.

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It is on the slender shoulders of 59-year-old Mustafa Abdul Jalil that the immediate future of Libya now rests. The former judge and Libyan justice minister – famous for a brave public falling out with Col Gaddafi long before it became fashionable to do so – has been propelled to the top of the rebel National Transitional Council.

But however much the NTC portrays itself as a government-in-waiting, it remains an administration anchored in the eastern city of Benghazi and distrusted by the rebel factions from the Nafusa Mountains, to the west, and the city of Misrata, to the east, who did the hard fighting to make this victory possible.

Mr Jalil’s own forces in the east played a peripheral role in the conflict, only now taking the oil town of Brega after four months of trying. Misrata has not forgotten Benghazi’s insistence that it pay for the weapons it needed in its survival struggle, and long ago it stopped taking orders from the NTC leadership. Its forces and politicians may well do the same with Mr Jalil.

The Nafusa rebels – with their significant contingent of fighters from the Berber ethnic group – may prove more compliant to a new government, wanting simply the return of rights lost under the Gaddafi regime.

The good news for the NTC’s principal foreign backers, including the UK, is that Libya should on paper be a paradise.

Unlike Iraq, there are no sectarian divisions in this largely Sunni Muslim country; unlike Afghanistan, there are no trouble-making neighbours anxious to stir up strife. Instead there are Tunisia and Egypt on either side, each anxious to co-operate with Libya as they forge a future for their own countries.

Then there is the money. More than $100 billion dollars (£61bn) of state funds have been frozen by UN member states, including $35bn (£21.3bn) in the US alone. Add to that $8bn (£4.9bn) in gold bullion held in the national coffers, and the lack of any foreign debt, and Libya seems to have no payment problems.

Add to that the oil. Pre-war, Libya pumped 1.3 million barrels a day to the outside world, a handy little earner, especially when the population numbers six million souls. In a nutshell there is almost no poverty, no ethnic issues and despite some alarmist rhetoric in the West, no sign of any support for al-Qaeda

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Tribal divisions can also be exaggerated. The affiliations of the key population centres of Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata are more city-centric than tribal, and tribes such as the Obeidi in Benghazi are more like families than political organisations. Yet unity is far from assured. The very lack of any obvious political affiliations, in a country where politics was banned for 42 years by Gaddafi, has seen the NTC divided by bickering and factional squabbles.

The assassination of commander Abdul Fatah Younes and the failure of Mr Jalil to demand an inquiry into a killing some suspect was ordered by NTC factions themselves has done nothing to reassure the West he is serious about his promises to establish the rule of law.

And then there are the divisions of war. Pre-war, Libya was, like most dictatorships, a country divided by the few, who got very rich through the oil, and the ordinary population, who were largely denied its benefits.

Complicating this picture is the popularity that Gaddafi’s largesse brought in smaller towns. Misrata’s dismay of recent weeks was finding that the populations of Zlitan, Tawarga and Beni Walid showed no interest in joining them, preferring the stability of the Gaddafi order.

Some of the newly democratic leaders were also leaders in Gaddafi’s Libya, and the NTC must also deal with his power structure in Tripoli. Decapitated it may be, but if the officials who formed the dead hand of oil, security and state business stick together, they will prove a formidable obstacle to the Benghazi-based NTC in trying to establish democracy.

Mr Jalil also faces the problem that no-one elected him. He simply took the helm in the dark days of revolution, a factor that will make it hard to demand changes in Tripoli.

What happens if the Tripoli elite band together and resist these forces is an open question? It needs to be said that Libya’s rebel fighters have so far behaved with commendable self restraint. In Misrata, there are no signs of atrocities or revenge killings of prisoners, and wounded Gaddafi soldiers are regularly brought into city hospitals.

But rebel patience has its limits. The warriors who battled for months in the face of rockets and machine gun fire did not fight in order to allow the regime that terrorised them to remain in place. They are likely to demand changes to the existing order, and perhaps to insist on this. And they hold the guns.