By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and ROD NORDLAND
Published: August 30, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — Fighters from the western mountain city of Zintan control the airport. The fighters from Misurata guard the central bank, the port and the prime minister’s office, where their graffiti has relabeled the historic plaza “Misurata Square.” Berbers from the mountain town Yafran took charge of the city’s central square, where they spray-painted “Yafran Revolutionaries.”
A week after rebels broke into Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s former stronghold, much of its territory remains divided into fiefs, each controlled by quasi-independent brigades representing different geographic areas of the country. And the spray paint they use to mark their territory tells the story of a looming leadership crisis in the capital, Tripoli.
The top civilian officials of the Libyan rebels’ Transitional National Council — now styling itself as a provisional government to be based in the capital — are yet to arrive, citing personal safety concerns even as they pronounce the city fully secure.
There are growing hints of rivalry among the various brigades over who deserves credit for liberating the city and the influence it might bring. And attempts to name a military leader to unify the bands of fighters have instead exposed divisions within the rebel leadership, along regional lines but also between secularists and Islamists.
They were all signs, one influential member of the council said, that point to a continuing “power vacuum” in the civilian leadership of the Libyan capital. But the jockeying for power also illustrates the challenge a new provisional government will face in trying to unify Libya’s fractious political landscape.
The country was little more than a loose federation of regions and tribes before Colonel Qaddafi came to power. His reliance on favoritism and repression to maintain control did little to bridge Libya’s regional, ethnic and ideological divisions. Nor did the rebels who ousted Colonel Qaddafi ever organize themselves into a unified force. Rebels from the western mountains, the mid-coastal city of Misurata and the eastern city of Benghazi each fought independently, and often rolled their eyes in condescension at one another.
And although the transition so far has been surprisingly orderly — almost no looting and little violence — Tripoli has become an early test of the revolution’s ability to bridge those divisions because in contrast to other Libyan cities liberated by their own residents, Colonel Qaddafi was ousted from Tripoli by brigades from other regions, and most remain in the streets.
Early steps toward unifying the brigades under a common command have brought out latent divisions among rebel leaders. Some became apparent when a fighter named Abdel Hakim al-Hasadi, sometimes known as AbdelHakim Belhaj, was named commander of a newly formed Tripoli Military Council.
Several liberals among the rebel leadership council complained privately that Mr. Hasadi had been a leader of the disbanded Libyan Islamist Fighting Group, which rebelled against Colonel Qaddafi in the 1990s. Some said they feared it was the first step in an attempt at an Islamist takeover. They noted that Mr. Hasadi was named commander by the five battalions of the so-called Tripoli Brigade, rather than by any civilian authority. And they complained about the perceived influence of Qatar, which helped train and equip the Tripoli Brigade and also finances Al Jazeera.
“This guy is just a creation of the Qataris and their money, and they are sponsoring the element of Muslim extremism here,” another council member from the western region said. “The revolutionary fighters are extremely unhappy and surprised. He is the commander of nothing!”
Mixed with the ideological concerns, however, was an equal measure of provincial rivalry over who did more to liberate Tripoli. Not only was Mr. Hasadi an Islamist, the council member argued, but he had done less than the western rebels in the fight for the capital.
“People in the west were saying to each other, ‘What? This kid? This is rubbish! What about our top commanders?’ ” the council member said.
Mr. Hasadi could not be reached for comment, in part because he was attending meetings in Doha, Qatar. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the Transitional National Council, said he made a point to take Mr. Hasadi along to a meeting with their NATO allies in Doha to show that despite his background, he poses “no danger to international peace and stability.”
Hints of another schism appeared this week after news reports that the council’s prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril — who, like Mr. Jalil, is not present in Tripoli — was naming a former Libyan Army general, Albarrani Shkal, as the chief of the capital’s security.
Fighters from Misurata, considered to the rebels’ most formidable force, refused to accept his appointment, arguing that he was complicit in Colonel Qaddafi’s vicious crackdown on their city. In Misurata, about 500 protesters took to its central square to chant that the appointment would betray “the blood of the martyrs,” a correspondent for The Guardian reported, noting that the city’s local council registered a formal complaint with the national leadership.
By Tuesday night, Mr. Jabril had taken back his decision, said Alamin Belhaj, a Tripoli member of the transitional council.
Both conflicts over the selection of military leaders recall the uproar sparked by the murder of the rebels’ top military commander in Benghazi, General Abdul Fattah Younes. The murder, still unresolved, touched off allegations by some rebel leaders that he was killed by a brigade of Islamists, which they said sought revenge for his previous role as a top aide to Colonel Qaddafi. No one has been charged in the case.
Libyan Islamists say they just want a chance to compete in an open democracy, and they argue that they are more qualified than the liberals to disarm the fighters in the streets.
“They trust us more,” said Mr. Belhaj, the council member and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood here, arguing that many Libyans fear that the revolution would be “stolen” by rich, Westernized and often expatriate liberals on the council.
All sides agreed, however, that the conquest of Tripoli has made it a crucible of regional rivalries. Although the early fighting was in the east, the final assault on Tripoli was led by rebel groups in the west and finished by seasoned fighters from Misurata.
Now members of nearly every brigade in Tripoli assert their group played the most heroic role in taking the city, or in breaking into the Qaddafi compound, or in taking the central square.
“We have it on video,” insisted Mahdi al-Harati, the deputy leader of the Tripoli Military Council, defending his claim that his brigade was first to the central square.
More than pride may be at stake, said Anwar Fekini, a French-Libyan lawyer with ancestral ties to the mountains who is a member of the national leadership council. “The people in the west say, ‘We paid a huge price, and we want to be in charge,’ and Misurata the same,” he said, adding that he argued Libyans should select their leaders on the basis of competence regardless of region.
Mr. Belhaj had another idea. He said he had asked the other local councils to withdraw their brigades from the city limits, to leave the capital to the Tripolitans.