Libya's fractious new rulers enjoy honeymoon

TRIPOLI Mon Sep 19, 2011 7:36pm IST

Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil takes part in a joint news conference with Malta's Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi (not pictured) at the office of the Maltese Prime Minister at Auberge de Castille in Valletta September 18, 2011. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil takes part in a joint news conference with Malta's Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi (not pictured) at the office of the Maltese Prime Minister at Auberge de Castille in Valletta September 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Obstinate resistance by Muammar Gaddafi's last strongholds is an embarrassment for Libya's new rulers, and bickering that delayed the formation of a new interim government suggests potentially damaging internal political rifts are widening.

But for now Libya's new political leaders have an indulgent audience, at least in Tripoli, the capital city that fell from Gaddafi's grasp less than a month ago.

Here, the savour of life released from the yoke of an all-powerful ruler who named himself the Guide, Brother Leader and Africa's King of Kings remains intensely sweet.

The fact that Libya's new and crowded political field has produced a cacophony of argumentative voices is seen by political analysts and many ordinary Libyans as a refreshing change from the stultifying monotone of Gaddafi's dictatorship.

Islamists and secularists have sparred in public over how to manage the transition from despotism to democracy, and leaders in towns and villages hard hit by the six-month conflict have demanded posts in the new administration, arguing that their communities need funds to rebuild.

But the alliance of convenience among anti-Gaddafi forces from a variety of political backgrounds born in the eastern city of Benghazi in February and March is not about to unravel, Libyan and foreign political analysts say, and its support among the Western and Arab nations that helped it toppled Gaddafi remains strong.

POLICE STATE HAS GONE

The increasingly raucous political debate emerging in the country is overlayed with a sense of relief that Gaddafi and his terrifying police state has gone, and his voice no longer dominates the airwaves of state radio and television.

In Martyrs' Square, where traffic police in crisply pressed white uniforms took up patrols on Monday for the first time since Gaddafi's fall, engineer Mustafa Shaab bin Ragheb spelt out his priorities.

"The delay in the new government isn't important. It's like a sick man," he told Reuters as he rummaged at a roadside kiosk for rings bearing revolutionary slogans.

"He has to move slowly before he can walk at a normal speed. We need time to recover."

Then he added, waving his arms: "Look, we finally got rid of that bloody monkey. We are better than before."

"We will hang him and his sons, and then we can breathe freely. It's too early for politics."

Ramdan Bashiroun, a retired teacher, said it was normal that negotiations among Libya's new rulers would take time.

"Gaddafi burned us for 40 years. He crushed all our possibilities," Bashiroun said.

The patience of Tripolitanians has been greatly helped by the return of power, water, food markets, telecommunications, and a start to the back payment of wages due for the months of the conflict.

But patience has its limits, and officials of new interim National Transitional Council (NTC) know that further progress on the military front is vital.

Failure to take the Gaddafi-held towns of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha threatens the NTC's credibility.

On Sunday, NTC forces fled in a chaotic retreat from Bani Walid, after failing once again to storm it. Fighters told Reuters that confused orders, no central command and dissent in the ranks were to blame.

The story was similar at Sirte, where NTC forces have made better progress but have still been repulsed by Gaddafi loyalists in four days of heavy fighting. Early progress is not guaranteed, despite help from NATO air power.

But Saad Djebbar, a London-based Algerian lawyer who acted for Libya in the Lockerbie bombing case, said the disarray was not surprising to Libyans and should not alarm foreign allies.

The coalition that toppled Gaddafi involved exiles, activists from the anti-Gaddafi underground, ordinary Libyans from many backgrounds who had suffered repression.

Everyone came together at short notice and in such conditions not everything was bound to go smoothly, he said.

"What do you expect? It needs an exceptional effort and these are exceptional circumstances," he said.

POLITICAL DEFTNESS NEEDED

"If anything, the more you have military problems the more it will keep them together. It doesn't necessary mean a lack of leadership. They are very responsibly taking their time and building a consensus about taking their forces forward."

Political analyst Ashour Shamis said there was a potentially tricky link between the political and military domains and NTC leaders would have to show political deftness, and tolerance, in navigating a path to a new constitution.

The NTC has drawn up a road map, setting out plans for a new constitution and elections over a 20-month period, which should start once a declaration of "liberation" is made.

It is not clear what liberation entails but it is likely to be conditional upon the capture of Gaddafi and the defeat of his loyalists in the three key towns they still hold.

Confidence in the NTC's ability to steer a steady path took a knock on Sunday when it failed to agree on a new cabinet.

The cabinet was dissolved last month after procedural errors in the handling of the unexplained shooting dead of the then NTC military chief. A new executive committee, to include officials responsible for defence and interior affairs, was supposed to be appointed by interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril on Sunday.

But the talks broke down when his proposals did not receive full backing from all current members.

Ashour Shamis said the divisions were "a natural process. They have to accommodate so many people, so many talents and so many geographical considerations."

"Libyans didn't have experience of this process for 42 years and these kind of negotiations are genuinely difficult," Djebbar said.

SECULARIST-ISLAMIST TENSIONS

"The one prescription for success so far we have seen continuously in the Arab Spring has been the process of coalition building."

"The Arab Spring idea is that you're looking for consensus, a result where no winner takes all, there is no monopoly of truth and no monopoly of power from anyone, in contrast to dictators who are omnipotent."

There have been anxieties among Western officials about rifts between rival factions, including Islamists possibly backed by interests in the Gulf, in the ranks of the NTC.

Concerns in the West about Islamists were exacerbated this month when some of them criticised Libya's interim rulers -- a mainly secular group of technocrats, some of them former Gaddafi officials -- for allegedly behaving in a high handed manner towards Islamists and those of other political persuasions.

But Tripoli military commander Abdel Hakim Belhadj told Reuters on Sunday the outbreak of public ill-feeling was more the result of a desire to air long-suppressed views than any ideological divide.

"What you see now is the eruption of someone who was under oppression," he said.

"Libyans were denied the right to express their feelings ... There was a wall in front of them. When this wall was removed they just started to express themselves.

Shamis agreed, describing the ideological component of the bickering as "minimal".

"It's emotional rather than logical," he said.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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