Libya's NTC struggles to stay the "good guys"

TRIPOLI Tue Nov 1, 2011 10:33pm IST

A passenger drags his suitcase as he walks past National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters as they secure the main entrance of Tripoli's Mitiga airport, October 30, 2011. REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi

A passenger drags his suitcase as he walks past National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters as they secure the main entrance of Tripoli's Mitiga airport, October 30, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/ Jamal Saidi

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Having picked a new prime minister, Libya's fractious interim ruling council must now restore its own credibility, dented by unseemly haggling over Muammar Gaddafi's rotting remains.

The nature of the man's death - insulted, battered and abused before being shot dead - has done some damage to its standing, with many observers asking themselves, just who are the men who have replaced him?

"The good guys," one Western diplomat insisted when asked that question in Tripoli last week.

But the halo awarded to the so far unelected National Transitional Council (NTC), hurriedly put together as the war against Gaddafi started, is under temporary review by their foreign backers as the headaches of state-building emerge.

The selection by the NTC of little known academic Abdurrahim El-Keib as interim prime minister on Monday also highlighted how mysterious the internal workings of the new ruling group can be to perplexed diplomats, journalists and Libya analysts, as well as - especially - to an increasingly impatient Libyan public.

"Your time is done, NTC," a young Libyan blogger wrote this week. "Thank you - the Libyan people."

Many of them are worried about whether a coalition of armed factions that were bound mostly by hatred of Gaddafi can hold together now his regime has crumbled and he has been buried.

Rights groups are attacking the NTC, too. First it was accusations of the illegal detention and torture of thousands of pro-Gaddafi fighters and, now, reports from Human Rights Watch that fighters loyal to the NTC may have executed scores of captured Gaddafi loyalists in his hometown.

Revenge attacks are common in other parts of the country.

Reuters reporters have heard residents of one Tripoli suburb shout, "You're just the same as he was! One dictatorship for another!" at a patrol of NTC fighters, combing the neighbourhood for locals they say still worship a dead man.

Another sign that the road ahead for post-Gaddafi Libya could be rocky is the wrangling and political horse-trading that took place over Gaddafi's corpse - four days of haggling about its fate before it was finally buried in a secret grave.

It all adds up to a clock of patience slowly ticking down - amid a potentially dangerous power vacuum - as the NTC faces its biggest challenge so far - shepherding the country peacefully to what it has promised will be a functioning democracy.

Keib has promised he will select an interim cabinet over the next couple of weeks after which it will serve for an eight-month run-up to an election for a national assembly charged with drawing up a new constitution.

That will then sit for a year before elections proper - what kind of elections will depend on the form of the constitution.

The question for Libya is whether or not the country can get there without regional, religious and policy divisions knocking things off course or back towards violence.

"A basic problem is that the allegiance of most fighters who helped defeat the pro-Gaddafi forces is firstly to their own militias, whose identity is mostly based on specific towns, and only second to the NTC," Alex Warren, of Frontier MEA, a Middle East and north Africa research and advisory firm, told Reuters.

"That raises the question of who could maintain stability in the case of any major clashes between the different armed groups themselves. I don't think those will necessarily happen, but it is vital that the NTC take steps to form a centralised armed force or disarm the militias, both of which will be very delicate and difficult tasks in the current environment."

"WHO GETS THE TOFFEE?"

Leaders of those cities, the most powerful being Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata, are all heavily involved in the debate over the future direction of both the NTC and Libya. Most attend political meetings with heavily armed bodyguards.

"They're treating government like a big chocolate box where they're bargaining over who gets the toffee," one diplomat said.

"'You give us defence and you can have internal affairs'. But what are they arguing about really? There still haven't been any elections. They can't keep the jobs long term."

It is those regional divides that are seen in Libya as being potentially fractious - and the biggest challenge the NTC faces - rather than the debate between secularists and Islamists that has provoked some alarm in the Western media.

Many analysts believe that as long as the organisation around the interim arrangements can stay cohesive until the elections, the outcome can be good for ordinary Libyans.

With Gaddafi gone, the mantle of the glue holding the NTC together has been handed to its chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a consenus-builder respected by people from all regions and by moderates, conservatives, Islamists and secularists.

It is not clear, however, what Abdel Jalil's ambitions are.

"He's tired," one NTC official said of Gaddafi's former justice minister. "I don't think he wants to lead Libya. I think we'll see him go for any of the top jobs when we have the elections."

With the spectre of Abdel Jalil perhaps stepping aside and with an unknown appointed as prime minister for the interim, it is proving difficult for potential investors and for other Libyan officials to know whom to do business with at this stage - let alone who may emerge once full elections are held.

"It's hard to know which horses to bet on when you don't have very accurate odds on them," a diplomat from an Arab state told Reuters. "But countries are making bets, anyway."

On how long the NTC glue can hold, prognoses vary wildly.

Some see a return to all out civil war between rival militias. Others bet on the emergence of a fledgling democracy with the potential to become a regional powerhouse.

Most analysts, though, fall somewhere between the two, predicting peaceful politicking with some low-level skirmishes possible as Libya moves down a bumpy path of change.

For many, it would be a worry if the men at the top were not openly arguing over the spoils of war or engaging in debates about what role Islam should play in politics - secularists lining up against, for now, their Islamist allies.

"It's good because it's the essence of democracy," said Libyan political scientist, Ahmed al-Atrash. "But we're learning. Libyans are not aware of how democracy works yet. But we are very serious about moving this forward - to establish a democracy without this international criminal in charge."

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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