With rebels on the verge of ending Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s long reign, the character of their movement is facing its first real test: Can they build a new government of unity and reconciliation, or will their own internal rivalries mean divisions in the new Libya?
Six months after their revolt broke out, the day-to-day leadership of the anti-Qaddafi movement remains an unanswered question, with no figure emerging as the rebellion’s undisputed leader. Even the common struggle against Colonel Qaddafi never masked latent divisions between east and west, between political leaders and fractious militias, and, some say, between liberal public faces and Islamists in the rebel ranks.
The rebels from the western mountains who stormed into Tripoli on Sunday night often roll their eyes at their ostensible political leadership, the Transitional National Council, which is based in the eastern city of Benghazi. Many complained that their national leaders did not give them enough support, even after Western governments began allowing them access to the frozen assets of the Qaddafi government.
“The N.T.C. did not work so hard to bridge the gap” between what western rebels forces had and what they needed to subdue Tripoli, said Youssef Mohamed, a management consultant working as an adviser to one of the rebel units charged with securing the capital.
American and European officials said on Monday that they have been working for weeks to foster cohesion in the rebel ranks and to avoid a repeat of the sectarian strife that gripped Iraq in 2003 after the American invasion. Officials said they thought that one reason Tripoli fell as quickly as it did was that important rebel groups closed ranks and came up with a coherent strategy to invade Colonel Qaddafi’s last stronghold.
Even so, rivalries began emerging on Monday well before Tripoli was fully subdued, along with questions about the rebels’ credibility. Officials of the Transitional National Council in Benghazi said Sunday that their forces had captured Colonel Qaddafi’s son and would-be successor, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi. But then on Tuesday he appeared at a Tripoli hotel housing foreign journalists — moving freely around the city — and even before then some in Tripoli appeared not to trust their Benghazi leadership to handle him.
Emhemmed Ghula, a leader of the Tripoli rebel underground stationed at a newly established military headquarters on Monday, said he worried that the Benghazi leadership had wrongly agreed to turn Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he is wanted on war crimes charges.
“It was not us,” Mr. Ghula said, referring to the Tripoli rebels. “If we caught him, we are not going to give him to anyone. We would just take him to trial — a fair trial — under Libyan laws.”
Pressed on his relationship with the movement’s national leadership, he acknowledged: “We belong to them, politically. They did help us with the plan for this revolution.” But he added: “The general plan, I should say. Not with the local plan.”
Tensions were also on display Monday after the rebels captured a prominent broadcaster from Libyan state television, Hala Misrati. She was spotted driving in the city and was arrested, several rebels said, in connection with her role as Qaddafi propagandist. She was taken to a local office building for questioning, and through a cracked door a heavyset man could be seen leaning over her seat as she screamed, “I am innocent!”
A mob of rebels, many armed, tried to storm the office. They were pushed back when a rebel officer emerged from the interrogation room and fired his gun through the ceiling. He fired another shot to scare off the press.
Ultimately, however, order appeared to win out: an older officer made his way through the mob counseling patience, and the crowd dissipated. Ms. Misrati was quietly whisked away.