Libya's uneasy uprising

Tribal feuds, clan rifts and deepening political turmoil threaten to undermine the war against Gadhafi

An uneasy uprising

Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

On July 28, inside the political offices of the Libyan rebels in Benghazi, panicked officials scrambled to find an explanation. Rebel pickup trucks abandoned the front line at the city limits in anger. Inside the rebel capital, simmering tensions gave rise to nighttime gun battles. Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis, the Libyan rebels’ top military leader, was dead. His mysterious assassination last month shattered, at once, the notion that Libya’s rebels are a united front, led by a broadly supported Transitional National Council. The picture emerging in Libya, rather, is of growing factionalism, distrust and deepening political turmoil, which is frustrating efforts to overthrow Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Since the killing, insecurity has spread, as gangs of gunmen roam the streets of Benghazi. Last week, after the TNC leadership acknowledged that a group of their own soldiers had killed Younis, chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil took action, dismissing the entire rebel cabinet. The executive committee’s 14 members were sacked for “administrative mistakes” that, Jalil claimed, led to Younis’s assassination.

Younis’s murder came shortly after his release by the TNC, which had summoned him to Benghazi for questioning—allegedly over allegations that the former interior minister, a contentious figure among rebels, was still working with Gadhafi. In the weeks since, unanswered questions surrounding the incident, combined with growing frustration at the lack of military or political progress in the war to oust Gadhafi, have brought criticism of the TNC. “No one knows whether to trust them anymore,” Benghazi resident Osama Doghaim, who recently began training to fight on the front lines, told Maclean’s. As questions over who killed Younis spread, so have rumours surrounding the true allegiance of other leaders and politicians allied with the rebels.

At first, rebel leaders blamed pro-Gadhafi cells inside Benghazi for the assassination; and the rebels’ largest internal security unit, the Qatari-backed Martyrs of 17th February, cracked down. In the days following Younis’s murder, gunfire rang out across the city, as troops engaged the Nida brigade, a group accused of secretly supporting the Gadhafi regime. Senior Western officials and rebel sources inside Benghazi, however, gave Maclean’s a different reason for the crackdown: one Western official called it “nothing short of cold-blooded murder.” This “is all a power play—and the TNC is losing big-time,” he adds. “There are no Gadhafi loyalists here.” The picture painted was one of factional infighting between rebel groups that has reached the top of the rebel political structure.

Qatar has provided training and funding to the 17th February brigade, making it the largest and best equipped of the rebel groups; sources in Benghazi, who could not be named for their own protection, claim the brigade is flexing its muscles to gain power over the TNC. “For now, the TNC is holding on,” a senior diplomatic source told Maclean’s; “one more death of a senior official,” he adds, could spell disaster for the rebel council. Libya’s rebels have long downplayed suggestions that tribal alliances could pose a threat to the unity of the revolution, but as the rebel uprising enters its seventh month, it appears that growing political conflicts and tribal feuds could have a role long after Gadhafi is ousted from power.

Al-Awaniya, in Libya’s Western Mountain region, has become a ghost town. Its residents, from the Mashaashia tribe—staunch Gadhafi loyalists—fled to Tripoli and other cities under the regime’s control, ahead of the rebel advance. Clothes and bedding still lie scattered in the streets, abandoned by fleeing families. Homes, shops and schools have meanwhile been ransacked, burnt and destroyed—suspected revenge attacks by rebel forces, which raise troubling questions about future discord.

Some tribes are vowing never to allow the Mashaashia to return. “We have suffered a lot from them being here,” says Khalaifa resident Ibrahim Hassan, 23. “We don’t want them in our village.” Rebels allege the Mashaashia tribe hosted regime troops, gave them information, and allowed them to fire rockets from their homes. Indeed, giant ammunition boxes with “Tripoli” emblazoned in block letters still litter al-Awaniya homes. Even the town doctors were loyal to the regime, says Hassan; injured rebel fighters had to be transported to hospitals elsewhere, out of fear, he says, that doctors might have handed them over to the regime.

The rancour between Western Mountain tribes goes deeper than the recent revolution. Many see the Mashaashia as Gadhafi stooges, planted in the mountains by the regime. Decades ago, in a bid to dampen anti-regime hostilities in the region, Gadhafi took land from Arab and Berber tribes hostile to his government and gave it to the Mashaashia, a friendly tribe. “Gadhafi brought these people to our land,” spat a resident of the nearby Berber village. “They are like the CIA, spying on us, telling the regime everything we do.”

Tribal conflicts like these have helped slow the rebel march to Tripoli on all three front lines. Despite this, considerable gains were made last week, with rebels raising their tricolour flag in Zawiyah, just 30 km from Tripoli. They have also succeeded in cutting major regime supply lines and surrounding the capital, and shortages of fuel, electricity and medical supplies are now gripping Tripoli. With negotiations in Tunisia between rebels and the Gadhafi regime, and reports of yet another defection—former interior minister Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdullah—regional analysts appear poised to call a checkmate on Gadhafi.

But now, as the rebels surround Tripoli and other loyalist strongholds, a new war is emerging: the battle for hearts and minds. Never has reconciling differences between tribes, clans and individuals in these towns been more crucial.

Shelling or attacking loyalist cities with ground troops is not a sustainable strategy if rebels are to win and retain control of Libya, said Col. Juma Ibrahim, head of operations at the rebel command centre for the Nafusa Mountains. In the long term, they must win popular support, he says, but if they bomb civilian homes, or kill children, they never will. “If we attack cities,” says Col. Mohammed Shelwe, who heads the military council in Yefren, a Berber city in northeastern Libya, “we are no different from Gadhafi.”

As the Gadhafi garrison town of Gharyan, at the bottom of the Western Mountains, fell to rebels, the small hamlet of As-Sabha nestled deep in the mountains continues to be a thorn in the rebels’ side. Capturing this tiny, and staunchly loyalist, village is a game of negotiation involving secretly passed messages, and frequent trips into enemy territory.

“We are asking them to leave the town, to come to stay with us,” fighter Ismail Ali, 32, explains, wearing flip-flops and a “Free Libya” T-shirt. He sits, cleaning his Kalashnikov, drinking sweet tea, and waits. “We speak to the elders in the village, the men with the power to convince the families.” The freedom fighters from these cities are the ones that will advance, says Col. Shelwe—“Not us.”

Back in the rebels’ Western Mountain military operation room, among crackling radios and uniformed rebel officers, Maclean’s watches as local elders hold council on Libya’s future. Elders from rival tribes, dressed in traditional long robes, sip sweet tea and eye each other warily as they begin difficult negotiations.

“We are here to negotiate reconciliation with the Nafusa Mountains, to be accepted, and to plan for a future together,” says the sheik of the Mashaashia. The Mashaashia, Gadhafi loyalists, also inhabit the southern town of Mizdah, which, if it fell under rebel control, could cut a crucial supply route of armaments and soldiers to the regime’s garrison town Gharyan, the so-called gateway to Tripoli. “We have 200 fighters, ready with trucks and weapons inside Mizdah,” says Bilgassim Mashaashia, stroking his long white beard. “Secretly,” he says, “more than half the Mashaashia support the revolution. But because of Gadhafi’s iron-fisted grip on the city, they cannot show themselves.” Turning to the rebel generals, he says: “We are here to say that Mizdah will never stab the rebels in the back.”

Still, tensions, never far from the surface, quickly shatter the calm, and the frail alliance breaks down when Berber tribesmen voice their reluctance to allow the Mashaashia to return to al-Awaniya. The sheik of Mashaashia stands and, eyeing the men in the room, shouts: “We will kick you out of the mountains; vanquish you into the plains below!”

On such men does the fate of the Libyan revolution rely.

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