Libya: The National Power Struggle Begins

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A military aircraft of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's lies destroyed at the airport in Sirte. (Photo: REUTERS - Anis Mili)

By: Moammar Atwi

Published Friday, October 7, 2011

Libya’s National Transitional Council has its work cut out for it leading up to a new government formation, while rebel groups and divisive political interests vie for power amid the post-Gaddafi vacuum in Libya.

Fierce infighting has delayed the formation of an interim cabinet in Libya, exposing the weaknesses of the National Transitional Council (NTC) headed by former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil. Rival groups with sharply divergent political outlooks are united only in their quest to gain power. Libya may face tumultuous political times.

Political dysfunction may be expected in a country that had no politics to speak of beyond the Revolutionary and Popular Committees during four decades of one-man rule. Prior to the revolution, the Libyan at-home opposition was little more than the remnants of Islamist groups, which Gaddafi’s regime largely crushed or co-opted since the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, the opposition in exile was dominated by the National Council for the Salvation of Libya, mistrusted by many of Gaddafi’s opponents because of its reputed links to the CIA.

While the road to multi-party democracy was never going to be smooth, it is further complicated by the tribal identities of many of the country’s emergent political groupings. They nominally share the ‘moderate’ Islamic vision flaunted by Abdul Jalil and many other Libyan politicians. But in practice, they vie for the right to represent their respective regions and tribes.

Many of these groups began life as armed factions that took part in the fighting against Gaddafi’s forces. After the liberation of Tripoli, they turned to politics, staking their claims to a share of the spoils and using their men, arms, and money toward that purpose. Rivalries between these groups, and the demographic realities they represent, have been a key cause of the NTC’s problems — as opposed to hardline-Islamist influence or foreign meddling as widely reported in the media. A number of players have risen to prominence in the fray.

The Tripoli Rebels

Abdullah al-Zintani, head of the Tripoli Revolutionary Council, has emerged as the chief rival to Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who became commander of the Tripoli Military Council after the fall of the Bab al-Azizia compound in Tripoli.

In a recent interview with the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, al-Zintani demanded that half the seats in the new cabinet be reserved for former rebel groups. He sounded as though he had the clout to back up the demand, claiming that his group had 25,000 members from all parts of the country. More to the point, he said he had 7,000 well-armed fighters under his command.

Unlike Belhaj, the clean-shaven al-Zintani is not a card-carrying Islamist, nor does he resemble a jihadist returnee from Afghanistan. Rather, he is firmly within the ‘moderate’ Islamic camp.

Al-Zintani’s group appears to resemble several similar ones that have taken over policing functions in Tripoli, Benghazi, and other Libyan towns in the absence of official security forces. These groups are similarly likely to demand their share in the new political system – utterly disregarding Abdul Jalil’s earlier pleas that participation in the rebellion against Gaddafi not be a qualification for political representation.

The Misrata Brigade

The Brigade recently made a forceful entry onto the political stage. Its fighters achieved renown when they held out against Gaddafi’s besieging forces for weeks in the coastal town of Misrata, east of Tripoli. They then played a key role in winning the battle for Tripoli and remain in action on the Bani Walid and Sirte fronts. The Brigade has now become an affiliate of the Misrata Revolutionary Union, which has called for the appointment of Abdul Rahman al-Swehli as head of government.

The Former Islamic Fighting Group

The jihadi Islamists led by Abdel Hakim Belhaj are the most controversial element in this mix. Belhaj was a leader of the Islamic Fighting Group (IFG) active during the mid 1990s. Although he only came to media prominence after the fall of Tripoli, he joined the uprising from the outset in February. It was clear from his many appearances alongside NTC leaders that Islamists with salafi jihadist roots would have an important role to play in the Libya’s political future.

There have been reports that the US has been in talks with this group aimed at persuading it to espouse a ‘moderate’ variant of political Islam, one consistent with the Muslim Brotherhood and that of the Turkish government. US appeals to the group come despite Belhaj’s public demand for an apology from the US and Britain for ‘rendering’ him to the Libyan authorities in 2004 while he was travelling in East Asia.

With 3,000 fighters under his command, Belhaj is well-positioned to demand a share of power in Libya for the Islamists. He warned this week that Islamist groups would not allow secular politicians to marginalize or exclude them in the wake of Gaddafi’s downfall.

Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood

Qatar is deeply involved in the political machinations in Libya. The Gulf emirate has worked hard to co-opt Islamist and other opposition groups in a number of Arab countries where popular uprisings have challenged the regimes. The aim appears to be to produce a Turkish-style marriage of religiosity and pragmatism and nurture forces that would be acceptable to both Libya’s conservative population and the US. Qatar simultaneously supports some liberal and Arab nationalist elements in Libya.

The Doha-based Islamist scholar Sheikh Ali al-Salabi seems to have played a pivotal role in cementing the alliance between Libyan Islamists and the Qatari leadership. Al-Salabi is on good terms with the emir of Qatar and his brother Ismail was a rebel commander in Benghazi and second-in-command of the IFG. Al-Salabi reportedly negotiated the 2009 deal with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi under which jailed members of the group were pardoned after renouncing their jihadi ideology.

Al-Salabi recently launched a ferocious attack on the NTC, demanding that it respect the will of the Libyan people. Among other things, he demanded acting oil minister Ali Tarhouni be excluded from the cabinet, based on accusations he cooperated with the CIA. Similar quarrels between current NTC leadership and Libya’s would-be political heavyweights have held up any agreement. The frustration led to Abdul Jalil’s announcement that he would not head or serve in the new cabinet.

Al-Salabi came across as spiritual mentor of the Libyan revolution, offering his views and directives to the revolutionaries in line with his Islamist project. He stressed the need for the NTC chairman to heed the advice of scholars — namely Fatwa Council head Sheikh Sadiq Bin Abdul Rahman Ghariani — and revolutionary commanders such as Belhaj.

Waheed Burshan, a local council leader close to the Islamists, told AFP that Mahmoud Jibril has effectively been ousted by the Islamists. He went on to demand major changes in the NTC’s composition “so that it represents all of Libya.” But a senior NTC official denied this. He said the dispute over the prime minister’s position was not one between secularists and Islamists. Rather Jibril wanted it to appear that way. The official reiterated that Libyans were moderate Muslims, and that only a few individuals held extremist views.

Harati’s Weapons

Mahdi al-Harati is another controversial figure in post-Gaddafi Libya. He is another Islamist rebel commander in Tripoli close to Belhaj. There are unconfirmed reports that al-Harati traveled to Qatar for a few days and returned with millions of dollars in cash, which he used to buy up tanks and armored vehicles.

It is still unclear who the purchased weapons are for, nor is it clear why Qatar should be providing more funds to Islamist groups already rich with petrodollars. Typical of its foreign policy, the emirate is backing opposing sides within Libya.

Abdul Jalil may have been right to observe that “what has held up the cabinet is the mentality that Libyans have been raised on for 40 years.” He explained: “Every region and tribe wants their share of the government. There are also towns that think their struggle — which we appreciate — gives them priority.”

Meanwhile, all parties — liberals and Arab nationalists — appear to be vying for their share of the spoils by advocating ‘moderate’ Islam. The hardline Islamists like the IFG use this slogan to whitewash their records, and the Brotherhood press on with Qatari support. Other Islamic groups adopt a less political rhetoric, appealing generally to the Libyan people’s non-ideological religiosity.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


The single most prominent "player" in so-called "national power struggle" in Libya is NATO. Period.

By the way, the "liberation" was a result of NATO bombing and other "help". It is omitted, I wonder why? (not really)

It is going to be something like Afghanistan after similar NATO "rebels" victory in 1992. I would not be surprised if there was another Taliban as a result. So much for "revolution". Welcome to hell made in USA, as usual.

Well said. How an article can be written about Libya without mentioning NATO is beyond belief.

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