Tribal Rifts Threaten to Undermine Libya Uprising
By David D. Kirkpatrick and C. J. Chivers
The New York Times
August 13, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — Saddled with infighting and undermined by the occasionally ruthless and undisciplined behavior of its fighters, the six-month-old rebel uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is showing signs of sliding from a struggle to overthrow an autocrat into a murkier contest between factions and tribes.
In a tribal dispute, rebels set fire to a home in Yafran, Libya, last month after they seized the town from pro-Qaddafi loyalists. More Photos »
The increase in discord and factionalism is undermining the effort to overthrow Colonel Qaddafi, and it comes immediately after recognition of the rebel government by the Western powers, including the United States, potentially giving the rebels access to billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets, and the chance to purchase more modern weaponry.
The infighting could also erode support for the rebels among members of the NATO alliance, which faces a September deadline for renewing its air campaign amid growing unease about the war’s costs and direction. That air support has been a factor in every significant rebel military goal, including fighting on Saturday in which rebel forces were challenging pro-Qaddafi forces in or near three critical towns: Brega, an oil port in the east, Zawiya, on the outskirts of Tripoli, and Gharyan, an important gateway to southern Libya. There were also clashes a few miles from the main border crossing into neighboring Tunisia, residents told Reuters.
While the rebels have sought to maintain a clean image and to portray themselves as fighting to establish a secular democracy, several recent acts of revenge have cast their ranks in a less favorable light. They have also raised the possibility that any rebel victory over Colonel Qaddafi could disintegrate into the sort of tribal tensions that have plagued Libya for centuries.
In recent weeks, rebel fighters in Libya’s western mountains and around the coastal city of Misurata have lashed out at civilians because their tribes supported Colonel Qaddafi, looting mountain villages and emptying a civilian neighborhood. In the rebels’ provisional capital, Benghazi, renegade fighters assassinated their top military commander, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, apparently in revenge for his previous role as Colonel Qaddafi’s security chief.
In response, the chief of General Younes’s powerful tribe threatened to retaliate against those responsible, setting off a crisis in the rebels’ governing council, whose members were dismissed en masse last week.
The rebels’ Western backers have become alarmed at the growing rift between supporters of a group of rebels who have coalesced into a relatively unified army and the others who effectively remain a civilian band of militia fighters.
In the short term, the retaliation can serve to fortify Colonel Qaddafi’s power by reinforcing the fear that a rebel victory would bring reprisals against the many who participated in the colonel’s political machine and enjoyed his patronage. More broadly, the moral clarity of six months ago, when Colonel Qaddafi’s forces were bearing down on Benghazi and he was threatening to wipe out anyone who dared oppose him there, has been muddied.
In an interview, Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said that concerns about the rebels might be overblown. He acknowledged that there were some “disturbing reports” from Benghazi and the rebel front lines but credited the rebels’ governing Transitional National Council with swift steps to address the concerns. He noted that the rebel leadership — itself a heterodox mix of recent defectors and their former longtime foes — had ordered an end to abuses against loyalist tribes in the mountains, and he characterized the shake-up of the council as a move to establish a level of transparency and accountability without precedent in Libya.
After some initial gunfire by fighters from the family of General Younes, the council appeared to have persuaded his tribe, the Obeidi, to put their faith in an investigation by the rebel authorities, Mr. Feltman said. “They were able to avert a real cycle of violence,” he said. “I would give them a passing grade, given where they are starting from.” He added, “They have made commitments to us that you would never get out of Qaddafi.”
Still, questions remain about the rebel leadership’s control over its fighters. “I think that is a question they are asking themselves,” Mr. Feltman said, noting recent moves by the council to rein in various freewheeling rebel militias, which often are formed along town, neighborhood or tribal lines.
But an Obama administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, acknowledged some doubts. “I think the jury is out on how unified the command will be,” the official said.
Just two weeks before the mysterious assassination of General Younes raised those questions, the United States formally recognized the rebels’ Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate government, potentially allowing it to tap about $3.5 billion in liquid assets and, over the long term, the rest of the $30 billion of the Qaddafi government’s frozen investments.
United States officials say that rebel leaders have pledged to allocate the money in a way that is “transparent” and “inclusive,” and that the United States is encouraging its use for health care, electricity and other services in rebel-held territory. But some funds could also be used to buy weapons for the poorly trained and equipped rebel forces.
Libya before the revolt was in many ways a social tinderbox. The country, a former Italian colony long dominated by rural Bedouin tribes, had little experience of national unity before Colonel Qaddafi came to power 42 years ago. Many Libyans relied on tribal connections more than civil law for justice and security.
Colonel Qaddafi’s centralized state and oil economy deepened many divisions, rewarding or punishing both individuals and tribes primarily on the basis of their loyalty to the government.
The uprising initially broke out across the country, even driving the police from the streets of the capital, Tripoli. But Colonel Qaddafi and one of his sons, Seif al-Islam, immediately vowed to stamp out the “rats” they held responsible, predicting from the first nights that the rebellion would become “a civil war.” Then militias commanded by two other Qaddafi sons, Muatassim and Khamis, re-established control of the capital by firing live ammunition into unarmed crowds, as the International Criminal Court attested, the first steps toward fulfilling the Qaddafis’ prophecy of a civil war pitting east against west.
Many supporters of the rebels now speak of exacting their own revenge against Colonel Qaddafi’s clan.
Outside Tripoli, the Qaddafi stronghold, about 500 civilian refugees from the rebel advance have gathered in a makeshift camp that formerly housed Chinese construction workers. “If you love Qaddafi in Yafran, they will kill you,” said Abdel Kareem Omar, 25, a dental student from a village of the Mashaashia tribe near that rebel city in the western mountains.
“The rebels stole our furniture, our food, our animals and burned our homes,” he said, vowing that he, too, would take up arms. “To protect my people,” he said.
In a recent conversation with two journalists, one man in the western mountains said his neighbors often spoke of capturing Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi alive, so they could chop off his fingers. And low-level rebel leaders talk openly of forbidding Colonel Qaddafi’s supporters from returning to their homes in rebel-held ground.
Bands of rebel fighters hunted people suspected of being Qaddafi loyalists around Benghazi for months before the killing of General Younes. And on the front lines, rebels in the coastal city of Misurata have vowed to take revenge on the black-skinned Libyans from Tawergha, accusing them of committing atrocities and driving them out of their neighborhood.
In the mountains in western Libya, local men have ransacked and burned homes in at least five villages or cities where residents had supported Colonel Qaddafi or his troops. Many of the victims were members of the pro-Qaddafi Mashaashia tribe, which the rebels openly loathe.
The fear holding together the pro-Qaddafi side is palpable. Asked in an unguarded moment about his plans, Musa Ibrahim, a member of Colonel Qaddafi’s tribe and a spokesman for his government, blurted out, “If I am alive, you mean?”
The rebel leadership in Benghazi continues to insist that it can reconcile the differences among Libyan factions and tribes. The governing council calls itself “transitional,” and it has pledged to form a new broadly representative unity government based in Tripoli if Colonel Qaddafi leaves power.
Part of the challenge facing the rebels is the pervasive reach of the Qaddafi political machine.
“In a dictatorship that lasts 42 years, it is almost inevitable that almost everyone to some extent needed to participate in the ‘revolution’ — how else could you raise a family, have a job, etc.?” Diederik Vandewalle, a Libya expert at Dartmouth College wrote in an e-mail. “That in a sense is the real tragedy of the way the Qaddafi system implicated everyone. And so it leaves virtually everyone open to retribution.”
Members of the tribes close to Colonel Qaddafi — like his own tribe, the Qaddafa, or the larger Maghraha, and small tribes associated with them — may face the greatest danger from “tribal revenge,” George Joffe, a Libya expert at the University of Cambridge, wrote in another e-mail. “And, of course, the longer this struggle continues, the more likely and bitter that will become.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, and C. J. Chivers from Zintan, Libya.