The mysterious killing of the commander of Libyan rebel forces foreshadows the difficulties a post-Qaddafi Libya will encounter once it embarks on a transition toward democracy irrespective of who was responsible for the assassination.
Libyan rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s assertion that forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi were responsible for the killing of General Abdul Fatah Younis and two other commanders does little to address the issues raised by the incident.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Jalil was denying by implication that the commander had been killed by rebel fighters.
Countering reports that General Younis had been arrested hours before his death for questioning about his relationship with Mr. Qaddafi, Mr. Jalil suggested that the commander had been killed as he was returning to the rebel capital of Benghazi from Port Brega.
Mr. Jalil’s statements raised more questions than they provided answers. General Younis was known to have always travelled with a large security detail. Mr. Jalil said the killers belonged to an armed gang, one of whom had been arrested, but suggested that General Younis’ body had yet to be found.
General Younis has been a controversial figure since his defection to the rebels in February. A close associate of Mr. Qaddafi, who was with him since the mercurial colonel staged a military coup in 1969, General Younis said at the time of his defection that he could not justify the Libyan leader’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters.
From the moment he defected, General Younis, who served under Mr. Qaddafi as interior minister and head of special forces, was locked into a fierce rivalry with another general, Khalifa Hifter, who had switched his allegiance for command of the rebel forces. Many rebel fighters distrusted him.
His death not only raises questions about the degree of unity within the rebel Transition National Council (TNC) at a time that the rebels have failed to make significant military advances but also calls into question the image of a movement seeking freedom and democracy that the leadership forum has been seeking to project. The TNC has been recognized by the United States, Britain, the European Union, the Arab League and NATO as the sole legal governing authority in Libya.
The TNC’s resorting to tribal politics in the immediate aftermath of General Younis’ death however suggests the challenge post-Qaddafi Libya will face in trying to build institutions from scratch in a nation that has been ruled on the basis of tribes for the four decades.
TNC officials are reported to have spent significant time from the moment of General Younis’ reported detention and certainly from the moment that news of his killing started to leak in an effort to mollify angry members of the commander’s Obeidi tribe, one of the largest and most influential in largely rebel-held eastern Libya. Many Obeidi are believed to be convinced that the TNC may have been involved in the commander’s death.
Mr. Jalil sought to counter those allegations by taking two tribal elders with him rather than members of the TNC when he announced General Younis’s murder in a terse statement at a Benghazi hotel. Mr. Jalil repeatedly paid respect to the Obeidis for their sacrifice and understanding and praised them for the understanding they had displayed.
Dozens of angry tribesmen gathered outside the hotel hours earlier when Mr. Jalil first scheduled his delayed news conference initially believed to have been intended to confirm reports of the general’s detention for questioning. Armed tribesmen were reported to have arrived at the hotel during the news conference firing automatic weapons in the air and at the hotel’s windows. Witnesses reported clashes between the Obeidis and other tribes.
The tribal clashes and the tribal politics surrounding General Younis’ death cast a shadow over plans to avoid internecine conflicts once Mr. Qaddafi has been removed from office. Bearing in mind the problems Iraq faced because of the disbanding of Saddam Hussein’s military by the US and its allies, the rebel leadership may want to keep the Libyan leader’s security forces intact and integrate them with the rebel forces.
The move would be designed to avoid the kind of sectarian violence that post-Saddam Iraq experienced. General Younis’ death suggests that a substantial peacekeeping force with a robust mandate will be needed to prevent tribal clashes and oversee the creation of a nominally unified Libyan force.
Working in favor of integration and a smooth transition is the lack of a sense of revenge and the fact that at most five percent of the Libyan population benefited truly from the Qaddafi regime.
Ironically, in a country that didn’t tolerate dissent and association with the regime was the only way to advance, much of the rebel movement has a history with Colonel Qaddafi.
Rebel leaders have said they only want to prosecute Mr. Qaddafi and his closest associates and those with blood on their hands. The problem is that does not bode well for integration of the armed forces although in practice a degree of leniency may well be applied.
The mystery surrounding General Younis’ death constitutes not only a blow to the rebels but also to its NATO backers who may now be dealing with a divided movement that can’t live up to its billing and that if and when it takes over power from Mr. Qaddafi may not have the wherewithal to build the kind of institutions Libya will need to successfully transit from autocratic one-man rule to a more open society.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)