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Libya rebels eye transitional council warily but hopefully

Young armed men now running the show in Tripoli will soon be asked to hand power over to a group based across the country, whom they know little about.

August 25, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the Libyan Transitional National Council.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the Libyan Transitional National Council. (Esam Omran Al-Fetori, Reuters )

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — As rebel fighters root out remnants of Moammar Kadafi's forces, ad hoc neighborhood councils that make their own rules are imposing the only semblance of order on the streets of Tripoli and enforcing it at hundreds of checkpoints, many staffed by heavily armed teenagers.

They are being asked now to abandon that sudden rush of power and hand authority to a group of men they don't know well.

Libya's opposition leadership, the Transitional National Council, says its top figures will arrive within days to take control of an unruly capital somewhat suspicious of its motives but largely willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Photos: Libya's turmoil

Unlike the quick revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the six-month revolt that led to the capture of most of Tripoli this week gave many Libyans a chance to at least get acquainted with some of the rebel council's figures.

Even in parts of the country Kadafi controlled, interviews and news conferences broadcast from rebel headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi allowed people to learn the members' names. Ordinary Libyans easily list the main figures on the 33-member council, including Mustafa Abdul Jalil, its leader.

The council has won over the country's intelligentsia, which was disgusted by the Kadafi clan's crassness. "It is run by intelligent people, logical people," said Ramadan Oumeh, a 40-year-old doctor from the upscale Tripoli neighborhood of Gargaresh. "They are intelligent, well-educated and respected by the outside world."

Despite the outward praise, however, it remains unclear how much traction the Benghazi-based rebel leadership will have, especially over the swarms of well-armed rebel fighters from the city of Misurata and the Nafusa Mountains who took most of Tripoli in a rush of gunfire this week.

Most outwardly swear fealty to the Benghazi leadership. In conversations over the last two days, however, many of the battle-hardened fighters snickered about its decision to delay coming to Tripoli because of security worries.

If Tripoli is safe enough for its 2 million residents, according to this sentiment, it should be safe enough for those aiming to lead the country.

"There is a lot of pessimism and resentment among the fighters," said Mohammad Abuzaid, 22, a fighter from Misurata, where local groups were able to break a siege and finally help launch the attack on Tripoli. "All the burden is on the people of Misurata and the mountains."

When they arrived in Tripoli, the fighters expected a military organization set up by the transitional council, he said. "But there was nothing."

The known council members are largely from Benghazi and eastern Libya, an area that historically has been culturally and politically separate from western Libya, where Tripoli is located. There is a danger the new leaders could be dismissed as interlopers, especially since the men fighting under their direct command have not yet defeated Kadafi's forces in the east.

Seven members of the council have yet to be identified for security reasons, presumably because they are from Tripoli and areas until recently under government control.

Many residents here appear willing to at least give the council's leaders some time, reasoning that they have to be an improvement over Kadafi's tyrannical rule. And unlike the fighters, they're willing to forgive the council leadership's decision to remain outside Tripoli for now.

"We cannot say that Tripoli is secure enough," said Mustafa Zwari, a 47-year old activist who lives near the city center. "Ordinary people aren't being targeted by Kadafi's men. But they will be."

He said the council would represent all the people.

For now, whatever authority exists in the capital is in the hands of the neighborhood committees, which nominally answer to the transitional council but in reality manage their own affairs and make their own rules. They have covered the city with checkpoints guarded by heavily armed fighters.

The Benghazi-based council has drawn up a transitional constitution and vowed to restore the country's economy. Unlike the interim government established in Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, its members and leadership are not entirely dominated by former exiles. They won't have the stigma of having arrived in the capital on the backs of foreign tanks.

And unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, the vast majority of Libyans welcomed the Western-led airstrikes that paved the way for the toppling of the regime. The new leadership has already been welcomed by much of the Arab world, which despised Kadafi.

But the council has yet to present a plan for establishing control over areas now run by men with guns. It may not even know what it will be up against. Heavily armed neighborhood watch groups may not be willing to bow before politicians arriving from the other side of the country.

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