Sharp splits are already emerging in the ranks of Libya’s new rulers between Islamic conservatives and more secular figures competing for power even as the leadership begins to settle in Tripoli and start creating a post-Moammar Gadhafi government.
The rising tensions, which have become increasingly public, could jeopardize efforts to rebuild the country and form a cohesive state after six months of civil war.
Each side accuses the other of trying to monopolize a new government. On one side stand more secular technocrats, some of whom have long lived abroad or once had ties with Gadhafi’s regime. On the other are conservatives, including the Muslim Brotherhood, who opposed Gadhafi for years on the ground in Libya and suffered during his rule.
“There are fears that these tensions could hamper reconstruction or just cause it all to unravel,” said a Western official in Tripoli who deals with members of the leadership of all stripes. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
The two sides are wrestling over a fundamental question facing Libya’s new leaders since the uprising began in mid-February - how to divvy up the powers of the nation after the downfall of Gadhafi’s 42-year rule.
Caught in the middle is Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council, the closest thing the former rebels have to a functioning government. Abdul-Jalil is the sole figure in the leadership who enjoys almost universal support, earning the deep respect of many Libyans for criticizing Gadhafi’s regime even while serving as its justice minister.
“Abdul-Jalil is trying to keep the peace, and it’s a struggle between both sides, between the two powerful camps,” said one official close to the NTC on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “He’s trying to maintain a balance between the two camps, and keep the international community happy. It’s very difficult.”
The disputes for now appear to be primarily over personnel, and not deeply rooted in ideology, although the dividing line is increasingly stark.
The more secular camp is headed by Mahmoud Jibril, the U.S.-educated acting prime minister who has found favor among the revolution’s Western backers. But Jibril, like a handful of others falling on this side of the fault line, also served briefly in the Gadhafi regime, and spent much his time during the civil war abroad, trying to drum up international support.
One of the most prominent Islamist figures at the moment is Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a former fighter in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group -- a militant organization that long opposed Gadhafi - and now the commander of the Tripoli military council.
The Islamists, who control the main military force in the capital, the Tripoli Brigade, have tried to ramp up the pressure on Jibril, calling for his resignation.
“We think that Mahmoud Jibril has lost the confidence of people on the ground in Tripoli, in eastern Libya, in Misrata, and in the majority of the western mountains,” said Anes Sharif, a spokesman for the Tripoli military council.
“He has been living for the last six months outside the country,” Sharif said. “He is appointing people depending on their loyalty to him, not depending on their worth and their activities in the revolution. We think he's a project for a new dictator.”
On Friday, Jibril arrived in Tripoli - nearly three weeks after the capital’s fall - and in his first public comments took a swipe at groups who he said have already started “the political game” before the rules have been set.
He did not elaborate or name names, but Naji Barakat, the health minister in the Cabinet and a former exile, said the comments were directed chiefly at the Muslim Brotherhood.
“They’ve started doing dirty politics because they want to take the lead,” Barakat told The Associated Press. “I think they’ve been trying for a long time to be seen and heard. I think they’re getting support from countries as well. They think this is fertile ground.”
The Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were both heavily oppressed by Gadhafi's regime. They played a key role in the revolution’s security apparatus, including as front-line fighting forces. The LIFG once had links to al-Qaida but has renounced its jihadist past, and both it and the Brotherhood have pledged allegiance to democratic principles. The Brotherhood was repeatedly targeted by Gadhafi’s security services and was never able to establish a firm organizational structure inside the country.
George Joffe, a Libyan expert at Cambridge University, said the Brotherhood remains a potent force in this conservative Muslim country despite its past struggles.
“Don’t underestimate its importance,” Joffe said. “It has a long-standing tradition in Libya. ... There is a profound sentiment in favor of the Brotherhood, and it is quickly being re-established with a structure.”
Barakat criticized the Islamists for playing politics while the fighting continues. Revolutionary forces are still battling Gadhafi loyalists in the former regime strongholds of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha, and Gadhafi himself remains in hiding.
“We’re saying now is not the time for this. Now, they (the Brotherhood) are trying to weaken the NTC and to jump in,” he said. “With Tripoli liberated, they think now is the time.”
Libya’s new leaders have only just arrived in Tripoli, and are taking halting steps toward setting up a new government. Workers are busy readying the offices of the Gadhafi-era government for officials arriving in the capital to work in the various ministries.
Jibril said Sunday that efforts are being made to pay government salaries on time, and bonuses added to August salaries. He also said that oil production had resumed at one unspecified oil field in Libya’s east.
But the NTC is struggling to bring all the various armed brigades spanning the country under its authority.
Other fault lines have also emerged since revolutionary forces swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21, driving Gadhafi from the capital and effectively bringing an end to the dictator's rule.
The Libyan uprising began in the city of Benghazi in mid-February, and the rebels managed to wrest free much of the eastern half of the country from Gadhafi’s forces. The revolutionaries set up the NTC in Benghazi, and the body has been dominated by figures from the east - and Benghazi in particular.
Tripoli, which was under the thumb of the regime even after the eastern half of the country was liberated of his rule, is now trying to reclaim its pre-eminent political position, pushing back against a revolutionary leadership dominated by figures from Benghazi.
“The rift between Tripoli and Benghazi is pretty big,” the Western official said. “It’s worrying.”
Tripoli has long been the base of power in Libya, a country of only 6 million people, 2 million of whom live in the capital. The capital’s powerful political players are flexing their muscles, telling the NTC that they cannot dictate Libya’s future.
“The Tripoli people also know that they actually created their own revolution on Aug. 20, and they want full recognition for that,” said Joffe of Cambridge University. “And they're not sure they want to see the council in its present form, coming in and telling them what to do.”
Associated Press writer Ben Hubbard contributed to this report.