Libya’s Unraveling Opposition | Ranj Alaaldin | The Wall Street Journal
On Thursday events in Libya took a turn for the worse with the killing of opposition army chief Abdel Fatah Younis. Not only have the Libyan rebels lost one of their most experienced military leaders, but the murky circumstances surrounding his death now threaten to provoke a war within rebel-controlled territories—to start another Libyan war before the current one has ended.
For months the presence of competing figures at the helm of the Libyan opposition has risked creating an environment of violence and instability. The rebels’ democratic and accountability deficits have only compounded the situation.
The opposition Interim National Council (INC), which answers to no one, is comprised of an array of secularists, Islamic fundamentalists, technocrats, independents and former regime figures. Younis himself used to be a powerful interior minister under Moammar Gadhafi, until he defected in the aftermath of the February uprising. Similarly, INC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil was a justice minister under Gadhafi. The nascent council’s diverse makeup means that divisions between its various elements were inevitable—and Younis’s death may be a byproduct of them.
In the months since the Libyan revolution began, these divisions have prompted the rebels’ lackluster army to splinter, creating the potential for rival personal militias. This factionalization has only intensified as the rebels have become more efficient, organized and better-equipped with Western help. As the conflict drags on, still more underestimated or unknown elements are emerging from the woodwork.
It is in this context that we must appraise the death of General Younis. Mr. Jalil’s press conference on Saturday did little to allay concerns about the future of the Libyan opposition. Mr. Jalil revealed only that the INC had called Younis back from the eastern town of Brega to question him over “military affairs,” and that he was killed by armed gangs after he was released. Mr. Jalil failed to provide specifics on where the attack took place, how Younis’s killers were able to gain access to him and, most importantly, why exactly Younis had been summoned by the INC in the first place.
One clue may lie in Younis’s fractious relationship with Khalifa Hifter, another opposition military figure and former Gadhafi official. Mr. Hifter went into exile in the U.S. after an ill-fated military adventure in Chad in the late 1980s, and returned to Libya in March.
Younis had been locked in a power struggle with Mr. Hifter since then. Shortly after returning to Libya, the INC put Mr. Hifter in charge of its ground forces. From the start Younis and Mr. Hifter worked in an uncoordinated manner, hampering the rebels’ progress and their slow march toward Tripoli. The relationship between the two became so troublesome that the INC appointed a special watchdog to keep their rivalry at bay.
Mr. Hifter presented a formidable challenge to Younis largely because he had strong backing among the opposition’s military personnel. But Younis also had significant support within the army, meaning the opposition’s forces are now dangerously split.
All this is made worse by the fact that the INC army is not the only organized military force in Libya’s rebel-held territories. Mr. Jalil himself seemed to highlight this on Saturday when he warned armed groups to join the INC or be “crushed.” He may have simply been acknowledging the existence of these groups to bolster his claim that Younis’s death was the work of non-INC gunmen. It is, however, unlikely that an ill-equipped rag-tag gang could have penetrated the sophisticated protection force that surrounded Younis, who traveled in an armored car as part of a multi-vehicle convoy with 30 armed guards.
The controversy now building around Younis’s death could lead to a restructuring of the INC. Ahmed Shebani, head of the Democratic Party that hopes to contest elections in a post-Gadhafi Libya, tells me that “the delicate cards have to be reshuffled, primarily because Younis’s death will cause a credibility problem. The whole issue of the INC as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people is now in doubt.”
The concern for both the Libyan rebels and their western backers—who continue to grant the INC increased legitimacy and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funds—is that forces loyal to Younis will seek revenge for his death. That risk comes not only from within military circles, but also from the rebels’ political leadership and the powerful Obeidi tribe to which Younis belonged.
There is also the possibility that opposition figures themselves will encourage further factionalism and violence as they seek to protect themselves and secure their futures. Younis’ death may be only the beginning of a new period of Libyan instability. Expect worse things to come.