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A transition to the Islamists

Gaddafi's regime might be finished, but a bitterly divided opposition means Libya's troubles may just be starting.

india Updated: Aug 18, 2011 22:45 IST

Libya's Colonel Gaddafi is looking increasingly vulnerable as rebel forces, backed up by Nato, proceed with a well-planned campaign to surround and isolate his powerbase in Tripoli. It is only a matter of time, then, before the Libyan regime concedes defeat. But what happens next?

The west is losing faith in the Transitional National Council (TNC), which seems incapable of uniting and controlling the diverse elements within the rebellion. The Islamist element among the reb-el forces is strong and opposed to Nato. The main Islamist militia — the Abu Ubaidah bin Jarrah Brigade — has refused to fight under the "infidel" banner against Gaddafi's forces but maintains "internal security". These are the most likely culprits for the assassination of the rebels' commander-in-chief General Abdul Fatah Younis.

The various other explanations for Younis's assassination offer a good illustration of the infighting that characterises the opposition. One camp has it that Younis was not a genuine defector from the Gaddafi camp but a spy for the regime who was killed by the TNC; the Islamists claim that Younis was killed by Gaddafi infiltrators; CIA associate and former Libyan armyman Khalifa Hifter has also been accused of the murder.

Under pressure from the powerful Obeidi tribe, to whom Younis's family belong, TNC chair Abdel Mustafa Jalil sacked the entire cabinet last week with the exception of the prime minister.

The move was also intended to assuage mounting alarm among the TNC's western backers. While the leaders of the US, Britain and France were aware of an Islamist element within the rebel forces, they thought it was containable. The worry now is that it will prevail in a full-blown civil (and tribal) conflict between the secular rebels and Islamist groups, some of whom have close ties to al-Qaida.

Despite their justified concerns about the TNC, Britain, the US and 28 other nations have recognised it as the legitimate government of Libya. Last week, despite the ongoing absence of a cabinet, the TNC were invited to take over the Libyan embassies in London and Washington. Envoys for the beleaguered Gaddafi, meanwhile, have been actively seeking acceptable exit scenarios. An increasingly persistent theme, in a bid to combat the Islamist influence, involves an accommodation between Gaddafi and the rebels, potentially leading to a unity government. Ironically, the main impediment to this outcome is Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, who has decided to endorse the Islamists, presumably in a bid for personal power. He has held a series of well-publicised talks with Islamist leaders and told journalists in a recent interview that a post-Gaddafi Libya should be an Islamic State.

Libya is in danger of ending up with a Nato-backed, weak and undemocratic central government led by a compliant president besieged by Islamist militants. Just like Afghanistan.

The views expressed by the author are personal.