Libya: Divided they fall
On Wednesday William Hague said that Britain's decision to recognise the National Transitional Council (NTC) as the sole governmental authority in Libya reflected the council's increasing in reaching out to Libyans across the country. On Thursday the rebels' top general Abdel Fatah Younis was , having been summoned, his clansmen claimed, for questioning. The suspicion was that his family might still have ties with Muammar Gaddafi. The press conference to announce his death ended in gunfire from enraged members of Younis's tribe, the Obeidi. One of the largest tribes in eastern Libya, its members now believe the rebel leadership had some role in the general's death.
News of Britain's diplomatic recognition spread like wildfire through the besieged city of Misrata, which had suspected the UK and France of toying with the idea of a negotiated settlement and partition. But here, too, divisions are manifest. The rebels from Misrata are reluctant to fight alongside their brothers from Benghazi. The NTC leadership is rooted to the spot in Benghazi, and the units they send to the besieged city are kept separate from local formations who refuse to adopt either the insignia or the orders. Within 24 hours Mr Hague's words wafted over the desert as if they were uttered from a different planet. The rebels have problems more pressing than reaching out to Libyans in Tripoli. The first test they apparently have to pass is to reach out to each other.
The appearance of the Obeidi tribesmen is ominous, as it raises the spectre of a democratic movement degenerating into tribal conflict. It was a measure of the uncertainty over the cohesion of the rebel movement that analysts were at a loss to figure out who was more likely to have gunned the rebel general down – a Gaddafi sleeper cell, as the NTC chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil claimed, or a rival faction among the rebels themselves. Earlier in the day, Younis's tribesmen appeared on the streets on Benghazi saying they would use force to liberate him from NTC custody. The defection of Gaddafi's former interior minister was the most important one to the rebels, but provoked fierce rivalries. His unexplained death could leave a dangerous power vacuum.
Two trends are evident. The fate of the French-and-British-led intervention is umbilically linked to that of the rebel army itself. And the prospects of a negotiated settlement are farther away than ever. The problem with this strategy is not just that it has strayed far from the terms of the original UN resolution. It is worse than that: the backers of the rebels know whom they are fighting against, but have yet to work out whom they are fighting for.