New Libyan leaders juggle demands, grievances

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 23, 2011 11:59 AM
New Libyan leaders juggle demands, grievances

By Matt Robinson and Mohamad Al-Tommy

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI (Reuters) - The mood was almost merry outside Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib's Tripoli office.

Under a weak winter sun, teenagers in flip-flops scaled palm trees above a crowd that sang and danced to the beat of a drum.

But their message was serious.

"If you don't have dinars, give us dollars!" they sang this week. "Where's our share?!" cried a voice from the throng.

The protesters were mainly from the Libyan capital, some of them students who said they had swapped their books for guns and joined the fight against Muammar Gaddafi.

More than two months after his capture and killing, they want their reward.

"We're not asking for money, we're asking for a chance to work," said Anis Bashir, who described himself as a unit commander from the Libyan capital.

"The ministers say one thing, their deputies another, and the NTC (National Transitional Council) something else entirely. Just give us an answer!"

The common cause that united fighters during the bruising war that ended Gaddafi's 42-year dictatorship in August is giving way to factionalism and bitterness.

Weak and disorganized, the self-appointed but internationally-recognized interim leadership, known as the NTC, is under attack from all sides, but can satisfy only some.

The winners include fighting units from the western mountain town of Zintan, lounging in armchairs on the second floor of Keib's building where Zintan military commander Osama Al-Juwali now occupies the wood-paneled office of the interim defence minister.

After months of rocket bombardment by pro-Gaddafi forces, the Zintanis broke the siege and swept down into the plains backed by NATO bombing to join the push on Tripoli in August.

TRIBAL RIVALRY

They seized the international airport, and still hold it today by force of arms. In November, they captured Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and spirited him by plane to Zintan, where he remains.

These are powerful bargaining chips, and days after Saif's capture, Al-Juwali got his job in a divvying-up of portfolios that reflected Libya's deep tribal divisions and modern-day power struggles.

His wartime comrades will reap the benefits. This North African desert state is sparsely populated, rich in oil and potentially affluent.

The militias hold the turf they took when Tripoli fell, refusing to disarm or disperse until they get what they are owed. The weak, meanwhile, scrawl their demands on sheets of paper and scale the railings outside Keib's office.

They include public sector workers who say they have not been paid for months.

The leadership would do well to heed the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt, where dictatorships were also swept aside by the Arab Spring but a dearth of trust in the unelected people who replaced them pending elections led to violence in the streets.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya's rebellion turned to war, and has bred a sense of entitlement among those who say they spilled the most blood.

"Workers from this company also joined the fight," said 32-year-old engineer Sami Al-Bakoush. "They live in Tripoli and now they want to go back to their work, but how can they when they don't have a salary?"

He and the other 500-600 employees at the state-run Engineering Technology Company walked off the job in March, saying they suspected the factory would be used to feed Gaddafi's war apparatus, and have not been paid since June.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, seat of the rebellion that began in February, some 20,000-30,000 people filled the central Shajara square earlier this month to protest against the NTC. Hundreds daily have been demonstrating since.

They complain the NTC lacks transparency and legitimacy, and are calling for the state to be purged of alleged collaborators with the old regime.

MISTRUST

"There's a lack of trust between the politicians and the streets," said Alhabib Alamin, a 44-year-old writer and political activist in Benghazi.

"Libyans feel there's a power struggle between political factions, and interference from foreign parties. Fear is rising on the Libyan streets in general, not just in Benghazi."

On Tuesday, an envoy of NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil met the protesters and local council leaders and they agreed to suspend Benghazi's NTC representatives and elect replacements, an activist close to the negotiations told Reuters.

A small number of protesters took up the call in the trading hub of Misrata, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, and political activists said NTC representatives in Zawiyah -- site of Libya's second largest oil refinery -- might also be replaced.

Employees at Libya's state broadcaster have also demonstrated, accusing the NTC of reneging on a promise to set up an independent governing board, and doctors in Tripoli have called for the resignation of interim Health Minister Fatima Al-Hamroush after she hired her sister as chief of staff.

The interim government might win some respite with the release of an estimated $150 billion in overseas assets after the United Nations last week lifted sanctions on Libya's central bank and a subsidiary.

The cash will go a long way towards rebuilding the country and paying the public sector.

They also talk of a plan to integrate the fighters into an army and police force that are still being formed.

But there won't be space for everyone.

Prime Minister Keib emerged from his office to address the protesters this week, telling them to submit their names and the serial numbers of their weapons and they would be paid.

But inside the foyer, the Zintan pilot who picked up Saif al-Islam after his desert capture was fingering his pistol.

Abdullah al-Mehdi had swapped his green flight fatigues for a sharp dark suit and shiny leather shoes, and he was dismissive of the crowd.

"They didn't fight," he said.

(Additional reporting by Hamuda Hassan, Taha Zargoun and Ali Shuaib; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Heinrich)