Libya: echoes of Afghanistan

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. The key towns of Zawiyah and Surman to the west of the capital and Garyhan to the south have already fallen into rebel hands. The apparent defection of interior minister Nassr al-Mabrouk Abdullah - who arrived in Egypt over the weekend with nine family members – is another serious blow to the regime. Gaddafi is besieged, exhausted and looking for a dignified way out.

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, which not only can't get along but appear to be on the brink of fighting each other. The Islamist element among the rebel forces is strong, well-armed (thanks to raids on the regime's munitions dumps) and implacably 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 28 July assassination of the rebels' commander-in-chief General Abdul Fatah Younis, who had defected from the Gaddafi regime in the early stages of the uprising. Younis was Gaddafi's interior minister and presided over a particularly brutal suppression of an Islamist uprising in the mid-90s.

The various other explanations for Younis's assassination are all feasible and offer a good illustration of the chaos and 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; meanwhile the Islamist February 17 Martyrs' Brigade, led by cleric Ismail al-Sallabi, claims that Younis was killed by Gaddafi infiltrators; CIA associate and former Libyan army colonel Khalifa Hifter – who had openly clashed with Younis for control of the TNC's military umbrella, the Union of Revolutionary Forces – has also been accused of the murder.

Under pressure from the powerful Obeidi tribe, to whom Younis's family belong, as well as from the February 17 Coalition (a group of legal professionals who are concerned about the growing influence of the Islamists), TNC chair, Abdel Mustafa Jalil, sacked the entire cabinet last week with the exception of the prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril.

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. Gaddafi representatives met with TNC delegates on the Tunisian island of Djerba last weekend and were joined on Monday by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon's Libya envoy – an indication that this is a preferred scenario. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is, reportedly, organising a Paris conference between the two sides for next month.

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 the New York Times 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.

By Abdel al-Bari Atwan, the editor-in chief of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

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