TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A commander of Libyan former rebels has warned that his men could overthrow the incoming government if it fails to meet their demands for representation.
The credibility of the threat, made by Tripoli militia leader Abdullah Naker in a Reuters interview, was hard to assess in a city where the balance of forces, three months after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, is obscure and fluid.
Critics dismissed it as posturing. But it highlighted the tensions, and the high stakes, on Thursday as Abdurrahim El-Keib, the U.S.-trained engineering professor nominated as interim prime minister by the National Transitional Council, tries to agree a cabinet line-up by a Tuesday deadline.
“We are still here on the ground and the final decision will be ours,” said Naker, speaking late on Wednesday at his base in the headquarters of a state-owned construction company as some of the thousands of armed men he says he has at his disposal prepared for night-time security patrols in the city.
Demanding Keib appoint ministers who would represent the young rebels who ousted the old order, Naker, leader of the Tripoli Revolutionary Council said his men would protest nationwide, peacefully “at first” if they did not like the new cabinet, as they did against Gaddafi.
“If we find we have the same dictatorship, we will respond in the same way,” he said, showing off video of his men firing Grad missiles and driving Soviet-build T-72 tanks during the war. “It will not be an armed movement at first, but it might develop into that. There’s a strong possibility that it will.”
NTC officials and fighters from other units played down the influence wielded by Naker, an engineer from the mountain town of Zintan who vowed to return to civilian life once democracy and security were assured.
But in a state with no police or army, forming a government to satisfy the competing interests of tens of thousands of armed men is a fraught process.
On Thursday, Naker met a delegation of fighters from the eastern city of Benghazi, seat of the revolt. They issued a joint declaration in Tripoli demanding Keib meet their demands for a say in government and over a new military leadership.
Outgoing prime minister Mahmoud Jibril has sounded an alarm about a “power vacuum” that may be exploited by armed groups.
Western and Middle Eastern diplomats in the capital tend to play down the risk of a sudden flare-up in violence - many of the armed former rebels are simply keen to see a government installed that will allow them to return to civilian life.
Many diplomats believe a competent cabinet will be formed next week, if not necessarily within the deadline, by Keib, who has won admirers among Libyans and foreigners for his apparent openness to compromise. But as Keib himself has said, stable government will require bringing power into the hands of new security forces and disarming militias.
“Political power is really now in the hands of the militias,” said George Joffe, a North Africa specialist at Cambridge University. “Keib ... is having to listen to a million different factions all saying they want a piece of the pie. Behind them stand the militias.”
Keib has described Tuesday’s deadline as a “soft constraint” - set at 30 days after the NTC declared all Libya “liberated” following Gaddafi’s killing - and says his priority is to bring in competent technocrats to run the oil-rich state and organise elections by June to a constitutional assembly.
“The main thing is competence,” he said last week, stressing the short shelf-life of the new government.
Yet with few political parties to speak of after 42 years of dictatorship but a host of local paramilitary units from across Libya staking claims to a share of power by their presence in the capital, those involved acknowledge that his cabinet must satisfy a complex balance of regional interests.
Among the trickiest tasks - notably in choosing ministers of defence and interior - may be satisfying demands from cities like Misrata, Benghazi and Zintan, which feel a keen sense of entitlement deriving from their roles in the war on Gaddafi.
Keib must also handle potentially vigorous opposition to figures seen as too close to the old regime, as well as rivalry between overtly secular leaders and Islamists viewed by their opponents as overly indebted to foreign backers, namely Qatar.
Though not alone in his objections, militia leader Naker placed particular emphasis on rejecting any role in government for Abdul Hakim Belhadj, the Islamist and former Taliban ally in Afghanistan whom the NTC named as Tripoli military leader.
Belhadj himself dismisses suggestions that he and his ally, Qatar-based cleric Ali al-Sallabi, are agents of the Gulf state which poured military and humanitarian aid into the rebel camp, but their opponents remain unconvinced.
“We are really grateful to Qatar for what they did for the Libyan people,” Naker said. But, describing the brand of Islam favoured by Belhadj as unsuited to Libya’s “moderate” religion, he added: “They have no right to interfere in our affairs. We will not accept domination by Qatar or by anyone else.”
Figures close to the NTC - in the fluid environment of the change of government, channels of information are unclear - said they expected Keib to present a draft government list to the Council on Saturday or Sunday, though this might include many alternative choices for different ministries.
Officials and foreign diplomats said Keib seemed to have succeeded in keeping his preferences under wraps, while he faced lobbying from rival groups, notably regional militias, particularly over key ministries like defence and over the choice of a new chief-of-staff for the armed forces.