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The good, the bad and... who?

As pressure grows for governments to recognise Libya’s National Transitional Council, questions are being raised about the rebels’ political identity. Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, George Vella, is not the only one asking: How can one recognise people one does not know?

Some two-thirds of the 30 council members are anonymous. The need to protect their families, from Muammar Gaddafi, is the official explanation. But some analysts are floating more sinister reasons.

Early Al Jazeera footage of the military training being given to the rebels featured a fleeting image of a man dressed in Pashtun (Afghan) costume. The camera’s lens was soon blocked by a hand. No one made anything of it, just as Hillary Clinton’s remark, to a US Senate committee, that eastern Libya had a high rate of Al Qaeda volunteers (exceeding Saudi Arabia in proportion to respective population size), was reported and then let pass.

Last week, however, Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, US Admiral James Stavridis, told the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee that while the rebel leadership was made up of “responsible men and women”, there were “flickers” of intelligence that the rebels also included members of Al Qaeda and Hizbollah. Reports like that have generated suspicions about the council members’ anonymity. One explanation states it is an attempt to hide the preponderance of the (eastern) Hariri tribe on the council; already, the published Hariri names are several.

The allegation: What looks like national leadership is in fact a tribal takeover. What’s more, given the sheer size of the Hariri, it would dominate important government posts in a new regime even more effectively than the Gadadfa.

Tribes are no doubt an important feature of Libya but the invocation of tribes in many analyses of the Libyan crisis has tended to substitute knowledge with superficial knowingness.

Several analysts, for example, are trying to connect the west-east divide to Libyan tribal history and conflict.

But virtually all historical conflicts occurred on the north-south axis, in Tripolitania quasi-formalised by the existence of named coastal and interior alliances. Important east-west tensions largely emerged in post-independent Libya; they were not tribal but regional.

Likewise, a quasi-ethnic divide between east and west has been proposed – a suggestion couched in a way that would leave western Libyans (other than the relatively few Berbers) stupefied at its irrelevance and ferociously indignant about how they are portrayed (as “Arabised Berbers”).

Any explanation based on claims about tribal logic should therefore be treated with extreme caution. It is not just that such claims – even in reports of international repute – are often based on gross ignorance of history and actual organisation, making you wonder who the source could possibly be. It is also because this conflict is making cross-cutting claims on tribal allegiances, with results that are difficult to predict.

It is said Colonel Gaddafi himself was shocked when his wife’s (eastern) tribe, the Barasa, joined the rebels (according to the police chief of Bayda, a Barasi and rebel himself). A Libyan author of a book on his country’s tribal politics told Al Jazeera that, upon the return to Libya of the exiled Khalifa Haftar, his (western) tribe, the Ferjan, would rise up in Sirte (where many Ferjan are settled) and permit the city to fall easily. Apparently not.

What about the second suspicious explanation of the council’s anonymous members? This is that anonymity gives cover to Al Qaeda operatives known to international intelligence services.

As it happens, we do have some knowledge of the council’s composition. Nicolas Pelham, of the International Crisis Group, has written of his extensive interviews in Benghazi in both the current issue of the New York Review of Books and for the Middle East Research and Information Project (www.merip.org).

What emerges is a picture in which Islamists are represented together with “ardent secularists; pragmatists ready to negotiate with Gaddafi and principled revolutionaries flinching from ever again supping with the devil; advocates of peaceful protest and military officers convinced that Gaddafi can only be forced from power; lawyers petitioning to have the colonel put on trial and survivors of the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, who want him not only killed but his body dumped at sea so that it will not defile Libyan soil”.

However, the council is weak, riven with argument, unable (so far) to assert full command over the professional soldiers and volunteer fighters. The Islamists are distancing themselves from it, claiming to command both “the street” and the frontline while saying the council is not with “the people”.

But the Islamists themselves are diverse, ranging from western-garbed academics who want to found a democratic party to would-be mujahidin, some of whom are, yes, Libyan veterans of the Afghan war. The mujahidin, according to Mr Pelham, outnumber the democrats.

It turns out the threat to Libya’s stability, should Col Gaddafi go, is not the council but its likely replacement, should the council’s weakness lead to its collapse.

Perhaps this is why Franco Frattini, Italy’s Foreign Minister, has announced Italy’s recognition of the council. Early in the conflict, before Italy decided it could no longer back Col Gaddafi, Mr Frattini publicly worried about an Islamic emirate in the Mediterranean. In recognising the council, he has not changed his mind; he is being consistent.

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