After Gaddafi, What Next?

Tripoli has fallen, but Babak Dehghanpisheh reports that the Libyan rebels' infighting and brutality toward their own side suggests they may not be ready to lead.

08.21.11 4:45 PM ET

After months of see-saw battles in the Sahara Desert, Libya's rebels are now making their first serious push to Tripoli. Rebel fighters reportedly captured Jaddayim on Sunday, which places them only 25 miles away from the capital, where fighting has already kicked off. Late on Saturday, fierce clashes broke out in several neighborhoods in Tripoli and sporadic explosions and gunfire continued throughout the night, according to the Associated Press. Officials in Benghazi, the de-facto rebel capital in the east, say they are coordinating with fighters' cells which have been keeping a low profile and waiting for the right moment to strike in Tripoli. Large anti-government protests also broke out in Tripoli on Sunday, suggesting that protesters had been waiting for the right moment to rise up and hit the streets, too. The conflict finally appears to be approaching an end-game. “The zero hour has started,” Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, the vice chairman of the rebel National Transitional Council said, according to Reuters.

The more important point to consider is this: what comes after the zero hour? The recent in-fighting among the rebel leadership in the east is a good sign that things could get ugly. On July 28, Abdul Fatah Younes, the chief of staff of the rebel military forces, was shot by a handful of his own fighters. His corpse was also burned to the point where his remains were almost unidentifiable. Younes was one of the original military commanders who helped Muammar Gaddafi stage a coup in 1969 and stuck by him for more than four decades, most recently serving as minister of interior before defecting in February. Many rebel fighters suspected that Younes was working as a spy for the Gaddafi regime and his checkered past is most likely what led to his brutal assassination last month.

If rebel fighters are willing to kill one of their own commanders with scant evidence of wrongdoing, it's not much of a stretch to think that they will go on a killing spree when they hit Tripoli, taking revenge on any government officials who didn't have the foresight to bail out in time. Omran Abukraa, Libya's oil minister, defected to Tunisia on Saturday, according to the Tunisian state news agency. And two other senior government officials have also defected in the past week. This issue is clearly on the minds of government officials who are still in Tripoli. “Every drop of Libyan blood shed by the rebels is the responsibility of the Western world,” Moussa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman said in a speech on state TV on Saturday, perhaps considering his own possible fate if the rebels take the capital. The U.S., France, and the U.K. joined the military conflict in Libya to protect civilians in Benghazi from getting slaughtered. Will they do the same to prevent widespread bloodshed by rebel forces in Tripoli? That would be a huge challenge for NATO, particularly if there is no mandate to use ground troops.

Despite the rebel advance, Gaddafi, unsurprisingly, remains defiant. “People are kissing my picture. I am their leader, I am their father,” he said in an audio address on Sunday. His loyalists are also sticking to their guns. Literally, in some cases. Early on Sunday morning, one announcer on Libyan state TV launched a heated tirade and swore the rebels would never take over the station. And if the audience didn't get her point, she picked up a pistol on her desk and began waving it around. “With this weapon, I either kill or die today,” she said. That’s a fate that hundreds of other government loyalists in Tripoli may also face soon.