A prominent group of Libyan lawyers and judges who shepherded the revolution through its early days has sharply criticized its own rebel council, calling for resignations after a recent high-profile assassination.
The February 17 Coalition contains several of the activists who started the revolt, and their written statement of protest about the mysterious killing of General Abdel Fatah Younis will likely have profound repercussions.
Among other things, the coalition has called for the dismissal of the rebel defence and foreign ministers, and the disbanding of armed groups that support the rebellion but do not fall into the structure of the rebel military.
Abdulsalam El-Musmari, a former judge who leads the coalition, says that Islamists aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood have taken control of key positions within the rebel council and its umbrella group of volunteer fighters, the Union of Revolutionary Forces.
He says that a field commander from the Union reacted to his proposals this week by threatening him with death, and promising to incite crowds against him at Friday prayers.
“Please deliver this message to those who want to kill me: ‘Let’s talk,’ ” Mr. El-Musmari said in an interview. “We have the same cause. We need a constitution that gives rights to all factions of society.”
A media co-ordinator for the Union, Mohammed Al-Zawam, said his organization would never threaten anybody for expressing their opinion. He acknowledged that some Union members may belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate political movement in Libya: “Everybody is free now, and belonging to the Brotherhood isn’t a crime any more,” he said.
Dr. Al-Zawam added that the Union has no intention of disbanding. On Saturday, top rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil announced that all militiamen will be required to join the ministries of Interior or Defence, leading to speculation that the many volunteer brigades would be disbanded.
But Dr. Al-Zawam said he spoke with Mr. Jalil after the news conference and clarified that his units on the front lines against the forces of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi would be recognized as working for the Defence Ministry.
An aide to Mr. Jalil declined to comment.
By speaking out against the rebel council and Islamist militias, the February 17 Coalition appears poised to gain the support of Mr. Younis’s powerful tribe, the Obeidat, and his battle-tested former Special Forces units. Members of the coalition held meetings with Obeidat tribal elders on July 30, and the statement about Gen. Younis’s death echoed many of the concerns raised by his family.
This suggests that cracks within the rebel movement may develop between religious conservatives and liberals, which could result in tension between pious volunteers and former military units.
“Many of Younis’s people have now joined us,” said Sa’d Hifter, who works in the crisis management office of the February 17 Coalition.
“They have concluded that our coalition has the right ideas … The Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda, but they’re known for using religion for political ends, and I want to separate religion and politics.”
Mr. Hifter, who is not related to the senior rebel leader Khalifa Hifter, said the division between liberals and conservatives is not a widespread issue within the ranks, but instead a power struggle at the highest levels.
“This is one group trying to hijack the revolution,” he said.
Col. Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, appeared to rub salt into the rebels’ self-inflicted wounds this week when he claimed in a New York Times interview that he had made a pact with an Islamist cleric on the rebel side – a claim quickly denied by the cleric himself, Ali Sallabi.
But the statement from Tripoli will likely continue to feed the rebels’ infighting in the coming days, because the cleric is related to Ismail Al-Sallabi, a Union commander named by coalition members as one of their opponents within the rebel movement.