TRIPOLI, Libya — A top Libyan rebel official said Wednesday that the new government is considering dividing its operations between east and west, comments that could fuel concerns that the rebel council is taking too long to move here to the capital from Benghazi and begin guiding the country’s political transition.
Since Moammar Gaddafi was ousted last month from his compound in the heart of this coastal city, residents have had to deal with water, fuel and food shortages and a general sense of instability. Traffic police are back on the streets, but rockets, missiles, land mines and small arms abandoned by Gaddafi’s fleeing forces remain unsecured, available for looters to help themselves. The situation has left many asking where the new authority is and when it will announce its timetable for instituting democracy.
“One of the ideas we’re contemplating is the [rebels’ Transitional National Council] stays in Benghazi rather than here, and the executive office will be here,” Deputy Prime Minister Ali Tarhouni said in an interview in the ornate Tripoli office of former prime minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi. “We suffered a lot from a centralized government.”
Tarhouni’s face was drawn, and he looked as though he had not slept in days. He said that nicotine and coffee keep him going and that he is lucky to get two hours of sleep at night. The economist, originally appointed to head the council’s finance and oil ministries, now also leads a committee in charge of securing the capital and serves as deputy to Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril. He is frank about the difficulties ahead.
“One of the basic challenges moving forward is security and the proliferation of arms and how we control that — and how we have the revolutionaries working as part of civil society,” he said.
Tarhouni was educated in Libya and the United States. Before joining the council, he lectured in business economics at the University of Washington’s Michael G. Foster School of Business. While in exile, he was stripped of his Libyan citizenship and sentenced to death.
On Wednesday, he surveyed the vast office of the former prime minister as he sat in a gilded green chair.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he said. “We’re nearing the end of the Gaddafi regime.”
But many say that the responsibilities Tarhouni carries are too great for one man. Critics blame his packed portfolio on the Transitional National Council’s inability to start governing from the capital. Jibril arrived in Tripoli on Wednesday for the first time since the city fell to the rebels more than two weeks ago. The council’s head, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has promised repeatedly to relocate but now says he will go to Tripoli only when Libya is free. Gaddafi loyalists still control Sirte, the former leader’s home town; Bani Walid, a town to the southeast of Tripoli; and Sabha, a desert town to the south.
“Tarhouni’s been allowed to handle too many things,” said a senior adviser to the council who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He doesn’t want to carry all this responsibility, but he’s in a position where he has to because the prime minister is not here.”
Other council members also have openly criticized the slow pace of transition. A road map set out in a council declaration says it must form an interim government within 30 days of the “date of liberation.” That day has not been declared, stalling the rest of the road map, which calls for electing a national assembly within eight months and holding a presidential election within 20 months.
“We have to get the clock ticking,” said Abdul Razag el-Aradi, a council member from Tripoli. “We’re in the third week since the revolution.”
Residents are also asking when they will have a government. “The biggest worry with the people now is not knowing where the government is or who is in charge,” said Abdul Razak Mahani, 39, an engineer.
Meanwhile, the hunt for Gaddafi continues. Anis Sharif, a spokesman for the nascent government’s Tripoli military command, said rebel leaders believe Gaddafi is holed up in an area in Libya with a radius of about 40 miles but could have an escape route to the border. Rebel forces were reportedly working to take control of villages and checkpoints along Libya’s enormous border.
Asked about reports that Gaddafi had fled the country, Tarhouni said, “It’s a possibility.” But he added, “We don’t really have confirmation one way or the other.”
Niger’s government said Wednesday that it was “welcoming on humanitarian grounds” a group of 13 Libyans, not including Gaddafi, who arrived in four vehicles Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. The statement said there was no convoy of 200 vehicles, as some media outlets had reported.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland — who had said Tuesday that all of the Libyans entering Niger in the convoy were thought to be on the U.N. travel-ban list — said Wednesday that she was “mistaken” and that “none” of them were, but that all should be detained. Other Niger officials confirmed that the group included Mansour Dao, Gaddafi’s security chief.
Negotiations also continued with elders from Bani Walid, where Saadi and Saif al-Islam, two of Gaddafi’s sons, are suspected to be hiding.
“I’m hoping we can solve this peacefully because I’m really, really tired of death and bloodshed,” Tarhouni said.
Outside, gunfire rang out. Tarhouni ignored it and continued to speak. Whether Gaddafi is caught or continues to flee is no longer the priority, Tarhouni said. The rebels must govern anyway.
“It won’t be as pleasant, but we definitely can, and we’ve already started,” he said.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.