In Tripoli, Libya's Interim Leader Says He Is Quitting

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

Libyan interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, in Tripoli on Oct. 19, 2011

Two months after rebel fighters stormed into Tripoli and drove Muammar Gaddafi from power, the man effectively running the country in his role as temporary Prime Minister warned on Wednesday night that Libya could turn to chaos unless the war ended soon. Mahmoud Jibril, a U.S.-educated economist who helped persuade NATO members to launch their Libya campaign last March, also announced in an interview with TIME that he was quitting — potentially leaving Libya in a perilous state of limbo.

Jibril, who heads the executive board of the rebels' National Transitional Council, did not say exactly when he would resign but hinted that it could be as soon as Thursday, when a televised meeting of his group would detail what it had accomplished since Gaddafi's ouster. In a grim assessment of Libya's current state, Jibril suggested that as the war dragged on, he had found governing the country to be increasingly difficult. "We have moved into a political struggle with no boundaries," Jibril said, looking glum, rather than like a man rejoicing liberation. "The political struggle requires finances, organization, arms and ideologies," he said. "I am afraid I don't have any of this."

His warning underscores just how much Libya is in limbo — and just how dangerous that might be. The exhilarating sense of victory, which gripped the world's attention when rebel columns rolled into Tripoli on Aug. 20, has largely dissipated. In its place is a sense of being in suspended animation, as men in battle fatigues move through Tripoli — a city of 2 million people — in pickup trucks topped with machine guns. The breezy Mediterranean harbor is all but dormant, and those few ships that are in the dock are frozen in place. Cranes sit suspended over half-built construction sites, including one for a sprawling InterContinental hotel off the former Green Square (now called Martyrs' Square), which has been frozen since the revolution began in February. And Tripoli's international airport remains closed. "Shoulder-fired missiles have gone AWOL, and all it takes is one of them to attack," says Sami Zaptia, a business consultant who recently helped form a Tripoli organization called the National Support Group to pressure rebel leaders into forming democratic institutions. "There is very little business happening."

The country's paralysis, at least around Tripoli, is in part because Gaddafi and his powerful son Saif al-Islam are still on the run, with rebel leaders having no idea where they are. And although it has been only two months since Gaddafi's 42-year rule imploded, many assumed that Libya's war would long be over by now, with a transitional government in place — especially since the eight-month revolution seemed to unfold at surprising speed. Instead, rebel fighters have been ground down for weeks in a protracted battle in Sirt, Gaddafi's hometown 230 miles (370 km) east along the coast, as they try to crush the dictatorship's last armed loyalists.

Throughout Wednesday, Tripoli's old whitewashed mosques blared out prayers from the minarets, calling on Allah to protect the fighters on the front line. Yet in the city itself, the unity that appeared to hold throughout months of the revolution has seriously frayed, as rival brigades lay claim to different territories around the capital and rebel fighters sharpen their allegiances to local commanders.

Jibril's words on Wednesday made it clear that Libya needs more than the prayers blasting out of the mosques for the country to unite around a new democracy. He warned that the longer the fighting lasted, so the possibility increased for Libya's turning "from a national struggle to chaos," and becoming a battleground for "all the foreign powers which have their own agendas toward Libya." Rebel leaders have said that once Sirt falls, they will declare the war over and announce a temporary government. The delay involves concrete complications, including the fact that governments cannot easily hand over billions of dollars of Gaddafi's money, which are frozen in foreign bank accounts, so long as there is no Libyan government to administer the money.

With the potential for the brigades to turn into armed factions, Jibril said one urgent priority was to form a national army. He told the public meeting on Wednesday that the thousands of rebel fighters — most of whom joined the revolution with no military training — would be offered the chance to join the army or the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police. A third option would be to form Libyan security companies, which would help guard companies and oil facilities — an alternative to the kind of foreign private contractors that became a prominent feature of Iraq after Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed in 2003. That, Jibril said, "will facilitate many things in this country." Even if he isn't running it.