- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2011

BENGHAZI, Libya— The deputy leader of Libya‘s rebel administration said it could take up to two years to organize elections, backtracking on promises of a six-month transition to democracy and adding to internal dissent already brewing within the movement seeking to topple Moammar Gadhafi.

Criticism of the rebel leadership’s National Transitional Council has been growing in its stronghold city of Benghazi, in the mostly rebel-held east of Libya. Deeper splits within the rebel movement could further hamper its faltering drive to remove Gadhafi, who has been in power for more than 40 years and is continuing to hold on despite NATO airstrikes in support of his opponents.

The announcement on Wednesday of a longer transition period has raised suspicions that some council members are intent on prolonging their power.

The council’s vice chairman, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, said a news conference that a one- to two-year transition period would be needed after the hoped-for ouster of Gadhafi. In that time, he said, the opposition would form a transitional legislative body tasked with writing a constitution, hold a referendum on the charter, form political parties and then hold elections.

A day earlier, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, reminded the council that its “job is to go out of business as soon as possible.”

Other members of the council agreed and one said Ghoga’s announcement took him by surprise.

Ghoga “is mistaken” about a new timetable unless “this decision was made at some secret meeting,” said Yousif Sherif, the council member in charge of town councils and culture.

It is “engraved in stone,” he said, that “the elections should not take more than six months” to organize.

Sherif told The Associated Press that under another safeguard to ensure a democratic transition, no council member would be allowed to stand for election.

Ghoga could not immediately be reached to explain how the change had come about. Daily council meetings are held behind closed doors and no record is published.

Rowdy protests have been increasing in Benghazi, which has been the de facto rebel capital since the early days of the uprising, which started on Feb. 15. Demonstrators are criticizing how the council’s members were chosen, its composition and how decisions are reached.

“Is our revolution being hijacked?” has become a common refrain among young Libyans in Benghazi.

“We want our voice to be heard. … If officials are deaf, we will speak louder. If that doesn’t work, we are not afraid to start this (revolution) all over again,” said a 29-year-old mathematician, Osama Ali Araibi, to cheers at a recent youth rally.

The response to the dissent will signal how serious the council’s leaders are about their goals of creating a transparent and broadly representative government.

The council was formed quickly after the uprising began, and it initially promised a referendum on constitutional and parliamentary elections within four months of Gadhafi’s departure followed two months later by a presidential election.

Its members include academics, lawyers and judges, professionals returned from exile and some officials who defected from Gadhafi’s regime.

Libya‘s revolution won recognition for quickly setting up a civilian administration, and not a military one. But young people and women have marched through the streets this past week to protest what they say is a lack of representation for them in the rebel leadership.

The council’s named representatives so far include only one woman and no one under the age of 40. Ghoga has said the council is working to change that.

The sole identified female member, Salwa Fawzi El-Deghali, told the AP the council already has three women and five youth members and that more women would be brought into the leadership body.

“This is just a transitional stage,” said El-Deghali, who is responsible for legal and women’s affairs. “Once the regime falls, after that women will have a normal representation.”

Some council members cannot be identified by name to protect their security because they live in areas of western Libya that remain under Gadhafi’s control.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Ghoga acknowledged differences with the shadowy Feb. 17 Coalition, the first group to organize after the uprising and itself credited with creating the National Transitional Council.

Among its responsibilities, the coalition grants permission for Libyans to start newspapers and charities.

Ghoga, who used to be a member of the coalition, said there could be only one rebel authority.

“The plan was when we formed the NTC, the job of the coalition should be finished,” he said. “The coalition has now entered Libyan history.”

If they refuse to step aside, he said, “we will put our foot down.”

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