BENGHAZI, Libya – Politicians in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi said Sunday they are setting up a council to run day-to-day affairs in the eastern half of the country under their control, the first attempt to create a leadership body that could eventually form an alternative to Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
A day after a high-ranking minister who defected from the government said he was setting up a provisional government, a prominent human rights lawyer, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, held a news conference in Benghazi to shoot down the claim. Instead, he said politicians in the east were establishing a transitional council to manage daily life in the rebel-controlled areas until Gadhafi falls.
The confusion began late Saturday night when former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who quit his post to protest the "excessive use of force" against unarmed demonstrators, announced he would head a provisional government from the rebel-held east and called for elections in just three months. His announcement seemed to provide exactly the kind of emerging opposition leadership that many both inside and outside Libya are looking for.
But Ghoga said there was no provisional government, and announced that representatives of the city councils of all rebel-held cities were setting up a transitional council. He said he was the spokesman for the new council, but he would not identify any other members or give further details.
The contradictory statements were the first signs of a struggle to set up an alternative leadership to Gadhafi, who is rapidly losing his grip on large swaths of the oil-rich nation and facing new international sanctions and the defection of many diplomats and ministers within his own government. The east, which shook off his control almost two weeks ago, is struggling to build up new ruling institutions to manage its affairs.
At the same time, the rest of the world has been looking on eagerly for the rise of some kind of alternative to Gadhafi, whose indiscriminate use of violence against his own citizens has driven off even his closest international friends. American senators opposed to the Obama administration's cautious approach to Libya immediately called for the recognition of a provisional government and military assistance to it.
"I would provide them with arms," bluntly stated Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut appearing on CNN's Face the Nation with President Barack Obama's one-time Republican challenger Senator John McCain.
In the corridors of the Benghazi courthouse, where much of the business of governing the rebel territories is unfolding, the former justice minister's announcement of a provisional government was greeted by many politicians with surprise and bafflement.
Ghoga told reporters that even if there were a provisional government, it would certainly not be headed by Abdel-Jalil — who only heads the local city council in the town of Beyda, some 130 miles (200 kilometers) away.
Instead, Ghoga said representatives of rebel-held cities in the east are setting up the Libyan National Transitional Council. But the council has not yet been formed and he did not announce any of the members, except for himself as the spokesman. Ghoga was imprisoned just before Libya's revolt began on Feb. 15.
As to the U.S. Senators' offer of military help, Ghoga said no thanks.
"We are against any foreign intervention or military intervention in our internal affairs," Ghoga said. "This revolution will be completed by our people with the liberation of the rest of Libyan territory controlled by Gadhafi's forces."
He said the council was not in touch with the rest of the world or planning military strategy, but just trying to coordinate the rebel cities and administrate daily life.
"There has been no communication between the council with any outside government. After forming the full details of the council, it will decide which government (to talk to) and the nature of the contact."
He said military commanders who defected to the rebel side continued to meet over how to hasten the fall of Gadhafi's regime. Already two key cities close to the capital Tripoli are in the hands of rebels — Zawiya and Misrata.
Gogha also confirmed reports that bands of volunteers had independently traveled west to fight the regime.
"We have military institutions that support the popular revolution and we believe they will achieve the liberation of Libya," he said. "We bet on this happening in the coming days."
He dismissed Abdel-Jalil's call on the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera for elections in just three months.
"It's premature to talk about elections because we have a capital under siege," he said. "We are managing a country."
Ghoga pointed out that for years, Libya had no institutions, political or otherwise, and that in the last 10 days, the rebels had not only managed to keep their towns from falling apart, but had organized local councils.
"This is in defiance of Gadhafi's claim that chaos will happen in Libya," he said.
Under Gadhafi's theory of permanent revolution, few lasting institutions were created and instead the country was left in a perpetual state of flux with seemingly arbitrary decisions regularly changing major aspects of daily life.
One local saying goes: "Gadhafi's dreams and then he implements."
Gadhafi has claimed that without his rule, the country will disintegrate into squabbling tribes and Islamist emirates — something the rebels have been keen to dispute.
While the towns of the east have remained calm and most basic services continued for now, building a new national or regional government is shaping up to be a tough challenge.
"Everything is going very quickly," said Benghazi city council woman Salwa Bugaighis. "It is confusing. This is a movement. We are not professionals. We make mistakes," she added. "It's only been 12 days. That is not much time to build a system."
Atif al-Hasiya, a spokesperson for the emerging government in Benghazi, said Abdel-Jalil spoke to some of the officials in the towns and cities before he made his announcement on the provisional government. But he ignored others, causing bitter feelings.
He also met with opposition from the many veteran human rights activists as someone who was, for a time, closely associated with the regime.