Libya: where ghosts, guns and crooked politicians hold sway

Chaos: militias clash in Tripoli. Magharebia

Ghosts are ruling the new Libya. Muammar Gaddafi’s despotic regime has been replaced by an equally despotic republic. A chaos in which attacks carried out by unknown parties are never fully explained. Today’s Libya is a poor result of an international intervention that was supposed to bring them new horizons of freedom.

Last Thursday, Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan was taken from his hotel room in what appeared to be a coup, seemingly inspired by the Egyptian military takeover. But unlike in Egypt, the people who wanted to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister were conservative elements inside the fragile new state.

Zeidan’s first statements after his release confirmed “an attempted coup” against his government by what he called conservative political parties inside the parliament. The prime minister managed to restore the image of a disciplined government taking control of the situation soon after his release. But the photo that emerged of him being dragged in his pyjamas from his room hotel tells how little control he and his government has over the country - which is in the hands of armed groups.

Ironically, the prime minister was reportedly held at the interior ministry’s anti-crime department in Tripoli (the unit tasked with giving him protection) before being later freed by local armed residents.

There are two factors destabilising Libya: the armed militias which threaten the peace and the conspirators in internal political struggles which are threatening the country’s political stability. Last week’s attempted coup was clearly about politics, yet in his first public statement after his release, Zeidan opted to make an emotional speech in which he repeated his administration’s slogans against the militias, effectively trying to make it about security.

Many serious questions remain. Which of the parties in the congress was behind his kidnap and why? What is the role played by the head of the parliament, Nouri Boushameen, who visited Zeidan during his captivity in order to inform him of the kidnappers’ requests? What is the role played by the the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of the Interior whose links with the so-called Libya Revolutionaries’ Operations Room, another group accused of seizing the prime minister, are no secret?

Isolated: Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan. US Department of State

If the prime minister chose a politically correct version of his abduction, stressing the non-involvement of the speaker of the parliament and pointing vaguely to those who are against the state’s legitimacy, the leader of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Sawan, did not follow suit. Instead he called for the replacement of Zeidan who, according to him, has failed in his mission. We have heard this from him on many occasions.

Rule of the gun

Libya, post-revolution, is unable to call on the protection of a national army and has been reduced to ruling by negotiation with various militias. Paying militias to enforce law and order is proving to be a dangerous practice: a lot of the time they are being used not just to enforce the government’s rule of law, but to promote the personal agendas of individual politicians and to settle old scores. This is indicative of a corruption that is fast becoming endemic throughout Libya.

The early reports linked Zeidan’s kidnapping to popular anger after the prime minister failed to react strongly enough to the US seizure of alleged al-Qaeda leader, Abu Anas al-Liby, in Tripoli the week before. But while there may have been genuine anger after the raid on Libyan soil, the campaign against Zeidan had been going on openly for at least a month in the media, which has gone as far as direct calls for his arrest by news presenters. The extent of political manipulation in this politically naive country has included using children to demonstrate at the gates of their schools.

But the lack of political expertise of the prime minister who lived in exile for years and his inability to navigate the complexities of the country is another handicap. Zeidan has not tried to hide the open war raging between him and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Justice and Construction party is the second largest in the parliament. His meeting with the powerful Egyptian defence minister, the man responsible for the bloody ongoing crackdown on the Brotherhood’s supporters after removing their president, has exacerbated this hostility among his enemies.

System broken

But his relations with those once deemed to be his allies has been no more successful. The National Forces Alliance, led by the high-profile former prime minister Mahmood Jibril, which holds 39 of the 80 parliamentary seats, has boycotted the parliament since January, denying it legitimacy.

Libyan politics has also been weakened by the Political Isolation Law which has excluded members of the Gaddaffi regime from holding office in the new democratic state. This has led to a serious shortage of skills in the political and administrative arenas as well as effectively neutralising the armed forces.

Zeidan’s kidnapping could have been an opportunity to bring Libyans together to support the legitimacy of the state and to help in rebuilding its institutions. Instead, all we have seen from the prime minister is an attempt to save his own skin - which prompts questions as to how long before we see the next attempt to remove him from power. The announcement by the official news agency LANA about Zeidan’s “arrest”, saying he would face “criminal charges”, is one indication of how isolated - and therefore vulnerable - Libya’s prime minister is now.